The Etymology of the Placename Clouncagh in County Limerick

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The entrance to the Old Graveyard in Clouncagh as it is today. http://www.HistoricGraves.ie

The half-parish of Clouncagh/Cloncagh nestles in the heartland of rural West Limerick.  It was formerly part of the Barony of Upper Connello and is bounded on the north by Rathkeale; on the east by Ballingarry; on the south by Kilmeedy and the west by its other half-parish, Knockaderry and Newcastle West.  The townland and former civil parish extended over 4,540 acres of level pastoral land in the heart of West Limerick. 

Clouncagh, in the recent past, was probably best known for its famous Creamery.  The Co-Operative Movement had been founded by Sir Horace Plunkett in 1889 and had very strong roots in West Limerick.  It was not surprising then that farmers in the Clouncagh area came together and formed the Clouncagh Co-operative Dairy Society in 1890. Gradually Clouncagh began to develop its butter-making skills and in 1939 they won the Read Cup, the most prestigious prize available to the butter-making industry in all of Ireland. 

The first manager of the creamery was David O’Brien from Clonakilty.  His son, Donnchadh O’Briain later served as Fianna Fail TD for West Limerick for 36 years – having the honour to serve as Parliamentary Secretary to Taoiseach Eamon De Valera for a number of years and also to Taoiseach Sean Lemass.  He was one of the founding members of Fianna Fail and served as its General Secretary for many years and was first nominated to stand for Fianna Fail in the ground breaking General Election of 1933.  He also served as Chief Whip for many years. He retired from politics in 1969.

The Creamery and Donnchadh O’Briain helped put Clouncagh on the map but, if the truth were told, there has always been a certain amount of confusion as to whether the place should be known as Clouncagh or Cloncagh.  The placename has taken on several variations down through the years: Clouncagh, Cloncagh, Clooncagh, Cloencagh and Clonki.  There are even greater variations in the Irish version with Cluain Catha, Cluain Cath, Cluain Coimdhe, Cluain-Claidheach and also Cluain Claidheach-Maodog, Cluainchladh-bhaith, Cluain-claidhblaim being some of these.

According to Donal Begley, another native of Clouncagh and former Chief Herald of Ireland until his retirement in 1995,

‘the oldest of those forms is Clonki which is formed from the root elements ‘cluain’ (a bounded area), and possibly ‘Coimdhe’, meaning the Lord, God.  On that basis Clonki would signify ‘God’s enclosure’ – surely an appropriate name to describe the location of a monastery, abbey or church, such as we have in Clouncagh.

The Black Book of Limerick, a 13th– Century topographical survey of the Diocese of Limerick has a reference to a church in Cluonkai, and this is surely a reference to present day Clouncagh.

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The more generally accepted, though not necessarily correct, form of the placename in Irish is Cluain Catha which would translate into English as ‘The Meadow or Enclosure of the Battle’.  Meanwhile, for some time now, the anglicised versions ‘Clouncagh’ and ‘Cloncagh’ vie with one another for preference locally and the reality is that Clouncagh and Cloncagh seem to be interchangeable to this day on official documents, local signposts and in local usage.

Donal Begley, a firm believer that the correct version is Clouncagh, tells us that, traditionally,

The civil parish or state parish is written as ‘Cloncagh’, and under this form are classified such records as census and valuation returns.  In short ‘Clouncagh’ designated the Catholic parish and ‘Cloncagh’ the civil or state or Protestant parish.

Rather mischievously the Wikipedia entry for Knockaderry claims that  ‘during the ministry of Canon Timothy J. Lyons as parish priest, (1964 – 1994) the “u” in Clouncagh was dropped, although it can still be seen on some of the signs entering the parish’.  As Donal Begley points out the ‘u’ in Clouncagh was dropped long before Canon Lyons came to the parish. 

The monastic church in Clouncagh, nestling as it did within the graveyard and centrally located within the larger fort enclosure, was a centre of worship for the local Christian community until around 1700 when public Catholic worship in Ireland was proscribed by the Penal Laws. The present parish of Knockaderry – Clouncagh (bringing together the previous parishes of Cloncagh, Clonelty and Grange) seems to have come into being around 1700 when Knockaderry began to be used as a Mass venue.  The village was also granted a patent for a fair in 1711 and so it became the new centre of economic activity in the area and the old monastic sites in Cloncagh and Clonelty and Grange, which had been the focus of activity for the previous one thousand years began to fade in importance. In the 17th and 18th Century the church in Cloncagh continued in use as a Church of Ireland church.  By the early 19th century the church lay abandoned and in ruins. 

Diocesan and Parish’ boundaries were established at the Synod of Ráth Breasail (also known as Rathbreasail) in 1111. This Synod marked the transition of the Irish church from a monastic to a diocesan and parish-based church and many present-day dioceses trace their boundaries to decisions made at the synod. Our earliest records show that Fr Hugh Conway, who resided in Gortnacrehy, was registered and appointed Parish Priest of the former medieval parishes of Clouncagh, Clonelty and Grange, the rough equivalent of the present-day parish, in 1704.   However, it wasn’t until 1853 on the death of Fr James Quillinan that Fr Denis O’Brien, who was Parish Priest in Knockaderry at the time, became the Parish Priest of the united parishes of Knockadery and Clouncagh.

In the 19th Century the Catholic Mass House in Clouncagh was situated just off the byroad, behind the present day church in land owned by the Begley family.  This Mass House was severely damaged on the night of January 6th, 1839, ‘The Night of the Big Wind’.  The roof was blown off and the wooden structure suffered other damage and yet amazingly within a year this Mass House had been replaced with a new church, St. Mary’s, which was officially opened in Clouncagh in1840.  This is the church which still stands today having undergone numerous renovations down the years. 

Over the gothic entrance to the church carved in limestone is the original inscription: Clouncagh RC Church Erected 1840.  Inside the church there are also inscriptions to past parish priests who were revered by the local parishioners for their pastoral work in very difficult times. In the early nineteenth century the supply of priests improved and two priests were appointed to the parish, Fr James Quillinan for Clouncagh and Fr Denis O’Brien for Knockaderry. When Fr James Quillinan died in 1853 he was buried before the altar in Clouncagh as he had been the main driving force in the construction of the new church in 1840. Fr Denis O’Brien, who had built St Munchin’s Church in Knockaderry also in 1840, then took over as the parish priest for the united parishes of Knockaderry and Clouncagh.  Both priests are buried in Clouncagh where there is also a separate memorial to Fr. O’Brien to the left of the nave near the altar.  This reads:

A.M.D.G.

This monument has been erected

By his devoted sister to the memory of

Rev. Denis O’Brien P.P.

Whose long and zealous pastoral charge

For 36 years has endeared his name

To his numerous and admiring friends.

He died 19th March 1868

Year of his age 60

Requiescat in Pace. Amen.

The Rev. Cornelius McCarthy is also buried within the church.  He was ordained in 1848 and served in the united parishes of Knockaderry and Clouncagh and died on Christmas Day 1885.  A commemorative plaque on the wall to the right of the nave reads:

In memory

Of the priestly virtues

And sterling patriotism

Of the Rev Cornelius McCarthy

Who ruled for eighteen years

As the much beloved pastor of these parishes.

It became accepted practice within the parish that the Parish Priest resided in Clouncagh and the curate, if there was one, resided in Knockaderry.

The site of the Old Graveyard and ruined church at Cloncagh, from which the area gets its name, was the site of an early monastic establishment possibly dating from the 7th – Century.  Some have credited its foundation to St. Maedoc of Ferns, who died in 624AD, while others say that he may just have been its patron.  The graveyard and ruined church is contained within a large circular enclosure, formed by an earthen bank and an exterior ditch (some of which has now been dismantled but visible in earlier OS maps).  The diameter of the enclosure is 220 metres and it encloses an area of 9.38 acres.  The church and graveyard are located centrally within the enclosure and the present day local roadway bisects it east to west. 

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The gable of the ruined church and in the middle foreground the impressive tomb of the D’Arcy family, local landlords.

Further evidence that the site is an early monastery is provided by three holy wells recorded in the vicinity, Lady’s Well (Tubbermurry or Tobar Muire), Sundays Well (Tobar Rí an Domhnaigh), and St. Patrick’s Well.  Only St. Patrick’s Well survives.  Caoimhín Ó Danachair, the prominent Irish folklorist wrote about St. Patrick’s Well in 1955 in Holy Wells of County Limerick:

St Patrick’s Well was celebrated for curing blindness. Visited especially on 17th March. The Legend goes that while praying at Leacht Phádraig (a rock about 1000 yards from the well, associated in tradition with the saint) St Patrick saw a serpent approaching the church, and banished it by throwing his prayer-book at it. The well sprang up where the book fell. A fish is seen in the well by those whose requests are to be granted. (p. 204).

There is a record of the burning of Clouncagh church in 1326 by the Irish in their war with the Normans. There are at least two burial chambers still visible today in the graveyard – one belonging to the D’Arcy family, local landlords and the others for members of the Tierney family.

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The circular fort in Clouncagh showing the ruins of Cloncagh church, the graveyard and the three wells associated with St. Patrick: Lady’s Well, Sunday’s Well and St. Patrick’s Well. Detail taken from Historical Ordnance Survey Map 1840.

Usually a fort, especially one as big and imposing as the one in Clouncagh would be referred to as a ráth or a lios or a dún in Irish.  We have to wonder why this is not the case with the great fort in Clouncagh.  Indeed, within the parish there are examples of townlands with names such as Lisanisky (Lios an Uisce) or Rathfredagh, while the neighbouring parish to the north is Rathkeale (Ráth Caola).  However, Clouncagh seems to be an exception to the rule, probably because of its vast size.  In his extensive writings on the ancient churches and ring forts in County Limerick, noted Irish antiquarian, folklorist and archaeologist, T.J. Westropp M.A. M.R.I.A., mentions ‘the great fort of Dromin at Clouncagh’.  He classes it as the largest ring fort in County Limerick. This fact is interesting in itself because Limerick has 2,147 ring forts taking up approximately 317 acres. P. J. Lynch who surveyed the parish of Knockaderry – Cloncagh in 1944 as part of the Irish Tourist Association Topographical and General Survey tells us that ‘locally it is considered to have been a seat of Government in ancient times’.

The Irish version of the name Cluain Catha, seems to imply that it is named after a battle but as Donal Begley has already pointed out this is but one possible translation of the placename.   There is very little reference to be found in official sites of any significant battle and very little in local folklore although we do have the reference to the fact that the then wooden church was ‘destroyed by war’ in 1326 and was rebuilt.

The following account is found in the Schools Folklore Collection (1937 – 1939) from the Convent National School in Ballingarry. The teacher’s name is Sister Mary Treasa. In my opinion, it is a perfect example of local folklore stepping in with its own narrative in the absence of any concrete historical evidence to the contrary and there may also be some evidence of nationalism insinuating itself into the mix!

One young contributor to the Collection wrote:

Clouncagh means Cluain – Cath. The Meadow of the Battle. It derived its name from a great battle fought there in the 17th century between the Irish and the English. The Irish were successful in that Battle. The victors followed the retreating army from Clouncagh across the country to Ballinarouga. Ballinarouga means the town of the rout. It got its name from the fact that the English troops were put to flight there.

However, while this claim is at best very fanciful it is true that the townland of Ballinarouga (‘The Townland of the Rout’) lies directly to the east of the ring fort enclosure in Clouncagh, and it is also interesting to note that the townland of Gortnacrehy (‘The Field of the Plunder’) also lies directly to the south.  So even though there is no historical evidence of major battles being fought there it does seem that, going on the evidence of the local placenames alone, there were a fair few skirmishes in the area surrounding the monastic settlement in Clouncagh.  The very fact that the battle, and not the fort itself is remembered in the placename leads us to believe that like many other important monastic sites in Ireland the fort at Clouncagh may have been a great source of dispute and contention in the dim and distant past.  Is not the fact that the site was surrounded by impressive defensive ramparts but further evidence of its historic importance in the local area?

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As I have already discussed here the renowned scholar and antiquarian, John O’Donovan visited and surveyed the parishes of Clonelty and Cloncagh in the summer of 1840 as part of preparatory work for the 6” Ordnance Survey Map being developed at the time.  Dr O’Donovan was a noted historian and the translator of The Annals of the Four Masters, an Irish-speaking scholar and scribe, and he was the Ordnance Survey’s overall Names Expert during their survey conducted between 1824 and 1846.  It was O’Donovan’s responsibility to enter all the Irish versions of names into the Names Books, in addition to the English spelling recommended for the published maps.  In effect, his role was to standardize the translations of the Irish placenames into English and as far as the Ordnance Survey were concerned his word was law.

The vast majority of placenames in Ireland are anglicized versions of Irish language names.  In many cases this entailed adapting the original Irish names to a standardized English phonology and spelling.   Gerard Curtin in his fabulous book, Every Field Had a Name, tells us that all of the townland placenames in the parish of Knockaderry and Clouncagh were recorded between 1200 and 1655.  Curtin tells us that this is the only instance of this occurring in West Limerick and is evidence of a land well-endowed and densely populated.  So when O’Donovan surveyed the parish of Knockaderry in 1840 he found a rich vein of placenames containing often mysterious and sometimes unexplained echoes of the past.

His work on this survey was rigorous and meticulous, so much so that the Ordnance Survey of Ireland Names Books are sometimes referred to as ‘O’Donovan’s Name Books’.  O’Donovan spent July and August 1840 in West Limerick and he signed off on his work on the parish of Cloncagh and Clonelty on 25 July 1840.  He was assisted in his work in Limerick by Padraig Ó Caoimh and Antaine Ó Comhraí (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii).   Ó Maolfabhail recognises the validity and status of O’Donovan’s work when he tells us that by 1840 there were only four other counties to be completed as part of this nationwide survey and so, therefore, O’Donovan had huge experience gained already as part of his work on the survey.  This experience stood him in good stead in his attempts to standardize the translations of placenames from the Irish to the English and in trying to make sense of the etymology of the various placenames he came across (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii).

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The view of the remnants of the great fort at Clouncagh as it is seen today on Google Maps

The Orthography Section of the Names Books provides the various spellings for each townland or place and the Authority Section gives the source from which these variations were derived.  This was a controversial part of the Survey, especially in the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland. Thomas Larcom, the head of the Ordnance Survey, and, John O’Donovan, had a clear policy when it came to the variant spellings and meanings of Irish place-names, which was to adopt ‘the version which came closest to the original Irish form of the name’.  O’Donovan is following on from long accepted practice the advice and ground rules laid down by such experts as his friend and fellow academic Patrick Weston Joyce who wrote the book Irish Local Names Explained which dealt with the process of anglicizing Irish placenames.  Joyce, a Limerick man from Ballyorgan, near Kilfinnane, tells us that the governing principle in anglicizing placenames from the Irish is that ‘the present forms are derived from the ancient Irish, as they were spoken, not as they were written’.   He goes on to say that there had been a long standing procedure whereby ‘those who first committed them to writing, aimed at preserving the original pronunciation, by representing it as nearly as they were able in English letters’.  In my view, the over-rigorous application of standardization by O’Donovan fails to take account of local variations of pronunciation and so, to this day, we are left with a dissonance between the spelling and the local pronunciation of Clouncagh.

O’Donovan, in his extensive travels throughout Ireland as part of this nationwide survey, would have come across many placenames with the popular prefix ‘Cluain’ and he seems to have decided that this should be universally rendered as ‘Clon’ in the accepted Anglicised translation.  We are very familiar with many of these placenames today throughout the length and breadth of Ireland: Clonmel, Clontarf, Clonlara, Clontibret, Clonmacnoise, Cloncagh, etc.  Even though his Name Books refer to ‘Clooncagh’ and ‘Cloonelty’ they would later appear as Cloncagh and Clonelty in the 6” map which was produced by the Ordnance Survey in 1843.  So, dare I say it, we have none other than the eminent John O’Donovan to blame for giving us ‘Cloncagh’ despite the mild-mannered objections of many locals to this day; especially those who continue to pronounce the placename with a ‘u’.

Referring to the origins of the placename in his Name Books, he is at pains to balance the two vying possibilities: on the one hand, he acknowledges the monastic site and the possible connection to St Maedoc, while on the other hand, he states that, ‘The name, however, is now pronounced by the natives as if written Cluain Cath, which if correct would signify Battle-Field.’ 

In his Name Books he also references numerous historical documents which mention Clouncagh and references one story which may be relevant to the origins of the placename.  He quotes from, the noted priest and academic,  Dr John Lanigan’s,  The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, V.II, p 338:

Maidoc was remarkable for his hospitality and benevolence.  On being informed that some relatives of his were prisoners in Hy-Conall Gabhra (141) he went to that Country, although far distant from Ferns, for the purpose of delivering them and did not desist until he induced the Chieftain, otherwise very harsh on this point, to give them up.  It is added that this Chieftain was so affected by the Saint’s (p.339) conduct that he granted him a place called Cluain-Claidheach, in which he erected a Monastery (142).

