The Etymology of ‘Maiden Street’ in Newcastle West

 

 

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Maiden Street with ‘its necklace of sandpits’ as seen in one of Patrick J. O’Connor’s beautiful maps of Newcastle West (O’Connor: p43).

Maiden Street is the longest and oldest street in Newcastle West.  Sean Kelly, its resident historian, says that it was built piecemeal on the edge of an ancient glacial moraine.  This moraine benefited the town and there were at least three working sand pits in production at one time along the street.  Sean Kelly states that ‘It was a street renowned for its trades of all kinds; shoemaking and repair; tailoring and dressmaking; printing; baking; coopers; tinsmiths; blacksmiths; and harness-makers to name a few.’ Patrick J. O’Connor who has also written eloquently about the street confirms this.  Speaking of the new proprietors who bought out their leases during the sale of the town in 1910 he says that ‘there was colour aplenty in Maiden Street’.  These included Michael ‘Boss’ Culhane who traded in ‘hides, skins, feathers and eggs’!  He also mentions George Latchford who had launched a family business circa 1874 which later developed into the well-known bakery and cinema.  This family business thrived well into the twentieth century under the stewardship of his sons Jackie, Paddy and Willie.

Poverty was rife in Maiden Street – particularly Lower Maiden Street – and Michael Hartnett makes constant reference to this fact in both his prose and poetry:

We rented a mansion down in lower Maiden Street,

Legsa Murphy our landlord, three shillings a week,

the walls were mud and the roof it did leak

and our mice nearly died of starvation.

The etymology of the street name has always posed problems.  Again Sean Kelly says that there is no mention of the street name among the earliest known street names going back to 1584-6, although it was in existence by then, ‘what is clear is the street’s graceful, curvilinear form adorning the earliest available town plan, the Moland Survey of 1709’.  Patrick O’Connor suggests that the street name may be derived ‘from the medieval cult of Mariology (Sráid na Maighdine Mhuire)’ (O’Connor:56).

The lower part of the street was sometimes known as Dock Road, in accord with the low status attributed to it.    The gardens of the houses on the south side abutted on to a track known locally as ‘the back of the Docks’.  At intervals, there were ingresses with steps leading down to the River Arra, where the local women came to do their laundry.

Sean Kelly waxes lyrical about this place: ‘Lengthy, capacious and capricious, Maiden Street was – according to the punchline of a popular rhyme – a favoured place for lodgers’.  And while the name of the street remains an enduring enigma, its lower appendage, the Coole (cúil, from the Irish meaning corner or nook) poses no interpretative problem whatever. Sean Kelly himself often claims to belong to Middle Maiden Street and from the records, there is evidence of these subtle divisions as far back as 1776.  The street had a distinct Upper, Middle and Lower division and was, in effect, a microcosm of the nuanced social divisions also evident elsewhere in the town!

Hartnett, the street’s very own Poet Laureate pokes further fun at the perceived reputation of the street when he writes in the Maiden Street Ballad:

Tis said that in Church Street no church ever stood,

and to walk up through Bishop Street no bishop would,

and tis said about Maiden Street that maidenhood

            was as rare as an asses pullover.

In his Preface to that famous ballad, Hartnett says that ‘Everyone has a Maiden Street.  It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics: also a street of hot summers, of hop-scotch and marbles: in short the street of youth’.  However, he also adds a disclaimer saying that ‘Maiden Street was no Tír na nÓg’ and we should not forget that the street was but a ‘memory distorted by time in the minds of all who lived there’.  Generations to come will continue to show their gratitude to the poet for his wonderful evocation of the street of his childhood, the nearest Newcastle West will ever come to having its own Steinbeck or, indeed, its own Cannery Row!  As he said himself: ‘Ballads about places however bad they may be, unite a community and give it a sense of identity’.

In his shorter poem, Maiden Street (1967), there is a reference to the ‘small voices on the golden road’ and later he says about the days of his childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’.  This may give us some clues as to the etymology of the name originally given to the street.  Maiden Street runs west to east, so the morning sun shines up the street and so a young poet’s imagination turns it into his very own ‘yellow brick road’.  Many of those family names, synonymous with the street, who bought out their leases in 1910 still have links to the town to this day: Reidy’s, Houlihans, Gormans, Morrisons, Mullanes, Byrnes, Aherns, Nashs, Murphys, Fitzgeralds, Bakers, Hartnetts, Quins, Healys, Hartes, Massys, Moones…..

Hartnett says that the street finally ‘gave up the ghost’ in September 1951 when most of the inhabitants were rehoused in one of the 60 new houses in Assumpta Park.  Hartnett describes the operation epically in the Maiden Street Ballad – likening it to the hazardous journey of the Israelites escaping from Egypt to the Promised Land!

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The old street it finally gave up the ghost,

and most of the homes there they got the death-blow

when most of the people were tempted to go

and move to the Hill’s brand new houses.

The moving it started quite soon after dark

and the handcars and wheelbars pushed off to the Park

and some of the asscars were like Noah’s Ark

with livestock and children and spouses.

 

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For we all took our furniture there when we moved,

our flowerbags and teachests and threelegged stools

and stowaway mice ahide in our boots –

and jamcrocks in good working order.

And our fleas followed after, our own local strain –

they said “We’ll stand by ye whatever the pain,

“for our fathers drew life from yere fathers’ veins”

“and blood it is thicker than water”!

 

For many, this transition was effortless and opened up a whole new vista while for others the change of location was a step too far and they found it very difficult to settle in their new environs.  Again Hartnett puts this very colourfully:

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In nineteen-fifty one people weren’t too smart:

in spite of the toilets they pissed out the back,

washed feet in the lavatory, put coal in the bath

and kept the odd pig in the garden.

They burnt the bannisters for to make fires

and pumped up the Primus for the kettle to boil,

turned on all the taps, left the lights on all night – 

but these antics I’m sure you will pardon.

Following their move to the Park residents soon found that there was no ready access back down to Maiden Street other than across often wet fields and down through Musgroves and Gorman’s sandpits.  Eventually, after much lobbying of local Councillors, the Mass Path and Mass Steps were constructed. As Patrick O’Connor says, their arrival ‘opened up a vital line of communication to town’.  It is interesting that this vital piece of infrastructure was ostensibly procured under the pretext of providing ready access to the church, hence their name, but many would argue that these steps were more often used to visit other old haunts such as Latchfords and The Siver Dollar!

However, as a final footnote, or maybe to add fuel to fire, and totally in keeping with his mischievous nature, Michael Hartnett, in his ‘scholarly’ notes to the Maiden Street Ballad, has his own theory about the etymology of the street’s name.  He theorises – and only he would get away with this scurrilous suggestion – that  ‘the street was originally called Midden Street’!

Maiden Street (2)
Detail from the same map as above showing Assumpta Park and the Mass Path in relation to Maiden Street and the church (O’Connor: p43).

 

Works Cited

Hartnett, Michael. The Maiden Street Ballad, The Observer Press, 1980.

O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.  Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.

 

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‘My November Guest’ by Robert Frost

My November Guest (2)

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walks the sodden pasture lane.

 

Her pleasure will not let me stay.

She talks and I am fain to list:

She’s glad the birds are gone away,

She’s glad her simple worsted grey

Is silver now with clinging mist.

 

The desolate, deserted trees,

The faded earth, the heavy sky,

The beauties she so truly sees,

She thinks I have no eye for these,

And vexes me for reason why.

 

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

Commentary

This poem, “My November Guest”,  is taken from A Boy’s Will, the first published volume of Frost’s poetry (1913). This is among the best of Robert Frost’s poems where he speaks of the Fall in rural New Hampshire.

The poet at some point of time must have experienced extreme pain and sorrow in the month of November. There is an air of familiarity created by the poet and he and his guest have walked and talked along the ‘sodden pasture lane’.   Sorrow is personified as a woman – a friend, companion, and she is considered a regular visitor and ‘a guest’ in the poem.  He is very comfortable in her company and doesn’t wish to be separated from her – ‘She talks and I am fain to list’.  She is dressed for the weather – that time of year in New England before the first snows of winter – wearing ‘simple worsted grey’.

As the poem commences, Sorrow is personified as a woman and someone whom the poet dearly loves.  In the very first line, “My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,” marks the peak of the poet’s togetherness with sorrow.

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;

Walking with the poet, she (Sorrow) speaks of the beautiful Autumn days, finds ecstasy in the withered trees, and the autumnal browns! Fall is a season marked with desolate earth, deserted trees, the sodden pasture lane and the departure of the birds. The poet’s Sorrow finds beauty in the Autumn days. She reprimands the poet for not being able to experience the joy in Autumn and asks for an explanation. The phrase “Simple worsted grey is silver now with clinging mist” reflects the mood of the poem, the coexistence of joy and sorrow.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise

In the first three stanzas the poet is forced to listen to his ‘guest’ extol the virtues of Autumn, ‘the dark days of autumn rain’ and she seems convinced that he has ‘no eye for’ the beauty that surrounds him at this time of year.  Those of us familiar with the poetry of Frost know this to be false and we know that he does appreciate these beauties.  However, the constant repetition of ‘She’ creates a sense of easy familiarity with his guest, ‘She walks’, ‘She talks’, ‘She thinks, ‘She’s glad’ and, therefore,  out of respect or deference, he doesn’t make any effort to correct his companion, for ‘they are better for her praise’.  In actual fact, it was not just yesterday that he discovered this fact, he has known it for many a long day:

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

The poem is lucid, characterized by a tone which is musical – is written in iambic tetrameter. The poem expresses the poet’s love for November days in an extremely original way. The poet seems to happily embrace the November Guest (Sorrow) and seems to enjoy her company.  The pictorial imagery in the poem is easy, vivid, simple, and rich.

The intriguing question here is, of course, who, if anyone, is being referred to when he speaks of ‘My Sorrow’?   Maybe ‘Sorrow’ represents someone close to him, his wife perhaps, who despite her closeness to him fails to recognise that he too finds November beautiful.  In a famous letter written by Frost in 1939 to his daughter, Lesley, he refers to a letter written by his wife Elinor to their children:

“My, my, what sorrow runs through all she wrote to you children.  No wonder something of it overcasts my poetry if read aright.  No matter how humorous I am, I am sad.  I am a jester about sorrow.  She coloured my thinking from the first just as at the last she troubled my politics.  It was no loss but a gain of course.  She was not as original as me in thought but she dominated my art with the power of her character and nature” (Latham : 397-8).

If we are to assume – and this is dangerous ground – that the speaker is Frost himself then we can sieve through biographical details for clues as to the identity of this Sorrow.  Any such survey, however, will show that Frost’s personal life was plagued by grief and sorrow and loss.  By the time this poem was published in 1913 Frost had buried two of his children: his son Elliot died of cholera in 1900 aged four and his daughter Elinor Bettina died just three days after her birth in 1907.  His mother who had cancer had also passed away – co-incidentally in November 1900!  Maybe it is one of these losses that caused Frost such sorrow?

