Selected Poems by Thomas MacDonagh (with reference to Cloughjordan)
– a reflection by the Late Roche Williams
Introduction to Knocknacree
Thomas MacDonagh lived life at a busy pace; his active mind decreed that he had many and much varied interests; his teaching career, poetry, study of the Irish language, French, history and Eastern civilisations, university lectures, marriage, family, politics, ideologies, Irish freedom, revolution, and many more. That turbulent mind and restless spirit were sometimes wearied and tired and sought rest once more in that haven of quiet of his youth – Knocknacree – and when he came back here either in body or in spirit he found rest and solace and peace – he returned here the wide world to shun. The poem also refers to another place where he found peace and tranquillity – the treeless isle – Inis Meáin of the Aran Islands, where he spent much time in his study of the Gaelic language and lore.
The great wood lies below me in the sun:
Through all my days it has been still to me
As to the sailor lad the endless sea,
Or as her cloister to the happy nun;
And so must be within until my race is run –
A place of natural childish piety,
Or haven to which I may safely flee
For restful quiet, the loud world to shun.
Dear woodland music filled my heart and brain,
In the old days, through dreamland vistas sung;
And when I long had failed to catch again
The fleeting faery notes with mind or tongue,
I found, that here- their echos ever clung;
And plucked a bell – bough, ringing elfish strain.
Once more, thy dusky arms entwine
Thy woodland child, who lies with dear delight
In thy embrace, and feeds his hungered sights
Open the beauty which is ever thine,
And thine alone, whatever changing sign
Receive thy lord – though through thy aisles dim light
Reigned haply ere first Inismeandhon’s far height
Bore the twin dunes – a druid’s forest shrine.
I, late with grief came from the treeless isle
Which lies beyond the broken western coast –
A holy place, unsoiled by foreign guile,
Where still a noble race may truly boast
They keep the boons which patriots prize the most –
Yet now with joy again I greet thy smile.
Introduction to Summer Joys
This is a little treasure of a poem. MacDonagh’s love of nature and the countrysideis expressed clearly and vividly here; the fields, birds and birdsong, tree boughs and branches, the woodlands, light and leaves, quiet and melodious murmur; all the sights and colours and sounds and stillness, he delights in all the various bounties and balms to the senses.
And how he loved Scot’s Hill and how simply and clearly he describes it. This little poem dispels any doubts about the influence that his early years and nature environment had on his development – it is a testament from him that Cloughjordan and its neighbourhood made him; – that all he learned in later years could not match or be set against what his childhood heard.
I love to walk through the fields in the warmth of summer;
A lark flies up and up, and is lost in a cloud;
But his song cannot be lost, it swims to me,
Finds a deep peace in my soul and dwells there long.
And in summer I love to walk and lie long in the woodlands:
The sun breaks through all the varied tree boughs and branches,
And the light through the leaves falls fair in wavering arrows:
There’s a stillness in the woods, yet melodious murmur of summer.
alone which I love
I have a little hill to climb:
I look all around on the distant land in delight
A brown bog, and a wood, tilth, and pasture and town,
And, white like silver, a river wide but far.
Introduction to May Day
This poem was written in 1914, long after Thomas MacDonagh had left Cloughjordan. He left first in 1892 when he went to Rockwell College, Cashel, and he returned intermittently afterwards, from 1901 onwards when he began his teaching career in Kilkenny, when he came back during vacations in summer and at Christmas to spend time with his mother. After her death in 1908 his visits were much less frequent and were shorter.
But he did not forget his childhood; it always had a place in his thoughts and memories. Knocknacree Wood and Scot’s Hill and the neighbouring areas, Loughhane, Killurane, Ballysteena, Oxpark and the Hospital lane, were the playgrounds of his youth, where he wandered and played, picked nuts, hunted and bird-nested with his school friends at the weekends and on summer days.
His contemporary companions later recalled hunting trips with him to Scot’s Hill where he would sit on the rocks, and gaze at the enthralling scene around him, which he evokes withsuch descriptive clarity after so many years in this poem, in which he not only paints a picture but also displays his abiding attachment to his native soil.
I wish I were to- day on the hill behind the wood-
My eyes on the brown bog there and the Shannon river-
Behind the wood at home, a quickened solitude
When the winds from Slieve Bloom set the branches there a-quiver.
