Tuesday 1 February 2011

Lisburn Writers from The Poets of Ireland, 1912. (part 5)



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(Oxford University Press, 1912.)


Twenty-seven names of writers of verse, of local interest, from "The Poets of Ireland," have been selected -- these will be extracted and given here with the relative notes from the volume on each writer. The notes will be given in full and verbatim. Where possible the notes from "The Poets of Ireland" will be supplemented and augmented by additional and new matter gathered from other sources.
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The Lambeg Poet.

M'Kowen, James.
-- A clever and popular Ulster poet, born at Lambeg, near Lisburn, Co. Antrim, February 11, 1814, and received an elementary education in the district, and at an early age was placed in a thread manufactory. He afterwards obtained employment at the bleach works of Messrs. Richardson, Belfast, and there spent the remainder of his active life. About 1840 he began to contribute verse to Ulster papers, especially "The Northern "Whig," over the signature of "Kitty Connor," and became a greet favourite as a poet. To "The Nation" soon after he sent a few poems signed "Curlew." He died on April 22, 1889, and his poems, which were never published in book-form, were entrusted to his friend, Mr. Robert May, of Belfast, who at one time hoped to publish them. M'Kowen is represented in Connolly's "Household Library of Ireland's Poets" (where it may be mentioned his name is mis-spelled), by a poem or two, and in Varian's "Harp of Erin," 1869, by nine pieces. M'Kowen's most famous piece is his humorous song, "The Ould Irish Jig."

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Mr. M'Kowen was born in Lambeg, February 11, 1814; died at Beechside, Lisburn, April 22, 1889, and was buried in Lambeg Parish Churchyard. After the very brief schooling of the time he was employed in the thread manufactory of the Barbours at Hilden, but for the last forty years of his active business life, he held a post in the Glenmore Bleachworks of Messrs. Richardson, Sons and Owden, who granted him a pension in the days when his working strength had passed away. Like so many countrymen of the older days -- more then, it is to be feared, than now -- he was a great reader, Shakespeare, Scott, Burns, Byron, and Moore appear to have been his favourites. He finds a place in the Valhalla of the Dictionary of National Biography.

His maternal grandfather took a leading part in Lisburn's circle of progressive politicians. During the famous struggle for electoral independence in 1783, which ended in the return to the Irish Parliament of Colonel Sharman and William Todd Jones as the popular members for Lisburn, John Johnson was one of the pioneers who fought for the freedom of the franchise. Then again it is on record that James M'Kowen's mother was possessed of keen literary taste. Robert Owenson's party of players had their improvised theatre in the rear of John Johnson's inn, in Bow Street, which would appear to have been situated where Mr. James Stewart's house afterwards stood, opposite the new road to Hillsborough. Miss Johnson, afterwards Mrs. M'Kowen, spent many evenings with Sydney Owenson -- later the celebrated -- Lady Morgan and the other members of the Owenson family. Another daughter of Owenson, Olivia, married in 1808 a Dublin physician, Sir Arthur Clarke. A young actress, Miss O'Neill, who took the leading part in the caste of characters in Bow Street afterwards became Lady Beecher.

James M'Kowen inherited much of his mother's taste for the footlights, and in his earlier days he frequently walked from his place in his place in Lambeg to witness some special performance in the Belfast theatre. "Few men enjoyed life, with greater zeal than he did; he made many friends for himself, and his genial countenance and happy disposition never failed in imparting to others a share of his joyous temperament." It is a pleasant character to leave behind when one's time for going has arrived.

He wrote under the pen-name of "Kitty Connor," and contrived verse to various Ulster papers, especially "The Northern Whig." To "The Nation" he sent a few pieces signed "Curlew." Mr. Robert May, Belfast, has made a complete collection of his poems, which he hopes to publish in book form at an early date. Charles Duval's music-hall version of the "Old Irish Jig" was often quoted as M'Kowen's, which annoyed the poet very much. He contributed "Bonnie Twinkling Starnies" to Graves' "Book of Irish Poetry."

A few specimens of his work may with propriety be given here:--


My blessing be on you, old Erin, 
     my own land of frolic and fun,
For all sorts of mirth and diversion
     your like is not under the sun.
Bohemia may boast of her polka,
     and Spain of her waltzes talk big,
Och! sure, they are nothing but limping
     compared with an old Irish jig.