However, Frost’s life, even after the publication of A Boy’s Will in 1913, continued to be plagued with sorrow and heartache. In 1920, he had to commit his younger sister Jeanie to a mental hospital, where she died nine years later. Mental illness apparently ran in Frost’s family, as both he and his mother suffered from depression, and his daughter Irma was committed to a mental hospital in 1947. Frost’s wife, Elinor, also experienced bouts of depression.   She also suffered from heart problems throughout her life.  She developed breast cancer in 1937 and eventually died of heart failure in 1938.  His son Carol, born in 1902, committed suicide in 1940.

In my view, it is highly unlikely that any of these tragic biographical events formed the basis for this poem – although the loss of his mother in November 1900 may indeed have been a catalyst.  While this literary detective work may have some foundation, I am more inclined to believe that the ‘Sorrow’ in question here may be simply a melancholic mood that comes over the poet during the long month of November, a sense of resignation that Winter is at last upon him.  He tells us that Sorrow’s visit is only a temporary visitation and that it is hugely influenced by the bleakness of nature and the greyness of the weather.  However, the poet owns this blue mood that comes over him during November.  He says it’s ‘My Sorrow’ and it has come to visit annually during November. Indeed, November and Thanksgiving are synonymous and Frost sees the bright side here:  Sorrow teaches him how to appreciate Nature at this time of the year and he is a willing student.

The poem is living proof of that old saying, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and that at this time of year these ‘dark days’ hold their own beauty: ‘the withered tree’, ‘the sodden pasture’, ‘the clinging mist’ evoke a powerful and distinctive feeling or emotional memory in the poet.  Even his ‘Guest’ chides him that he cannot see that even in November every cloud has a silver lining!

Frost’s world, the world we perceive in his poetry, is largely a rural world, a world of nature and trees, and soil, and pasture.  His poetry, like that of Kavanagh, Heaney, and others, recreates a local and familiar landscape in which Frost, as a poet and as a person, is in communion.  We sense that he knows nature’s spaces.  We believe that his is a voice of integrity that invites us into fields and pastures and along the brooks of New England.  And we occasionally feel that along the way, we may even discover something of Frost himself.

Works Cited

Latham, Edward, ed., Robert Frost: A Biography, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Wikipedia page on Robert Frost

 “My November Guest”,  is taken from A Boy’s Will, the first published volume of Frost’s poetry (1913).  Here it is read by the poet himself.

FURTHER READING:

For a more detailed analysis of Robert Frost’s poetry see here

For commentary on ‘Spring Pool’ by Robert Frost check here

For commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost check here

Check out some reflections on Robert Frost’s ‘The Road not Taken’ here

To Kill a Mockingbird – Characters, Themes, and Motifs

 

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To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern reinterpretation of the old fable The Emperor Has No Clothes.  We are given a glimpse of modern American society through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl called Scout.  Even she can see the injustice and yet the adults fail to see the criminal miscarriage of justice and toxic levels of racial prejudice that lie at the heart of the novel.

The novel is a classic bildungsroman where Scout, the central character and narrator, is taken from a state of innocence and brought to a state of enlightenment as a result of a series of misadventures that are recounted in the novel.  A classic bildungsroman forces the young character at its heart to grow up and face harsh adult realities long before he or she should normally have to cope with life’s harsh lessons.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is, therefore, a novel that deceives the reader with its apparent simplicity.  Beneath the surface, however, there exist a number of complex and very important themes and motifs.  Rather than its being simply a novel that explores and exploits the topic of racial prejudice in a small town in the Deep South, it makes Maycomb, Alabama, a microcosm of American society in the 1930’s.

I want to focus for a little while on the setting of both of Harper Lee’s novels, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.  It is clear to me that the real-life Monroeville, Alabama of her youth becomes the fictional Maycomb, Alabama of her novels.  She tells us that one went to Maycomb, ‘to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his soul saved, his mules vetted’.  She describes it as an isolated place, in effect it is an Everyplace – the town, ‘had remained the same for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberland’.  It is, in effect, a remote backwater bypassed by progress, the perfect playground of her youth, and the perfect cauldron for change.

In Go Set a Watchman she says that Maycomb County is, ‘a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements’, it is, ‘so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilection over the past ninety years, still voted Republican.’  It is so remote, ‘no trains went there’.  In fact Maycomb Junction, ‘a courtesy title’, was located in Abbott County twenty miles away!  However, she tells us that the ‘bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government  had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.’  However, Lee tells us that few took advantage of this opportunity!  Then in one of those Harper Lee epiphany moments, one of those lightning bolts she releases now and then, she perceptively describes her hometown as a place where, ‘If you did not want much, there was plenty.’

In To Kill a Mockingbird she continues in the same rich vein.  Maycomb is, ‘a tired old town’. People moved slowly, ‘they ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything’.  She tells us that, ‘There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’.

To Kill a Mockingbird is dominated by two very contrasting characters and our first task is to explore in some detail the part played by Scout and Atticus in conveying the difficult and often divisive subject matter to the reader.

SCOUT

Scout is the narrator of the story, and the impressions we get of all the other characters must, therefore, be filtered through her point of view.  All the activities and opinions in the novel are expressed through the mind of this innocent child who does not always understand the significance of the events she is narrating and, as a result, much of the comedy in the book comes from her misunderstandings.  Typical of the central character in a bildungsroman novel Scout changes and matures and gains greater insight as the novel progresses and she learns – as do her readers, young and old – a great deal from her experiences.

She is a very open-minded and clever girl who accepts the people around her at face value.  For example, she is able to go to Calpurnia’s church without making any social distinctions.  Furthermore, she accepts people like the Cunninghams and the Ewells as equal, but during the course of the novel, she learns to make a distinction between these two groups of people.  Ironically, the distinctions that she has to learn involve the differences between different types of whites such as the Cunninghams and the Ewells, and do not involve any judgements about the Negro race.  Eventually, however, she learns not only about the complex white social relationships, but she also learns about the prejudices harboured by the white man for the Negro.

Throughout the novel, we watch Scout as a character change from a belligerent young girl who is always ready to fight her corner to a person with a certain degree of understanding for those around her.  For example, at the beginning of the novel she is willing to play any type of prank on Boo Radley, but by novel’s end she walks him back to his house and she realises that things look the same from Boo Radley’s porch as they do from hers.  She also has the insight to see that Sheriff Heck Tate is right in not charging Boo with the murder of Bob Ewell.  In her view, it would be like killing a mockingbird and at that stage in the novel, one dead mockingbird (Tom Robinson) is enough.  This is one of the many valuable lessons learned by Scout in the course of the novel.

Scout is a very clever girl and she can read and write before she goes to school.  She tends to react emotionally to events, ready to fight first and think later.  As the novel opens she accepts people as they appear on the surface, but later she learns that society is complex and that people can be very prejudiced.  Her own upbringing and personality give her an appreciation of justice, but Tom Robinson’s trial shows her that others are not so fair-minded.  The self-control she has to exercise at this time helps her to mature.  She feels that she would be letting her father down if she were to lose her temper.

She is naturally warm and friendly.  She wants to visit Calpurnia in her home, she rushes in to talk to Mr. Cunningham outside the jail and tries to be polite and put him at his ease even though he is part of a mob.  She can be very sensitive to other people’s feelings.  She feels guilty about the games the children played on Boo Radley and she takes great care to treat Boo with courtesy and dignity when they finally meet.  Because she is a girl, Scout is expected to behave in a way that she finds constricting.  She is more comfortable in her overalls than in a pretty dress, but as she matures she learns that it can take courage to be a real lady.  This is brought home to her at Aunt Alexandra’s tea party on the day of Tom Robinson’s death.

At novel’s end, we see just how sensitive to other people Scout has become.  She realises that Boo Radley is a shy man and that to draw any more unwelcome attention to him would be like killing a mockingbird.  She has also learned how to see things from another person’s point of view.

ATTICUS

Atticus Finch represents the rational man in a world of highly emotional people.  Atticus is a stable and mature figure who is able to cope with the unreasonable and highly emotional element of the town.  He can handle the prejudiced white people and still deal justly with the underprivileged Negro population.  He is one of the few people in Maycomb who understands the individual worth of a person regardless of the color of their skin.  He is able to defend Tom Robinson solely on the basis of justice and does not allow the colour of Tom’s skin to prejudice him against Tom’s case.

It is necessary to have a man with a high and ideal view of justice defending Tom Robinson because even Atticus knows that the case is hopelessly lost before it begins.  He is wise enough to know that the prejudices of the Deep South will never allow justice to be done, but at the same time, he is determined that the truth will be told so that those who convict Tom will be aware that they are convicting an innocent man.

Atticus is also Harper Lee’s spokesman of the moral philosophy of the novel.  He teaches his children that they must learn to be compassionate and understanding of the problems and conditions of life faced by other people.  He frequently advises Scout that she must be able to step into the shoes of others such as the Ewells, Boo Radley, and the Cunninghams.  Consequently, he will not allow the children to torment Boo Radley and wants Scout to try to see things from Boo’s point of view.

Atticus’ relationship with his children is very important in understanding his character.  He has an outstanding rapport with his children because he treats them as mature adults and tries to explain to them how to meet the problems that are presented to them in an adult world.  All of Atticus’s relatives feel that he is bringing up his children incorrectly, and they challenge his methods of handling the children.  However, the incident with Uncle Jack illustrates that his methods are for the best.  Uncle Jack punishes Scout without listening to her side of the story, whereas Atticus always gives her the opportunity to explain her point of view.  As a parent, therefore, he is easy-going but wise, not worrying about petty things, but instead teaching his children important values.

He teaches them to be sensitive to other people like Mrs. Dubose and Boo Radley and above all to be able to step into other people’s shoes and see things from their point of view.  He teaches by example and his children learn kindness, tolerance, courage, self-control, and forgiveness from observing their father.  He listens to them, has patience with them and always tells them the truth.  They respond by loving and respecting him; they worry about him when he is tired or troubled and try their best not to cause him grief.

Therefore, Atticus is the voice of reason and justice in the novel whether he is dealing with the grim ingrained prejudices in Maycomb or whether he is trying to handle a minor problem of discipline with his own children.  He is portrayed by Harper Lee as a responsible citizen, a loving parent, and a true Christian.  He is a just man who deals fairly and sensitively with all people and he is completely lacking in prejudice.  His physical courage is seen when he shoots the rabid dog and also when he faces down the mob outside the jail, while his moral courage becomes obvious in his sincere defense of Tom Robinson, even when he knows he is unlikely to win the case.

He gives us his own powerful definition of courage: ‘It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what’.  He hopes that although they will not admit it, the people of Maycomb will realise that they are convicting an innocent man.  He is modest and never boasts about his talents and even his own children are unaware that he is an exceptional marksman until he is called upon by Sheriff Tate to shoot the rabid dog.  Scout also realises his bravery when she sees how he deals with Mrs. Dubose: ‘It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived’.

‘I do my best to love everybody’, Atticus tells Scout and Miss Maudie recognizes that he is a real Christian.  She says of him: ‘We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us’.  He treats all people with respect and as equals: Mrs. Dubose at her most contrary, young Walter Cunningham when he is a guest in the house, Mayella Ewell on the witness stand.  His kindness and consideration never fail and even in an emergency he is thoughtful; he remembers to rescue Miss Maudie’s favourite chair from the fire that engulfs her home.  His character is such that he may, with some justification, be considered the hero of the novel.

