The HyperTexts

Getting Our Irish Up: St. Patrick's Day Poems and Irish Poems

These are poems, just in time for St. Patrick's Day, about the luck and pluck of the Irish...

St. Patrick's Day
is time to play ...

or so the elves
and leprechauns say.

(But best wear green,
or feel their spleen!)

St. Patrick's Day
is on its way;

it's fun and gay,
though not that way.

(Or so the staunch
revanchists say, ...

but a bit more booze
may make gay okay.)

—Michael R. Burch

Some of the world's greatest poets have been Irish, from the first Irish bard, Amergin, to the mad and bad Lord Byron, to the near-consensus greatest Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, to, more recently, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. Some of my favorites among the less-well-known Irish poets include Eavan Boland, Ethna Carbery, Seamus Cassidy, James Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice, Derek Mahon, Thomas Moore, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Oscar Wilde (better know for his plays and epigrams than for his poetry), Lady Jane Wilde (the mother of Oscar Wilde) and our own contributing editor, Martin Mc Carthy. — Michael R. Burch, editor-in-chief, The HyperTexts

Let the fun and puns and games commence!

Two of the most beautiful poems in the English language, "Requiscat" by Oscar Wilde and "The Wild Swans at Coole" by William Butler Yeats, appear on this page. If you haven't read them, you haven't fully lived, so please be sure to check them out.

One of the earliest Irish poems we have a chance of being able to read today is an invitation to dance:

I Am of Ireland
anonymous Medieval Irish Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I am of Ireland,
and of the holy realm
of Ireland.

Gentlefolk, I pray thee:
for the sake of saintly charity,
come dance with me
in Ireland.

The original poem still smacks of ancient German, as the first line reads: "Ich am of Irlaunde." But a metamorphosis was clearly in progress: Irish poetry, like English poetry, was evolving to employ meter and rhyme, in addition to Anglo-Saxon alliteration. The invitation to join a dance is interesting. And it's interesting to note that "ballad," "ballet" and "ball" all have the same root: the Latin ballare (to dance) and the Italian ballo/balleto (a dance). Think of a farm community assembling for a hoe-down, doing the two-step to music with lyrics. That is apparently how many early English language poems originated. And the more regular meter of the evolving poems would suit music well.

St. Patrick's Day Trivia: Did you know that the Beatles' first single was a recording of the Irish/Scottish folk tune "My Bonnie"?

My Bonnie

My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
Well, my Bonnie lies over the ocean
Yeah, bring back my Bonnie to me
Yeah, bring back, ah, bring back
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me, to me
Ah, bring, oh, bring back, ah, bring back
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me

Of course St. Patrick's Day is an excuse to drink (even more than usual), so it is befitting that the greatest Irish poet wrote the perfect drinking song for the occasion. A melancholy drinking song, as suits the Irish:

A Drinking Song
by William Butler Yeats

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

Speaking of the Irish and drinking, I have a poem on the subject. My mother was English and one of her sisters, my aunt Barbara, married an Irishman, Patrick Gallagher, whose mother spoke Gaelic. Everyone in my uncle's family had either coal-black or flaming red hair. I lived in England for five years as a boy, and summered there another four years, and thus had numerous opportunities to visit with my Irish cousins, who lived within walking distance of my grandparents' house in Mattersey, Nottinghamshire. One of my flame-headed cousins was a bit of a "wild child" and she inspired the following poem of mine...

by Michael R. Burch

All that’s left of Ireland is her hair—
bright carrot—and her milkmaid-pallid skin,
her brilliant air of cavalier despair,
her train of children—some conceived in sin,
the others to avoid it. For nowhere
is evidence of thought. Devout, pale, thin,
gay, nonchalant, all radiance. So fair!

How can men look upon her and not spin
like wobbly buoys churned by her skirt’s brisk air?
They buy. They grope to pat her nyloned shin,
to share her elevated, pale Despair ...
to find at last two spirits ease no one’s.

All that’s left of Ireland is the Care,
her impish grin, green eyes like leprechauns’.

The next poem was written in response to mine...

by Martin Mc Carthy

for Mike

One of my most rejected poems
lies there upon the table;
I still like it … like its rhythms;
wouldn’t change it if I were able.

It tells the tale of a wild Irish gal,
with an impish grin and roving eye,
but journals like a regular gal,
yet my heart won’t say goodbye.

She came from where the Muses live,
and no one can hem them in;
some are wild and willing to save,
while some delight in sin.

But this is just a simple story
of a poem’s unwanted news,
so I’ll leave to unlikely glory
and go in peace to serve the Muse.

Author's note. Because I’m Irish, and because Erin is a Gaelic deviant for Ireland, Michael R. Burch sent me a copy of his poem ‘Erin’ to read. He said it was his ‘most rejected poem’, but that he had always liked it himself. So I read it, thought it was good, and wrote ‘Unwanted’ from his perspective.