Then a fig for your new-fashioned waltzes
     imported from Spain and from France,
And a fig for the thing called the polka;
     our own Irish jig we will dance.

I've heard how the jig came in fashion,
     and believe that the story is true,
By Adam and Eve 'twas invented,
     the reason was -- partners were few;
And though they could both dance the polka
     Eve thought it was not quite chaste,
She preferred our old jig to be dancing,
     and, faith, I approve of her taste.

The light-hearted daughters of Erin,
     like the wild mountain deer they can bound,
Their feet never touch the Green Island
     but music is struck from the ground,
And oft in the glens and green meadows
     the old jig they dance with such grace
That even the daisies they tread on
     look up with delight in their face.

An old Irish jig, too, was danced by kings
     and by great men of yore;
King O'Toole himself could well foot it
     to a tune they call "Rory O'More";
And oft in the great Hall of Tara
     our famous King Brian Boru
Danced an old Irish jig with his nobles,
     and played his own harp to them too.

And, sure, when Herodia's daughter
     was dancing in King Herod's sight
His heart, that for years had been frozen,
     was thawed with pure love and delight;
And more than a hundred times over
     I've heard Father Flanagan tell
'Twas our own Irish jig that she footed
     that pleased the old villain so well.

Then a fig for your new-fashioned waltzes
     imported from Spain and from France,
And a fig for the thing called the polka;
     our own Irish jig we will dance.


By the marge of the sea has thy foot ever strayed,
     When eve shed its deep mellow tinge?
Hast thou lingered to hear the sweet music that's made
     By the ocean waves' whispering fringe?
'Tis then you may hear the wild barnacle's call,
     The scream of the sea-loving mew,
And that deep thrilling note that is wilder than all --
     The voice of the wailing curlew.

The song of the linnet is sweet from the spray,
     The blackbird's comes rich from the thorn;
And clear is the lark's when he's soaring away
     To herald the birth of the morn.
The note of the eagle is piercing and loud,
     The thrush's as soft as it's true;
But give me, Oh! give me, that song from, the cloud.
     The voice of the wailing curlew.

Sky minstrel! how I've paused when a child,
     As I roamed in my own native vale,
To listen thy music so fitful and wild,
     Borne far on the wings of the gale.
And, still, as I rest by the door of my cot,
     Thy voice can youth's feeling renew;
And strangely I'm tempted to envy thy lot,
     Thou wild-noted, wailing curlew.

For oh! It were happiness surely to fly
     In those regions so pure and so bright;
To float 'neath the dome of that beautiful sky,
     When tinged with the setting sun's light
There, there thou can't revel unfettered and free,
     And no cunning of man can pursue;
Where I'm eager to wander in rapture with thee,
     Thou wild-noted, wailing curlew.

When the beauties of Nature shall cease me to move,
     And desire in my bosom shall fail,
And this heart that is beating with rapture and love
     Shall lie cold as a clod of the vale.
Then make me a grave far away from the crowd,
     Where Spring may her sweet flowers strew;
Leave my dirge to be sung by that bird of the clouds,
     The wild-noted, wailing curlew.


While coming one morning through sweet Lisnatrunk,
     I knew not the reason my spirits quite sunk,
And all things around me, I couldn't tell why,
     But they seemed to be saying, "John Blaney you're dry."

At the top of the Clogher I heard the same cll
     Ringing through the bog meadows and round by Hillhall,
And green Ballymullan kept up the same cry,
     And it echoed the answer, "Poor Blaney you're dry."

'Twas the call of the wild birds came out of the moss,
     And the black troops of Hilden as they flew across;
The quail in the meadow, the lark in the sky,
     And the birds in the bushes sang, "Blaney you're dry."

Ah, my friends' they insisted, at their house I should stay,
     And not go to Lisburn, at least for that day;
But they might as well ask me to lie down and die,
     With my burning head aching, "Poor Blaney you're dry."

I want to Mahager, he had seen me before,
     He would not dismiss me, he knew I was poor.
Come in, said Mahager, with a tear in his eye,
     And I'll wet your ould whistle, "Poor Blaney you're dry."

Then here's to that man who took pity on me;
     Bad luck to ould Gladstone wher'er he may be,
That his word may deceive him, his truth prove a lie,
     With his high tax on whiskey, "Poor Blaney you're dry."