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MAJOR THEMES AND MOTIFS IN THE NOVEL

Several themes and motifs run through the novel and serve to underscore the basic reality of prejudice in both Maycomb and in the rest of America during the 1930’s.

THE MOCKINGBIRD MOTIF

(A motif is a recurring idea or thought that acts as a unifying device in a novel and sometimes develops as a commentary on characterisation or on the action of the novel).

The mockingbird motif, in this case, gives the novel its name.  It represents innocence in the novel and both Miss Maudie and Atticus feel that it would be a great sin to kill a mockingbird because this bird only sings a beautiful song and does not harm anyone.  When Atticus gives the children air rifles for their Christmas presents, he reminds them again that it would be dreadful to kill such an innocent bird:

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said.

This motif is also the device by which the two plot elements are unified in the novel by Harper Lee.  The first part of the novel is concerned with the Boo Radley mystery and the second part is concerned with the Tom Robinson trial.  Both of these characters can be viewed as being mockingbirds: both are harmless members of society and both are innocent people, yet in some way, both are persecuted by society.

Scout herself comes to realise that Boo Radley is a mockingbird figure because when he rescued her at the end of the novel, he was forced to kill Bob Ewell.  But to bring such a retiring and bashful man to trial would be just like killing a mockingbird.  It is also evident that Tom Robinson is a mockingbird figure because he is destroyed by his willingness to help Mayella Ewell.  His efforts to help her got him into trouble and finally cost him his life.

Ultimately, to kill a mockingbird is equated with performing a deliberately evil and mean act.  Atticus, at one point in the novel, thinks that there is nothing worse than a white man who will take advantage of a Negro.  Yet the entire town is partly responsible for Tom Robinson’s death, which must be viewed as a senseless act of injustice.

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THE GUN MOTIF

In a country which now sees a mass shooting on average every 60 days the time for gun control in the USA is long overdue  Many of the most notorious of these mass shootings have taken place in schools: we remember with sadness the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 where 24 were killed; Virginia Tech in 2007 where 33 were killed; Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 where 28 were killed; and Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 where 17 were shot and killed.  Recently, churches and synagogues have been easy targets for depraved gunmen with their own myopic agendas and easy access to automatic weapons.  Harper Lee, writing in what many would consider less dangerous times in the late Fifties and early Sixties thought fit to raise the issue of guns in To Kill a Mockingbird.   In the novel, guns represent false strength. According to Atticus, guns do not prove manhood or bravery, rather they come from a man’s ability to persevere and fight using his wits, his heart, and his character.  Early in the novel, we learn that Atticus does not approve of guns.  He believes that guns do not make men brave and that the children’s fascination with guns is unfounded.

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 EDUCATION

In this novel, the process of education occurs both inside and outside the classroom.  It is not limited only to the education of Scout, for it affects both adults and other children in the story.  Harper Lee’s thesis is that it is education that separates the whites from the blacks, the Cunninghams from the Ewells, and it is education which further separates the Finches from the Cunninghams.  Education – and the lack of education – are responsible for creating and re-enforcing a sort of caste system in Maycomb, a caste system which decrees that black children don’t sit in the same classroom and receive the same education as white children do.

Early in the novel, and several times later in the story, the reader is taken into the classroom with Scout to view the school system in operation.  As Jem tells Scout, the new way of teaching which Miss Caroline is practicing is one which the entire school will use eventually, and is one in which ‘ you don’t hafta learn that much out of books that way’.

And while Miss Caroline is officially the teacher, there is great irony created when we realise that it is she who must actually learn the most during her first few days at school.  The learning-by-doing approach advocated by Miss Caroline has been practiced naturally by Scout and Jem since they were very young and they learned to read by simply observing their father and by reading along with him in the evenings.  Miss Caroline ironically criticises both Scout and her father, Atticus, as having done it all wrong! Yet Atticus’ method is the very same one that she presumes to espouse!

For the children, then, learning has come not from formal teachers such as Miss Caroline and Miss Gates, but through the common-sense wisdom of Atticus, Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra.  These ‘teachers’ have presented the children with real experiences that over the course of the novel, shapes their beliefs, their opinions,, and actions.  Outside of the classroom, the children enact the very methods which the formal teachers attempt to impart.

Harper Lee does not appear to be criticising education so much as she is attacking those teachers who possess erroneous, rigid beliefs about human nature.  Miss Caroline presumes to teach others, yet she herself knows next-to-nothing about getting along with other people.  Rather than attempting to blend her teaching and her classroom philosophy to suit the young people of Maycomb, she tries to change the students to fit her perceptions.  She fails miserably in her encounters with Burris Ewell and Walter Cunningham and even though Scout does feel some pity for her she won’t offer her any comfort because there has been no friendliness offered in exchange.

Miss Gates teaches the children little about life.  Theoretically, she espouses a system of democracy yet she worries about the Negroes who seem to be trying to ‘get above themselves’, and in particular, she fears that they might start marrying whites!  She is keen to point out examples of racial prejudice in Hitler’s Germany yet fails to point out the obvious prejudice closer to home in Maycomb itself.

In essence, it is Atticus who personifies the attainment of true education, in contrast to the formal schooling offered to the children.  It is left to Scout to make the final assessment of formal education.  At the end of the novel, now in third grade, Scout says, ‘… I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.’ !!!

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 STANDING IN ANOTHER PERSON’S SHOES – A NEW PERSPECTIVE

When Scout comes home after her first day at school she is determined never to return there, because it has been a disaster.  Atticus explains to her that she will get along much better in life if she learns to understand another person and to do this she must consider things from that person’s point of view.  He advises her to ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it’.

When Scout doesn’t understand Jem, Atticus encourages her to try to understand how he might be feeling.  Usually, Scout finds this advice helpful, and her attempts to gain insight into other people’s perspectives on life and the world broaden her moral education and understanding.

When Mrs. Dubose, the mean old woman who lives down the street from the Finch family yells insults at Jem and Scout on her way to town, Jem reacts by returning and cutting up all the flowers in her front yard.  His punishment is to read to Mrs. Dubose for a specific time period every day.  He complains to Atticus that she is an awful woman, but Atticus tells Jem and Scout to try to understand Mrs. Dubose’s point of view.  She is an old woman, very set in her ways, and she is entirely alone in the world.  Jem and Scout agree to visit her.  After her death, Atticus reveals that by reading to her each day, the children were helping her break her morphine addiction.  Atticus explains that she was fighting to regain control over her life even as she knew that she was dying.  Because of this, Atticus says that she is the bravest person he has ever known.  He explains this to the children to try to make them understand the terrible pain she was experiencing, and how their presence helped her to defeat her addiction.  Although she may have said some horrible things to them, Atticus encourages Jem and Scout to try to see the world from her perspective and to realise how brave and strong she was.

It is Atticus’s own ability to do this which makes him such a fair-minded, honourable man.  Even when he disagrees with them he can sympathise with other people’s feelings.  He knows how people like the Cunninghams feel, he understands Mrs. Dubose and her fight against morphine addiction and why Mayella Ewell acts as she does in accusing Tom Robinson of rape.  It is this sympathy for and empathy with other people that he tries to pass on to his children.  We know that he has been successful in doing so when we see Jem’s sensitive nature and also at the end of the novel when Scout stays for a moment on the Radley porch and stands as it were in Boo Radley’s shoes, we know that she too has absorbed Atticus’s and Harper Lee’s message.

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 ‘THE HELL PEOPLE GIVE EACH OTHER’

When Mr. Dolphus Raymond talks to Scout and Dill outside the courthouse during Tom Robinson’s trial, he understands why Dill is upset.  He talks about, ‘the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking.  Cry about the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too’.  By this, he means the cruelty people inflict on each other in their racial, social and family relations.

Racial prejudice is very clearly depicted in the novel.  Black people are discriminated against in Maycomb.  They are not treated as equals by the white community and even in a law court, they cannot expect to receive justice.  The trial of Tom Robinson illustrates this very clearly.  The teacher, Miss Gates, who is very much aware of racial prejudice in other countries, like Germany, is prejudiced herself towards black people.  Scout hears her outside the court during the Tom Robinson trial saying that she thought it was, ‘time somebody taught them a lesson, they thought they were getting way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us’.  Scout can see straight away that this statement is in clear conflict with her teaching (about Germany) in her classroom.

There are also many examples of social snobbery among Maycomb people.  Aunt Alexandra is very conscious of family backgrounds and she will not allow Scout to invite young Walter Cunningham to the house because she does not consider him to be from the proper social background.  It is also snobbery that is responsible for the Radleys’ refusal to allow their son, Arthur, to be punished in the same way as the other boys when he gets into trouble with the law as a teenager.

The novel shows us that even families can be extremely cruel places to survive.  The Radley family treat Arthur with great cruelty by keeping him locked up for fifteen years because of a minor misdemeanour he committed as a boy.  Dill’s mother and stepfather neglect him and leave him to the care of his Aunt Rachel who is a secret drinker.  The Ewell children live in squalid circumstances while their father spends his welfare money on drink.  The Ewell children are not sent to school and Mayella, the eldest girl who tries to look after the younger children is abused by her father.  This is probably the most poignant moment in the trial when we are given a horrific image of what goes on inside the Ewell family compound.  This is just one of the masterful storytelling devices used by Harper Lee. In these days when stories of sexual abuse are everywhere in our media, how salutary to come across the true barbarity of it here, revealed in one tiny phrase: ‘she never kissed a grown man before an’s she might as well kiss a nigger.  She says what her papa do to her don’t count.’

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GROWING UP

As mentioned already, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird belongs to a genre of novel called Bildungsroman, or a ‘novel of maturation’.  In such a novel the central character is usually a very young person, and they are usually taken from a state of childhood innocence and brought to a state of experience and enlightenment as a result of a series of misadventures which are recounted in the novel.  He or she should, thus, be ready for adulthood.  In this novel, which covers a period of three years, Scout develops from a state of childish innocence to a state of maturity.

Early in the novel, she learns the meaning of real courage as she witnesses Mrs. Dubose’s struggle to overcome her addiction to morphine.  She also learns to appreciate her father’s physical courage and skill as he saves the town from a mad dog by killing it with one shot.  Up to then she and Jem had looked on Atticus as a feeble, ageing man.

More important to her development is the moral courage her father displays in his fight for justice for Tom Robinson when the black man is accused of raping a white woman.  Most people are ready to condemn Tom because of his colour and race, but Atticus defies the majority opinion and makes every effort to see that justice is administered.  When he fails and Tom is wrongly convicted Scout has to learn that the law is not always fairly applied and that there is a great deal of prejudice in the society in which she lives.  Even her teacher, Miss Gates, who can find fault with people in other countries for being racially prejudiced, shows by her remarks outside the courthouse that she does not recognise prejudice in her own town.  As she matures Scout learns to control her emotions and to act more sensitively to other people.  At the beginning of the story, she is afraid of Boo Radley and she believes all sorts of nonsensical tales about him.  She takes part in schemes to make him ‘come out’ of his house and plays games that make fun of him.  Later she comes to see him as a real person, who not only gives her presents but who also saves both her life and Jem’s.  She even learns to stand in Boo Radley’s shoes and see the world from his point of view.

