The Story of a Poem #Armistice2018

Great Gran-Uncle Bill Collier

PLEASE NOTE:  All photos are copyright and may not be used without permission

Limerick in Spring, 1918

Seated quietly by the April fireside,
Lucy May Fitzell reads Rupert Brooke’s poems.
Joshua, whose first gift to her was a pair of gloves,
offers titbits of news: Ottoman gains in the East;
butter prices; rumours of a general strike.
He rises and riddles the failing embers.

In the Methodist Sunday morning
Lucy May’s hymnal is bookmarked
with a photograph of her brother Bill –
away with the Seaforths in Palestine.
Her gloved hand touches his sepia face.
She remembers picnics in Kilkee and sings
‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’.

Lucy May watches Royal Welch Fusiliers
playing with her children in the garden.
Mr. Sassoon has returned to the front; Mr. Graves
remains. Her affection lies with the parade of boys
who sprawl on the lawn, on scratchy rugs, firing bullets
of Manchester vowels and Welsh consonants.

She calls Eileen from the piano in the drawing room
and Amy from the flowerbed where worms are.
Private Davies lifts Louie high on his shoulder.
Captain Swales walks with bent knees as he
holds Joan’s hand. Lucy May shepherds them
in to the dining room where there is
honey still for tea.

I wrote about this poem in my  writer’s blog a few years ago – when it was first published in the Stony Thursday Book. (It’s also in my collection This Little World.) I had the joy of reading it in Limerick when the journal was launched; bringing the poem home, so to speak. When I began to research this poem about my family’s connection to the first World War, I didn’t realise I’d find Limerick connections to some of the most famous war poets of that era.

In autumn 2011, I was writing a series of poems about women on the edges, the margins, of history. I wanted to explore the Irish domestic experience of World War l.  I was able to do that through my great-grandmother, using stories my grandmother told me about that time:

Limerick was a garrison town. My great- grandmother used to give Sunday teas for some of the soldiers in the barracks. I suspect they met at Church. My granny remembered the soldiers marching through Limerick every Sunday, on their way to religious services.
Grannie had a box of photos of some of those visitors to the house. Over the years, I’d ask her to take out the photos and tell me about them. The soldiers mentioned in my poem are the men in those old photographs.

Did Sassoon and Graves come to tea?
Well, I took a bit of poetic licence – telescoping events.  In ‘Goodbye to All That’, Graves mentions being posted to Limerick at the end of the war. And, the Graves family had a long association with Limerick – Robert’s grandfather was a Bishop of Limerick. Though I think Graves had mixed feelings about his Irish ancestry! An email I have from the curator of the RWF Museum states that Graves was in Limerick from 1917 until he was demobbed in 1919.
Since writing the poem I’ve discovered that the poet and artist David Jones (‘In Parenthesis’) was also stationed in Limerick. He moved there from the Western Front after a severe bout of trench fever. There’s more of a chance that he  could have sat at Lucy May’s tea table.
As for Sassoon visiting my family? Well, I don’t think Sassoon was a ‘chapel’ sort of chap. While he wrote several poems during his stay in Limerick, there’s also an account of his going to a hunt in County Limerick. On that occasion, he got ‘high tea’ from a Mrs. McDonnell of Ballinacurra House. There would be a lovely symmetry to the episode, but I don’t think I’m related to her!

Sassoon was in Limerick with the Third Battalion for less than two months – early in 1918. Like Graves and Jones, he was in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. I’m not a military historian, but the best way I can describe the Third Battalion is as a feeder unit, or a posting for soldiers as respite before going back to the Front. Sassoon wasn’t long out of Craiglockhart War Hospital when he was posted to Ireland. He was impatient to get back to the war.

There are seven, possibly eight, poems from his time in Limerick – including one called ‘In Barracks’. (Another interesting poem is from in July 1918 – ‘Letter to Robert Graves’.)
‘Remorse’, was written in Limerick on 4 February 1918, just four days before he left for Palestine. He was there until May 1918, when he returned to the Western Front.

REMORSE                                                                                                                                           Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,–each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
“Could anything be worse than this?”–he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees. . .
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs . . . “O hell!”
He thought–“there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.”

As for my great-granduncle, and the other soldiers who came to tea . . .

After I’d written the poem, my mother told me another story: my gran-aunts used to sing for the soldiers. Seemingly there was one song they hadn’t heard before, and one of the children copied it out for a soldier. His family later wrote to my great-grandmother;  he had been killed and the sheet of paper with the song on it was among his belongings when he died. One soldier wrote to Lucy May until the 1950s. We also have a Christmas card that was sent to her in December 1918. It’s printed in Welsh & English. I’ll post a copy of of it in December.