In my opinion, this may go some way to explaining why Clouncagh (Clauin Catha) is an exception to the rule mentioned earlier: the fort was gifted to St. Maedoc and changed from being a fortified place to a place of worship and monastic activity as far back as the 7th century.  In a way, the fort was, in effect, a trophy of war and so retained its original name to remind people of its history. Donal Begley seems to agree with this view and he asks the question:

Could it be that Cluain Catha means a ‘trophy’ townland to remind us of a notable victory won by the fort men   against an enemy on the ‘battlefield’?

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A close-up view of the Old Graveyard in Clouncagh showing the semi-circular rampart to the north largely still intact. The original outline of the great fort can still be made out despite changes made by the local landowner. The old church ruin and adjoining graveyard were at the centre of the original fort.

In his beautiful book, Thirty-Two Words for Field, Manchán Magan illustrates the richness and variety which the Irish language bestows on those seemingly anonymous expanses of indistinguishable fields which surround us in our beautiful countryside.  He tells us that Cluain is ‘a meadow field between two woods’.    This suggests a fenced off or bounded meadow, and would aptly describe the fort enclosure at Clouncagh.  Today, we can but surmise as to what took place on this holy site and the significance of the placename associated with it.   It may be that it was the focus of local rivalry between warring chieftains in pre-Christian times, or indeed, as was very common in early Irish society, it may have been the location of numerous old fashioned cattle raids like the famous Cattle Raid at Cooley.  Or, as John O’Donovan suggests in another one of his references to olden manuscripts it may indeed have been gifted to St Maedoc by the local chieftain as a reward for restoring his daughter to life.  He references a story from The Life of St Maedoc:

Before the entrance of that fort the Man of God fasted for three days.  The fast being ended, the daughter of the Chief … died suddenly.  The wife of the Chief, knowing that this fact was the cause of a miracle, brought the lifeless body to St Maedoc.  And the servant of God being requested by her mother and by her attendants, resuscitated her from death.  ……. The Chief seeing this now, did penance and left his relatives liberated to St Maedoc, and offered him the place which is called Cluainchladh-bhaith (Cluain-claidhblaim) and the Holy Man erected a Monastery there, and blessing the place itself and the Chief who gave it, retired from thence.

Today as one stands at the gateway to the old cemetery in Clouncagh the semi-circular rampart to the north of the roadway is still clearly visible while the ramparts to the south have been eroded over time and removed by local farmers trying to improve their farmsteads.  Today also there is only one well in the fields to the south – St. Patrick’s Well still stands forlornly as a reminder of former glory. 

So, we can see that the confusion as to whether   Clouncagh or Cloncagh is the correct modern version of the placename is still contentious.  Our Ordnance Survey maps, our County Council, other government agencies, indeed the Diocese, all still rely on long-outdated information found in the old civil parishes documentation and so they still refer to the place as Cloncagh while the locals with their generations of lore and accepted pronunciation seem to prefer Clouncagh.  As with the etymology and orthography of other placenames in our community, such as Aughalin/Ahalin for example, local lore is often ignored and disregarded as not having sufficient authority.

In reality, I suppose, the more we delve into the blurry past the more we realise that placenames don’t correspond to a single event and are more often the accretion over time of mundane common speech which is finally calcified by someone of the calibre of John O’Donovan who stops the spinning wheel of discursive meaning and sets it in amber for future generations as he did in July 1840.  Mixed metaphors aside, I suppose, we must seek forgiveness for our desire to ascribe heroic meaning to a placename if at all possible and human nature being what it is if we can entwine some simplistic nationalism in the knot then more’s the better!

Meanwhile, the locals, including such esteemed scholars as Donal Begley continue to plough their lonely furrow and seek to have restored the only version of the placename acceptable to them: Clouncagh (Cluain Catha).  However, whatever our preferences the reality is that it is impossible to know with absolute certainty what the correct version is and that ensures that the original etymology of many of our placenames will always be up for discussion and debate.

Sources:

Bailiúchán na Scol, Imleabhar 0500, page 171

Begley, Donal. A Wayside Farm by the River: Clouncagh Remembered, Privately Published by the author.  Printed by Reads Design, Print and Display Dublin. 2015.

Begley, Donal. John O’Byrne Croke: Life and Times of a Clouncagh Scholar. Print and Design: Modern Printers, Kilkenny. 2018.

Curtin, Gerard. Every Field Had a Name – The Place-Names of West Limerick. Sliabh Luachra Historical Society, 2012.

Joyce, P. W., Irish Local Names Explained (1923).  Scholar’s Choice Edition, Creative Media Partnership, LLC, 2015.

Knockaderry Clouncagh Parish Annuals

Lanigan’s, Dr John (1758 – 1825), The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland.

Manchán Magan, Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape, Gill Books, Dublin, 2020.

Ó Danachair, Caoimhín, Holy Wells of County Limerick, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. LXXXV, 1955.

Art Ó Maolfabhail, Logainmneacha na hÉireann Imleabhair: 1 Contae Luimnigh, (Baile Átha Cliath, 1990).

O’Donavan, John. Ordnance Survey Name Books

Quilty, Pat. Knockaderry Clouncagh Graveyards, a West Limerick Resources grant aided project, 2014.

Westropp, T.J., “A Survey of the Ancient Churches of the County of Limerick”, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, XXV, 327 – 480.

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Wider view of the townland of Clouncagh taken from same 1840 map.

Study Guide to Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel

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Original portrait of playwright Brian Friel by Donegal artist Stephen Bennett

This semi-autobiographical play by Brian Friel was first performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1990.  In 1998 the play was adapted and turned into a very successful, award-winning film,  directed by Pat O’Connor.  The film competed in the Venice Film Festival of 1998. It won an Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actor in a Female Role for Brid Brennan. It was also nominated for 6 other awards, including the Irish Film and Television Award for Best Feature Film and the Best Actress Award for the American actress, Meryl Streep, who played the part of Kate.

 Like many other of Friel’s works it is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg and tells the story of a family unit being torn apart by the many strong forces in society.  It is a memory play told from the point of view of the adult Michael Evans, the narrator. He recounts the summer in his aunts’ cottage when he was seven years old. 

This play is loosely based on the lives of Friel’s mother and aunts who lived in Ardara, a small town in the Glenties area of County Donegal. Set in the summer of 1936, the play depicts the late summer days when love briefly seems possible for five of the Mundy sisters (Maggie, Chris, Agnes, Rose, and Kate) and the family welcomes home the frail elder brother, Jack, who has returned from a life as a missionary in Africa. However, as the summer ends, the family foresees the sadness and economic privations under which they will suffer and all hope seems to fade.

The play takes place in early August, around the Festival of Lughnasa, the pagan Celtic harvest festival. The play describes a bitter harvest for the Mundy sisters, a time of reaping what has been sown.

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PLOT SUMMARY

In the play, the adult narrator, Michael Evans, recalls the summer of 1936 when as a small boy of seven, he lived with his mother Chris, and his four aunts – Kate, Maggie, Agnes and Rose – in the fictional village of Ballybeg, the setting for many of Friel’s finest plays.  His uncle Jack, a missionary priest, had recently returned from Africa to live with them.  He is suffering from the after effects of malaria and some other more mysterious mental ailment that has made him forgetful and frail.

The Mundy family are not well off.  Kate, a teacher, is the only wage-earner.  Agnes and rose make a little money knitting gloves at home, a cottage industry at the time.  Maggie and Roselook after the hens and household duties, as does Christina, Michael’s mother.

Michael’s abiding memories of that summer are of his Uncle Jack’s return to the family home, linked forever in his mind with hearing dance music on their first ever radio, and the two visits of his father, Gerry Evans.  The play depicts the complexity of the relationships of the adults around him and the changes that came over their lives in that crucial summer, against a deeply traditional and rural backdrop.

The action of the play takes place in August, (the Irish word for August is Lughnasa – the ‘Lughnasa’ of the title), traditionally a time when the pagan Celtic god of the harvest, Lugh, was commemorated and celebrated.  The play is divided into two acts, reflecting the two particular days that stand out in Michael’s memory.  He narrates the action from an adult vantage point, and is, therefore, both part of and distanced from it.  As the illegitimate son of Christina (Chris) Mundy and Gerry Evans he is both a source of joy and shame – all of the sisters have a great affection for him, but in the Ireland of the 1930s a child born to a couple who were not married was seen as a source of shame in the community.

Summary of Act 1

Act 1 depicts four of the sisters as they wait for their sister Kate to return home.  They carry out their everyday tasks – knitting, ironing, making mash for the hens – and they talk in a light-hearted way about ordinary things, a broken mirror, lipstick, the erratic behaviour of the radio that they have nicknamed Marconi, after the famous inventor.  Their relationships are affectionate, occasionally exasperated as in any family.

When Kate returns she brings news of the forthcoming Harvest Festival of Lughnasa that everyone in the town is preparing for.  The excitement of that seems to unsettle the women.  Against Kate’s better judgement they even consider going to the harvest dance, like most of their neighbours.  Another unsettling moment is when they discuss Father Jack’s strange behaviour since he came home from Uganda.  He has returned home to Ballybeg as he is suffering the after effects of malaria, but he also appears confused as to his own whereabouts.  He cannot remember ordinary English words and makes constant references to pagan rituals he seems to have practiced while in Uganda.

Michael’s father, Gerry Evans makes one of his infrequent visits to see him and his mother Christina.  Chris is still in love with him but it is clear that he, an irresponsible charmer, full of empty promises, has no intention of staying in Ballybeg with her and her son.  By the end of Act 1 we learn that Gerry intends to go to Spain to fight with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.  By the end of the Act we have also learned a great deal about the lives and personalities of the five sisters and also about their brother, Father Jack.

Summary of Act 2

Act 2 takes place in early September, three weeks later.  Michael still waits for the bike his father, Gerry, has promised to buy him.  Jack continues to speak of strange pagan rites.  He seems to have no interest in Catholic rituals such as the Mass.  This is now becoming a problem for the sisters in the village, especially for Kate as the schoolteacher.

Slowly but surely events begin to unfold and we hear that she will lose her job.  Agnes and rose will also lose their jobs as home knitters, due to the opening of a knitting factory in the area.  Gerry abandons Chris again, this time forever.  Money is scarce in the household.

Michael then narrates what transpired in the following weeks.  Rose and Agnes have to leave Ballybeg and go to London to find work.  He tells us that they lose contact with the family and it is twenty-five years later when he tracks them down – Agnes is dead by then and Rose is dying in a hospital.  Father Jack, who doesn’t resume his ministry as a Catholic priest as was expected, dies of a heart attack a year after the action of the play.  Gerry Evans is wounded in Spain, but survives to form a new family in Wales.  Chris spends the rest of her life working in the knitting factory, and hates it.  Kate finally gets a job as a private tutor.

The play ends as it began, with Michael remembering what happened that summer, particularly the sights and sounds of his mother and his aunts dancing in the kitchen.

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The famous ‘Gander Scene’ with Meryl Streep and young Michael

THE HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL SETTING OF THE PLAY

Dancing at Lughnasa captures a time and place where great changes are about to take place – both in the Mundy household and in the wider world where all is about to change forever with the ominous rumblings of war to be heard in many parts of Europe.  The unspoken backdrop is Ireland and its emerging Republic which at the time was dominated by very strict social morality and the repressive influence of the Catholic Church.  The play seems to suggest that this traditional rural society, dominated for so long by communal values, will be changed forever by the power of the radio. 

From a twenty-first century vantage point giving the radio a name – Marconi – seems absurd, but it highlights the point that the radio will be like another presence in the play, giving people a window to what is going on in the outside world probably for the first time.  It is interesting that the predominant political movement in Ireland in the previous quarter of a century before 1936 was that of Sinn Féin which translates as Ourselves Alone – Ireland could survive on its own, isolationism was a good thing.  Ironically, a century later and our near neighbours have stolen our ideas with their obsession with Brexit.

It is significant that the tune to which the sisters dance so wildly to at the beginning of the play is the old Irish reel, The Mason’s Apron.  Towards the end of the play, however, the tune that plays when Gerry dances with Chris and her sisters is Anything Goes, with its faintly shocking lyrics:

In olden times a glimpse of stocking

Was looked on as something shocking

Now heaven knows

Anything goes.

This may indicate that the old traditional moralities are also changing fast.

Michael, the narrator, tells us at the beginning of the play that he is remembering ‘that summer of 1936’ and the events that took place in Ballybeg.  As a boy of seven at that time, he clearly had very little understanding of the historical and political context in which he lived.  Throughout the play, however, Friel alludes to several specific events that took place in 1936 in both Ireland and Europe.

In Act 1, rose, one of the five Mundy sisters, sings,

‘Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?

Bring your own cup and saucer and a bun.

Mussolini will be there with his aeroplanes in the air

Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?

Shortly afterwards Maggie joins in with, ‘Will you vote for De Valera will you vote?’, to the same tune.  They are both referring to highly topical issues at the time: the invasion of Abyssinia by the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the success of Eamon de Valera, leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in the Irish General Election of 1933.  There was another General Election in the offing and this took place on 1 July 1937. A plebiscite on whether to approve the new Constitution of Ireland was held on the same day. This was a very significant event and it is interesting that here in Dancing at Lughnasa as in  Philadelphia Here I Come the important date to remember is 1/1/1937.  This was the day the new Irish Constitution came into effect and some critics suggest that Friel is here passing a harsh judgement on the Ireland that had emerged under that Constitution. 

Many critics and scholars also suggest that Friel is here giving a barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day radio broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’. 

Later in the play, Gerry Evans, Michael’s father, decides to join the International Brigade, a group of socialists who opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  All these events point to the fact that in the world outside Ballybeg great change and upheaval is happening – the Mundy family can’t but be caught up in and affected by these great changes also.

However, the most important change, according to Friel, is the rise to power in Ireland of Eamon de Valera.  De Valera’s celebrated view of Ireland as a predominantly rural society, peopled by frugal, contented people, clearly applies to the lifestyle of the five Mundy sisters – in fact, they are the very epitome of de Valera’s vision for the new Republic: comely maidens dancing at the crossroads or in their frugal kitchens.

Limited Opportunities

The limited opportunities available to the five Mundy sisters was typical of Irish society in the 1930s.  Conversation revolves around local gossip – who’s marrying who, the forthcoming harvest festival for the Festival of Lughnasa – and family issues; Father Jack’s strange behaviour since his return from Africa; the visit of Chris’s ex-lover Gerry Evans, the father of her child.  Their activities are equally confined to looking after the hens, baking, knitting and ironing.  They are barely making ends meet.  Crucially, it is Kate who does the shopping.  Their only source of entertainment is the radio, which fails to work more often than not.

From their conversations it is clear that the society of Ballybeg is small, not only literally but also metaphorically.  Michael tells us that Ballybeg was proud of his uncle and his work in the Ugandan leprosy hospital.  The local newspaper called him ‘our own leper priest’.  As he says:

‘it gave us that little bit of status in the eyes of the parish.  And it must have helped my aunts to bear the shame my mother brought on the household by having me – as it was called then – out of wedlock.’

The Influence of the Catholic Church

Religion had an enormous influence in 1930s Ireland.  In 1932 the great Eucharistic Congress took place in Dublin and it is obvious that religion directly affects the lives of the characters in the play.  To have a priest in the family, especially a missionary priest, was considered a great honour.  It is Kate who expresses the most orthodox religious views for most of the play.  Indeed, Friel deliberately juxtaposes those views with the paganism associated with the Lughnasa festival bubbling away beneath the surface.  Early on Kate thinks it would be ‘sinful’ to give the name of the old pagan god, Lugh, to the new radio.  Any talk of the ‘pagan practices’ that take place back in the hills during the Festival of Lughnasa are not to be heard in ‘a Christian home, a Catholic home’, which for her is the ultimate ideal.  She reminds the others that ‘this is Father Jack’s home – we must never forget that – ever’.

Going to the harvest dance, as her sisters suggest, is for young people with ‘nothing in their heads but pleasure’.  In Catholic morality of the day, the idea of ‘pleasure’ was associated in a negative way with sex.  In the 1930s, attempts were made to prevent people going to what were called ‘pagan dances’.  These rigid attitudes extended to anything that might encourage personal vanity or loose behaviour and we can see from the play that the Mundy sisters have only an ‘oul cracked thing’ of a mirror to see themselves in.

Although he does not appear directly in the play (and only fleetingly in the film version), the power of the parish priest to fire Kate from her job in the village school because her priest brother does not conform to religious expectations, is another measure of the desire of the Catholic Church authorities to exert control in society. 

Friel returns to this theme many times in his plays.  In Philadelphia Here I Come! for example, religion is represented through the figure of the Canon. It is clear that he is an inept and ineffective one-dimensional character. Gar satirises his ineptitude when he comes in one evening to play his usual game of cards with S. B.,

“Sure Canon what interest have you in money? Sure as long as you get to Tenerife for five weeks every winter, what interest have you in money?”. 