By novel’s end, she realises that it is like shooting a mockingbird to harm a person who is harmless, that it is possible to understand another person if you see things from his point of view and that ‘nothin’s real scary except in books’.

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I mentioned at the very beginning that To Kill a Mockingbird could be considered as a modern re-imagining of the old fable The Emperor Has No Clothes.   The reason I said this is that the novel masterfully exposes the grim reality of what first appears as a sleepy old southern town.  By novel’s end Harper Lee, mainly through her precocious young narrator, reveals the true nature of the place:  she presents us with a classic tragedy of injustice, prejudice and man’s inhumanity to man.  But it is told to us matter-of-factly by a mere child, ignorant of what rape is, and in whom the ingrained teaching of an upbringing in Alabama in the 1930s has left a belief that black people are only slightly superior to farm animals.  Our greatest fear, as readers, is that Scout and Jem will feel quite differently about these subjects when they eventually grow up!!!

 

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The full list of Junior Cycle English Texts for Second and Third Year is available here

Analysis of ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth

 

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The Romantics, and especially Wordsworth, were unlucky not to have lived in the smartphone era!  Then again maybe we’re lucky that no such modern technology existed in 1802!  If Wordsworth were alive today his camera phone would surely be filled to capacity and the scenes and events he captured would be relived and enjoyed later in the comfort of his study – ’emotion recollected in tranquility’ brought into the twenty-first century!

This poem is noteworthy in particular because of its location.  Instead of the leafy banks of the Wye or the rolling hills and dales of Cumbria, he brings us to the heart of the city in the early morning.  He wants to stress to us that his philosophy of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ will work just as well in the grubby city as it would by the shores of Lake Windemere.

In this case, he is inspired by the view he saw from Westminster Bridge on the morning of 31st July 1802, although he didn’t write the poem until September of the same year.  In fact, the more correct title of the sonnet is ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’.  He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge on a coach taking them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France.  We know all this because Dorothy mentions the event in her diary:

‘We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross.  It was a beautiful morning.  The City, St. Paul’s, with the river and a Multitude of little boats made a most beautiful sight …. The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature’s own grand spectacles.’

I’m sure we have all experienced a city in the early morning before the sleeping giant awakes.  The early morning light gives the impression that the city has been recently washed and is now clean in the morning air.  The gaudiness of the night before with its neon lights flashing on the water and the constant rumbling and screeching of traffic has yet to begin anew.  This fleeting moment of peace before the storm is what Wordsworth is describing here as he crosses London Bridge on an early morning stagecoach.

The theme of the poem is London as it lies asleep in the early morning sun. We get the impression here of a sleeping giant, perhaps rather terrifying when awake as some cities tend to be, but, now it sleeps so peacefully that those who see him are no longer afraid and are able to admire his elegance and splendour.

The tone of the poem is one of awe and breathless admiration at the sight before him.  He feels a deep sense of peace and contentment at the sight of such man-made things as ships and towers.  These sights are made even more wonderful in his eyes because of the closeness of Nature herself – the fields, the sky, the sun, and the river Thames itself.

His opening line shows that to him this is the ultimate in beauty; he cannot understand how anyone could ignore such a sight.  We must remember that the poem, like most of Wordsworth’s poetry, is one of feelings and emotions.  He refers to this scene of grandeur (‘majesty’) as ‘touching’ whereas often we consider grand and majestic things to be somewhat cold and distant.  The city, to him, is a living thing; it is clothed in the ‘beauty of the morning’.  The city is also silent at this time of the morning and this impression is reinforced by his use of the sibilant ‘s’ sounds in ‘silent’, ‘ships’, ‘sky’, ‘smokeless’ and also in the line:

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples….

There is a lovely juxtaposition when he uses the word ‘bare’ to describe the ships and towers without their human activity in sharp contrast to the city wearing its beautiful morning ‘garment’.  Wordsworth is suggesting to us that all these man-made things are ‘bright and glittering’ only because they are exposed to Nature; that the air is clean only because man is not yet awake to stain it with his smoking fires.  The idea of the sharp, clear and clean air is suggested by the words ‘sky’, ‘bright’ and ‘glittering’.

His long list of man-made objects conveys to us what makes the city different: not just one ship but many; not just one tower but tower blocks.  The use of alliteration in ‘towers’, ‘theatres’, ‘temples’ also conveys a sense of wonder in the reader and adds to their importance.

There is a sense that the sun is dressing the city to meet another day and that it has never steeped the countryside in the same manner as it does the sleeping city.  Gradually the city comes alive: the river is moving gracefully (‘glideth’), unimpeded by the small boats who ply their trade up and down the Thames all day long.  The houses have yet to come alive and they will do so as soon as their eyes (windows) are touched by the sun’s rays.

The poet’s prayerful exclamation of ‘Dear God!’ is ambiguous and it seems as if the thought has entered his head that everyone in the houses is also dead.  This is a striking example of the poet’s imagination.  The final line reintroduces us to the idea of the heart of the city, our sleeping giant.  The ‘mighty heart’ suggests something huge, whose heart is gently and soundlessly beating.  We all have seen what happens next on our TV screens as the camera uses time-lapse shots to show the ever-increasing flow of people and traffic and shops opening their doors, as the city slowly, relentlessly comes to life – the great giant stirs.

The poem presents us with a very compact series of images.  His use of the classic Petrarchan Sonnet formula shows his discipline and craft.  (The rhyming scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd).  His use of run-on lines suggests the movement of the rising sun over the city.  They also emphasise the poet’s use of ordinary speech rhythms, which was a strong feature of Romantic poetry.  The run-on lines may also mirror the poet’s rush of emotions as he encounters and strives to capture the scene before him.

A poem with such feeling must be musical.  Note his use of broad ‘o’ sounds in the first quatrain, ‘show’, ‘more’, ‘so’, ‘doth’.  These broad vowel sounds combined with the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘by’, ‘sight’, ‘like’ also convey the poet’s sense of awe and wonder.  I have already mentioned the sibilant ‘s’ sounds that occur throughout the poem and these are associated with the silence and calm of the early morning scene.  Finally, in the final three lines, this harmony is brought out by the assonance in ‘sweet’, ‘Dear’, ‘seem’, and ‘asleep’ and in ‘glideth’, ‘mighty’, and ‘lying’.

This poem is similar to ‘Daffodils’ and other masterpieces like ‘Tintern Abbey’ in that it furthers Wordsworth philosophy of what poetry is.  He is yet again storing up photographic images using his ‘inward eye’ so that they can be recalled and enjoyed again in the peace and quiet of his own study at a later time.  Nature is here presented from a different perspective.  It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress and amid the ‘din’ of towns and cities.  It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore our mental health, prompting him to exclaim as he does here on Westminster Bridge that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’

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Read a more comprehensive analysis of William Wordsworth’s poetry here

Read a detailed analysis of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth here

Commentary on the poem ‘The Diviner’ by Seamus Heaney

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“Seamus Heaney in Toner’s Bog” by Liam O’Neill

THE DIVINER

 

By Seamus Heaney

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick

That he held tight by the arms of the V:

Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck

Of water, nervous, but professionally

 

Unfussed.  The pluck came sharp as a sting.

The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,

Spring water suddenly broadcasting

Through a green aerial its secret stations.

 

The bystanders would ask to have a try.

He handed them the rod without a word.

It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,

He gripped expectant wrists.  The hazel stirred.

 

Commentary: Dr Andrew Barker called ‘Digging’ – the first poem in Heaney’s first collection – his Mission Statement Poem.  If that is so, ‘The Diviner’ is an early codicil to that Mission Statement!  It is yet another of Heaney’s poems about rural crafts and craftsmen.  These earlier poems focussed on his rural roots and the local crafts which were synonymous with his local place.  Similar to ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’, and ‘Follower’, this poem also explores the poet’s early search for poetic inspiration.  Heaney discovered his own gift by seeing the connection between the local craftsmen and his own burgeoning desire to be different yet the same.

The first thing to notice here is that Heaney doesn’t name the poem ‘The Water Diviner’ – instead, he uses the more generic title ‘The Diviner’.  This allows him to make ancient connections with the meaning of the word.  In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, a diviner was a wise man, a seer, a prophet, a mystic, an oracle.  Even in ancient Ireland in the Bardic tradition, the diviner was a saoi, literally a ‘wise one’, a poet at the pinnacle of his powers.  So, it is evident that Heaney here is making a clear analogy between the work of the local diviner in Bellaghy and the work of a poet.  Heaney is making this connection very early on in his career and so he has already accepted the onerous responsibility of following in the ancient footsteps of the Filí and Bards who had gone before him.

Water is, of course, a vital element and it has to be understood by the modern reader that in Ireland even in the 1950’s, houses, especially in rural areas, did not have water on tap as they do today.  Instead, water for daily household use was still being drawn by bucket from communal wells in each locality.  Therefore, it is no surprise that the person who could locate the presence of water in such springs and wells would be given great recognition and elevated status in the community.

Heaney speaks of this in some of his early poetry in such poems as ‘Personal Helicon’ and ‘Sunlight’.  In ‘Sunlight’, one of two poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary’s home place in Mossbawn, he speaks of the ‘helmeted pump in the yard’; this pump which was the centre of his boyhood universe, where ‘water honeyed in the slung bucket’.  In ‘Personal Helicon’ he tells us that he is inspired by and attracted to the water in wells and springs.  He tells us that as a child ‘they could not keep me from wells’.  However, as an adult, it seems that this activity is frowned upon, so instead, he became a poet!  In a beautiful concluding sentence, he says, ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’  There is a clear connection suggested here between the young Heaney’s activities and the older Heaney’s poetry.

The diviner in this poem is seen in the same light as his father and grandfather are in ‘Digging’.  The diviner is exploring the hidden depths, the unexplored layers of landscape, seeking out water-bearing aquifers.   This is similar to his father or grandfather toiling in the bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’.

The jury is still out on whether it is even possible to divine the presence of water by holding a forked hazel stick in one’s hands!  Scientists still seem to frown on the idea yet in Heaney’s home place of South Derry there would have been one or two men with this innate power, just as there would have been a person who had a cure for burns or had the ability to fix a bad back or rid a person of warts.  These cures or remedies had been handed down through the generations from father to son, from mother to daughter.  Heaney has realised that he too has a rare gift and he normalises his own talent as a poet by comparing it to those with rare gifts in his own rural community.

The diviner described here was a real expert and he put on a performance for the onlookers present.  His actions were ceremonial, just like a priest at the altar on Sunday – he refers to the diviner ‘Circling the terrain’. The poet creates a mood of tension as the ritual performance commences; words like ‘tight’, ‘hunting’, ‘pluck’, ‘nervous’, sharp’, ‘sting’, ‘jerked’, ‘convulsions’, convey tension, urgency, doubt, and expectation in the reader.  The tone of the final stanza is far more relaxed and of course, this is because the diviner has been successful in his quest for water and so he ‘nonchalantly’ grips the ‘expectant’ wrists of those who have asked to have a turn and see if the hazel stick will work for them.

