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A fascinating life re-lived through poetry collection

NEW WRITING: Tyrone poet Frankie Quinn NEW WRITING: Tyrone poet Frankie Quinn
By Michael Jackson

THE life of Tyrone poet, Frankie Quinn, has been a turbulent one. Like many people in our society, it has been irrevocably marked by our recent conflict, during which he suffered several personal tragedies, including the death of his eldest sibling, Patsy Quinn – a 16-year-old IRA volunteer who was killed in action in 1973.
Around two years after his brother’s death, Frankie managed to join the IRA, aged 15, by lying about his age. Many of his subsequent years were spent between being on the run and terms of imprisonment in Portlaoise Gaol, Mountjoy Gaol, Crumlin Road Gaol and the barbarity of Long Kesh. It is these stark experiences, as well as the beautifully normal experiences of love, nature, and joy that shape his incredible new book of poetry, ‘Open Gates’.
“I found that poetry was a way of expressing some grief,” Frankie said.
“It’s a way for me to write down some of my feelings. It was a bit of escapism as well because you can be anonymous in a poem too.
“A lot of my poetry would consist of things I was going through personally and things I have watched other people go through. There is a lot of political writing in it – I like to write about Bobby Sands, the hunger strikers, about imprisonment and Irish freedom. There is also a lot of romantic stuff, and some nature poetry.”
Despite his current poetic talents, Frankie had little academic success at school, and was barely able to read or write in early adulthood. It was during his time in Portlaoise Prison in the 1980s that he began reading again and studying for his O-Levels. Later while in Long Kesh, he began studying at the Open University and began studying poetry with visiting poetry lecturer, Medbh McGuckian.
“Medhb was an influence who came into the jail’s education system and taught some of us and helped some of us create better poems and structure them properly,” Frankie explained.
“I had very little education in school. I actually went to school in Belfast, St. Anne’s in Finaghy and then I was a first year in De La Salle, and then we were burnt out of our home in Finaghy. When we were put out by loyalists mobs we went back to Tyrone where my family were from. You’ll find some of that in my writing too.”
During his time in prison he read a lot of poems and writings of fellow Irish writers. Some would have a profound impact on him, while others, elsewhere deemed modern greats, elicited his criticism.
“I’ve read Pearse, and even Yeats, who lived through part of our conflict but never wrote anything about it,” he said.
“I see something similar in Seamus Heaney’s poems, which I’ve read a lot of. I haven’t seen a poem about Francie Hughes, who was his next-door neighbour. I think Danny Morrison confronted him about that on a train and I think Heaney said ‘if I was ever going to write about him, I won’t do it now’. People like Danny, and Tim Brannigan and all of those people with a disposition for writing encouraged me a bit. Turlough Connolly would be another person, who was educated in Oxford – he was a very intelligent man who was inside with us as well. Pat Sheehan is another one who would have encouraged our writing.”
From his first personal poetry collections – pages glued to the glossy covers of old Open University covers bearing the Long Kesh stamp – to his new book of poems, Frankie’s personal and literary journey is a fascinating one. His works have seen him give talks in and Paris, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, and Cork, with further success undoubtedly on the horizon. However, for Frankie his poetry is all about further understanding, creativity and emotional expression.
“Poetry, from a revolutionary perspective, is very important as well. It has an awful lot to add to people’s understanding and struggle. Each poem that is written has a certain message, hidden or otherwise, about certain events. It’s good for people to be able to draw them out. One of my poems is called ‘Hunger’ where I talk about the crystallising of sands, but it’s actually about Bobby Sands and the Palestinian hunger strikers – it’s a play on words. It links the whole lot together and gives a political perspective.”
He continued: “It doesn’t matter to me if I don’t make a penny out my poetry – it’s all about understanding. There’s a lot of deep emotional stuff there about mental struggle from when I was in solitary confinement. I was in solitary confinement for around four years.
“There is certain post traumatic stress that I would deal with, and there is a lot of people in West Belfast and others places here that would have that and they don’t even know it. I like people like that to sit down and be able to read something that they can grasp.”

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