The Head of a Man

by Stephen Sexton

Then among the final years of the horse,
cannon are horse-drawn along the river
into position at the edge of June.
The day is hot, the Capels are abroad,

so azimuths are set, trajectories
approximated, an eighteen-pounder
bombards the Four Courts and its garrison.
Public records rain over the Liffey.

What this thing is is too massive to rain:
Pleadings Made to the Law Exchequer,
a few fragments whose outer edges are

ash forever, whose centre has been fused
into new species of vellum and ink.
Where intimate skin wizened in the heat,
denatured to flame-dark carbon, gnarled bark,

here emerges the gurn of a man’s face:
a double pout of parchment rolled and pursed,
a severe pointed nose, the papery
wasp’s nest complexion of the mummified—

a distended and eyeless head still stunned
by the shock of its disturbance, a cheek
tattooed with all that remains legible
from the quill of the king’s remembrancer.


What occupies his thoughts is gone for good.
The ordinary, tedious disputes
landlord and tenant farmer brought before
nodding justices and their magistrates:

libel and taxes, the proper keeping
of geese or the right to drive one’s cattle;
the nearly inconsequential legends
by which names outlive their custodians?

Even Noah, the world’s first archivist,
drunk on the wine of the greenest vineyards
must have wept in his tent some afternoons
for every neighbour he had forsaken:

the people tending to their earthly sins
who saw, but didn’t recognise, history
vanishing into the flood on cubits
of gopher wood and faith, bleating and straw.

Is it the ark and all that survived it
that constitutes our civilisation,
or the sailed away from collateral
innumerable under the water?

After the ark, the first thing Noah did
was make an altar and burnt offerings;
animals unknowable to language,
some unique beasts of whom there once were two.

This is one of ten poems commissioned by UCD Library, Poetry Ireland, and Arts Council Northern Ireland as part of Poetry as Commemoration, a two-year initiative supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, under the Decade of Centenaries 2012-2023 programme.

The aim of Poetry as Commemoration is to encourage creative engagement with the material history of the Irish War of Independence & the Civil War.

This poem was inspired by a “charred bundle of fragments [which] relate to Pleadings Made to the Law Exchequer, 1773” which was recovered from the Public Records Office after the attack on the Four Courts in June, 1922. (National Archives of Ireland.)

It will be published in Grief’s Broken Brow, a limited fine press edition designed and produced by Jamie Murphy at The Salvage Press featuring original artwork by James Earley. Grief’s Broken Brow will be presented as a gift to 100 repositories providing a tangible record of the Decade of Centenaries and a legacy object for future generations. Poems are made available to the public via Poetry Jukeboxes, the Poetry as Commemoration website, and the Irish Poetry Reading Archive.