Notice the poet’s clever use of the word ‘nervous’ here in stanza one.  He is referring to the fact that our nervous system carries messages to the brain – but here it is the diviner who is the path along which the message from the underground water will be carried.

The poet tries to demystify the work of the diviner by using the analogy of a radio signal picking up foreign radio stations as one turned the dial on the old cumbersome radios that were a feature in many rural homes in the Fifties.  The hazel stick is likened to ‘a green aerial’, which picks up the unseen signals the water gives off from underground caverns.  We know the diviner has picked up the signal when Heaney says in the second stanza, ‘The rod jerked with precise convulsions’.  This image of the water broadcasting its position presents us with the notion that the diviner is the receiver and interpreter of messages that ordinary mortals cannot experience or understand.  In Heaney’s view, this is also an exact analogy with his work as a poet.

The word ‘convulsions’ suggests to me that the diviner is not in control of his movements and of course the fact that these ‘convulsions’, these involuntary movements, are visible to the bystanders adds to their sense of wonder and awe.

The style of the poem is very matter-of-fact – as if the poet is reporting for his local newspaper!  There is also the subtle innuendo that it’s all some kind of hoax that is being perpetrated here by the diviner – that he is some kind of charlatan, pulling the wool over the eyes of his unsuspecting, gullible audience.  These notions are finally dispelled and underlined by the final short sentence: ‘The hazel stirred’.

Another interesting feature of the poem that we need to explore is that we are not told what the diviner looks like.  This helps the poet to create the feeling of awe and wonder.  This is in marked contrast to other poems such as ‘The Forge’ and ‘Digging’, for example, where we are given little pen pictures, sometimes uncomplimentary, of his father and the blacksmith.  In ‘Digging’ he looks down from his upstairs study window and sees his father digging in the flower garden: ‘I look down / Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low’.  In ‘The Forge’ he describes the blacksmith, Barney Devlin, in a very Chaucerian manner: ‘Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,  / He leans out on the jamb, …’.  However, in ‘The Diviner’ he refrains from making any of these derogatory comments and therefore the mystique of the diviner is maintained right to the end.

The reason Heaney is drawn to these rural craftsmen and their various trades is that he is in awe of the power of the diviner, the turf-cutter, the ploughman, talents that he doesn’t possess but ones that he admires.  In ‘Digging’ he tells us, ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’.  He is drawn to these people who divine for water, dig in gardens and plough the land and shoe horses because he wants to follow in their footsteps but in his own unique way.

In many ways, these poems, particularly the ones from the collection Death of a Naturalist, are efforts to pacify and appease worried parents who have suspicions that their young son is different.  In this, his first collection, he is reassuring them that he’s not that different but that they will have to accept his choice of career: he will be a poet to be reckoned with, he will dig and plough and divine – but with his pen.  Fittingly then, thirty or so years later, The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Seamus Heaney in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.

Works Cited

Seamus Heaney.  100 Poems, Faber and Faber, 2018

The Nobel Prize in Literature citation 1995:

<https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1995/summary/&gt;

Further Reading by the same author:

A more comprehensive analysis of ‘The Forge’ is available here

A more comprehensive analysis of recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney (with particular benefit to Leaving Cert Students) is available here

Commentary on ‘Pied Beauty’ by Hopkins

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

Pied Beauty

 

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stiple upon trout that swim;

Fresh–firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift,  slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He father’s-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise Him.

Commentary

The poem shows Hopkins at his innovative best.  Everything is condensed, distilled, pared back to the bare essentials.  His use of comma and semi-colon, compound words, alliteration and simile are examples of his craft.  The poem packs a huge amount of detail and contrast and comparison into its ten short lines.

The theme of the poem is the gratitude he expresses to God for the variety and imperfection in Nature, in the implements used by man, for the lesser earthly things, for the two-tone things in life that add beauty by simply being different.  He may also be pointing out that God is perfect in sharp contrast to all the imperfection seen on earth.  Maybe the message is that variety is the spice of life!

The overall tone of the poem is one of praise and wonder – wonder at the variety and contrast to be seen everywhere in God’s creation.  The word ‘pie’ is of Medieval Latin origin and here it means spotted, two-toned or striped.  We still use the word today in words like magpie or piebald; someone is said to be pie-eyed drunk; we’ve all heard of pie in the sky; of course Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair; and where would we be today without our pie charts? When dealing with Hopkins we need to give ourselves permission to think outside the box and there is even room to think of a pastry pie made of assorted fruits – mother’s award winning apple pie even!

The opening line introduces us straight away to the idea of variety and mixture with the word ‘dappled’ (streaked) and, from then on we are among things that have two aspects, the ‘couple-coloured’ are compared, by way of a simile, to a spotted (‘brinded’) cow.  We have no problem with this comparison today because all our Irish cows are ‘couple-coloured’ anyway but this wasn’t always the case.  The ‘rose-moles’ on the sides of the speckled trout are compared to the once fashionable moles applied to a woman’s cheeks to enhance her beauty.  The sound of the word ‘dappled’ is echoed through the poem in words like ‘couple’, ‘stipple’, ‘tackle’, ‘fickle’, ‘freckled’, ‘adazzle’.  Hopkins’ use of compound words like ‘fresh-firecoal’ and ‘chestnut-falls’ adds to the overall sense of compression in the poem.  The coals of the fire are both red and black, and the windfall chestnuts are often mahogany and beige.  The similarity between the coals and the chestnuts is classic Hopkins.  Some of these innovative compound words are very unusual, but their very oddness helps the poet to convey the idea of diversity, variety and imperfection as well as adding freshness to the poem.

Hopkins then mentions the birds with their variety of feathers.  He is ever the priest looking for good material for his Sunday homily and he once spoke of the sun, stars, birds and bees giving glory to God without their realising that they were doing so.  Man can also give this glory to God and mean it.  Perhaps he is contrasting and juxtaposing his own intentional praise of God in this poem with the finches instinctive song of praise.

Next we are given the beautiful patchwork quilt image of the landscape with its pastures, meadows, cornfields and ploughed fields.  ‘Fold’ suggests a sheepfold, ‘fallow’ suggests land being rested after producing a crop and ‘plough’ suggests land newly tilled and ready for a new crop.  It should be very easy for us today to imagine such a sight with our ever increasing use of aerial photography and the use of drones to take photographs from the air.  Hopkins, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that this is a God’s-eye view looking down on the things He has created.

In the fifth and sixth lines the poet is praising the work of man and here also there is an infinite variety in the different types of work performed by man and also a great variety in the implements he uses to carry out his various tasks.  All these also give glory to God.

The final five lines are a masterclass in the compression of ideas: God creates all the varying contrasts in life, all things odd, original, spotted.  We are then dramatically ordered by the poet to praise God for these things.  ‘Fathers-forth’ is a strange compound word.  To me this suggests and echoes the creation story in Genesis: God magically clicking his fingers and saying ‘Let there be light!’  ‘Counter’ means contrasting with what is usual, as in ‘counter argument’, ‘spare’ can mean both ‘scarce’ or ‘more than enough’ or ‘left over’.  This is exactly what Hopkins is about here: he is trying to show us that there are contradictions within things (even in words).  Hopkins uses great technique here in line 9 by placing these contrasting words together side by side without any connecting word or verb and also with his use of alliteration.

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

A FURTHER NOTE ON HOPKINS’S TECHNIQUE

Hopkins deliberately set out to be innovative and to create a new type of verse, and so he broke many of the accepted ‘rules’ of poetry – rules of grammar, the order of words in the sentence, making up his own words, especially compound words, and so on.  In fact, to give further credence to the idea of compression used here, the poem actually reads like a ten line sonnet!  His words and phrases are actions as well as sounds, ideas and images.  He uses very few verbs and this is accommodated by his repeated use of the semi-colon.  The words must be read with the ear and the body as well as the eye.  He obviously feels what he sees.  This is the challenge for us when we come to study any poem by Hopkins.  In coming to our own interpretation of the poem we must not forget the music, and his appeal to our sense of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.

Hopkins has been called ‘the poet of energy’. Notice the rush of words in the first three lines and then he pauses as he ticks off his ‘shopping list’ as it were: ‘fold, fallow and plough; / And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim’.  The energy is also made possible by the scarcity of verbs and by his use of alliteration.  In his great poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’, he says that the earth and all things in it are ‘charged’ with God (like a battery – and long before they were even invented!).  This poem, too, like many others is full of God – it is, in fact, a prayer, a spiritual meditation.

As I said earlier the poem reads like a shortened sonnet and Hopkins called it a ‘Curtal Sonnet’ (curtailed).  There are only ten and a half lines instead of the usual fourteen lines and unlike the usual sonnet, which is concerned with the number of syllables, Hopkins here is only concerned with stressed syllables.  Therefore, in this poem, there are five stressed syllables to each line, with two in the final line.  This, however, is just something for you to know; don’t let it interfere with your enjoyment or reaction to the poem.

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

A more comprehensive analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is available here

Analysis of ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

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Hopkins said that ‘The Windhover’ was ‘the best thing I ever wrote’.  We should first get the feel of the poem by reading it more than once silently and then aloud.  Then we begin to realise what a superb description we are given of a bird in flight.  His words and phrases seem to mime or mimic the energy and grace of the falcon’s flight.  This sight of a hovering falcon is again a relatively common sight today so hopefully, the next time we see such a sight we can recall the words of Hopkins. Hopkins once said that we should read his poetry with our ears, which seems like an impossibility but is not, since many of the sounds we hear create images in our mind.

In ‘The Windhover’, Hopkins uses recurring images of royalty.  The high-flying solitary falcon is a monarch of the sky, surging through the steady air.  The poet uses chivalric terms such as ‘dauphin’, and ‘minion’ to capture the elegant and dignified ‘striding’ falcon, the prince of the daylight.  God, too, is visualised as a ‘chevalier’.  Indeed, there are so many images given to us in these eight lines it is hard to know where to begin! The words ‘rolling level underneath him steady’ are best taken as a compound adjective, qualifying ‘air’.  Next, we find the falcon ringing ‘upon the rein of a wimpling wing’.  Here the bird, by means of a mixture of metaphors, seems to become a bell, hanging by its wings in mid-air.  ‘Wimpling’ means quick beating, fluttering or rippling.  Therefore, we have an image of the falcon, bell-like, swinging back and forth in a wide arc (‘on a bow-bend’), having mastered ‘rebuffed’ the big wind.