In Philadelphia Here I Come!,  the Canon is seen as a very shallow man who is constantly being ridiculed by Gar Private.  He is not a pastor, he waits until, ‘the rosary’s over and the kettle’s on.’ And, in the end,  he proves to be as predictable and one-dimensional as S.B.  Indeed, both men are cruelly caricatured by Friel and the priest, in particular, is seen as a sad figure without influence or a constructive role to play in modern society.

We can also sense what a blow it must have been to the Mundy household when Chris became an unmarried mother.  De Valera and the Catholic Church at the time emphasised the role of marriage and the nuclear family – mother, father and ‘sturdy’ children – as a force for moral and political stability.  This ideal was best expressed in De Valera’s radio broadcast to the nation on St. Patrick’s Day 1943 when he said:

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars.

It is clear from the concern of the five Mundy sisters that they too value marriage and family.  Circumstances have caused them all to be single.  Only Chris has had sexual experience.  Given their ages – from twenty-six to forty – it appears that they have lost their chances of finding suitable men to marry.  But that does not mean that all desire for romance or sexual relationships has been crushed.  In different ways, each of the women in the play reveals a longing for love that goes beyond their actual circumstances.  Chris is still very much in love with Gerry Evans, the father of her child.  His visits cause emotional havoc to all in the household but especially to Chris and her young son.  He represents for all of them a different sort of life – there are hints that Agnes too is in love with him – even if Kate sees him as a sort of threat.  In her jokes and songs such as ‘The Isle of Capri’, Maggie reveals a sentimental side to her tough exterior.  Even Rose, described as ‘simple’, has a romantic interest in Danny Bradley, a married man.  Later in the play she joins him in ‘the back hills’, although we do not find out what, if anything, happens between them.  Even Kate, who is described as ‘a very proper woman’ and more negatively as a ‘self-righteous old bitch’, has had some hopes of attracting the attentions of Austin Morgan.  However, we later learn that he goes and marries a ‘wee young thing from Carrickfad’.

Dolores Keane sings ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’ backed by the Irish Film Orchestra … and then the climactic dance of wild and free women.

The Dancing Metaphor

Throughout the play the metaphor of dancing is used to suggest romance, escape and sexual freedom.  For a short while the sisters entertain ideas of going to the harvest dance as they used to in their youth.  Kate, the authority figure in the family, makes it clear that this is out of the question, ‘do you want the whole countryside to be laughing at us? – women of our age? – mature women, dancing?’

Maggie has fond memories of going to dances with her friend Bernie O’Donnell, when she was sixteen and in love with Brian McGuinness, who later went to Australia.  The relationship between Gerry Evans and Chris is also depicted very much in terms of dancing.  And of course, the wild dance that the sisters engage in in their kitchen is a crucial moment in the play.  It allows them to get in touch with their inner selves, the sensuous side of their nature that is held in check by the dominant social attitudes of the Ireland in which they live.

Conflict in the Play

As already mentioned Friel juxtaposes in Dancing at Lughnasa the conflict between the repressive social and religious attitudes of Ireland in the 30s with an older, freer pre-Christian way of life.  This pagan way of life was one of celebration, wild dances and rituals held in the ‘back hills’ far away from the influence of the Catholic Church.  The Festival of Lughnasa traditions that Rose describes take place ‘up there in the back hills’, among people that Kate refers to as ‘savages’.  There are numerous references to Lugh, the pagan god, to voodoo, to omens of good and bad luck, to the devilish faces that Michael has painted on his kites.  Sweeney (the boy who was burnt in the festival bonfire) bears the same name as the legendary Sweeney who defied Christian authorities and was punished by being condemned to fly around like a bird for the rest of his life.

Father Jack embodies this conflict too.  His experience as a missionary in Africa has caused him to lose his sense of what is appropriate in the context of Ballybeg.  From an Irish cultural point of view, sending priests as missionaries to Africa was seen as benefitting the native Africans by teaching them and enabling them to participate in the rituals of the Catholic Church.  But Father Jack no longer appears to believe that Christian ritual is superior to the rituals he observed in ‘pagan’ Africa.  In fact, after his time spent as a missionary, he now sees Catholic rituals such as the Mass as synonymous with the sacrifice offered to ‘Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth’.   Rather amusingly, he fails to live up to his expected role as moral judge of Gerry Evans (‘Father Jack may have something to say to Mr. Evans’ says Kate at one point).  Instead, he sees Michael as Chris’s ‘love-child’ and he asks her if she has any more ‘love-children’, and he pronounces that in Uganda ‘women are eager to have love-children’.  He even suggests that if they were in Uganda he would be able to provide at least one husband for all of his sisters, ‘That’s our system and it works very well’.

Father Jack’s view of religion now corresponds more to the goings-on at the pagan festival of Lughnasa than it does to the norms of the Catholic Ireland, ‘the island of saints and scholars’.  There is one telling statement he makes about the African people that seems to recognise the underlying truth of this.  He declares, ‘In some respects they’re not unlike us’.  It is clear, however, that his views would not be acceptable in the Ireland of the 30s to which he has returned.  This is sadly borne out by his own forced return to Ireland and the treatment meted out to his sister Kate by the local parish priest.

Change in Society

The over-riding impression we get from the play, however, is that changes are taking place, the world is sliding towards war and the old certainties are losing ground.  This is made even more evident with the return of Father Jack from Africa.  This event suggests that the domestic world of the Mundy’s faces disruption from the outside.  Father Jack brings with him from Uganda hints that Catholic ritual may not have universal appeal.  His obvious respect for native Ugandan rituals gives us a reverse view of the traditional role of the missionary priest!

Gerry Evans also brings a sense of the changing world of Ireland when he talks of giving ballroom dancing lessons, or of gramophone sales in Dublin.  When he decides to join the International Brigade in Spain, it is seen as part of a desire to experience the big bad world outside of Ireland.  There is a suggestion that Ireland’s cultural landscape is beginning to change ever so slowly.

One of the clearest indications of change takes place when Agnes and Rose can no longer make their living from home knitting, due to the opening of the new knitting factory in Donegal Town.  As the narrator says: ‘The Industrial Revolution had finally caught up with Ballybeg’.  Their subsequent emigration was typical of the large-scale emigration from Ireland that took place in the first half of the twentieth century.  As in Philadelphia Here I Come!, Ballybeg is depicted here as a backwater, a stagnant place of despair and routine.  Escape through emigration is the only safety valve.   Like many an Irish town in the late thirties, forties and fifties Ballybeg has maintained its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings!  It is an example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would most certainly be ruined if those same young people stayed at home en masse

Faraway hills are said to be greener but when Agnes and Rose leave they possessed little education, few skills, and in reality their opportunities in London were limited to menial cleaning jobs.  Sad though this is, the narrator nevertheless suggests that they wanted ‘to get away’, to experience change and novelty, with all their challenges and disadvantages.  Someone said once that the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies but there may be a positive side to change as countless numbers of Irish emigrants discovered as they made new prosperous lives for themselves in foreign lands.

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Family Relationships

Family is important to the Mundy sisters.   Within the family there may be disappointment, resentment or anger, but they will always present a united and brave face to the outside world.  Kate, in particular, insists that problems with Father Jack must be kept within the family, ‘not a word of this must go outside these walls’.

It is this family solidarity that causes them to unite in the face of the shame that Chris must have brought on them as an unmarried mother in a small town, baile beag, in 1930s Ireland.  Throughout the play we see the genuine affection each of the aunts feels for Michael: Kate brings him presents, Maggie jokes with him, Rose even says, ‘I wish he was mine’.  Clearly, he has never been made to feel unloved or unwanted.  It almost seems as if any or all of them could have been his mother. 

Similarly, their love and care for Father Jack outweighs any disappointment they may have felt at his ‘disgrace’.  Kate’s surprising acceptance of his religious beliefs and her grief when he dies reveal that family feeling overcomes conventional morality.  Each of the family members watches out for ‘simple’ and vulnerable Rose, as we see when she goes missing for an afternoon with Danny Bradley.  When Kate is sacked from her teaching job, it is ‘Rosie’ she worries about most.

However, despite the obvious closeness and the obvious loneliness and lack of fulfilment that they all feel, they rarely speak about their intimate feelings.  When Kate confides to Maggie that she feels ‘it’s all going to collapse’, for instance, Maggie declines to engage with her fears and simply says, ‘Nothing is about to collapse, Kate’.

Despite this, however, the family is capable of expressing negative feelings.  Hurtful things can be said.  Kate points out rather meanly to Agnes that neither she nor Rose made much money to contribute to the upkeep of the household.  Agnes retorts that she and rose are like ‘two unpaid servants’ in the house.  At another stage Agnes calls Kate ‘a damned self-righteous bitch’.

Ironically, the Mundy family of five sisters, one brother and their young nephew would not have corresponded to De Valera’s ideal nuclear family unit consisting of father, mother and their children of the time.  Tragically, too, the family grouping will disintegrate, as Michael the narrator tells us:

  • Poverty and economic change force Agnes and Rose to emigrate to London to find work;
  • Father Jack will die within a year;
  • Chris settles for a job she hated, working in the knitting factory;
  • Gerry Evans will visit less and less, until his visits stop altogether;
  • Michael himself will leave.  As he says, ‘In the selfish way of young men I was happy to escape’.

In many ways, then, it can be said that circumstances in the end have conspired to defeat the Mundy family.

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CHARACTER ANALYSIS IN DANCING AT LUGHNASA

Kate

Kate is the mother-figure and matriarch in the Mundy household.   She is the main bread-winner, respected in the community and the leader of the Mundy sisters.  She is a very religious and puritanical woman.  She has no time for ‘pagan’ ideas and is very prim and proper.  She doesn’t agree that the radio should be given a name, and definitely not the name Lugh because of its pagan origins.  She teaches in the local Primary School and would have been seen as a pillar of the community – especially in 1930s Ireland.  She had been involved in the War of Independence and she is very firm in her Christian attitudes.

She is very concerned with the way the people in the community view her and her family.  She would prefer the Mundys to be viewed as a decent family with a strong sense of dignity and strong religious faith.  She is, therefore, embarrassed by Father Jack’s return from Africa and feels that he has brought some shame on the family following his exploits in Uganda.  She has also been disappointed and hurt when Chris became pregnant outside of marriage and she does not want people to look down on the family.  When it is suggested that the sisters go to the harvest dance she is horrified at first.  She is very concerned about keeping up appearances and showing restraint both emotionally and socially.

Despite being part of a large family, Kate feels isolated and lonely in some way.  Perhaps she feels that she has to shoulder the burden of looking after the family on her own.  When the sisters dance together she dances alone.  This highlights her loneliness and isolation as she deals with her feelings by herself.

Maggie

At first Maggie seems to be the joker of the family.  She is always ready with a song, dance or joke.  However, on closer inspection we discover why she seems to be so bubbly.  Whenever there are moments of tension, or the possibility of any conflict, Maggie intercedes with some humour to help diffuse the situation.  In this way she keeps the peace and helps keep the family together because the family bond is very important to her.  She is a very likeable character and of all the sisters she is least prone to sarcasm and attempts to hurt others.  She is also generous spirited and kind and she adores young Michael.

Behind this apparent happy façade, however, Maggie is hiding deep unhappiness.  At one point Kate describes her meeting in Ballybeg with an old friend of Maggie’s by the name of Bernie O’Donnell.  It was Bernie O’Donnell who could attract the men that Maggie couldn’t when they were young.  Bernie later left Ballybeg and made a new life for herself somewhere else.  When Maggie hears this story from Kate she is quiet for once, which is very unlike her.

It is Maggie who is the first to start dancing in the climactic scene in Act 1.  She initiates the dance because she feels angry and frustrated with her small, lonely life in Ballybeg.  As described in the text her dance is ‘defiant’ as if she is trying to show life that it can throw anything at her and she will bounce back.

She is also a tower of strength for others when they need help.  She is there for Kate when she breaks down over her fears of not being able to keep the family together.  Maggie is possibly the most emotionally strong of the Mundy sisters, and she hides her secret pain much more effectively than the others.

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Catherine McCormack as Chris and Rhys Ifans as Gerry Evans in Dancing at Lughnasa.

Chris

Chris is a strong-willed character whose one great weakness is Gerry Evans.  She cannot help but love him despite all his false and empty promises.  Like all the Mundy sisters she fights off despair with humour and a defiant attitude.  She tries very hard not to let anything get to her.

When Gerry arrived back for the first time in over a year she tries to resist his advances by refusing to engage him in conversation.  He responds by dancing with her and she cannot resist the romance of this.  She returns to the house a changed woman, full of life and happiness, having conveniently forgotten what an unreliable rogue Gerry is.  She obviously craves romance in her life, otherwise she would not give in to Gerry in this way.  There are moments when she thinks back silently on her dance with Gerry, and it is obvious from her happy reaction that it has had a profound effect on her.

Throughout the play, however, she seems to be very jealous and suspicious of Agnes.  It becomes obvious to her that Gerry is also attracted to Agnes and visa versa, particularly after they both dance together.  This enrages Chris who probably feels deep down that Gerry loves Agnes more than he loves her.

However, her main claim to fame – or infamy – in the play is the fact that she is Michael’s mother.  He is obviously the apple of her eye and she is fiercely protective and proud of her son.  We have to remember also of course that this story is being narrated to us by her son Michael as he remembers with nostalgia the events of that momentous summer of 1936.

Agnes

Agnes is the most reserved and quiet of the five sisters, but she is also perhaps the strongest willed and the one with the greatest hidden reserves of strength.  She tends to listen when the others banter and poke fun at each other.  She is not the kind of person to start a conversation, yet despite her quiet and shy nature she is never afraid to stand up for herself or others.  She becomes quite angry when Kate refuses to use Gerry Evans’s name when referring to him.

She is the first to suggest that they could all go to the harvest dance and she is the one who makes the most emotional plea when she says she wants to dance and feel alive while dancing.  Despite being very quiet Agnes is not afraid at certain points in the play of revealing what her true emotions are.  However, normally she tends to bottle up her emotions and say very little, but when she does let go what she says is usually of great importance.  When she dances with her sisters in the famous kitchen scene she is very graceful and proud but also defiant at the same time.

Agnes is obviously very taken by Gerry Evans.  When she dances with him she is as graceful as ever and she dances like a woman who has been dancing with this man all her life.

Ultimately, Agnes is fearless despite her quiet nature.  She knows that when a crisis hits that hard decisions have to be made.  This is most obviously shown in her decision to go to London with Rose.  Of all the sisters, Agnes is the closest to Rose and she sees it as her life-long job to look after her sister.

Rose

Rose is very childish and innocent.  At that time, she would have been referred to as being ‘a bit simple’.  She is full of fun and life, but she is by no means a weak character who can be walked all over.   She has intelligence when required and like a child who wants something she knows cunning ways and means of getting it!

The other sisters are very protective of her, especially her sister Agnes.  They see her as the child of the family and it is their task to make sure she comes to no harm.  She takes a fancy to Danny Bradley, a local rascal with a bad reputation.    Despite her sisters’ insistence that she shouldn’t meet with him, rose concocts a plan to spend a day with him.  The fact that she does this shows her cunning and determination and also shows how underestimated she is, even by her own sisters.  Rose’s key character moment arrives when she defiantly stands up to Kate and is honest about her meeting with Danny Bradley.  In this moment she appears most adult-like and willing to be independent.

She has no shame, unlike Kate who is obsessed with the family’s good name and status in the community.  She is honest and pure and sees no harm in enjoying life.  She is a warm and endearing character with many childlike traits, but ultimately she is depicted as a strong, independent woman.

Brian Friel uses both Rose and Agnes to represent a generation of young Irish women (and men) who were forced by limited opportunities, poverty and economic depression top leave their small towns and villages in rural Ireland to seek work in London and elsewhere during the 1930s.

Gerry Evans

Gerry Evans is feckless, weak and irresponsible.  He is a scoundrel and a liar, but he manages to get away with it and gets by on his easy charm and a way with words.  This allows him to worm his way back into Chris’s life.  Gerry seems to be a drifter: unwilling or incapable of settling down, but later in the play we learn that he has been living a lie, and that he has another family in Wales.

Despite his flaws there is something likeable at times about Gerry.  He can get away with almost anything.  He is a child unwilling to take on real responsibility and merely puts on a show of enquiring about his son Michael’s well-being.

We also get the sense that Gerry is searching for something.  He goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War but is not sure why he made that decision.  Gerry is also quite possibly in love with Agnes and he seems to have a problem asking after her when he is speaking to Chris.

He is a rogue who cannot be depended upon for anything.  He is a restless character with a great ability to charm all those around him with his easy words and his dancing skills.