There is some diversity of opinion regarding "Blaney You're Dry." A different version, and one not at all as good as that quoted, has been current for many years in Lisburn. The fifth verse, as here given, is a decided improvement on the version generally in use.

A correspondent who knew John Blaney personally some 50 or 60 years ago supplies the following interesting information:--

John Blaney lived in Lisburn, but being on "a spree" in the country, all night, and passing through Lisnatrunk in the morning was on his way home to Lisburn, to get "a curer," hence the first line, which differs from another version I have seen.

He had one leg amputated above the knee and used a crutch. Blaney was an educated man, and gifted with a lot of talent had he used it aright. In early life he assisted the organist in the Cathedral by blowing the bellows, but being of an independent mind, he ran foul of the Rev. Dean of Ross, who dismissed him. Being then without the means of earning a living, he started a children's school in a dwelling-house in Antrim Street (I was a pupil at that school for one week), and in his spare time mended bellows. After a short time he gave up the school and followed the latter avocation. He was made welcome in both town and country, especially the country, where he made himself at home, as he played the fiddle well, though he never carried one; and being able to make a speech, was welcomed by the farmers, especially at dances, halls, or gatherings. He was distantly related to Henry Monroe, the Irish general and patriot. All his relatives lived in Lisburn and some live here still.

There was a "pub" in the Market Square, known as the Carman's Inn, kept by a man called Savage. Long strings of carts and horses pulled up at his place going to and coming from Belfast, and he had the privilege of serving them at all hours, night or day; but, although very civil, was very strict. He allowed no man in charge of a horse to get more than two drinks, and if they insisted in having more his word was always, "Car on, Mahager, you will get no more here." So he was nicknamed "Old Mahager," and was better known by that name to the men on the road than as Mr. Savage. He knew Blaney in better circumstances, and Blaney also knew him.

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M'Curry, Samuel S.
-- IN KESWICK VALE AND OTHER POEMS, London, 1907. A resident of Co. Dublin.

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The M'Curry family was long resident in the Parish of Magheragall, Lisburn, having been domiciled in the Townland of Drumcill for upwards of 200 years. In the old homestead is a date stone bearing the inscription 1799. Isaac M'Curry, who died in 1909, aged 91 years, father of the poet, removed to Belfast in 1844, and in that city on 31st August, 1854, Samuel S. M'Curry was born. He held a responsible position for many years in the General Post Office, Dublin, and on retiring a few years ago from active life went to reside at Eastbourne. Two of his brothers hold good positions in the service of the Belfast Banking Company, Ltd. He published, in 1912, Dublin, a volume of poems entitled "The Smell o' the Turf." An introduction to this book was written by Professor Dowden, LL.D., Trinity College, Dublin. Two extracts are quoted from it as specimens of the poet's work:--


"While we have time" let nought prevent
Our working out life's good intent;
     Of slender worth are aims sublime
     To help the crippled ones to climb,
If only thoughts, not deeds are meant.

Life for a little while is lent,
We reason when we should repent,
For knowledge makes inaction crime
          "While we have time."

Were all our swollen wine-skins rent,
Their precious store on others spent,
     The music in our hearts, would chime.
     More sweet than in our golden prime,
And life give forth a fragrant scent
          "While we have time." '


The smell o' the turf -- how it gladdens and cheers
My city-worn heart that has hungered for years
For a sight of the fields from the head of the hill,
Where I listen again to the drone of the mill,
     And I gaze on the scene of my childhood with tears.

Even now when in manhood dejection and fears,
Oft shadow my pathway, and life's Autumn nears,
How it acts like a spell amid sorrow and ill --
     The smell o' the turf.

How poor is the palace that royalty rears,
How poor is the treasure of princes and peers;
Give me, when the wind in the orchard is shrill,
And the voice of the thrush in the gloaming is still,
     The smell o' the turf.

Mr. M'Curry has two more volumes ready for the press, and hopes to bring them out when the war is over and conditions are more normal. Since retiring in August, 1915, he has devoted almost his whole time to work amongst our soldiers, both in France and in this country. Although living for the greater part of his life outside the bounds of Ulster, he has never forgotten his native province, and Ulster, her people and customs, have always occupied a very warm place in his memory and affection.

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Further Extracts from the "Poets of Ireland" next week.

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 2 February 1917 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week through 1917. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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