However, Hopkins’ imagination is turbo-charged here and the phrase ‘to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing’ may also be a metaphor from horse-training, the term being applied in a riding school to a horse circling on the end of a long rein held by its trainer.  Also, we must remember that ‘to ring’ is also a technical term used in falconry and this then leads on to the image of a skater doing a figure of eight on the ice!  He compares the swooping movement of the falcon to an ice skater and this image also conveys the speed of the bird’s flight.  At any rate, the idea of the falcon as a hanging bell, filling the heavens with joyful news (‘In his ecstasy’) is confirmed in that other beautiful sonnet ‘When Kingfishers Catch Fire’ where he says:

each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name

The main feature of Hopkins’s images, then, is the way in which they are loaded with unlimited possibilities.  It is as if Hopkins intended to create multiple ideas in some of his images, each interesting and valid in its own way.  For example, the image of the falcon on a ‘rein’ may represent the motion of a horse at the end of a trainer’s long rein.  However, the term, being ambiguous, could also suggest the spiral climb of the bird.  Perhaps, Hopkins is encouraging us to ‘Buckle’ several ideas in our engagement with the poem.  What is not in doubt, at any rate, is the powerful and original representation, through the falcon, of Christ’s beauty and nobility.  In essence, the poet is like an Impressionist painter striving to capture the essence (the inscape) of the bird.

The word ‘Buckle’ is pivotal in the poem.  This word has been the subject of discussion and debate for many years.  Some believe that the word means ‘Challenge!’ or ‘Tackle!’ or ‘Come to grips with!’ adversity; others believe that it means ‘Collapse’ or ‘Crumple’ before the assault of evil.  There is even a third interpretation which proposes that it means to clasp, fasten together into a single unity all the skills and aspirations.  My own interpretation of the word is that the majestic beauty of the bird as described in the octet of the poem crumbles into insignificance when compared to the beauty and majesty of Christ as we see him in the sestet.

Other original images include that of ‘blue-bleak embers’ representing self-sacrifice and the ‘plough down sillion’ that evokes the hardship and perhaps tedium of daily labour.  In ‘The Windhover’, therefore, Hopkins employs images of flight, of majesty, of sacrifice and of glory ranging from a ‘dauphin’ to a ‘skate’s heel’, from a ‘fire’ to ‘blue-bleak embers’.  Such remarkable and wide-ranging imagery reflects the vivid and precise response of the poet’s imagination to the sight of the falcon at dawn.  More importantly, perhaps, the imagery reveals that the moment created a response of deep spiritual insight.  There is nothing particularly novel in taking a falcon as subject matter.  However, what is original is the way Hopkins engages with the falcon, observes it and concentrates on it in a deeper way and articulates what it revealed to him through an interesting range of original imagery.  The priest-poet is praying!

The last three lines give us two images which stand for triumph arising out of defeat and this echoes the essence of the Christian mystery – Crucifixion gives way to Resurrection.  He uses words like ‘fall’ (Jesus fell three times on his way to Calvery), ‘gall’ (referring to the stale wine or vinegar offered to Jesus on the cross), and ‘gash’ (an open wound), to reinforce this connection in our minds.  The soil that has been ploughed and trodden on gives off a splendid ‘shine’ or radiance; the embers of the fire when they part and fall produce a victorious ‘gold-vermillion’ brightness.

‘The Windhover’ provides us, therefore, with an excellent example of the unique concepts associated with Hopkins: inscape and instress and sprung rhythm.  The effort to describe the bird goes beyond mere description of its physical form or appearance (‘wimpling wing’): there is almost a scientific attempt to ‘capture’ its movements (‘Of the rolling level underneath him steady air’).  This, however, is only part of the process.  The inner form of the bird, its virtues or strengths, are identified (‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume’).  There is more.  The hidden ‘meaning’ or symbolic significance of the falcon is uncovered in a moment of mystical recognition that Joyce would call an ‘epiphany’.  T. S. Eliot called it ‘the intersection of the timeless with time.’  It is the moment when the observer recognises God’s plan for mankind in the action of a bird in flight.

To simplify matters, remember this: Hopkins believed in the idea of incarnation.  Christ was both man and God; so, too, the world is a combination of the material and the divine.  Seeing the divine in the world is the same as seeing its inscape.  Feeling the divine presence is the same as feeling its instress.  Sprung rhythm is a poetic device used to reveal the energy of God that pulses through the world.

Now look back again over the poem and note the use of detail that goes to make the poem’s eloquence: note that the poem is a sonnet, with octet and sestet; note his extensive use of alliteration and assonance, his use of exclamation; note the tension between line and sentence, form and sense, by the use of colour and the use of heraldic imagery, the passionate rise and fall of the meditation, by the expert daring of it all.

I can’t get it out of my mind that Hopkins lived and died in the nineteenth century and yet he is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.  Hopkins valiantly tries to describe perfection in this beautiful poem yet he once said, ‘Perfection is dangerous because it deceives us – because there is no perfection on this earth’.   As another later twentieth century poet, Leonard Cohen,  says, echoing Hopkins’ image of the falcon as a bell:

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering,

There is a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

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A more detailed analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins can be found here

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Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit of course, is obviously very familiar with the poetry of Fr. Hopkins S.J.!

Old Hay is Old Gold….

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Walter A. Wood: An Early Leader in Farm Equipment Manufacture. His tubular steel mower was introduced in 1890. Illustration courtesy of Sam Moore.

Old Hay is Old Gold….

 

By Frank Phelan

The following story is taken from the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, No. 2, 1996.  The story is memorable for many reasons but particularly because of its importance as a window onto social history as the twentieth-century dawns but mainly it is notable because of the eloquence and storytelling ability of its author, the legendary Frank Phelan of Walshstown, Castlemahon.

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I used to like going to the calf mart in Rathkeale every Wednesday in the Springtime.  I would go down the shortcut over Knockaderry hill, through the flatlands of Ballyallinan and then join the road coming from Ballingarry into the verge of the town.  The first thing that met your eye was the long queue of trailers towed by cars and jeeps and tractors stretching away back as far as the eye could see.  Nearly everyone coming from our side double queued at the big wide spacious junction at Well Lane and waited for the friendly nod to pull in before your turn.

On this particular morning a few years back it was an elderly man who gave me the friendly nod and I gladly pulled into the vacant space in front of him.  I then went back to thank him and maybe have a short chat about the weather, the prospects for farming or anything topical etc.  He asked me where I came from and my name and then he asked if I was any relation to the owners of Phelan’s hardware which was just on the point of closing down at the time.  I told him that I was and that the man who started the hardware shop about a hundred years back was an uncle to my father and came out of our old place.

“I knew him”, he said, “I knew him, a grand old gentleman and a good businessman.  I was with my father in the shop a few times when he was alive and well and I was only a very small boy and even then you could see what a great character he must have been in his heyday”. [1]

“Did you ever hear the story”, he asked, “how he sold the first Woods Mowing Machine in West Limerick?”

“No”, I said, “I know a little about him but I’d like to know a lot more”.

“He was”, he said, “a man before his time, a great innovator and loved to see work made easier for everyone in town and country.  In the 1890’s all the meadows were still being cut with the scythe like they had been for generations before.  A good scythesman would cut an acre in the day and the top men at the job would travel the countryside in search of work.   They were known as spailpíns.  The clever farmer would have four scythesmen contracted, with the best cutter out in front setting the pace for the others.  It was a matter of pride that they all would have to keep up with him and so a big field of hay was cut in a day much to the farmer’s satisfaction”.

When the horse-drawn mowing machine started to come on the market hardly anyone was interested in it, in fact, most were hostile to it, especially the scythesmen, as it would be taking their livelihood away.  Nearly all the farmers were also reluctant to change and so it was a very hard job to convince any of them that this would be the greatest boon ever in Irish farming up until then.

Willie Phelan was tired of looking out at his new Woods Mowing Machines on display and no takers until one day his old friend Florry McCarthy from Ardagh was in the shop and they got to talking amongst other things about the harvest and the need for taking advantage of the fine weather.  It was July and the meadows were ready for the cutting.  “If only I could sell one Woods Mowing Machine my problems would be solved”, he said to Florry.

“Can I help you in any way”, asked Florry.

“You can indeed”, said the wily merchant, “you can indeed.  I have a suggestion for you.  Take away one of those new mowing machines outside and earn a bit of money for yourself.  When you’re into your stride at full throttle pay me back seven and six a month”.

“But I’ve only one horse “, said Florry.

“Can’t you get the loan of a horse from one of your neighbours, you’ve good ould neighbours back there, sure they’d give you the shirt of their back”, said my granduncle.

“I’ll see, I’ll see”, said Florry, needing time to think it over.

Going home that evening he thought to himself that it was a brilliant venture and that he was on the brink of making a historical landmark in the area.  He could picture himself being the focus of attention from farmers big and small over a vast sweep of countryside.

“I’ll go up to Din Connors this very evening”, he said to himself, “and ask him for the loan of his grand chestnut steed.  Then I’ll go into town in the morning with my common car,[2] hitch on the mowing machine with the long shafts resting on the body of the car and sail away home at my ease”.

There was a rare smile on the face of my granduncle next day as he helped Florry on the way to launch a new chapter to what was to revolutionise life in the countryside of West Limerick for generations into the future.  The hum of the mowing machine was a new sound that was to be added to that of the corncrakes and the cuckoo.

Next morning, Florry called on his old neighbour Din Connors for the big chestnut.  Din himself came on to do the edging of the blades and to take possession of the new carburundum edging stone and the new flintstone which were thrown in free with the mowing machine.  He also got a jampot full of water to dip the flintstone in.  They both tackled up in Florry’s yard leaving nothing to chance and drove onto the nearest pasture field.  Having cut a round or so without a hitch they were ready for Florry’s big meadow at the back of the house.

The hum of the mowing machine could be heard all day long and the edge was good as a new blade was put in every five or six rounds or so.  A few of the neighbours had gathered towards evening as the last of the swathes were flattened and quite a few corncrakes could be seen running or half flying towards the safety of the hedges.  There was shaking of hands and congratulations from all the neighbors to Florry and Dinny and a request from the said neighbours to cut their own meadows when time was available.

Dinny’s big roadside meadow was next on the list and the audience of neighbours became bigger including a couple of scythesmen on their own who by their looks did not approve of the new operation.  In fact, the only mishap suffered during that whole first season was in Dinny’s big meadow when an unseen stake planted by someone hostile to the revolutionary change brought the mowing to a temporary halt.  But Florry was equal to the occasion and using a couple of the spare sections and rivets also thrown in free and having his own hammer and punch he had the blade back as good as new in half an hour or so.

Gradually one by one the neighbours’ meadows were cut clean and white and the smell of new mown hay was like honey in the air.  At half a crown an acre charged by Florry everyone was happy with the outcome except Florry himself but he didn’t show one sign of that unhappiness only the reverse.  It sounds funny to say that everyone paid him in the same way – not with cash but with hay.  I suppose the ould money might be very scarce at the time but anyway what he got paid was two wynds [3] of hay for every acre he cut and as he had cut upwards of sixty acres that first year it was a mighty lot of hay.  All the neighbours whose hay he had cut that first year helped him with his own hay and also with the hay that they paid him with.  With his great sense of humour, he enjoyed immensely working with the huge meitheal[4] who came to build the three enormous shiegs[5] or ricks that stretched the length of the haggard which they also covered and thatched with rushes.

In the recesses of his mind, Florry was wondering what William Phelan, merchant, would have to say when he informed him of his financial position after all the meadows he had mown in record quick time.  He was therefore pleasantly surprised when at the first opportunity they met on a wet day after a spell of fine sunny weather that the reaction of the man was one of philosophical satisfaction.