Father Jack

Father Jack has obviously suffered deeply, both physically and mentally, as a result of his time spent as a Catholic missionary priest among the leper colonies in Uganda.  Despite his evident weaknesses and illnesses, we get a sense that he was once a great and determined man who deserved his reputation as a great missionary priest.

Father Jack is also quite unconventional.  This part of his nature is slowly revealed in the play until we get the ultimate revelation that he almost discarded his own Catholic beliefs to become one with the natives at his mission.  Unlike Kate he is tolerant of others beliefs, so much so that he took part in many tribal celebrations and rituals when he was in Uganda.  He is a very non-judgemental man who accepts everyone for what they are.

He is a good man with everyone’s best interests at heart.  He is a man of great humanity and strength and he quickly regains his physical strength after returning to his home in Ballybeg.  He is not a man who feels shame and is quite happy about how his African experiences have changed him.

An Analysis of Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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 (c) poetryanalysis.com

Spring

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring —
When weeds in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Commentary

As we know Hopkins wrote The Terrible Sonnets but here we have one of the best of his ‘bright sonnets’ in which he celebrates the beauty of nature and the glory of God.  Hopkins loved to use the sonnet because he felt it suited his style.  He wrote ‘Spring’ in May 1877 while studying theology in North Wales. ‘Spring’ is a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of an octet which is primarily descriptive, and a sestet which is typically more reflective. The sonnet can only be described as being quintessential Hopkins.

The octet describes nature and Hopkins’ appreciation of it shines through in his descriptive language. He gives many examples of how beautiful and fresh the world is, such as weeds, birds’ eggs, lambs, blue skies and lush greenery.  Many of Hopkins’ poems read like sermons and homilies and this is not unusual seeing as he was a Jesuit priest.  So we are not surprised, therefore, when he compares the beauty which surrounds him to the Garden of Eden.  The sestet reflects upon the meaning of this wonderful nature. As I said earlier there is always a spiritual dimension to Hopkins’ poetry and in the sestet he reflects on the sorry end of the Garden of Eden and he uses the last lines of the poem to ask God to protect the innocence of spring and also that of young children.

Many of the trademark conventions which define Hopkins’ poetry are to be found in this poem, such as alliteration, assonance, inscape, instress and sprung rhythm.   We are presented with an innovative and technically accomplished poem which is written in a unique and distinctive way. 

It might be important to define some of these concepts because some of them are unique to Hopkins’ poetry:

Inscape: For Hopkins, every single thing in the universe was unique. Everything contained qualities that helped to define that uniqueness, and to distinguish it from all other things. He called this inscape.  Hopkins believed that God was responsible for each unique thing. For him, inscape was the essential essence of each thing, that unique quality that set it apart from everything else.

Instress: Hopkins also believed that each living thing had its own unique energy which was also derived from God.  In the octet of this sonnet, therefore, he tries through language and imagery to capture the instress, the unique energy that defines Spring.

Sprung Rhythm:  Hopkins invented this unique kind of rhythm and used it extensively in his poetry. Basically, Hopkins stresses the important word in a line of poetry and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables e.g. the line ‘When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush’. 

Octet
Hopkins begins the poem with a very bold statement of his philosophy.   He won’t listen to any debate or argument as he declares with absolute conviction that Spring is the most beautiful season of the year.  He then proceeds to give evidence in support of this contention, by presenting the reader with a series of images, which try to capture both the beauty and vibrancy of Spring.

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

He immediately surprises us by celebrating the beauty of weeds, a type of plant we traditionally frown upon. He uses alliteration and sprung rhythm to capture both the essence (inscape) and energy (instress) of these particular plants.  The word ‘wheel’ causes us to pause as we try to understand what he means.  It may be the way briars and other weeds send out tendrils to curl around other shrubs and plants as they climb or indeed it may be a reference to the cyclical nature of the seasons, each one giving way to the next.

He then describes the thrush in the next few lines. Again he tries to capture for us in words the inscape and instress of the birds as they build their nests and lay their eggs.  The bird’s eggs are compared to the heavens, as Hopkins subtly introduces a spiritual dimension to the poem. There are examples of sensuous imagery in evidence also, while the onomatopoeic “wring” further captures that elusive inscape.  Notice his constant use of alliteration, ‘rinse and wring’.  There is a very clever metaphor in the third line when he compares the speckled thrush’s eggs to the heavens at night.  It nearly would have been easier for him to use the simile, Thrush’s eggs look (like) little low heavens, but he resists the temptation!

He does use a simile in lines four and five when he tries to describe the effect of birdsong on the human ear,

it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing

Further intense images follow, as Hopkins champions this particular season. We are told “that blue is all in a rush,” as he tries to capture the instress, the energy, that defines that season. The final line, with its rather quaint, colloquial language, is also designed to produce a similar effect.

By the end of the octet, the reader has been swept along by Hopkins in his description of nature. His use of sprung rhythm , coupled with the absence of any full-stops in the entire octet, ensure that the reader is made fully aware of the breathtaking beauty and vitality associated with Spring.

Sestet
The poem becomes much more reflective in the sestet. Hopkins begins by posing a question: What does all of this beauty of nature actually signify?   This rhetorical question signifies the poet’s own confusion and uncertainty.  The reader is invited to slow down and contemplate the answer to this question. Hopkins suggests to us that springtime is an image of what the world would have been like in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, before the fall of Adam and Eve and the entrance of sin into our world. 

In a series of complex and very theological images, Hopkins manages to suggest what is wrong with the world, provides a vision of the type of world he would like to see, and advocates a return to that time of innocence in Eden Garden. He suggests our loss of innocence by using the image of fruit becoming overripe and decaying.

Traditionally also it must be remembered that May was always linked to Mary the Mother of God – the month of May was Mary’s month.  He proceeds to use different images of innocence to present his image of the world he would like to see, and finally, he advocates a return to that world of innocence.  In my mind’s eye I can see children innocently dancing around the traditional Maypole on an English village green when I read these final lines.  For his English audience there would have been no better representation of childhood innocence!

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   (c) haikudeck.com

An Analysis of Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Inversnaid-by-Gerard-Manley-Hopkins
 (c) poemanalysis.com

This darksome burn, horseback brown, 
His rollrock highroad roaring down, 
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam 
Flutes and low to the lake falls home. 

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth 
Turns and twindles over the broth 
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning, 
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning. 

Degged with dew, dappled with dew, 
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, 
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, 
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn. 

What would the world be, once bereft 
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, 
O let them be left, wildness and wet; 
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. 

Commentary

The initial response of a class hearing Hopkins for the first time – in my long experience – can only be described as a kind of muted sniffling, an uneasy shuffling!  Indeed, I am reminded of a scene from Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Van.   In the novel, Darren is studying Hopkins’s poetry for his  Leaving Cert.  He reads one of the poems – probably Inversnaid – and wonders when Tippex had been invented and he concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’  Not all students are as negative as Darren but given a chance most conclude that this poetry is old but yet new and surprising.  This difference is what opens the paths to further exploration.  Here we have someone experimenting and stretching the outer limits of language just like a modern rapper would do. 

Inversnaid, while not one of his best poems, shows how he continually explores the possibilities of words.  A good class will enjoy puzzling out the images, rather like trying to solve a cryptic crossword.  There may even be arguments about which sense of ‘comb’ is intended.  However, the average class will need a lot of help with this poem. 

Finally, by way of introduction, this poem does not end with a homily like many of Hopkins’ poems but instead takes on a very modern plea and could have been written in 2021 by any one of a range of eco-warriors from David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg.  However, while the spiritual dimension, so explicitly treated in ‘Spring’ and other poems, may be hidden from the reader, here one senses that it is never far from the poet-priest’s mind.

The poem was written in 1881 while Fr Hopkins, the Jesuit priest, was ministering to his flock in inner city Glasgow.  On one of his rest days he paid a hurried visit to the little village of Inversnaid near the shores of Loch Lomond in the Scottish Highlands and was inspired to write this poem.

The poem was written at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England and Scotland and the poet makes a very prescient and prophetic appeal that such places should not be destroyed forever by man’s search for wealth at any price.  The poet praises the special and irreplaceable beauty of the ‘wetness and wildness’ of the world.

Hopkins wrote the poem at a time when the Industrial Revolution in England was beginning to destroy the countryside.  There was also a counter move by Victorians to set aside areas of great beauty so that people who could afford it could escape to enjoy the beauty of nature.  Victoria herself had her Scottish royal retreat at Balmoral and this is still in use to this day.  Elsewhere places of particular scenic beauty such as the Lake District in England and Killarney in Ireland were making a name for themselves as soothing spa resorts where the rich and famous came to relax and enjoy the restorative power of nature in all its glory and wildness.  Here Hopkins pleads that such places should be spared and were, in fact, essential.  He attempts in the first three stanzas to convince people of the wonder of such areas; this he does by using all his word-power to describe what he sees in an exciting way.  In the final stanza he presents his plea in repetitive and almost desperate terms.

The structure of the poem, unlike its language, is very simple.  The first three stanzas convey a lively and exciting picture in our minds.  The final stanza then is a plea that such beauty be preserved.  Each stanza contains four lines, and each line has four stresses.  Hopkins stresses the important word and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables.  This unique form of rhyming scheme he called sprung rhythm.

Hopkins is describing a river rushing and roaring down the Scottish hillside to reach Loch Lomond.  The river begins high in the hills and flows powerfully down over the rocks, then eases into lower land and flows gently into the lake.  There are many pools and eddies filled with froth so dark that they suggest despair.  Dew sparkles on the banks beside the river where wild plants grow such as heath and fern and ash trees.  The last stanza is a passionate plea to his fellow man to leave such wildness and beauty alone, and let them survive.

Hopkins language can be difficult because he is constantly experimenting.  In this poem, for instance, he is obviously infatuated by the Scottish accents all around him and we can see this in the continual use of ‘r’ alliterative sounds throughout the poem.  Hopkins tries to capture the inscape and instress of a fast flowing stream in the rural landscape of Inversnaid.  He makes use of a number of important techniques to capture the true essence and energy of the stream such as compound words, sprung rhythm and alliteration to great effect.  He also invents new words, and makes use of local colloquial and dialect words freely. 

To fully appreciate the beauty of the poem you really need to read it aloud in your best Scottish accent!  From the very beginning he sets the scene,

This darksome burn, horseback brown,

His rollrock highroad roaring down,

These lines suggest the river’s steep rush through the highlands.  The hard vowel sounds convey the rush and roar of the water over the rocks.  The essence and energy of the river (its inscape and instress) is compared in a lovely metaphor to a wild horse careering downhill at great speed.

The final two lines in the first stanza are calmer

In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam 
Flutes and low to the lake falls home. 


The poet uses alliteration to suggest a peaceful pool with foam like ‘fleece’ gently circling as in a whirlpool.  ‘Coop’ and ‘comb’, ‘fleece’ and ‘foam’ convey multiple images if we allow them in.  The energy of the river is now ‘cooped up’ in a rockpool and the water gently ‘combs’ over the rocks and falls with lovely sibilant ‘s’ sounds to the lake.

shiny boulders and water stream
Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

In the second stanza the focus switches to these stiller shallow pools.  The ‘fleece’ of stanza one is now a ‘windpuff-bonnet’ of ‘fawn-froth’.  These are lovely examples of compound words made up by the poet to describe the scene before him.  The poet is after all trying to describe or inscape a whirlpool and he invents a new verb to describe the motion of the pool – it ‘twindles’.  This swirling motion produces very ominous, dark emotions in the poet: the pool is now a ‘broth’, a ‘pitchblack’ soup of seething river in flood.  The darkness or shadows of the area also help induce a mood of despair – Hopkins gives it even added importance by giving it a capital ‘D’.  ‘Fell-frowning’ has many layers of meaning.  Again it is a compound word invented for the occasion: Hopkins often uses ‘fell’ in his poetry and usually it means foul or evil.  The stanza is a perfect example of sprung rhythm, a unique Hopkins invention.  (Read the stanza again – out loud – to get a feel for this rhythm).

The focus now switches to the banks of the stream and the abundance of plants and shrubs and trees that exist there.  He uses a very precise set of words to capture the essence, the inscape of the gorge through which this stream is flowing.  It is a glorious description of nature in all its wildness:

Degged with dew, dappled with dew,

Are the groins of the braes that the brook threads through,

Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,

And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

We get the sense of the river picking up speed again in the first two lines before it slows again before the stanza ends.

In the last stanza, Hopkins uses many words beginning with the letter ‘w’.  This, combined with all the repetition, conveys a mood of anxiety and pleading.  The use of the rhetorical question also gives a sense of his uncertainty.  He ends by issuing an appeal, asking us to preserve the natural landscape. Yet again, one can detect the intensity of the emotion in his pleading and in his poetry.   Hopkins finishes with a rallying cry, almost a call to arms, similar to what Greta Thunberg has done in recent times, in which he champions the natural world and pleads with us to respect it.  That call is now nearly 150 years old and, unfortunately, is more pertinent today that ever before.

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Further Study

You might like to have a read of the following blog which explains the various terms such as ‘inscape’, ‘instress’ and ‘sprung rhythm’ used in the above notes.  Just click on the link.

The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

You might also be interested in the following blogs which analyse particular poems by Hopkins:

Analysis of The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Commentary on Pied Beauty by Hopkins

 

Listen as Tom O’Bedlam reads Inversnaid

 

 

Free Resources for Leaving Cert English 2021

 

 

river
The Good Old Days!

This week the Government announced that schools would remain closed until February 1st, and that Leaving Cert students would be able to attend school for three days a week, beginning on Monday January 11th. That Government decision remained in force for all of twenty-four hours!   Because of this continuous  disruption and uncertainty, no doubt caused by the Covid-19 upsurge in the community, but not helped by Government indecision, I have brought together here in one post links to a series of relevant notes which you may consider useful in your English course studies for 2021. These notes are not exhaustive but focus mainly on  Single Text, Comparative and Poetry Sections.

Caveat Emptor! Leaving Cert Student Beware !! These are resources which you should use wisely. They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful.

IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THEM, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT. ALSO, YOU MIGHT SPREAD THE WORD, DON’T KEEP THEM ALL TO YOURSELF!

THE SINGLE TEXT  AND A SELECTION OF TEXTS PRESCRIBED FOR THE COMPARATIVE STUDY 2021

(You know the drill, click on the link!)

King Lear (H/O)

Single Text Study Notes on King Lear

Study Notes on King Lear

Some Central Themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Image Patterns in King Lear

Wuthering Heights (H/O)

Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights  Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

Philadelphia Here I Come (O)

Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!

The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!

The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!

Persuasion

Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Silas Marner

Themes in Silas Marner

Imagery in Silas Marner

Silas Marner The Characters

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner

 

A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON THE COMPARATIVE STUDY QUESTION IN 2021

MODES OF COMPARISON
For each Leaving Certificate course, three modes of comparison will be prescribed. This means that the texts chosen for comparative study must be studied under these particular modes (headings).

This year the modes of comparison at Higher Level and Ordinary Level are as follows:

Higher Level

  • Theme or Issue
  • Cultural Context
  •  General Vision and Viewpoint

Ordinary Level

  • Theme
  • Social Setting
  • Relationships

This year there will be two questions on EACH of these modes of comparison.  In reality this means that because of the time constraints and limited time given to you to study the syllabus properly you only need to focus on ONE mode of comparison.

FYI the following  adjustments have been made to the Comparative Section in the Leaving Cert English Syllabus for 2021: next June the Comparative Section will include questions on all three modes prescribed for examination in 2021 – namely, Theme or Issue, Cultural Context, and General Vision and Viewpoint.

Candidates will be required to answer on one mode only. This will allow you to concentrate your efforts because in effect, if you wish, you can simply concentrate on one mode of comparison only and you can be guaranteed that there will be a choice of two questions for you to answer on that chosen mode of comparison.  Remember, the standard required won’t alter but you are being given greater choice this year in your Comparative Study.

The internal question choice within modes will remain the same. Single questions (marked out of 70) will require candidates to refer to AT LEAST TWO texts in their response. The same criteria for assessment will apply to candidates irrespective of whether they refer to two texts or to three texts when responding to 70 mark questions. Two-part questions (marked out of 30 and 40) will require candidates to refer to ONE text in answer to part (a) and to TWO other texts in answer to part (b).

Theme or Issue

This involves comparing texts on a prescribed theme(s). These would have to be themes that were pervasive and central to the texts chosen for study e.g.

Isolation and Loneliness
Relationships
Family
Childhood
Fantasy and reality

These themes/issues will be the messages or concerns that the writer or film director wishes to impart to the audience. In most texts, there will be a number of themes/issues worth considering

Your task, therefore, in this section is to compare and contrast the same theme as it is treated by different authors or film directors.

