This poem, Famine, was commissioned by Mayo Enterprise Board to commerate the unveiling of a memorial to the great Famine of the 1840ies in Swinford.
The Spirit of Place Programme – Swinford, July 10th ’15
The dead are never far from us
and, now, in famine, our children
lie strewn on doorsteps
or along roadsides and we
are so far gone, there is
no chance we will recover
– even if we did, a
black stalk lies in waiting
like a preying cat on a windowsill.
Wit cannot drive suffering away.
Those potatoes that dug up
so clean and vibrant in a day,
diseased and fouled the fields
in a stream of pus before dawn
some landlords cried out,
we’ll give those peasants
nothing – for nothing
is what they’ve earned –
let them die. We’ll put them
out on the roads
to compete with the grain trade
in a race for great ships.
My family claw side by side
with snails and grubs
for the right to die with
grass and mud between our teeth.
We did attack the drills like
flocks of crows, hoping
to get to the food before
it festered, but the rot beat us
to the bite – the famine god
had sickened every stalk
from the birthplace of
our farthest ancestor
to the common grave
of our youngest child.
That death – untalkative and cold,
grabbed what it could.
What remained stayed as it was
or it was cast aside or overboard.
The lanes we lived up
were left behind to fall
into disuse and silence
except on occasions
when communities walk
the sad walk – to try
to greet the past face to face.
I wrote this poem, The Last Bard, in response to Sally McKenna’s beautiful Anthony Raftery sculpture in Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo. The sculpture is to be unveiled by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny on Monday, March 5th, 2012 at 3pm.
The poem is included in Prairie Schooner (Nebraska University) new anthology of Irish writing -2012.
The Last Bard
to the blind poet of Cill Aodáin, Anthony Raftery
On Lios Árd among beech trees, I lie
like a novice on moss and grass and
you are in those battered clouds
looking down at colours you know by heart.
I was a fierce warrior here at eight.
At nine, I hacked my name into a tree.
A dog howls. In the distance the river
whispers, it’s time to sleep. I wrap
my book in fern and see stars slipping
like melting ice. A fox bickers.
A rabbit pleads. I smell red wind
and shut my eyes to catch you reeling in the sun.
You left Cill Aodáin in a hurry – to do with
the death of a horse – odds on, a tall tale!
With hands out wide, you trudged south to Tuam,
then on to Craughwell and Gort.
You knew darkness and could measure light:
come to me – come with me – show me your scars
and I will curse for you.
While Saint Bridget hung washing on a sunbeam
in spring, you dreamt of being a boy again
with rod and golden worms. Flowers and lists
of red berries carpeted the bog road in Cill Aodáin.
There was a first night in Claremorris and
strong drink in Balla. Kiltimagh was steeped in laughter.
All this was yours for a song. A poet dreams.
A muse seeks its own geography.
You are back – a sculpture in Kiltimagh – a bard
trapped in open air for entertainment. I try to keep
an up-to-date diary of other routine events:
A woman in curlers charts a love story
in a shop window – another sings
of a long-lost lotto ticket.
Health-freaks check their feet before
walking round in circles – a footless man
peeps through the church railing.
While planes hardly clear the houses in Knock
and children are rushed off to piano lessons
come, sit by me for a moment. I am blind.
I have walked to Galway and can hear the sun.
The child in your tomb will continue to outlive
days of holy awe and judgement –
in Cill Aodáin in springtime, with nature
writing colour into a new season, your silhouette,
baked in earth and sound, is stencilled in the sky.
Terry McDonagh has poems published – in AGENDA www.agendapoetry.co.uk (Poetry Supplement, DWELLING PLACES in appreciation of John Burnside) – in forthcoming anthology of Irish literature in USA, PRAIRIE SCHOONER, at Nebraska University.
Two Items relating to Tintean, Melbourne:
Heavenly News: Poets, Noel King, Terry McDonagh and Saint Karol Wojtyla are published in Issue 16 of Tintean in Melbourne.
A number of years ago, I did a reading in Killeeneen churchyard by the grave of the blind poet, Anthony Raftery (1778-1835) – Raftery and I have Cill Aodáin as our birthplace. After the reading, I put a tiny pebble from his grave in my wallet and carried it around with me for a few years until one day, when I opened my wallet to check dollars near Flinders’s Street station in Melbourne, my pebble dropped out and tumbled into a gully.
My mood swung from dejection to elation within a few seconds – Raftery’s Pebble is somewhere in the bowels of the city of Melbourne.
Elizabeth McKenzie got wind of this story and asked me to try writing something for Tinteán. Hence: Journey of a Pebble. Thanks Elizabeth.
Journey of a Pebble
In time and imagination
and things to do with poets
like gossip bursting
into newer shape and colour,
like secret codes or
rootless tarot messages
that we pass on
by the day, year – century.
I kept a singing pebble
from Raftery’s grave in Killeeneen
in my pocket.
It was my word – my song
– a brushstroke in the sky
and, even if it never promised
to be faithful, I was sad
when it dropped into a gully
as I was walking about
near Flinder’s Street Station in Melbourne.
Later I felt satisfied – I had passed it on.