Frank Ormsby’s Goat’s Milk

Tonight, with my Pretani Associate Helen Brooker, and on the invitation of the author, I went to the Seamus Heaney Centre, McMordie Hall, Queen’s University, Belfast, to attend the launch of Frank Ormsby’s  latest anthology, Goat’s Milk: New and Selected Poems.This event was organised by No Alibis Bookshop, Botanic Avenue. Michael Longley wrote the introduction to this beautiful book, by an author of infinite genius, wit and perspicacity and introduced him to a packed audience. The incomparable writer, critic and commentator, Malachi O’Doherty , gave an eloquent appreciation of Frank’s work.When liberated into historical enlightenment, Malachi will help us defeat the unholy trinity of Queen’s Academia, the BBC and the Belfast Telespeak section of the Mediacracy.

For the first time in his life Frank has material for another book already waiting. A poet , editor and critic, for forty years he served the community well as a popular and brilliant teacher and finally Headmaster of the English Department of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, which has produced Sir Samuel Ferguson and Michael Longley himself.

“My output was very intermittent during my working life, with long periods between publications,” he says.

“I felt that my career sapped much of my energies and even when I retired I initially wrote little. But recently I am writing every day.

“My next collection will feature some poems on Parkinson’s, a humorous, tongue-in-cheek look at my condition. It is not something which interferes with my daily life but, like diabetes, it does damage very silently.”

He is also writing a series of poems on the Irish Impressionist painters and continues to edit The Yellow Nib poetry journal with Leontia Flynn.

Mention of Leontia prompts him to recall the days when there were no acclaimed female poets.

One of his first publications, Poets from the North of Ireland, didn’t feature a single woman but since then several have made their mark in this form of literature including Medbh McGuckian, Sinead Morrissey and Colette Bryce.

“It is a source of great pride to me that such large numbers of poets, both male and female, continue to emerge here,” he says.

He is no fan of what he calls academic poetry, preferring verse which is both accessible and moving.

“Unless a poem moves me in some way I give up on it very quickly. I want poetry to be about people’s experiences and written in a manner which enables the reader to share those experiences,” he says.

The first judge of his own poetry is his wife, and then lifelong friend Michael Longley, who has written the introduction to his latest book and who will help launch it.

In anticipation of being asked why it is called Goat’s Milk, he has prepared a written answer. “Obliquely, rather than directly, many of the poems involve a sensuous recovery of the past and few sensuous experiences were as powerful as drinking goat’s milk. I have never forgotten it,” he says.

“The past explored is often Spartan, plain, unprocessed and lacking in luxury. Goat’s milk has a bittersweet quality, so for that reason also I thought of it as an appropriate title.

“I also think there is an undercurrent of sadness in the poem which relates to the elegies in the book, especially the poems about my father’s illness and death.”

It’s back to that recurring theme in his poetry and having come full circle it is perhaps an appropriate juncture at which to end the conversation.

Goat’s Milk: New and Selected Poems is published by Bloodaxe Books, price £12.

A man of many words…

  • Frank Arthur Ormsby was born in 1947 and brought up outside Irvinestown in Fermanagh
  • Educated at the local primary school, St Michael’s College in Enniskillen, and Queen’s University he spent his entire teaching career at RBAI in Belfast
  • He was editor of the Honest Ulsterman poetry journal from 1969-89 and also Poetry Ireland Review
  • In 1992 he received the Cultural Traditions Award given in memory of John Hewitt and in 2002 received the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the University of St Thomas at St Paul, Minnesota
  • He has previously published four collections of his poems:
  • A Store of Candles (1977), with themes ranging from his rural upbringing to Belfast and the Troubles
  • A Northern Spring (1986) featured a section on the American GIs who were stationed in Fermanagh ahead of the Normandy landings in 1944
  • The Ghost Train (1995) explores the joy of having a child as the Troubles near their end
  • Fireflies (2009) reflects on four decades of violence and the hope of a regenerated Northern Ireland

New reflections on his past

Bog Cotton

They have the look

of being born old.

Thinning elders among the heather,

trembling in every wind.

My father turns eighty/

the spring before my thirteenth


When I feed him porridge he takes

his cap off. His hair,/

as it has been all my life, is white,

pure white.

My Father’s Funeral

The flypaper hung

from the ceiling corkscrews

with the weight of

dead bluebottles.

Not a smidgeon of dust anywhere,

the house burdened

with an unbearable tidiness

that means he will not return.

Taken from Frank Ormsby’s new book, Goat’s Milk: New and Selected Poems

McMordie Hall, Queen’s University

McMordie Hall

Julia McMordie was a philanthropist and political activist. She was a vice-president of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council and involved in a number of health charities. Health and education issues were the focus of her philanthropic and political career.

McMordie became the first female Belfast city councillor in 1918 and was elected as an alderman in 1920. At sixty-one years and widowed, she was one of only two women elected to the first parliament of Northern Ireland for South Belfast, where she served one term. Although criticised for her infrequent parliamentary contributions, McMordie’s speeches reflected her experience in Belfast city politics and addressed a range of issues, including female police officers, the education of disabled children and the cleanliness of Belfast’s streets.

McMordie Hall in Queen’s University is named after her in recognition of her endowment of the university’s Students’ Union

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