Cultural Context

Compare the texts focusing on social rituals, values and attitudes. This is not to be seen as a sociological study of the texts alone. It means taking some perspectives, which enable the students to understand the kind of values and structures with which people contend. It amounts to entering into the world of the text and getting some insight and feel for the cultural texture of the world created. This would imply considering such aspects as the rituals of life and the routines of living, the structures of society, familial, social, economic, religious and political: the respective roles of men and women in society, the position of children, the role and nature of work, the sources and structures of power and the significance of race and class.

Vision and Viewpoint

The term, general vision and viewpoint, may be understood by candidates to mean the broad outlook of the authors of the texts (or of the texts themselves) as interpreted and understood by the reader  – excerpt from Marking Scheme, 2003

When approaching this mode of comparison it is important to examine each text to discover what particular vision or view of life is presented by the novelist, playwright or film director.  We need to find the overall view of the writer as it is reflected through the themes and issues raised in the text.  We will probably realise that we as readers or as an audience have been given a privileged position by the author and that we often know more than the characters in the novel or the actors on the stage or film set.  We are, after all, entitled to our own viewpoint also!  Commonly, we are expected to judge whether the text is positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, realistic or dystopian, etc., etc.

IN SUMMARY….

When you answer a question in the Comparative Section remember that you have to be selective in emphasising the most meaningful similarities and differences between texts. The more similar they appear to be, the more provocative and challenging it is to contrast them and to draw out differences between them. Remember also that when you draw out surprising or disputable similarities or differences, you require detailed support from the texts.

In a Comparative answer, it is vitally important to compare and contrast these different ways of looking at life, or to examine if there is coherence or a lack of coherence between all these differing viewpoints.

 

THE POETRY SECTION IN 2021

I include links to SIX of the eight poets on your course here – simply click on the link.  Again, in this area, the Department and the Examinations Commission have made very generous adjustments to the Syllabus for 2021.  So, this year, ONE additional poetry question will be included i.e. candidates will be required to answer one of five questions instead of the usual four.  In reality, therefore, instead of having to have at least FIVE  poets prepared for examination, you now will need to have at least FOUR poets studied at Higher Level this year.  (Two extra poems will also be included in the Ordinary Level paper).

Seamus Heaney

The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Some Recurring Themes

Analysis of The Forge by Seamus Heaney

Analysis of The Harvest Bow by Seamus Heaney

Bogland by Seamus Heaney

 

Elizabeth Bishop

Themes and Issues in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop: The Poets Poet

 

Eavan Boland

Major Themes in Eavan Bolands Poetry

The Beauty of Ordinary Things  In the Poetry of Eavan Boland

Child of Our Time by Eavan Boland

 

Robert Frost

AN ANALYSIS OF THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST (1874  1963)

Commentary on A Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost

Analysis of Spring Pools by Robert Frost

Some Personal Thoughts on The Road not Taken by Robert Frost

 

Gerard Manley hopkins

The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Analysis of The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Commentary on Pied Beauty by Hopkins

An Analysis of Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Sylvia Plath

The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

 

21036

John Donne and Metaphysical Poetry

John Donne
Portrait of Donne in a great hat by unknown English artist, c1595. © Estate of Lord Lothian.   This is possibly the painting ‘taken in shadows’ to which he refers in his will.

John Donne’s poetry experienced a great resurgence in the Twentieth Century, thanks mainly to T. S. Eliot’s influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’  originally published in 1921.  This new found recognition went far in correcting the fact that for the previous two centuries his poetry had been largely overlooked.  Added to this, of course, we must take into account Donne’s own apparent disinterest in his own poems, particularly with regard to their publication.  This disinterest has always been put forward by academics as a reason for this early neglect.  It is well documented that he only published three or four poems in his own lifetime, preferring instead to pass round manuscripts of his work among his friends at the universities and at the Inns of Court.

Ben Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – c. 16 August 1637), the most learned poet of his time, was the closest of such friends.  Like T.S. Eliot many generations later, Jonson left all in no doubt about the admiration he felt for Donne’s poetry; he regarded him as an innovator, ‘the first poet in the world in some things’, and the leader of a new school of poetry in Elizabethan London – this school of poetry has since been called metaphysical poetry.

Donne was certainly not a poet of popular taste.  As far as he was concerned poetry was not for the masses but was an intellectual pursuit where the poet attempted to impress others with his knowledge and education.  He deliberately restricted his audience to those whose education and background equipped them to appreciate a new, more obscure type of poetry.  It is clear that Donne’s poetry shocked his contemporaries just as it still does to this day.  When his poems were first published in 1633, two years after his death, the printer introduced them with a dedication, not to ‘the Readers’ but to ‘the Understanders’.  One can see from this how from the beginning, Donne’s poetry was regarded as being among the most difficult in English literature.

The writers who followed Donne and who were most influenced by his work have since been called the metaphysical poets. This term was of course first used by Dr Samuel Johnston in his famous discussion of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell.  In his Life of Cowley (1779) Johnston observed that ‘about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that might be termed the metaphysical poets’.  Since then the term metaphysical poetry has come to imply a type of poetry that has certain unique characteristics.  Indeed, so widespread has the term become that there is no longer much doubt as to whom we mean when we speak of the metaphysical poets, namely, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew Marvell in particular.

Dr Samuel Johnston’s Life of Cowley did more than establish the term ‘metaphysical poets’; it also contained the first detailed discussion of their works.  Donne’s poetry can be considered in three main groups: the love poetry (The Good Morrow, The Anniversary), the miscellaneous poems and verse letters, and the religious poetry (A Hymn to God the Father, Holy Sonnets), all of which correspond roughly to the early, middle, and later periods of his career.  The first group contains the work for which he is probably best known.  The poetry is remarkable for its realism and its variety, and has all the characteristics by which metaphysical poetry is generally recognised.

What therefore are the main characteristics of the metaphysical poets in general and of Donne in particular? 

What first strikes most readers of metaphysical poetry is its concentration.  Poems in this category tend to be brief and closely woven.  This allows various ideas, words and references to be condensed into groups of short lines, sometimes even into single lines and phrases.  For example, in the opening stanza of The Anniversary, Donne introduces groups of associated images drawn from the royal courts and palaces to suggest the transience of earthly glory:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits,

The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass,

Is elder by a year now than it was

When thou and I first one another saw.

Everything, he suggests, is subordinate to love, and he describes in detail the intensity of his feelings.  What need has he of kings and princes when they are inconstant and subject to decay?  Even the sun which appears to measure time, is itself subject to destruction, while love has the power to outlive these mortal things.  Behind this opening stanza, therefore, there is intense personal feeling.  This anniversary represents a permanent moment: it is not an anniversary in the ordinary sense, a looking back on something passed.  It is rather an ‘everlasting day’ which is not affected by the passage of time.  So while man’s world and the world of nature are slowly growing old, the persons in the poem enjoy forever the vitality and permanence of love.  To further his argument Donne makes good use of paradox which acts as a sort of clinching device which upholds and strengthens his argument.  The first stanza of The Anniversary ends with an important paradox which expresses the permanence of love in a world of change:

Running it never runs from us away,

But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

The idea that love unites people in a spiritual bond which even transcends death is expressed throughout The Anniversary.

His use of concentration is also very evident in The Good Morrow where we see not only Donne’s love of learning, but also his inclination for using it out of context, applying many references to serve his own purposes in the poem.  The greatest concentration of language is confined to the second stanza.  Man, Donne suggests, is concerned with broadening his physical horizons, but is neglecting to expand his knowledge in a spiritual direction.  Love, in the end, binds all things together and allows man to attain his true destiny.  Suggested in this poem is the idea of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge.  Science can explain the physical, but not the spiritual universe.  Astronomers may spend their lives studying the heavens but they are always fearful of what they might find.  Similarly, geographical discoveries have brought to man’s attention objects of experience that are not always pleasant (“sharp north”, “declining west”), and the progress of science cannot experiment enough to conquer death (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”).  Connected to each of these images is the idea of isolation and lack of real purpose: the lonely astronomer forever watchful, the explorer who spends his life going round the world only to arrive back where he started, the scientist alone in his laboratory making many discoveries, none of which effect the real destiny of mankind.  Donne, therefore, sees the world outside as a symbol of man’s weakness and isolation.  In contrast to this he presents his own rational theory which is itself the result of considerable previous study.  As with The Anniversary, he proposes that the only true art is the art of love which requires knowledge, patience and effort, which overcomes death and prepares man for eternity.

A second characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its vividly dramatic quality, particularly in the opening lines.  Donne’s poetry, in particular, is always, in a special sense, dramatic.  Indeed, all metaphysical poetry springs from the great era of Elizabethan drama dominated, in particular, by Shakespeare.  Donne, we are told, was ‘a great frequenter of plays’ in his youth.  The rhythms of his verse, so misunderstood by many readers, are closer to the ordinary speech found in Shakespeare’s plays than to that of most lyrical poems.  For this reason, Donne’s poems – and those of George Herbert also – are often best considered as dramatic monologues, almost like the soliloquys of an actor on the stage.  Donne specialises in forceful, dramatic openings, e.g. ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ (Holy Sonnets XIV); ‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we lov’d’ (The Good Morrow); ‘Wilt thou forgive the sin where I begun …’ (A Hymn to God the Father), etc., etc., etc. 

(Probably one of the most daring and dramatic of his opening lines occurs in the sonnet, At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners where he conjures up a marvellous vivid picture of the Last Judgement.  We have to remind ourselves that when this sonnet, often referred to as Holy Sonnet 7, was published in 1633, it was less than 150 years after Columbus had discovered The New World.  Yet here, Donne shows off his new found knowledge that the world is round and yet plays with the old notion that the world was flat and had four corners!)

This dependence on drama leads to a third characteristic of metaphysical poetry which is their constant use of dialogue.  The Good Morrow and The Anniversary depend for their success upon our recognising the presence of an individual speaker involved in each poem.  Indeed, the speakers can even be distinguished by the manner of their speech and by the nature of their arguments.  In the opening lines of The Good Morrow the speaker adopts a very colloquial, unpoetic manner.  He is capable, however, of sudden shifts in attention, and in the second stanza begins to change his tone and emphasis.  The poem suddenly becomes more serious, then very learned in its use of obscure references and peculiar logic, until finally the speaker presents his audience with a definite conclusion:

If our two loves be one, or thou and I

Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

In contrast to The Good Morrow, Donne’s The Anniversary is much more contemplative.  What is common to both poems is not only their theme but also their resolution: true love is constant because it is essentially a relationship of minds.  What is uncommon, however, is Donne’s presentation.  In The Anniversary the speaker is not so much intent on displaying the great depth of his knowledge as in arguing his ideas with simple wisdom.  Despite the fact that he sometimes appears to be frivolous and insincere, Donne always wished to express universal truths in his poetry.  Like Shakespeare, when he expresses something profound, Donne often does it quite simply.  The subject of universal destruction is one of the central themes in The Anniversary, and the death of princes is used to symbolise it.  Indeed, the references to princes, kings and courtly life bring this poem very close to the underlying theme expressed in nearly all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of which ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ (Richard II, Act III, Sc ii, 155).   The dramatic impact of the opening lines of The Anniversary depends upon the emphasis suggested by the word all:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits …

All other things to their destruction draw.

The grandeur of princes must inevitably pass away; kings must live in fear of misfortune, treason and death.  The Anniversary has none of the learned references and peculiar logic of The Good Morrow.  He uses a uniform set of royal images throughout the three stanzas, and details of diction reveal ordinary common nouns.  While The Good Morrow displays a superb use of unpoetic words and references the impact of The Anniversary is less rhetorical and more sincere.

A fourth characteristic of metaphysical poets is their use of Wit.  The word ‘wit’ has undergone a remarkable transformation in modern day English.  Our modern idea of a witty comment or image, even though there may be some original thought, does not do the Elizabethan meaning of the word full justice.  The metaphysical poets like Donne, Herbert, Marvel and Vaughan always tried to present brilliant or arresting lines of poetry which surprise the reader by means of unexpected ideas, expressions or associations.  This tendency led in turn to the development of conceits.  A conceit is a comparison made between things which at first sight seem to have little in common: it is a comparison which is more striking than correct.  There are numerous examples of such far-fetched comparisons to be found in the work of the metaphysical poets.  Indeed, it very easy to agree with Dr Samuel Johnson’s remark that in the work of these poets ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. Many of Donne’s best poems depend for their effect on the extensive use of conceits.  The Good Morrow, for example, contains a number of paradoxes which are grouped together in the second stanza: ‘And makes one little room an everywhere’; ‘Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.’  This poem also contains what is perhaps the most well-known and most famous of Donne’s conceits:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Together the lovers make one world, each being as hemisphere.  But unlike the real hemispheres, they suffer no shortcomings; their love undergoes neither misery (‘sharp north’), nor cooling of affection (‘declining west’). 

A fifth characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its striking use of imagery and tone.  The principal advantage of the conceits Donne uses in his poems is the degree of inclusiveness they make possible.  They are a means of bringing into his poetry all his interests, activities and new found knowledge.  No part of his experience is regarded as unworthy of poetic investigation, and he prefers to engage our attention not through expected images and associations, but through unusual ideas and comparisons.  Whatever poetic licence is taken, the general effect is to reinforce, modify and generally heighten the reader’s response to each poem.

The Good Morrow is an excellent example of this method.  The poem begins with a realistic description of a morning bedroom.  The poet is waking up beside his mistress and he therefore uses words and images which suggest sleep (‘snorted’, ‘sleepers’, ‘dream’).  In his initial meditation on love there is a strong emphasis on physical activities (‘wean’d’, ‘sucked’, ‘country pleasures’).  Indeed, the number of words relating to physical activities in Donne’s poetry is always very high.  Here, he freely admits to having mistresses in the past (‘If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired and got,’) but indicates that the pleasures he experienced with them were inadequate (‘pleasures fancies’).  We can see immediately how this stanza with its strong emphasis on sexual fulfilment must have come as something as a shock to Donne’s friends and contemporaries who were used to a completely different, more refined type of love poetry. 

This first stanza alone, with its sense of openness and honesty Donne dissociates himself from the dominant sixteenth-century tradition of Platonic love.  This poem, in contrast, is aggressively personal and ‘muscular’.  We notice the frequent use of personal pronouns which emphasise the presence of an individual speaker.  The overall tone is personal and enthusiastic.  The three stanzas correspond to three stages of his experience: there is a very definite progression from past to present to future.  In the first stanza he defines reality exclusively in physical terms; the questions are abrupt and present striking images of physical activity. 

The second stanza presents a sudden shift from past to present, and contains examples of Donne’s characteristic choice of imagery.  Whereas the Elizabethans relied on images from Greek and Roman mythology for their love imagery, Donne relies heavily on more ‘modern’ sources such as geography, science, history and philosophy.  In this regard, the imagery of The Good Morrow has always impressed readers with its range and variety.  Indeed, this poem illustrates beautifully the range and variety of metaphysical imagery.  From the ordinary activities of breast-feeding and heavy sleeping, Donne progresses to the more exotic activities of explorers, geographers and philosophers.  However, the sea-discoverers with all their topical glamour and novelty are introduced only to be dismissed as lacking in true exploration compared with the relationship he is describing.  Nevertheless, they continue to be present in the poem and eventually lead to the image of  ‘sharpe north’ and ‘declining west’.

The image at the beginning of the third stanza is a simple presentation of the fact that people gazing into each other’s eyes can see themselves reflected there.  It is made more complicated and more meaningful by the line that leads up to it (‘And true plain hearts do in the faces rest’).

Usually the titles of Donne’s poems generally suggest the central image around which the poem revolves.  Therefore, The Good Morrow deals with awakening and with discovery and we can follow how this basic image of discovery is sustained throughout the poem.  Likewise, the major image suggested by The Anniversary is royal and heraldic.  Groups of words appear in each stanza which relate to kings, princes and courtly life.  Donne’s imagery, especially in his religious sonnets is always striking, and always extends the range and understanding of each poem.

Conclusions

Eliot in his influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ refers to the metaphysical poets’ ability to combine disparate kinds of experience and he goes on to say that these poets possess ‘a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.  Donne’s great achievement, according to Eliot, was to have substituted a natural conversational idiom for a conventional one, carrying out a revolution of the kind ‘which has to occur from time to time … if the English language is to retain its vigour’ (Winny, 52).

With Herbert, Marvel, Vaughan, and the Catholic poet Crashaw, Donne explored the complex relationships between God and man, lover and beloved, time and eternity.  The Metaphysicals used language in a manner as complex as their themes, drawing their comparisons from astronomy, philosophy, theology and natural science, working out their images with a rigorous logic which still to this day demands great alertness from the reader.  At its worst the metaphysical method of writing resulted in what Dr Johnson called ‘heterogeneous ideas …. yoked by violence together’.  At its best, it resulted in the exciting and muscular poetry well represented by the poems mentioned here.