Bill survived, but he didn’t remain in Ireland. Family connections were lost, and I never met him although he died when I was a teenager. I believe he is buried in Cheltenham. So, there’s more research to be done.

A few years ago, I found Bill’s original WWI photos and digitised them with the help of a friend who’s a photographer. There are photos from Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine and, I think, Salonika.

How many of the pals in these photos came home?

© Karen J McDonnell
© Karen J McDonnell
© Karen J McDonnell

 

I started writing this post at dawn.  The sky-chill lifted gradually as the clouds pinkened from the east. There was rain during the night, but the sky is fairly clear now: the bare branches fan out against the increasing blue. The harbour is still. The tide is going out.

Impossible to imagine, truly, the last few hours before eleven o’ clock one hundred years ago.

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Another Month, Another Adventure!

I’m looking forward to meeting up with friends and connecting with writers this weekend, at the Wexford Literary Festival.

I’ll be reading from my collection This Little World in one of the New Voices slots on Saturday afternoon, at the Riverside Hotel in Enniscorthy.

There are some fab events, for readers and writers alike.  You can check out the whole programme by clicking here.

The trip ‘East’ is also giving me a chance to stay with a dear friend. So, after ‘work’ there’ll be time for a nice meal, drinkies, and a catch-up!

Books, poetry, writing, and friends.

What more could a gal ask for?

 

The Western Skyline Podcast – 20 October 2018

The Western Skyline is full of razzamatazz! Quincy Jones, The Pointer Sisters, Prince, Genesis, Sisters Sledge, The Righteous Brothers, Queen & David Bowie, Rick Astley, Robbie Williams. As well as our arts news: KAM; Adventure Talks; Frank Pig Says Hello – 25 years on; Rough Magic; Paul Brady; Mongolian musicians …

Lads, what more could you want??? Even I was dancing in the studio!

The Western Skyline Podcast – 22 September 2018

 

PLAYING TRACKS BY

Joni MitchellBilly JoelLittle DThe Beautiful South and Simon & Garfunkel.

Another guest live in the studio on The Western Skyline this week: Artist Christopher Banahan joined me to discuss an exhibition of paintings inspired by his travels in India. That’s me and Chris in this week’s photo! The paintings are on view in Ishka Cafe in Kinvara. And FOR SALE! Other arts news includes a photography project with teenagers here in Kinvara, and a photography competition for national school children. Plus theatre, film and music gigs in Galway and Clare. Music by R.E.M., Sting, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, The Beatles, and Paul Simon.
A busy Western Skyline on Kinvara 92.4 FM, live and streaming online. Share us with your friends …

 

The Western Skyline Podcast – 08 September 2018

The Western Skyline was delighted to welcome back writer Marion Cox to the show – this time as the administrator of the Lady Gregory-Yeats Autumn Gathering at Coole Park. Lots of info about this year’s programme, plus a lovely reading by Marion of one of Yeats’s poems about Major Robert Gregory. The Gathering takes place from 28-30 September, in Gort, Coole Park, Kiltartan, and Thoor Ballylee.

Plus a quick look at local events on Culture Night which takes place on Friday 21st. And great music – of course! Hope you enjoy the show.
Photo: Autumn Leaves (c) Karen J McDonnell

The Western Skyline Podcast – 25 August 2018

 

On this The Western Skyline – a great chat with guest Nutan, an artist living and working in Kinvara, with a new exhibition of work. Also in the studio – musician and theatre performer Steve Johnston who has launched a new CD. We hear a track, ‘To Chelsea Bridge’, and he performs ‘Kinvara’ live in studio, accompanied by his wife Helen Lane – an artist and collaborator with Steve in their theatre work. Thanks a million to my guests!
Plus other music and arts news

 

Culture Night 2018 – What made me a reader

Delighted to be taking part in this event, which is being hosted by the mighty Sarah Clancy.

Culture Night – ‘The Book that Made Me A Reader’

Venue: DeValera Library, Harmony Row, Ennis, Co. Clare.  At  6.30pm  Friday, 21 September.

And what book have I picked? An impossible choice, as I’m sure you will agree.                                At first I took the idea a bit too literally – as is my wont.  A kids comic, read aged four, isn’t going to hack it. Enid Blyton and the Chalet School books are all a bit obvious. When I’d got through all those and my brothers books, my mother pointed in the direction of her Agatha Christies on the bookshelf in the sitting room.  No wonder I was such a ghoulish teenager! But, though my car is called Agatha in honour of the same lady … no, Poirot and Marple aren’t the people for this gig.