“Florry”, he said, “you gave me the start I wanted, you broke the ice when no one else would take the risk and you’ll get your reward some fine day.  Pay me when you have it in your pocket”, he concluded.

Florry’s sense of humour was a wonderful asset to him in the fall of that year and also the following Winter and Spring.  Anywhere he went, to Mass, at the pub, at funerals or fairs or football matches he would be asked if he knew where there was any hay for sale.

“I do indeed”, he would say, “I actually have some myself to sell but I’m waiting for the price to rise”.

The second mowing season Florry cut almost as much again, even though there was a second mowing machine in the area.  And, strange to relate, the payment was exactly the same – two wynds of hay for every acre he cut.

The big problem for Florry was that he might run out of space in his haggard[6] for the enormous amount of hay that was headed in that direction.  It was a repeat again of the big meitheal, plenty of porter[7] and banter and craic and at the end of it all three more big shiegs reared their mighty forms into the western sky.  Their shadows darkened the narrow roadway into Florry’s house and they resembled a series of gigantic silent ships at anchor in a quiet bay.

Many people now regarded Florry as either a rural celebrity or an eccentric of some sort or a cross between both but that was only in their own minds because outwardly or inwardly it had changed him not one iota.  His sense of humour remained intact and his confidential belief that his day would come in some form or other remained unshaken.  Strangely he found it much easier to cope with the little arrows of jokery that were thrown at him from time to time whenever the occasion arose that he was amongst a crowd, which was often enough.

The fall of that second year was very wet and cold and cows had to be housed much earlier than usual.  There were a couple of big freeze-ups and plenty of snow that Winter.  There was no sign of the Spring right up to the end of April and even into May and a lot of farmyards had no fodder left.  Florry put an advertisement in the local paper early in April saying that he had an unlimited amount of the best saved hay for sale.  Almost immediately he was invaded by a convoy of long scotch cars,[8] with big coils of rope at each rear corner and drawn by a variety of animals, from big chestnut steeds to thick brown cobs and piebalds[9].  They were driven by big rough-looking weather-beaten mountainy men.

Florry went to summon all his neighbours and they arrived as a big meitheal, laden with hay knives and two prong pikes and in no time the cars were being loaded with the finest of hay and the mountainy men were rolling it and packing it in layers the way it should be done.  A big jar of porter arrived and they all drank their fill and took a good rest, exchanged a few jokes and yarns and then with renewed energy the mountainy men filled each load to the top like the specialists at the job that they were.  Then the ropes were slung across each load, two men on the ground pulled like supermen and firm as the jobs of hell the ropes were tied diagonally to the shafts in front.

The only problem now for Florry was that he might run out of hay such was the demand for it and almost every day he had new customers arriving and he was almost getting the asking price for it.  When at last the grass started growing as the sun grew warmer that historic year not a rib of hay was left in Florry’s haggard, only the pale outline of where once those mighty shiegs had been.  It was with a light heart that he made his way to town and then into the hardware shop to pay the proprietor in full and after a good chat those two men heartily agreed that old hay was indeed old gold if one only had the patience to wait and sit it out when skies were grey.

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Building a Shieg circa 1960. Photograph by Frank Tubridy

This blog post is dedicated to Peg Donoghue who was probably the first to see this article which had been submitted in Frank Phelan’s graceful longhand and who lovingly typed it for publication in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society

 

[1] The old farmer is referring to Frank’s grand uncle, William Phelan. William managed what became known as Phelan’s  Mill and in 1910 he founded a hardware store and ironmongery in Bishop Street, Newcastle West.  In 1915 William set up the Newcastle West and District Power and Light Company and electricity was supplied to the town until the scheme was taken over in 1935 by the ESB.  In 1916 he opened the Palace Cinema in part of the mill and this continued up to 1926.   The business was later managed by his brother Jim and he expanded the business to include a sawmill and a corn mill.  His headed notepaper proclaimed that he was a Machine Implement Agent and Undertaker, a general ironmonger, funeral director, furniture dealer and haybarn erector!

[2] ‘A common car’ was the phrase used to describe a horse-drawn cart.

[3] A wynd was the name given to a cock of hay

[4] Meitheal is the Gaelic word for a group of neighbours who come together to help each other gather in the harvest.

[5] A shieg is a big rick of hay containing up to twenty or thirty wynds – it was very common to build these structures before the advent of the hay barn in the twentieth century (See photo above).

[6] A haggard was a small plot of land – a half-acre – near the family home.

[7] Stout  (probably Guinness)

[8] These again were horse-drawn carts specially made to carry wynds of hay.

[9] Ponies

Study Notes on ‘Shadows on Our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston

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It is encouraging to see Shadows on Our Skin back on bookstore shelves again, thanks mainly to its inclusion on the new Junior Cycle Text List for Second and Third Years.  The novel tells the story of a young dreamer called Joe Logan who lives with his ailing, cranky, sick father and harsh, resentful mother in a Northern Ireland beset by ‘The Troubles’. He has a gentle soul, the environment does him no favours, he escapes through thinking up and writing poetry but each day he faces the reality of the world he lives in.   It was first published in 1977, eight years after British troops were deployed onto the streets of Derry and Belfast.  The purpose of this move by the British Government in Westminster was to prevent further civil strife between the increasingly polarised Protestant and Catholic communities.  While the initial reaction of the beleaguered Catholic community was a guarded welcome for the British soldiers, this over time turned to suspicion and hostility and finally hatred, especially in such ghettoised areas as The Bogside in Derry and The Falls Road and Ardoyne areas in Belfast.  Many Catholics came to regard the British as an army of occupation, much as Joe Logan’s father does in Shadows on Our Skin. For example, on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment. Fourteen people died: thirteen were killed outright, while the death of another man four months later was attributed to his injuries.  Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers and some were shot while trying to help the wounded.  Other protesters were injured by rubber bullets or batons, and two were run down by army vehicles.   The march had been organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).  The soldiers involved in this infamous incident were members of the  Parachute Regiment.  The inevitable result of incidents such as this was that increasing numbers of young men joined the newly formed Provisional IRA.

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Battle of the Bogside

‘Over and over again, the same stories’

The background to Shadows on Our Skin, therefore, is the plight of these poor Catholics living in deprivation in mean streets, their lives constantly disrupted by street fighting, ambushes and British army raids on their homes, leading to the destruction of their property and the arrest and internment of many fathers and sons.  This struggle between the authorities and a large section of the Catholic population is mirrored in the tensions within the Logan home.  Two distinct points of view on the IRA campaign are represented by Joe’s father and mother.  The father’s background, reflected in his political outlook, helps to explain why the struggle against the British occupation of part of Ireland persists from generation to generation.  He has, for years, filled his son Brendan’s head with tales of his own achievements as an Irish freedom-fighter during the War of Independence in the early 1920’s.  We are never quite sure whether these heroic stories are to be believed; his wife, for one, has her doubts.  Whatever the truth about the days in which, as Mrs. Logan sarcastically remarks, he ‘ran the Movement’, he creates a persona for himself by means of which he impresses and indoctrinates Brendan.  Since childhood, Brendan has been close to his father, feeding off his romanticised accounts of the part he has played in the downfall of the British power in Ireland, ‘listening to the stories, over and over again the same stories, of the glamorous days, the fairy tales’.

What matters is not whether these stories are true, but the effect they have on Brendan’s imagination, outlook and actions.  He can repeat the names of the heroes of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the new IRA as one might repeat a litany of saints: Liam Lynch, Ernie O’Malley, Liam Mellows, Sean Russell.  He has been taught that these men were uniquely men of principle as well as heroic men of action.  Even Joe, young as he is, has been affected by the mythology of republican nationalism.  The world his father imaginatively inhabits is peopled with heroes, ‘with patrols and flying columns and sad songs that used to drift down to Joe below, songs about death and traitors and freedom and more heroes’.  Much of his father’s patriotism is a matter of bar-room rhetoric, of purely negative emotions such as hatred for the British and contempt for ‘the Free state’ authorities for shirking their ‘legitimate responsibilities’.  He is in total sympathy with the military campaign of the new IRA.  He believes that the organisation could do with the expertise of people like himself.  He longs for a part in the guerrilla campaign as an armchair general (‘If they’d ask me … I have it all at my fingertips … Not only have I the experience but I’ve read the books … They need the old fellows so they do’).

A selfish father

The value of these ideas and of Mr. Logan’s present career as ‘a retired hero’ is consistently challenged in the novel by his wife.  From her point of view, he has been living far too long on the legacy of a wound acquired in the Civil War.  For her, this has meant living with his self-pity and sentimental reminiscences.  It has also meant that she must support the family while he wallows in the misery of his decaying health, tears trembling in his voice as he remembers the days when he was in his prime.  Now his life is divided between his sick-bed, the dinner-table and the pub, and dominated by wasteful, futile regrets (‘I should have died then, instead of being mutilated, body and soul.  Aye, soul too.  I have wasted away my life since’).  Apart from having to endure this ever-present sickness of body and soul, the yearlong tears which have left their grey tracks on his cheeks, Mrs. Logan must live with a man whose outlook on issues of life and death differs fundamentally from hers.  He is the great life-denying force in the novel, not only in regard to himself but in regard to others as well.  He is sustained by memories, drink, and hatred of Britain, none of which find a sympathetic echo in his wife’s heart.

Mr. Logan’s visual appearance suggests a sinister significance: ‘He was like some evil old demon propped up there in his grey pyjamas with an old jersey pulled over the top of them.  His eyes were a dirty grey like his pyjamas.’  His response to the killing of two British soldiers provokes a bitter argument with his wife, in which the play of contrasting ideas on violence which dominates the novel is given free rein.  When Joe tells him that the two soldiers are dead he smiles happily (‘That’s as good as a tonic … Cause for celebration … A nation once again … Two of the enemy are dead’).

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A worn out mother

Mrs. Logan finds this gloating over the deaths of two young soldiers offensive and absurd.  What she has to say exposes the poverty of her husband’s outlook on the political situation.  Their arguments show how defiantly he lives in a world of abstractions, most of them quite meaningless and alien to her practical mind.  His hackneyed celebration of freedom gives her an opening to express the point of view of all those, particularly women and children, who suffer on behalf of political causes.  She turns his own terminology of freedom back on him.  She wonders, for example, if ‘liberated’ southern Ireland enjoys any more freedom than the occupied North.  To her practical mind, freedom has no real purpose unless it results in a better way of life for people.  Her comments on the Southern Republic bring some of the major issues raised in the novel into sharp focus:

Is there a job for every man?  And a home for everyone?  Have all the children got shoes on their feet?  Are there women down there scrubbing floors to keep the home together because stupid, useless olds men are sitting round gassing about freedom?  Singing their songs about heroes?