Further Reading

You might also like to read related blog posts by the same author:

An Introduction to Metaphysical Poetry

An Analysis of Some of my Favourite Poems by John Donne

Works Referred to

Shakespeare’s Richard II

Samuel Johnson’s Life of Cowley

Works Cited

T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets“.  First published in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 October 1921.

Winny, J., A Preface to Donne, Longman, 1970.

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The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde

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This photograph was taken near Old Barna Railway Bridge by Dermot Lynch, Limerick Leader.

The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde was first published in 1975 by the Goldsmith Press, shortly after Michael Hartnett’s pronouncement from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that he would henceforth write only in Irish. Appropriately, the publication contains an Irish version and an English version of the poem, as perhaps befitted the poet’s conflicted state.  In effect, this poem serves as a Rubicon: the last English poem he would publish, for the time being at least, and the first of his Irish poems. The poet is in transition and is now back in West Limerick and in this poem, he explores deep and ancient resentments and wrongs. Allan Gregory says that the poem, in its bilingual format, ‘expresses to the reader themes of social and historical oppression, sex, pregnancy and birth, protection, exposure and secrecy, and is the finest poem in this period of Hartnett’s writing’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).

Hartnett has documented the ‘schizophrenia’ associated with this new poetic direction and he has said that this poem, in particular, caused him great distress:

The Retreat of Ita Cagney, for example, almost broke my heart and indeed my mind to write, because both languages became so intermeshed. I would sit down and write a few lines of the poem unthinkingly. I’d come back to it and see that it was half in English and half in Irish or a mixture. … One is not a translation of the other. They are two versions of the same poem; but what the original language is I don’t know’ (O’Driscoll 146).

Whatever the mental turmoil generated by the artistic struggles of the poet, the resulting poem is one of Hartnett’s most powerful from this period of his career. In his review of the poem following publication, fellow Munster poet, Brendan Kennelly, says it was,

‘a probing, dramatic exploration of a woman’s loneliness and isolation in a callous and hostile society. This, to my mind, is Hartnett’s finest achievement to date: he pays a relentless imaginative attention to this woman’s fate, and he presents with admirable dramatic balance her loneliness, independence and state of severed happiness. In this condition, Ita Cagney becomes a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’ (Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 15, p. 26).

The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a pained celebration of a woman’s enforced isolation due to her refusal to conform to the demands of her society. We can surmise that in delving into Ita Cagney’s situation the poet finds common cause with another rural outcast in light of his own recent ‘retreat’ to Glendarragh to dwell ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ (A Book of Strays 41). This lonely cottage in Glendarragh was for the next ten years to serve as basecamp for what Declan Kiberd describes as ‘retracing his way to the common source’ (McDonagh/ Newman 37).  However, far from being a  ‘retreat’ to obscurity, as some of his critics predicted, his return to West Limerick precipitated what was arguably the most productive period of his career.  Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985.  During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985.

The publication of this dual language version of The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde in 1975 was a bold step by Hartnett. For added effect, the Irish version was printed in the Old Gaelic script (An Cló Gaelach) which was by then obsolete and no longer being used in schools as it had been up to the 1960s. This probably also had the effect of further isolating the poet and limiting his audience. However, as he told Elgy Gillespie in an interview in March 1975: ‘Listen, it’s impossible to limit my audience, it’s so small already’ (Gillespie 10).  However, academic John Jordon wrote a positive review of Cúlú Íde suggesting that it was ‘a small-town mini-epic, so redolent of Hardy’ (Jordon 7). Cúlú Íde was again published as part of Hartnett’s first collection in Irish, Adharca Broic, in 1978. This time he chose Peter Fallon’s Gallery Books and this new publishing relationship was to last until A Book of Strays was published posthumously by the same publisher in 2002.  Adharca Broic received generally positive reviews and Allan Gregory declared that the twenty-one lyrical poems in the collection ‘oozed with the confidence of a speaker who felt that at last he was being heard’ (McDonagh/Newman 146).

In this analysis, I will focus mainly on the English version of the poem with occasional sorties into the Irish version, especially where they diverge. There are some similarities between The Retreat of Ita Cagney and Farewell to English.  Both poems have a sequence-structure and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is divided into nine dramatic scenes. Both poems were published in 1975.  However, there is one major difference: whereas Farewell to English is a public poem with political overtones, The Retreat of Ita Cagney is an intensely private poem. Though it begins with a quintessential public event, the traditional Irish funeral, it quickly transitions to the act of retreat alluded to in its title. On the face of it, it is a ‘retreat’ from a public event to a more private life, and Hartnett teases out the societal and psychological implications which this act brings about. However, the poem itself may also be read as an act of ‘retreat’ for the poet, away from public pronouncement, towards a more private poetry, which would focus on his own domestic life.  If critics presumed that the blunt polemic of Farewell to English would be a constant in his writing in Irish The Retreat of Ita Cagney would seem to set them straight.  As with Ita, Hartnett’s ‘retreat’ was a once-off symbolic gesture and as such there was no need to repeat the tonic, rather the wisdom or otherwise of that choice would be borne out by the life retreated to, and of course, for Hartnett, the poems which would come from living that life to its fullest.

The English version is composed in free-verse while the Irish version is more formal and adheres to the classical conventions of the Dánta Grá (McDonagh/Newman 144). This divergence in styles between the two languages is perhaps a direct reason for the mental turmoil he encountered during the composition of this poem – there is a constant battle raging between the more disordered English version and the more tamed and formalised Irish version.

As well as being a poet of international standing, Hartnett was also a master translator having translated the Tao, the Gypsy Ballads of Lorca, and later the poems of Ó Haicéad and Ó Bruadair which will forever stand the test of time. Here we find him ‘translating’ his own work and the effort induced in him a kind of artistic schizophrenia. Declan Kiberd argues that in this way, Hartnett suffered from a kind of ‘double vision’:

Every poet senses that all official languages are already dead languages. That was why Hartnett said farewell to English while knowing that Irish was itself dead already too. As he wrote himself in ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, ‘I loved her from the day she died’. Likewise, with English – no sooner did Hartnett write it off than he felt all over again its awesome power, for it had become again truly strange to him, as all poetic languages must (McDonagh/Newman 38).

This poem, then, is an initial effort to find his voice – in two languages.

In this, his last poem in English pro tem and his first poem in Irish, the poet very dramatically tells us the story of a recent widow (the Irish version says that she has been married only a year) who leaves her home in the dead of night and goes to live in secret with another man in his West Limerick cottage and bears him a child out of wedlock much to the disapproval of the locals and the Church.

The poem is not set in any recognisable historic timeframe but maybe there were echoes of some such local ‘scandalous’ incident in the ether when the poet made his return to West Limerick in and around 1975. However, the poem stands on its own and there doesn’t need to have been any particular incident which inspired the poet to take on this subject matter. Hartnett’s prose writing and poetry show him to be a very insightful social commentator and it is not hard to find echoes of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger in this poem. Here, however, the main subject is a formidable woman which further helps to give the lie to the accepted stereotypes of the day. Readers familiar with Irish poetry will also be aware that in the old Aisling poems Ireland was often depicted as a woman: sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. In effect, Ita Cagney can be read as a  modern Bean Dubh an Ghleanna, Gráinne Mhaol, Roisín Dubh or Caithleen Ní Houlihan – a symbolic representation of Ireland.  Hartnett concisely captures a portrait of the society to which he had returned in the 1970s but crucially chooses to depict Ita’s inner life and not merely as a cypher without agency, whilst also refusing to idealise rural Ireland by showing the repressive and oppressive views which pertained at that time, especially towards women.

The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more focused portrayal of small-farm Ireland than the broader panorama offered by Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. That said, they are very similar and both Ita Cagney and Maguire have to cope with the two conflicting forces of spirituality and sexual mores in the world of their time. Maguire’s idea of sex is deformed, largely due to Church teaching and a repressive society in the Ireland of the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, Ita Cagney’s sexuality liberates her and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more recent reminder to all and a typical Hartnett barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’ (Moynihan 466-9).  Whereas Maguire is beaten down and is forced to live within the strictures imposed by the Catholic Church and the 1937 Constitution, in a sense, Ita Cagney benefits from the work of such women as Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, and others in bringing about significant change in how young couples lived their married lives as a result of the McGee v. Attorney General Case. This landmark case was heard in the Supreme Court in 1973 (two years before the publication of this poem) and established the right to privacy in marital affairs, giving women the right to avail of contraception, thereby giving them control over their own bodies.

Another factor which may be relevant here also was that while Kavanagh was a bachelor (and almost certainly a virgin) when he wrote The Great Hunger, Michael Hartnett was happily married (at the time) and living with his wife Rosemary and their two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘in exile out foreign in Glantine’.  Patrick Kavanagh wrote about the destitution and despair of Irish country life of the 40s and 50s and though Michael Hartnett knew that world also from his childhood (for example in A Small Farm) he depicts a changing Ireland in The Retreat of Ita Cagney, an Ireland where women play a more central role.

Section 1
The poem opens in a very dramatic style. We are present at an old-style Irish wake – a scene very common in Hartnett’s poetry (Collected Poems 103). The narrator informs us that ‘their barbarism did not assuage the grief’. These ‘barbarians’ paradoxically are dressed in ‘polished boots’ and ‘Sunday clothes’ and accompanied by the ‘drone of hoarse melodeons’ – all typical features of a traditional Irish wake. It is night-time and it is raining. The poet uses rich similes to describe the atmosphere; ‘snuff lashed the nose like nettles’ and the local keeners fulfilled their ‘toothless praising of the dead / spun on like unoiled bellows’. Now we are introduced to Ita Cagney, the dead man’s widow. Her name is a Saint’s name; Ita or Íde is synonymous with West Limerick, particularly West Limerick’s ancient past.  Her grief on the death of her husband has taken her by surprise and she gives a hint as to their relationship when she says ‘the women who had washed his corpse / were now more intimate with him / than she had ever been.’ This may suggest a great disparity in ages between them although the Irish version gives a slightly different perspective on her grief when it reveals that they had only been married a year: ‘a bhean chéile, le bliain anois’ (his wife, now for only a year). Now, on a whim, she leaves the raucous wake and beats her hasty retreat. This is emphasised by the metaphor, ‘the road became a dim knife’. She has not planned this move but ‘instinct neighed around her / like a pulling horse’.

Section 2
The second movement follows the strict requirements of the Dánta Grá and there are striking stylistic differences between the English and Irish versions. The Irish version consists of eight quatrains each describing Ita Cagney’s classical appearance. The English version is in free-verse and describes in minute detail Ita Cagney’s head from ‘her black hair’ to her throat which ‘showed no signs of age’. Her hair is black save for a single rib of grey which stands out ‘like a steel filing on a forge floor’. The poet here obviously calling on his Maiden Street childhood and scenes from John Kelly’s forge which he had already immortalised in verse (Collected Poems 104).

He then describes her brow, her eyebrows, her eyes, ‘her long nose’, ‘her rose-edged nostrils’, her upper lip, her chin and jawline and finally her throat. The reason for this detail is to give us a sense of the formidable woman at the centre of this poem. She is described as having an almost aristocratic beauty. Having described her head in exact detail the final singular line comes as an anti-climax: ‘The rest was shapeless, in black woollen dress’. The over-riding sense, however, is of a woman in black as befits a woman in mourning but a woman nonetheless with a kind of Patrician beauty, a sense of being noble in her bearing beyond her class: ‘Her long nose was almost bone / making her face too severe’. Ironically, from my own limited meetings with Michael Hartnett, he too had this aura of nobility and even some extant photographs of the poet show that he wore his hair like a Senator of Rome – in my eyes, at least, it is imaginable that he too saw himself as a Patrician character!

I would point out also that there is a difference between the way Hartnett describes Ita Cagney and the way he introduces us to the raven-haired barmaid in the first section of Farewell to English. The barmaid is described with exaggerated classical phrases such as ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’.  Here in this poem, however, Hartnett does not indulge in this kind of hyperbole in his description of Ita Cagney.  She is not idealised or clichéd and Michael Hartnett is at pains to describe her as a real person and this realism makes the symbolism more rich and complex. Deep unhappiness and sadness have furrowed her brow: ‘One deep line, cut by silent days of hate’. Her first marriage was obviously not a happy one and there is even a hint that it was an arranged marriage as was the custom in the past: her ‘eyes / that had looked on bespoke love / seeing only to despise’.

Section 3
In this section of the poem, Ita has reached her destination – by accident or design we do not know. She has turned her back on a society that doesn’t value her and in a sense, the poem is about breaking with convention – as the poet himself has also recently done. Ita Cagney has rejected the old world of snuff and melodeons and observance of religious rituals and she is about to embrace a more sensual world. The half-door of this isolated cottage is opened by a man ‘halving darkness bronze’. The ‘bronze’ light of the gaslight gives way to ‘gold the hairs along his nose’.  He is wearing classic labourer’s garb, a blue-striped shirt without a collar with a stud at the neck which ‘briefly pierced a thorn of light’.  This chink of light in the dark night echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Advent’ where he says ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’.  Whereas Kavanagh, in his poetry, comes across as the quintessential 1950s Catholic, Michael Hartnett, in contrast, sees the ‘chink’ or open doorway as a new beginning in Ita Cagney’s life and not something to abstain from.

The poet uses juxtaposition here also to sharply contrast the male-dominated kitchen with its ‘odours of lost gristle / and grease along the wall’ and the arrival of a female whose ‘headscarf laughed a challenge’. The man closes the door on the world and both begin a relationship which will last ‘for many years’.  Again, here we are reminded of the parallels that exist between Ita and the poet who had only recently turned his back on the Dublin literary scene and a burgeoning poetic reputation and had moved with his young family to rural West Limerick to follow his own ‘exquisite dream’ (Walsh 100).

Section 4
In this section, the couple have both decided ‘to live in sin’ ignoring the religious and social mores of the time. Their experience has taught them that having a big wedding for the sake of the neighbours ‘later causes pain’. Ita has already learnt to her cost that a very public wedding can, within a year, end ‘in hatred and in grief’. The expenses incurred in buying ‘the vain white dress’, in having to pay ‘the bulging priest’ and endure ‘the frantic dance’ is not for them. For them, it would be akin to undergoing physical torture, as the insincere well-wishes of their neighbours would ‘land / like careful hammers on a broken hand’.  Anyway, in this house organised religion was not important; here ‘no sacred text was read’.  Instead, life was rudimentary and simple: ‘He offered her food: they went to bed’. Here, there was no ‘furtive country coupling’, hiding affections from friends and priest. Their only sin was that they had chosen ‘so late a moment to begin’.

This is the sensual ideal: their ‘Love’ doesn’t have to be transmuted and elevated to a higher level by the clergy; they don’t seek anyone’s blessing or approval for their actions. However, they are aware that there are consequences to their decision and that their actions will offend the locals and particularly the local clergy: ‘shamefaced chalice, pyx, ciborium / clanged their giltwrapped anger in the room’.  The couple have made their bed and now they must lie in it. They have decided to defy society and do their own thing.

Section 5
Section five sees the woman in labour and being taken by donkey and cart (or pony and trap) to the local town to be delivered.  It is night-time and it is raining.  She is shielded by her shawl and oilskins to protect her but all these layers cannot deflect the ‘direct rebuke and pummel of the town’. The couples secret intimacy now becomes a public matter as they have to call on outside help with the delivery.  Even now at this delicate moment as Ita prepares to give birth, disapproval is vehement:

and sullen shadows mutter hate
and snarl and debate
and shout vague threats of hell.

However, the ‘new skull’ will not wait, and ‘the new skull pushes towards its morning’ and Ita’s hopes and dreams are for the future as a new beginning and a new dispensation beckons.

Section 6
Section six is both a love song and a lament. Ita Cagney addresses her new-born with love and trepidation. She knows what will be said and she will try and protect her son from the venom and vitriol which she knows will come because of her actions. Her newborn is described lovingly with his ‘gold hair’ and ‘skin / that smells of milk and apples’. She wishes to cocoon her baby son and protect him from all the wickedness of the outside world as if he were in Noah’s Ark.  However, she knows in her heart that just as in the Bible story ‘a dove is bound to come’ with messages from the outside world ‘bringing from the people words / and messages of hate’. She knows that the ‘stain’ of what she has done will be passed like a baton of toxic shame, the preferred Irish weapon to ensure conformity, to the next generation:

They will make you wear my life
Like a hump upon your back.

She is also tormented by the fear that her son may come to blame her for the hatred he will be forced to endure and that he may internalise that hatred and that the cycle of hatred will continue.

Section 7
Section seven has echoes of the Garden of Eden. The child is growing up in splendid isolation in the West Limerick countryside. The language is sensual and earthy, ‘each hazel ooze of cowdung through the toes, / being warm, and slipping like a floor of silk…’. There are echoes here also of earlier Hartnett poems depicting his own idyllic childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’ (Collected Poems 102). The young boy grows up and learns the lore of the countryside, gathering mushrooms ‘like white moons of lime’ and working the land with his father. His mother watches him grow ‘in a patient discontent’. The seasons come and go, spring, autumn, harvest, Christmas and their little cottage becomes ‘resplendent with these signs’.  There are echoes of an Edenic existence, unspoilt and idyllic, as ‘apples with medallions of rust / englobed a thickening cider on the shelf’.