So, what have I chosen? As you probably can’t come along to the session in Ennis library, I’ll let you in on the secret.  Walter Macken. As the bored child with nothing to read, I was given these Mackens by my darling Grannie. And I couldn’t stop reading his books. I devoured all of my grandmother’s copies, eventually buying more myself. I was still a young teenager.

And for afters? Zola. My father gave me ‘Earth’ (La Terre), when I was about fifteen. My love affair with Zola didn’t diminish. I even ended up buying the whole Rougon Macquart series a few years ago – in French!  There they were, in the front window of Scéal Eile – the gorgeous independent bookshop in Ennis. ALL of them. Calling to me.  So I bought them.

The list goes on and on and on and on and on and …

Reader, I’m a fool for a good book.

What about you?

 

Seamus Heaney – a home visit

Here at the Tyrone Centre, the work continues apace: new poems have been drafted; research and notes are ongoing for a radio segment; and, if you’re interested, Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words are on the iPod.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, a short break in the work to give you a link to an article I had published today in the online issue of the Irish Times – marking the fifth anniversary of the death of Seamus Heaney:

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/five-years-on-remembering-seamus-heaney-remembering-loss-1.3612408

I visited Bellaghy at the weekend, staying in a lovely B&B – Dew Hamill. I’d recommend it to you as a lovely place to base yourself if you want to visit the Seamus Heaney Home Place, the local area, and nearby Lough Neagh.

After a lovely brekkie and chat with Margaret & Patrick, I drove to Heaney’s grave to pay my respects. I brought another shell from the Flaggy Shore.

It was the first time that I’d been there since the Home Place was built. I’ll write more about that visit another time.

Reader, I made a show of myself! Tears all ’round. But, a wonderful experience.

Whatever you do today, if you love poetry seek out recordings of Heaney reading his work.

The best way to remember him.

Two Seamuses – photo taken at the Home Place – Karen J McDonnell

 

A Working Holiday: Bellaghy, Annaghmakerrig, AT the Edge

It’s impossible not to feel that autumn is creeping in. Had to put on the woolly socks last night, and the light is dying in the western sky so much earlier these evenings. Even Bessa the cat is back sitting on my lap, or on her car mat in the sitting room!

Sanctuary!                                                                                                                                                    After a busy summer, I can’t wait to get back to the haven that awaits at Annaghmakerrig: a whole week to myself. And though it is a working week, it will be fantastic to have no distractions; to knuckle down to a steady period of writing. This stay will be interesting. No new collection to redraft or to edit and collate. A variety of focus:  a poetry project with national school children to prepare, a radio brief, and then – only then – more poetry.

But first, to Bellaghy . . .                                                                                                                              … and the overnight stay that had to be abandoned a couple of years ago. Since then, the Home Place has been built, and I’m looking forward to my overnight visit.  The poem ‘Grave Good’, in my collection This Little World was written about my first, flying trip to Bellaghy; made less than a year after Seamus Heaney died.  This time around, I’ll be there just a few days before the fifth anniversary of his death. Hard to believe it’s been five years.

No rest for the wicked.                                                                                                                While I’m up Ulster way, I’ll be reading on Tuesday 28 August at Cavan Library for AT the Edge – hosted by the indefatigable Kate Ennals. There are three AT the Edge sessions this year, so I’m chuffed to have been invited to take part in one of them. Tanya Farrelly and David Butler are motoring up from Bray, Co. Wicklow for the evening, and there’ll be an open mic also. Kick off is at 6.30pm.

If you happen to be in the neighbourhood, drop by!

 

 

The Western Skyline Podcast – 11 August 2018 A Cruinniú na mBád Special

Cruinniú na mBád
Photo: Cruinniú collection on Facebook

A live outside broadcast of The Western Skyline on the Saturday of the mighty Cruinniú na mBád Festival in Kinvara – complete with crying babies and the sound of turf being offloaded from the Galway Hookers at the pier outside our studio!

There are interviews with Gráinne, Claire, and Anna – three of the young artists showing work over at the Courthouse Gallery in the village. Also a discussion with Lily Johnston about KAVA artists’ work which is on display around the village during the Festival. And Paul Crowley joins me to talk everything ‘Cruinniú’ as the Galway Hooker boats edge into the harbour. The grace and beauty of the boats has to be seen to be truly appreciated.

Music from two featured albums – Shaun Davey’s ‘Granuaile Suite’ and La Bottine Souriante’s ‘La Traversée de l’Atlantique. Plus vocals from Rita Connolly.

Yes – it’s a very LIVE Western Skyline this week!!!