A dominated brother

This suggests that Mr. Logan’s notions about Irish freedom reflect an absolute lack of concern for practical urgent realities.  There is, of course, more to them than this, because of their profound influence on Brendan.  The son precisely echoes and mirrors his father’s reactions to the deaths of the British soldiers. ‘Not too bad … a couple of soldiers killed’ is how Brendan responds when Kathleen Doherty asks him if anybody has been hurt.  The depth of his father’s influence is further suggested in conversation with his mother.  She believes that the young men of the area who have been arrested for IRA involvement deserve their fate.  He sees them as leaders in the struggle for a better life for people like his mother, and argues, as his father does, that nobody will have a decent life until after the British have been dislodged.  He regards those who oppose the aims and methods of the IRA as traitors to their class and to their religion, and therefore finds the killing of British soldiers can be easily justified.  Her condemnation of this idea and of her husband’s patriotic outbursts is absolute. ‘Does it not enter your head,’ she asks Brendan, ‘that there’s a rare difference between sitting around and listening to a bunch of old men telling their hero stories and what is happening now?’  Words, she knows, can be as deadly in their effect as bullets.  She can even defend the actions of the British soldiers in pillaging the Logan home by fixing the blame on her husband and son: ‘They’re no worse than the next man.  They only do what they do because of people like you and your father.’

Joe, a victim of his environment

Shadows on Our Skin is a novel of blighted childhood.  The adult world casts an ugly shadow on Joe’s youth.  He is the innocent victim of a hopelessly inept, irresponsible father and a selfish brother.  His school life is as unhappy as his home life.  His one pleasant human relationship is ruined by his brother’s interference.  The most remarkable thing about Joe is his ability to endure all the cruelties that life can heap on his head and still remain buoyant for so much of the time.  Jennifer Johnston renders the sordid atmosphere of the Logan home and its effect on Joe with disturbing realism.  Images of decay, filth, and tedium pervade the novel.  Down-to-earth details of the domestic scene can suggest the silent, frightening desperation of so many lives like Joe Logan’s: ‘they were eating their Sunday dinner, Mass behind them, an endless Sunday afternoon in front of them …’  the atmosphere of sickness is also ever-present in the Logan household.  His father’s sick spells are liable to last for weeks: ‘Ill, shaking all the time and giving off a terrifying smell of illness that made Joe want to keep away from him.’  The father’s predicament has made him so repulsive that Joe is afraid to touch him: ‘He was always afraid that his fingers would sink through the soft, mouldering skin.’

All of this leaves Joe with a diminished capacity for optimism.  Everywhere around him there is evidence of human despair and unhappiness.  Apart from his father, who has been bemoaning his own fate for years, those closest to him often seem close to tears, particularly his mother.  ‘He was’, we are told, ‘frightened by tears, not by children’s tears of rage or pain, nor his father’s blubberings of self-pity, but adult tears like hers and Kathleen’s which made him feel that the world might crack open suddenly.’  Towards the end of the novel, we are given a pitiful glimpse of the effect of his morbid experience on his vision of the world.  In his natural resentment of his brother’s interference in his personal life, Joe instinctively destroys Brendan’s relationship with Kathleen by revealing the identity and occupation of her fiancé Fred Burgess.  Having performed his act of what he calls ‘deliberate destruction’, Joe runs away for a while, speculating on the kind of world that might lie beyond the sea.  The real world beyond the confines of Derry may not, he decides, be any different from the world he knows.  His account of the world of his own experience shows that nothing he has so far learned about human relationships gives him cause for hope.  As far as he can judge, people are helpless victims of their mutual cruelties, doomed to have their hopes dashed:

Perhaps everywhere you went people were lost, searching with desperation for something they would never find, mutilating themselves and each other in their desperation.  There was no safety.

Joe is puzzled by some of the unhappiness he finds in the lives of others, such as Kathleen Doherty, for example.  She is telling him about Fred Burgess, the British soldier she intends to marry when he notices how unhappy she is.  She eventually confesses that her life is without purpose and she is extremely unhappy with her lot.  Even the prospect of marriage to Fred fails to give purpose or meaning to her daily activities.  She is unable to find happiness in what she calls ‘the birth, marriage, death routine’.  Joe can understand why he himself might have cause for unhappiness but what he finds hard to understand is that ‘safe’ people like Kathleen could or should be unhappy with their life.  This he finds unfair.  He thinks it unacceptable that life should ‘gnaw at her in this way’.  Kathleen’s unhappiness induces a ‘clotted sadness’ in his head.

MI-northern-ireland-troubles-soldier-girl

A world of grief

Joe views the world as a place where people mutilate themselves and each other and where nobody is really secure from grief.  The endless domestic conflicts between his parents have helped to condition his responses to the unhappiness of most human relationships.  His mother’s predicament is a further lesson in the horrors of home life for so many people of her social class.  The burdens of family life have almost crushed her spirit.  We learn that her voice is ‘tired to death’, and that she cries quietly.  Her face is ‘full of pain at having to move into yet another week’.  She is not, however, the burnt-out wreck of humanity that her husband is.  She responds with animation to every domestic challenge, repairs the ruins of the house after the British soldiers have wrecked it, devotes herself untiringly to the basic needs of her family, does all she can to further Joe’s moral education, and keeps a home going heroically against the odds.  Her husband does little to deserve it, but her love for him shines through in subtle ways.  After they have quarrelled bitterly over politics, he leaves her in tears with Joe for company:

‘There’s no sign of your Daddy.’

‘No.’

‘He must have someone to have a drink with.’

‘Yes.’

‘He’d have been home otherwise.’

‘Yes’

Despite his total inadequacy as a husband, she can still look forward to his return and worry about his late homecoming.

Three themes in the novel

Three interwoven themes in Shadows on Our Skin are the past, the family and betrayal.  (These same themes are also dealt with powerfully in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel Reading in the Dark also about a young boy’s experience of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland).  The legacy of the past haunts the Logan family and has a profound effect on the present outlook and activity of its members.  Betrayal by family members and close friends of each other’s interests is a disturbing feature of the novel. Indeed, Jennifer Johnston herself has written:

The way I see the world, we are constantly at risk from the people we love most.  They are, after all, the only people who can do us serious damage, a damage that lasts forever.  I’m a very optimistic person, but I can see this happening.

Mr. Logan is the vehicle through which the past constantly intrudes into the lives of his wife and two sons.  He himself lives much more in the past than in the present and keeps an idealised version of his own past before the minds of all who will listen to him.   The continuity between past and present which he enforces is based on an ongoing hatred of the ancient crimes of the British enemy against the long-suffering Irish people.  He sees to it that his eldest son remains conscious of the grievances of the past and all its bitter memories.  His emphasis on past wrongs means that his eldest son sometimes approaches the British-dominated world around him in a spirit of revolt.  Love or forgiveness of enemies can have no place in this scheme of things: ‘Look around.  Hate is a better word.  I can understand that.’  Mr. Logan’s insistence on living in a mythical past in which he was a wounded hero disables him from living in the present in any useful sense and from making any positive contribution to the welfare of his family.  Indeed, he invokes the past to poison the atmosphere of the present, to hand on his peculiar version of old events to the next generation.

The novel offers some small (prophetic?)  glimmer of hope that the terrible dominance of the past may eventually be broken.  Brendan has been indoctrinated by his father’s view of the past, but his commitment to its influence is far from absolute.  Kathleen Doherty recognises this.  Far from being totally committed to the legacy his father seeks to pass on to him, Brendan is, as Kathleen observes, ‘in a state of great confusion’, with ‘a lot of wrong ideas pushing the right ideas rather hard’.  Towards the end, the ‘right’ ideas, the rejection of the violent heritage represented by Mr. Logan, achieve the upper hand, at least temporarily.  Brendan tells Joe that he always sees himself carrying on the struggle against the British where his father left off.  When the IRA people gave him a gun, this ended his dream of violent activity: ‘It was the gun finished me off.  I wouldn’t be any use to them.’

A sense of betrayal haunts the novel.  Mr. Logan betrays the interests of his wife and children by refusing to take a constructive interest in anything relating to their welfare.  His life is a betrayal of decent standards, an outpouring of totally negative and destructive emotions.  Joe practises his own understandable but very deadly form of betrayal.  When Brendan infringes on his pleasant relationship with Kathleen, Joe’s jealousy and hatred begin to dominate his life.  Kathleen has indicated to Joe her intention of marrying a British soldier, Fred Burgess, but he has kept the identity of this man a secret from Brendan.  Joe has promised Kathleen that he will tell his brother nothing about Fred.  When Brendan confides in him that he may marry Kathleen, he betrays Kathleen’s secret, taunts Brendan to fury with revelations which shock him, telling him that his rival is ‘a British soldier.  She wears his ring, you know.  And she tells him everything.’  It is this final betrayal which leads to frightening consequences for Kathleen and darkens the close of the novel.

This series of events split Joe’s world apart, and he is left to process the consequences of the things he has done and the choices he has made.  Shadows on Our Skin is a book that is quick and enjoyable to read, but also evokes sadness and seriousness as you absorb the life of the characters within it.  It’s a fairly low-key story, and not much seems to happen plot-wise, but there is something about Shadows on our Skin which is strangely compelling and incredibly moving. There’s an aching quality to the story, the type of pain which feels like a knot in the throat which cannot be swallowed away.

And of course, there’s also a bigger picture at work here, which is the political and sectarian war being waged on the streets of Derry.  Jennifer Johnson ensures that this is the ever-present backdrop to the novel but it is never the main focus for the reader.  However, its presence is felt on almost every page, whether it is reports of bombs going off, soldiers raiding Catholic homes in search of IRA weapons or boys having their sports bags searched en-route to school.

In essence, this is a coming of age story as Joe deals with some very serious situations that he faces, choices he makes and who he is becoming.  It’s a poignant and powerful book that really does reflect the awful times that children had to live in during the 1970’s in Northern Ireland.  Joe is depicted as an innocent victim of the ‘troubles’ and strife that is going on all around him.

This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1977 and I am not surprised. It is very well written and has stood the test of time with many readers.  I think the author did a marvellous job of portraying the characters of Joe’s father and mother.   We really are transported right to their tiny little kitchen as his mother pours the tea and his father complains about how he was once a hero but no more.

Jennifer_Johnston_Author
The author, Jennifer Johnston in a garden in Goatstown, Dublin. Photographer: Dara MacDónaill

The full list of Junior Cycle English Texts for Second and Third Year can be viewed here

Into The Mystic : Michael Hartnett, The Gloaming – A Necklace of Wrens

Thom Hickey ‘tips his hat’ to Michael Hartnett and explores the beauty of ‘A Necklace of Wrens’

The Immortal Jukebox

Loyal readers of The Jukebox will know that as St Patrick’s Day approaches each March, honouring my heritage, I tip my hat to Irish Writers, Painters and Poets especially dear to my heart.

I had thought to include the Poet Michael Hartnett and Master Musicians The Gloaming in my St Patrick’s Parade 2019.

But, last week, I found the line, ‘Their talons left on me scars not healed yet.’ echoing through my night and daytime dreaming mind.

Scanning the Poetry section of my bookshelves I lighted upon Michael Hartnett’s Collected Poems and soon found his revelatory, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’ in both the English and Irish Language versions.

As the poem tells us Hartnett accepted a Mystic invitation into the Poet’s life

Initiation would bring both wound and blessing and gathering understanding that the craft demanded lifelong fidelity.

A necklet of feathers is yet a collar.

It is the Poet…

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