Section 8
In section eight Ita speaks in a confessional manner. She is preparing for Christmas and decorating her little cottage with the traditional homemade crepe decorations. She is in a reflective mood and Hartnett uses a beautiful image to convey her reverie as she watches ‘the candles cry / O salutaris hostia’. There is a potent mix of residual religious imagery in these lines; the Christmas candles remind Ita of the traditional Catholic hymn sung at Benediction. The hymn invites us to ask for God’s help to persevere in our often difficult spiritual journey. The next image is also very traditional and every small farmhouse in Ireland contained at one time a red Sacred Heart lamp with its flickering flame:

I will light the oil –lamp till it burns
like a scarlet apple

This is clearer in the Irish version and stands as a good example of how both versions complement each other:

Anocht lasfad lampa an Chroí Ró-Naofa
agus chífead é ag deargadh
mar úll beag aibí

We notice here that while Ita Cagney may reject the public rites associated with the Catholic Church she still maintains elements of the traditional Christian practices. In some sense, I think we are also being given a glimpse of Michael Hartnett’s own views on religion here.  Traditional religious symbols and half-forgotten phrases from old Latin hymns are residual echoes of his own early religious experience: and for Michael Hartnett, and for many others of his generation, Catholicism was very much a child’s thing (see ‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ ).

There then follows Ita’s ‘confession’ where she declares that she has not insulted God but that she has offended the ‘crombie coats and lace mantillas, / Sunday best and church collections’ – she has offended public morality and her chief offence has been that her happiness has not been blessed by the church and condoned by society at large. This is the climax of the drama and encapsulates the enduring tension that exists between the rights of the individual in society and the pressures on that individual to conform to acceptable social mores, especially as it applies to sexual love. As Allan Gregory sees it, ‘The poem shows, with imaginative sympathy and ethical discernment, how Ita Cagney, a widow, lives in a new free union, unblessed by the church and how, because of this, she is feared and loathed by society’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).

Section 9
The final movement in the poem sees the neighbours advance in a concerted ‘rhythmic dance’ to lay siege to Ita’s cottage. The language is violent and carries connotations of evictions carried out in the neighbourhood by the landlord class in the not too distant past. We are told that ‘venom breaks in strident fragments / on the glass’ and ‘broken insults clatter on the slates’. The neighbours are described as a ‘pack’, a mob, who ‘skulk’ and disappear into the foothills in order to regroup and to muster their forces for a final onslaught – waiting ‘for the keep to fall’.  Ita, a virtual prisoner in her own home, protects ‘her sleeping citizen’ and imagines the final attack ‘on the speaking avenue of stones / she hears the infantry of eyes advance’. The Irish version gives us further food for thought and is even more redolent with echoes of recent Irish history.  In the Irish version the phrase ‘she guards her sleeping citizen’ is rendered as ‘í féin istigh go scanrach / ag cosaint a saighdiúrín’ (herself inside terrified / protecting her little soldier boy’).  Furthermore, the final line ‘she hears the infantry of eyes advance’ is translated as ‘ó shúile dearga na yeos’. This word ‘yeos’ refers to the yeomanry, the infamous English Redcoats, and carries very loaded associations in the Gaelic folk memory – they were as hated as the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries were in more recent history. The use of these words, especially in the Irish version of the poem emphasise and reinforce again the themes of social and historical oppression which are central to Hartnett’s thesis in this major statement of intent.

Conclusion
This poem was the first to be written by Hartnett during the transitional phase in the mid-seventies after he had set up home in Glendarragh. He realises that little has changed since he wrote ‘A Small Farm’ – all the ‘perversions of the soul’ are still to be found in Camas and Rooska and Sugar Hill and Carrickerry.  However, he does seem to hint in this poem that a better way is possible if we are brave enough to take it, like Ita Cagney, like Michael Hartnett himself, and like Mary McGee.

If we accept that Ita Cagney ‘retreat’ is a parallel for his own ‘retreat’ from English, then it seems that he is prophesying tough times ahead for himself and his new artistic direction. His ‘retreat’ will not be received well by either side. In earlier poems, he has depicted the old Gaelic world, represented by Brigid Halpin and Camas, as a perverse, pagan and ignorant place. He will have to be as strong-willed and stubborn as Ita Cagney has been in order to survive, but for Hartnett as for Ita embracing the life retreated to is worth this sacrifice.

The poem depicts Ita Cagney as the modern-day Saint Ita / Naomh Íde, and an able successor to his grandmother Bridgid Halpin, who, according to Hartnett, never adjusted to the ‘new’ Ireland which emerged in the twentieth century.  Hartnett looks towards the hills and the wooded slopes of the Mullach a Radharc Mountains for answers to an age-old torment which has been a blemish on the Irish psyche. And he sees that there is hope – Ita Cagney, a young widow, ‘retreats’ to a new life and though her union is unblessed by the church she is prepared to defend her decision despite the disapproval of society.  She becomes, as Kennelly suggests, ‘a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’.  In effect, she was, like Hartnett himself, a half-century at least before her time and she deserves to be feted as the patroness of a more modern and liberated Ireland which she longed for instinctually. Those instincts beckoned her to forsake her old life of convention and conformity and create a new beginning and a new world for herself where love reigned over hate, victorious.

Works Cited
Hartnett, Michael. The Retreat of Ita Cagney (Cúlú Íde). Dublin: Goldsmith Press, 1975.
Hartnett, Michael. Adharca Broic, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1978.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, ed Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2002.
Hartnett, Michael., ‘Why write in Irish?’, Irish Times, (26th August 1975).
Gillespie, Elgy., ‘Michael Hartnett’, The Irish Times, (5th March 1975),  p.10
Jordan, J., Review, Irish Independent (3rd. February 1979), p.7.
Kennelly, Brendan. reviewing Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, Volume I, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 15.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview, Metre Magazine, II (2001).
McDonogh, John and / Newman, Stephen. (eds), Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006.
Moynihan, Maurice., Speeches and Statements of Eamon de Valera, Dublin, 1980.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Mercier Press, Cork, 2012.

Other Works Referenced
Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger: A Poem, Cuala, 1942, Irish University Press, 1971.

I would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance given to me by my son, Don Hanley, a Hartnett scholar in his own right, in the preparation and editing of this blog post – one of the many welcome positives emerging from the COVID-19 Lockdown!

 

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Brigid Halpin’s cottage in Camas. The photograph was taken in 2017 before renovations began by the new owners. Photograph by Dermot Lynch, Limerick Leader.

Poems by my cousin, Bernie Crawford

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Between the Pages of the Limerick Leader

Sometimes, when she didn’t have the time
to write long letters, my mother would roll up
a copy of the Limerick Leader, wrap a brown
envelope around the middle and address it:
PO Box 10, Mapoteng, Kingdom of Lesotho.
Printed material was cheaper than letter post, much
cheaper than parcel post and my mother loved a bargain.
Afternoons after school I walked
to the tin-roofed post office, its sky-blue walls dulled
with red dust from gravel roads, and in the lazy sunshine
‘Me Vero passed my mail to me. Recognising
my mother’s hand on a newspaper, I’d be full
of excitement for what I’d find between the pages:
a white cotton shirt, mauve and pink sweet peas
from her garden, pressed between photos
of a supper social and the Ballylanders notes,
and once, a matching set of soft, silk underwear.
She told me afterwards she got the nice lady in Todds
to help her choose, but insisted on no underwire.
She didn’t want to give away our little secret.

 

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Leaving for Lesotho

My father gave his nod to the morning: he’d shaved,
wore the trousers of his second-best suit,
(was it already flapping a little loose?)
his braces over a portly shape,
a deep wine of summer shirt.
He wasn’t travelling to the airport, said he’d let
my mother go with me. Before we left I went
out to him. He was fixing netting over fruit bushes
to stop jackdaws from taking his harvest. It wasn’t
his way to say much but he offered me a fistful
of freshly picked juicy goose gobs. Our mouths
full of their redolent taste, we walked together
to the front steps to take photos. Later,
much later, I went over and over what
I could/should have said. Instead, I reached up
and flicked a piece of newspaper from his face,
must have nicked himself while shaving.
We posed on the top step, his hands
casually nesting my shoulders, there where
we recorded all our comings and goings.
He came as far as the gate, said he knew
I was well able to look after myself but still . . .
I turned to wave from the car. That was the last time
I saw him, standing under the bough of roses
wiping his face with the back of his hand.

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‘The Street’ – Ballylanders, Co. Limerick

House Work

Since January stole my tongue and tied it
into knots, the house has become a blank verse.
My hands repeat a cleaning rhyme in every stanza,
I pack metaphors into drawers, layer them
on shelves in the hot press among folded towels.
Sparkling saucepans, spilling stolen poetry, hang
from the freshly-painted bracket over the sink.
The old carpet is hoovered pink in borrowed time
and on the windowsill, the amaryllis blooms
its second bloom, overwatered with words.
In the kitchen, I serve page after page of tasty bites,
baked potatoes filled with buttery half-baked similes.
A lattice of deftly crafted pastry lines criss-cross
an apple pie and even the dog hasn’t escaped. Long
walks have compressed her into a revised version of herself.

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Clipped Life

They all said he wouldn’t last a hurry
what with Iris gone
But he knocked their wind ’n all
Two days after funeral
He was down allotment by ten
Took thermos with him
That became his way, bought paper
Meals-on-wheels every other day
Picked up some eggs at corner shop
Pension day he chanced two bob each way
I went with Mum and timed those visits
in cups of Lipton’s, dunked ginger nuts
He said George popped in too
Not regular, mind you
He still went down pub
early evening ’fore crowd came in
Half a bitter, back home
Watched telly an hour or so
The only time I heard him smile
was the day he told Mum and me
about the colour of purple-blue
flowers that came up between the cabbages
from bulbs he’d dug in
two days after Iris passed.

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Bringing Home the Cows

He struts
in the middle of the road
in the middle of the afternoon
His buttocks tight in blue denim
jiggle like g’s in the middle
of a giggle
He saunters his strut
all over the road
No one can pass
I shift from fifth to first
feast on his arrogant rear end
so cocksure
He flicks
an occasional switch
off a cow’s backside
Their full udders oscillate
like giant pendulums
and lull me
In my car
behind him
in the middle of the afternoon
on my way to Active Ageing Yoga
I’m thrumming full
of humming birds

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Impure Thoughts and Beethoven

Confession began
with an examination of conscience:
telling lies, five times,
fighting with her sisters,
stealing gobstoppers,
popping a clove rock under the tongue
when Moll Foley’s back was turned.
These were straightforward sins,
venial things that could be wiped clean
with a swipe of the clerical cloth.
It was the entertainment of impure thoughts
that swamped her. Her fingers played them
in the pocket of her winter coat,
as she dawdled to school
in November rain and January cold.
She tucked them up the puffed sleeves
of her summer dress,
and pushed them high on the swing
until they hovered in the air like dandelion wisps.
They entertained her.
But she must have entertained them too
because when she mastered Für Elise
on the piano they trembled to her tune.
Semi-quavers quivered her belly,
notes staccatoed down below,
and even more so when she glided forward
on the stool to reach the pedals.
Impure thoughts became interwoven
forever after with Beethoven.
Quiet Please
I don’t have one kind thought in my head
This is not the poem I intended to write
The gnawing teeth of a bushman saw
are cutting into my frontal lobe
I swallow down screams
The steady drip of commentary
to her companion pockmark my eardrum
I want to remove my silk sock
and stuff it in her mouth
I believed in freedom of speech
I scan the bus for another seat
Calculate travel time to Dublin
Plug my ears with a scratchy serviette
The words of her mosquito buzz penetrate
I clutch the rolled-up Irish Times in my hand
Brief moments of reprieve
Sweetness like Greek honey
trickling onto a parched palette
Eyes at rest in a dark room
after the dazzle of fireworks
And then it starts again
I look up misophonia on my iPhone
Strong, negative feelings to trigger sounds
Not to be confused with Hyperacusis
An increased negativity to certain frequencies
For me she strikes the wrong note
again and again. Two hours into the journey
the motion of the bus lulls her to a sporadic silence
I am newly disappointed when she pauses
so thoroughly am I wallowing in her lack of modulation.

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Bernie Crawford, originally from Ballylanders, County Limerick now lives in Galway and in 2019 was awarded a bursary by Galway County Council to work on her first collection. Her poetry has been published widely in journals including Poetry Ireland Review, the North magazine, and Mslexia. A selection of her poetry is featured in The Blue Nib Chapbook 3. She is on the editorial board of the poetry magazine Skylight 47.

‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ by Jennifer Johnston

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THE HISTORICAL AND LITERARY BACKGROUND

This novella was published in 1974 and is set at the time of the First World War. It depicts the culture of the Big House before its collapse as a result of the war and the 1916 Rising. The occupants of the Big House are sheltered from the reality of the world outside. They continue to live an ordered and leisurely life, which is only occasionally interrupted by distasteful reports of war injuries. As more and more local men enlist in the forces and many are killed or maimed, the war slowly becomes a reality for the family. When Alec enlists, this brings the war right into their home, and they are forced to acknowledge its existence.

Before he joined the British forces, Jerry had been involved in Republican activities in the local area, and this was his main reason for joining. He planned to bring back knowledge of fighting methods to use to good effect in fighting for a free Ireland. The location of the novel changes. It is now set in France in the heat of battle. Even though the hail of gunfire and the agonised screams of the wounded are always present, the novel focuses primarily on human emotions and man’s capacity to endure war.

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THE STORY

This is a novel about friendship based on a young man’s experience in the First World War. Alec Moore is an only child from an Anglo-Irish family in Wicklow. There is a tense atmosphere in the home because Alec’s parents are estranged from each other. The boy from the Big House befriends Jerry Crowe, a local boy from a working-class background, and a close friendship develops between them.

As they grow older and the war intensifies, both men enlist in the British Forces for very different reasons and are sent to fight in France. Their friendship continues under the disapproving eye of Major Glendinning who forbids his officers to associate with junior soldiers.

Jerry deserts the army temporarily to search for his father who had gone missing on the battlefield. On his return, he is sentenced to death as an example to other soldiers who may be considering desertion. Alec, as an officer, is ordered to instruct the firing squad or face the same fate himself for refusing to obey orders.

The men exchange farewells and to avoid prolonging the agony, Alec kills Jerry in his room. He is sentenced to death for defying authority and the novel ends with Alec writing while calmly awaiting death.

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THEMES AND ISSUES

1. Love versus Hatred
2. Friendship (Relationships)
3. War

Love versus Hatred  In the novel How Many Miles to Babylon? Jennifer Johnston explores the theme of love versus hatred in an interesting way. Alec Moore must experience a horrific test of love in the course of the novel.  He narrates his tragic tale of a loveless childhood, which left him emotionally scarred. His mother is cruel, manipulative and full of hatred for her husband whom she regards as weak.

From childhood, Alec was goaded by his beautiful mother, who is portrayed as being without nurturing or loving instincts. Mrs Moore’s physical beauty is contrasted with her vindictive personality. Her actions, which are swift and dismissive, suggest her passionless nature. Despite keeping a beautiful house hers is not a home where real love and affection are displayed: ‘The dining-room in the daytime was unwelcoming. It faced north and that cold light lay on the walls and furniture without kindness’.

Alec’s closest experience of love for his mother is related very early in the novel when he describes her daily ritual of strolling down the gravelled path towards the lake to feed the swans: ‘I heard her call once to them in a voice so unlike her own recognisable voice that for a moment I felt a glow of love for her’. This rather ironic revelation indicates her unloving attitude towards her son. It appears as though she loves the perfection of the swans, their separateness from her and their uncomplicated, instinctive existence.

For her, human relationships are meaningless unless she can gain some kind of power or victory from such intimacy. She uses her allure, the pretence of love, to secure what she desires while underneath she seethes with rage. He concludes that he ‘thinks’ his mother loved him but not in a way that he could understand.

Alicia Moore also disregards her husband’s feelings by constantly insulting him even in front of Alec; ‘I have no intention of remaining alone in this house with you. I have already said that. Made myself quite clear, I thought’. When she discovers the friendship between Alec and Jerry Crowe she moves swiftly to destroy it. Not only is she averse to the mixing of the classes but she is also suspicious and aggrieved at the bond which exists between the boys. Her refusal to allow Alec to go away to school is not the result of her grief at their separation but because she would be left alone with a husband she detests. She uses her son in a most despicable way, as a buffer between herself and her husband. She brings her son to Europe not for the love of learning but as a means of dealing with his unsuitable friendship with Jerry.