The winds are there now and the Green of May
On every feathery tree-bough, tender on every hedge:
Over the bog-fields there larks carol to-day,
And a cuckoo is mocking them out of the woodland’s edge.
Here a country warmth is quiet on the rocks
That alone make never a change when the May is duly come;
Here sings no lark, and to-day no cuckoo mocks:
Over the wide hill a hawk floats, and the leaves are dumb.
The Night Hunt
In the morning, in the dark,
When the stars begin to blunt,
By the wall of Barna Park
Dogs I heard and saw them hunt;
All the parish dogs were there,
All the dogs from miles around,
Teeming up behind a hare,
In the dark, without a sound.
How I heard I scarce can tell
‘Twas a patter in the grass
And I did not see them well
Come across the dark and pass;
Yet I saw them and I knew
Spearman’s dog and Spellman’s dog
And, beside my own dog too,
Leamy’s from the Island Bog.
In the morning when the sun
Burnished all the green to gorse,
I went out to take a run
Round the bog upon my horse;
And my dog that had been sleeping
In the heat beside the door
Left his yawning and went leaping
On a hundred yards before.
Through the village street we passed
Not a dog there raised a snout
Through the street and out at last
On the white bog road and out
Over Barna Park full pace,
Over to the Silver Stream,
Horse and dog in happy race,
Rider between thought and dream.
By the stream at Leamy’s house,
Lay a dog – my pace I curbed
But our coming did not rouse
Him from drowsing undisturbed;
And my dog, as unaware
Of the other, dropped beside
And went running by me there
With my horse’s slackened stride.
Yet by something, by a twitch
Of the sleeper’s eye, a look
From the runner, something which
Little clouds of feeling shook,
I was conscious that a thought
Shuddered through the silent deep
Of a secret – I had caught
Something I had known in sleep.
Introduction to John John
Those of us who are old enough to remember will recall the tinkers or travelling people who came around so regularly, and what a high regard most people held for them; they came regularly and many of them ‘belonged’ to a particular area of the country; they travelled in their red and green and blue coloured caravans with their piebald horses and ponies, and sometimes with a goat or two following on in the rear; then their tents and wagons pitched at the side of the roads. They mended damaged pots and pans or made tins buckets or cans; they sang ballads at the fairs or the women came to the door seeking alms. They were a clan of their own and they usually married their own.
But in this poem the story is told simply of a woman who married a tinker man. He had his own customs and ways of doing things, different from the ways of the settled people. He was never going to be the cottage cat and she had her own settled methods and the differences are outlined in this poem in a sympathetic and even-handed way.
Thomas’ mother, Mary MacDonagh, also had a soft spot for the travelling people, and she wrote of them with a spirit of love and understanding. Similarly her grandson, Thomas’ son Donagh, also wrote of the tinker clan.
I dreampt last night of you John-John,
And thought you called to me;
And when I woke this morning, John,
Yourself I hoped to see;
But I was all alone, John-John,
Though still I heard your call:
I put my boots and bonnet on,
And took my Sunday shawl,
And went, full sure to find you, John,
To Nenagh fair.
The fair was just the same as then,
Five years ago to-day,
When first you left the thimble men
And came with me away;
For there again were thimble men
And shooting galleries,
And card trick men and Maggie men
Of all sorts and degrees,
But not a sight of you, John-John
I turned my face to home again,
And called myself a fool
To think you’d leave the thimble men
And live again by rule,
And go to Mass and keep the fast
And till the little patch:
My wish to have you home was past
Before I raised the latch
And pushed the door and saw you, John,
Sitting down there.
How cool you came in here, begad
As if you owned the place!
But rest yourself there now, my lad,
‘Tis good to see your face;
My dream is out, and now by it
I think I know my mind:
At six o’clock this house you’ll quit,
And leave no grief behind –
But until six o’clock, John-John,
My bit you’ll share.
The neighbours’ shame of me began
When first I brought you in;
To wed and keep a tinker man
They thought a kind of sin;
But now this three year since you’re gone
‘Tis pity me they do,
And that I’d rather have, John-John,
Than that they’d pity you,
Pity for me and you, John-John,
I could not bear.
Oh, you’re my husband right enough,
But what’s the good of that?
You know you never were the stuff
To be the cottage cat,
To watch the fire and hear me lock
The door and put out Shep –
But there now, it is six o’clock
And time for you to step.
God bless and keep you far, John-John!
And that’s my prayer.