Friendship  Alec feels real affection for his father. He realises that his mother abuses his father but he is helpless to prevent it. It has to be acknowledged that Alec’s father is partly responsible for the maltreatment he receives. He misjudges Alicia, only realising his mistake when it is too late to rectify it. It is interesting to note that Mr Moore deteriorates in the absence of his son. When Alec returns after four months in Europe, he notices a change in his father, ‘My father had failed a little during our absence … but he seemed a smaller man than I had remembered’. It is also interesting to note the way that Frederick’s defective eyesight is highlighted in the novel – we deduce from this that he lacks the insight necessary to recognise true love and he suffers grievously for this defect.

The friendship which develops between Alec and Jerry is the only real love and affection which Alec experiences. Jerry makes Alec’s dreary life more bearable with his sense of fun, adventure and good humour. He mimics and makes fun of Alec’s education and he ‘sends up’ the Anglo-Irish ‘set’. However, he shares the same sad home life as Alec. His father is distant and his mother is unloving and apparently greedy for money: ‘She wants me to join the army … follow me, dad. Then she’d have two envelopes arriving. On the pig’s bloody back.’.

The boys’ friendship is firmly fixed not only because of their sad home lives but also because of their passion for horses and nature. Both Alec and Jerry are capable horsemen. They plan to somehow overcome their class barriers to breed and train horses together.

War  The images of hatred in the novel revolve around references to the First World War and the Irish Nationalist cause. From the earliest moments in the novel, the impending war in Europe forms the backdrop to the feuding husband and wife. It is possible to argue that the hatred between Alicia and Frederick Moore is used as a compressed image of the hatred between the allied and enemy forces in the war.

The inferences to madness in the novel serve the same moral function as the images of war. They make the reader understand that love is the essential element to the survival of the world because without it there is only chaos, cruelty and hatred. Alec’s decision to go to war is partly a consequence of his mother’s hateful behaviour, but the insanity of the war, the death and maiming, proves that it too is a destructive human force.

Alec’s relationship with his father is affected by the war. Alec’s decision to become a soldier leaves his father bereft of his only source of love. Their parting scene in the novel, though it seems superficial, is actually heart-rending. Given the period in which the novel is set and the class to which they belong, Alec and his father do not show the intensity of their feelings for each other but it is evident in Frederick’s actions and his son’s private reflections. Alec accepts the money which his father gives him, understanding it as a gesture of love: ‘Don’t let yourself go short. Anything you want’. Similarly, the gold watch which the father gives the son is used metaphorically, as though it represents his beating heart, that somehow if Alec kept his watch close to him it would protect him from danger, give him comfort by reminding him of his father: ‘It was warm in my hand with the warmth of his body. I put it into my pocket with the money’.

Alec’s mother sees his decision to become a soldier as a personal triumph. Having goaded him earlier about his cowardice, she can now ‘enjoy’ and ‘suffer’ the sympathy of her peers about giving a son to the war effort. Both Jerry and Alec ridicule their mothers for their hypocritical show of grief as they go to war. Jerry’s reference to ‘candles and novenas’ and ‘bending the ear of God with decades of the rosary’, illustrate his sense of alienation from his mother. Alec satirises Alicia for her insensitivity towards him: ‘Mine played Chopin triumphantly on the piano the moment I left the room’.

The description of the war in the novel evokes a sense of horror in the reader. The trenches which Alec describes are a physical representation for the reader of humankind without the redemptive power of love. It is like descending into the hell which he describes so well in the course of the novel.

We can plot the gradual degeneration of Alec’s physical condition over the course of the war. However, Alec’s love for his friend remains intact despite the class barriers between ranks in the army. Alec embraces the friendship of Jerry, caring for his welfare and trying to buffer some of the abuse hurled at him by the officers.

When Major Glendinning reprimands Alec for his friendship with Jerry, arguing that ‘strict impersonal discipline’ must be maintained between the men, he is actually arguing that there is no place for sentiment (or love) in the army. It seems that Alec and Jerry should become insensitive to feeling and the little kindnesses which make life bearable. Yet despite this ultimatum, Alec continues to befriend Jerry and their smallest gestures of help to each other indicate the pointlessness of the war which rages around them.

The murder of the ‘Gloucester’s regiment’ soldier by Glendinning is carried out with precision and dispassion. This murder illustrates the breakdown of the inherent moral code in humanity. After the murder, Glendinning never once shows remorse or disgust for his act. His dispassionate nature is illustrated again when Alec requests leave for Jerry to find his father, who was reported missing in action: ‘The answer is no. Crowe goes to the front again tomorrow with the rest of his squalid friends.’

Jerry also abides by his sense of filial duty and wants to find his father, ‘if he’s wounded maybe there’d be something I could do for him’. Jerry’s compassion for his father is contrasted with a very good description of the barbarity at the front.

Friendship  The reunion between Jerry and Alec near the end of the novel is very moving. This poignancy is more effective because the reader of the novel suspects that the reunion will be short-lived:

He threw an arm across my shoulders and we lay in silence. My warmth was spreading through him, but the hand that clasped the back of my neck was still cold as a stone fresh from the sea.

When Jerry is found he is put into the detention camp where Alec visits him to carry out the greatest test to their friendship and love. They reminisce about their youthful dreams and ambitions. Jerry confesses for the last time that he loves his country above his king. It seems an odd thing to say before death but it is important to remember its symbolic significance. For Jerry, his country encompasses more than the nationalist cause, more than the land itself; it reflects his belief about the brutality of war, the uselessness of it. When Alec pulls the trigger he has committed no gross act of murder but has saved his friend from a shameful death by firing squad: ‘They will never understand. So I say nothing’.

Without Jerry, there is no love in Alec’s life and he becomes indifferent to everything and everyone and he effectively withdraws from life after Jerry’s death.

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LITERARY GENRE

This novel fits into the category of social realism. It is a story which is extremely true to life. Johnston does not over-exaggerate her plot or stretch it beyond the bounds of credibility. It is a novel based firmly in an actual time and place in history. Her main characters belong to clearly defined social backgrounds, the Anglo Irish gentry and the Catholic underclass of Ireland in the early 1900s. Both men are accurately drawn as they each possess certain qualities of their respective backgrounds. The bigotries which attempt to divide them both at home and on the battlefield are all too real in the novel.

All of the events are quite plausible, such as when the men escape briefly on horseback to have a good time and avoid the reality of the trenches, or when the Major ends a man’s suffering because it may have a negative effect on his men. Also, Jerry’s escape to search for his father is believable and his death sentence fits in all too well with the personality of Major Glendinning. It is, therefore, a book rooted in reality.

THE STRUCTURE OF THE NOVEL
This novel is written in the form of a first-person narrative. At all times the reader shares Alec’s view on life and his interpretation of the things which occur to him or around him. In many respects, the novel takes on the form of an autobiography. It could also be said to be a confessional work. It begins with an officer alone in his room, about to face death by firing squad and he is writing his last thoughts. Therefore, the novel is told in flashback.

He begins by reflecting on his life, ‘As a child I was alone’, and the story develops as the officer goes back over his past as a child, his life as a man in the trenches and the events which led up to his imminent death. The novel is presented strictly in chronological order with only a few slight references to the past, as Jerry and Alec at times of depression or crisis look back longingly to the good times they spent together in the Irish countryside. It is divided into two distinct settings: Ireland and France. It ends with Alec in captivity beginning to write his last words, so that the novel has come full circle and ends as it began, ‘So I sit and wait and write’. It is a simply structured but completely effective novel with a plot that is uncomplicated and direct.

THE STYLE OF THE NOVEL
Jennifer Johnston’s use of language is striking. She does not waste words on rambling descriptions nor does she overuse images for exaggerated effect. This makes her images all the more memorable when she does use them. Clarity is her main strength. She describes her characters and the action in the plot in a concise condensed manner.

Many of her descriptions are based in nature:

‘Memories slide up to the surface of the mud, like weeds to the surface of the sea, once you begin to stir the depths where every word, every gesture, every sigh, lies hidden.’

‘Rain was in the air. The rushes bowed to her as a little rippling wind stirred through them. A thousand green pikemen bowing.’

‘The swans would allow themselves to drift on the wind like huge crumpled pieces of paper hurled up into the sky.’

She also conveys the desolation of the Irish landscape very well:

‘The lake was in one of its black moods. It heaved uncomfortably and its blackness was broken from time to time by tiny figures of white, mistakes.’

The loneliness of the characters who inhabited that desolate landscape and the emptiness of the family atmosphere is also beautifully expressed:

‘Their words rolled past me up and down the polished length of the table. Their conversations were always the same, like some terrible game, except that unlike normal games, the winner was always the same. They never raised their voices, the words dropped malevolent and cool from their well-bred mouths.’

The emptiness of the Irish landscape and the emptiness of the inhabitants of the Big House are matched by the desolation of the war fields. The desolate landscape of Flanders is reflected in the ‘leaden rain which fell continuously’ or ‘The wind was blowing straight in our faces and the drops were like a million needles puncturing our skin.’

Johnston introduces a vivid comparison when she introduces war for the first time. As the men trained on the shores of Belfast Lough, ‘It was like some mad children’s game, except that the rules had to be taken seriously.’ The mental torture which the men were subjected to was brought out in the description of the man screaming:

‘Out beyond the wire, a man was screaming. Not a prolonged scream, it rose and fell, faded, deteriorated into a babbling from time to time and then occasionally there was silence. During the silence you could never forget the scream, only wait for it to start again. The men hated the sound as much as I. You could see the hate on their faces.’

Johnston also uses symbols to good effect in the novel. At intervals in the book, the swan is used as a symbol of loyalty and eternal friendship. Alec and Jerry share a common love and respect for swans as they begin to know each other. Swans reappear in Flanders, both literally and metaphorically. At times of crisis as the men struggle to endure the hardship of the war, they remember the swans in the few rare glimpses the reader gets of the past. At the end of the novel, as Alec leads his men to a new location, two swans fly overhead and a man kills one for fun, to Alec’s horror. This symbolises the imminent death of Jerry as the bond of friendship between him and Alec is about to be severed.

Another literary device favoured by Johnston is the use of rhyme and poetry at crucial moments. The title of the novel is taken from a well-known children’s rhyme:

How many miles to Babylon?
Four score and ten, sir
Will I get there by candlelight?
Yes and back again sir.

This was a rhyme that Alec learned innocently as a child and it comes back to haunt him as an adult. It is referred to three times in the early part of the book and again just as Alec leaves for the war: ‘Will I get there by candlelight?’ This reflects Alec’s uncertainty as he heads off into the unknown, to some ‘Babylonic’ place, unsure if he will ever return again.

Lines of poetry are sprinkled through the novel when Alec is at his most philosophical: ‘I was being troubled by the poetry of Mr Yeats’. As children, Alec introduces Jerry to Yeats on the shore of the lake:

Rose of all roses, Rose of all the world
And heard ring
The bell that calls us on; the sweet far thing.

In contrast to this, Yeats reappears in a very different situation. A line of Yeats’ slips out involuntarily as Alec sees a man writhing in agony on the battlefield:

Far off and secret and inviolate Rose

Here he is experiencing his strongest emotional test and it is significant that he turns to Yeats for help. There are echoes of Yeats’ work in many places in the novel, for example, Alec’s statement at the very beginning of the novel: ‘I am committed to no cause. I love no living person.’ This reminiscent of Yeats’ poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’. Jerry also compares Alec’s mother to Helen of Troy, a striking beauty often admired and featured by Yeats in his work.

While Alec quotes the poetry of Yeats, Jerry uses a different kind of rhyme to show his dedication to the Republican cause:

Now father bless me and let me go
To die if God has ordered so.

This emphasises some of the differences between the two men.

Humour is sparse in the novel and when used it is often grim. It is evident on the morning when Alec leaves for the war and it is used by the soldiers at moments of stress to lighten their moods.

Dialogue is used sparingly and it is often loaded with inferences particularly in the relationship between Alec and his parents. The absence of words only illustrates the lack of communication within the family. Dialogue is not favoured by Major Glendinning who uses short, sharp sentences. These have the primary function of giving orders and he forbids discussion as much as possible.

Johnston’s style of writing is compact yet lucid. It is extremely effective as it invites the reader to fill in the gaps and particularly to infer meaning from the electric silences which permeate the story.

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CULTURAL CONTEXT

While Alec and Jerry have lived in close proximity to each other in Ireland there is a strong contrast between their backgrounds. Alec is the only child of an aristocratic couple whose values and beliefs differ significantly from those of the Catholic people of the time. The socials division between both groups was strong yet Alec and Jerry chose to ignore it. Alec’s mother forbade him to see Jerry and his father, for once, agreed with her that it was an unsatisfactory relationship:

‘It is a sad fact, boy, that one has to accept young. Yes, young. The responsibilities and limitations of the class into which you are born. They have to be accepted. But then look at all the advantages. Once you accept the advantages, then the rest follows. Chaos can set in so easily.’

Both boys were also educated differently. Alec had the doubtful pleasure of his own tutor, Mr Bingham, and a piano teacher. This meant that Alec never mixed with other boys of his own age as a child and therefore his friendship with Jerry was particularly important for him. Jerry, on the other hand, went to an ordinary school but had to leave early to find work. Alec naively suggested that Jerry could work in his father’s stables, but Jerry knew that this would end their friendship. Their respective cultural backgrounds would raise innumerable barriers between them: ‘Why is neither here not there. Your lot would care. My lot too if it came to it. One’s as bad as the other.’ Alec realises the truth of Jerry’s statement:

Yes, I knew they would care. He was right. My mother would purse up with disapproval, her voice rise alarmingly as it sometimes did when she spoke to my father.

Both men enlisted in the army for different reasons. Alec did so to escape from a disintegrating family structure, driven by the knowledge that he was not his father’s son. This was a damaging experience for him and now that the blood ties had been broken and he was dispossessed both emotionally and financially, he saw little hope for a positive future. He felt a strong desire to get away from his parents and war offered him an opportunity. Alec cut himself off and drifted into war in the hope of blocking out thoughts of reality.

Jerry had been involved in Republican activities and this was his main reason for joining. He planned to use his knowledge of fighting to fight for a free Ireland on his return. He tells Alec on the night before they leave that he also needs the money: ‘Or maybe the thought of all those shiny buttons appeals to me’. Whatever his reasons, Jerry cares little for the cause he will be fighting for, as his own personal needs are a priority.

On the battlefield itself, the cultural background of the soldiers is unimportant when men are facing a life and death crisis, yet ironically the distinction between gentry and peasantry is maintained by the emphasis on army rank. It is a strange paradox: background is irrelevant yet is of ultimate importance. Men cling to the importance of rank as it gives them a feeling of stability when everything else is crumbling around them. Alec and Jerry disregard this as the war intensifies.

Culturally, while there are many differences between them, Alec and Jerry are alike in that neither of them is attempting to be a hero who will come back decked with glory, as Alec’s mother would certainly like him to be. Neither of them is driven by a strong desire to win the war for the people. Both of them are using the war as an opportunity to resolve or escape painful issues in their own lives.

Another cultural contrast made by Johnston is to highlight the differences between the Irish and English soldiers. There was a certain amount of lighthearted banter between Alec, Jerry and Bennet when they were out on horses:

‘Don’t be such a damned English snob’ or ‘Irish sentiment creeping in. Perspective is needed. You damned Celts have none. It’s no wonder we don’t think you’re fit to rule yourselves.’

Major Glendinning also had difficulty with the fact that he had Irish soldiers to deal with and in a moment of anger declared to Alec: ‘I never asked for a bunch of damn bog Irish’.

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Concluding Comments

How Many Miles to Babylon? is not a novel solely about war.  Although World War I is in the background, Johnston also touches upon Irish history, in particular the tensions between the Irish and the British. Through Jerry’s revolutionary leanings and the harsh comments about the Irish made by Major Glendinning, Johnston hints at the coming battle for Irish independence.

Alec, the narrator, is a very passive character for most of the book. Just like his father, he submits to his mother’s every demand. When she told him that he has to go to war, he protests that he has no desire to fight or be killed, but he ends up doing what she expects of him anyway.    In many ways the novel is a tragedy of obedience: Alec, the isolated only-child in an Anglo-Irish big house, is a pawn in his parent’s pathological relationship. “Oh, you’ll go, my boy,” his fatalist father tells him. “You’re a coward, so you’ll go.”   In contrast, Jerry is more of a free spirit, making his own decision to go to war and speaking out when he should keep his mouth shut. With Alec as narrator, the book moves a bit slowly, possibly because I didn’t have any strong feelings for him until the very end. Still, there’s a beauty to Johnston’s prose that kept me glued to the page.

How Many Miles to Babylon? is one of those novels that hit you hard at the end.  The ending says so much about the characters, and it was both a satisfying end to the journey and one that left me wanting to know what happened next. Johnston surprised me and I’ll certainly be thinking about this book for a while. Amazingly, there are only two deaths described in the novella, yet, for me, it remains a stark depiction of devastation.

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