Ethna Carbery was the pen-name of the Irish poet Anna MacManus, née Johnston. She was born in Ballymena, County Antrim, in 1866. Her writings did much to stimulate the early Sinn Féin movement and were published in the Nation, United Ireland and elsewhere. She and Alice Milligan founded a monthly paper, the Northern Patriot, and the Shan Van Vocht. Her publications include The Four Winds of Eirinn (1902), a book of poetry, The Passionate Hearts (1903), a collection of short stories, and In the Celtic Past (1904). She died 1911, survived by her husband, Séamus MacManus.

by Ethna Carbery

Now that the gates are shut on all I cherished,
    O wistful Love, I pray,
Blow no more haunting scents of roses perished,
    About my lonely way.

Take from me memory of happy laughter,
    Of kisses more than kind
And that I may not meet his eyes hereafter,
    I pray thee strike me blind.

Lest I should knock against the bars, and, bleeding,
    Cry to him, faithless—“Come!”
The while he passes by, my grief unheeding,
    I pray thee strike me dumb.

So it were best. And dumb and blind, forgetting,
    White peace may wrap my soul;
Till, lorn of love and hate, and unregretting,
    It passes to its goal.

Seamus Cassidy was the pen name of the Irish-American poet Jim McManmon. Born in Chicago in 1943, the fourth of nine children, Jim grew up in a colonial town, Metuchen, New Jersey, where he enjoyed yearly summer visits from his Irish-born paternal Grandmother who was, like her son, his Uncle, a born storyteller. During his high school years Jim lived on a small truck farm with milk-cows, pigs, chickens, honeybees, an apple orchard and vineyard—all of which he helped to tend. After finishing college and university he embarked on a career as a teacher of History and English in junior high and high school. Jim was in a Jesuit order, The Brothers of the Sacred Heart, from age 14 to 28. Jim also dedicated much of his life to helping children by running the Broman Group Home for boys in Las Vegas for over 30 years and then as a substitute teacher. Jim was described as having a "radiant smile" and "looking like a happy Robert Frost." He produced a book of dramatic monologues based on historical characters, with accompanying biographical sketches written by his editor friend, Mark Orrin. Anne Marie Shea, Jim's wife and mother of their two children, daughter Erin and son Sean, provided line sketches of each person profiled in the book. She is the Nancy mentioned in some of the poems on this page. The Bobbie Kay mentioned was Jim's second wife, as he remarried after Nancy's death.

"Taste of that Salt Breath"
by Seamus Cassidy

reflections on a verse of W. B. Yeats

So, I'll take my watercolors
and go to where the rocks
reach out like Celtic hands
just in from the fields,
spread for the surging sea's cleansing.

There on promontories that jut out
to where the starving have all gone,
I sit and stare inhaling salt breath
your incoming tide exhales
upon these stones.

I want to taste the salt of seas
invading redhaired Vikings smelled,
remembering as they leaned back
to watch our green shores fade,
longed to return and learned to love our land,
then stayed to give birth
to all my wife and children's fierce red fire.

Now, upon my own head that bonfire
has retired to ash
where white-caps top me,
and I wave toward heaven
wondering when and why I've come today.

Oh, I'll sit and paint on this stillpoint;
let waves outside me crash
and send their white-churning
to bound against the boulders
that fill my breathing chest.

Martin Mc Carthy's choice of a great Irish poem:

My choice of a great Irish poem would be 'On Raglan Road' — which, in recent times, has become more famous as a folk song — specifically the version by Dubliner's singer, Luke Kelly. It was written by the Monaghan-born poet, Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) to the air of the old Irish ballad 'The Dawning of the Day'. In 2019 'On Raglan Road' was voted Ireland's favourite folk song through a public vote. In my view, it well deserves that accolade. But 'On Raglan Road' is no less powerful as a poem in its own right. A powerful poem, telling a sad tale of unrequited love.

On Raglan Road
by Patrick Kavanagh

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion's pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay -
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.

I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that's known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay -
When the angel woos the clay he'd lose his wings at the dawn of day.

Excerpt from "The Sunlight on the Garden"
by Louis MacNeice

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Bagpipe Music
by Louis MacNeice

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with head of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumbbells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it's no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tire and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife "Take it away; I'm through with overproduction."

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

by Louis MacNeice

Run out the boat, my broken comrades;
Let the old seaweed crack, the surge
Burgeon oblivious of the last
Embarkation of feckless men,
Let every adverse force converge —
Here we must needs embark again.

Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades;
Let each horizon tilt and lurch —
You know the worst: your wills are fickle,
Your values blurred, your hearts impure
And your past life a ruined church —
But let your poison be your cure.

Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,
Whose record shall be noble yet;
Butting through scarps of moving marble
The narwhal dares us to be free;
By a high star our course is set,
Our end is Life. Put out to sea.

"Thalassa" was found in Louis MacNeice's papers after his death in 1963. It may have been the last poem he wrote, but the date of its composition is unknown. "Thalassa! Thalassa!" ("The sea! The sea!") was the cry of the Greek mercenaries in Xenophon's Anabasis when they saw the Black Sea, which told them they were nearing home after a failed march against the Persian Empire in 401 BC.

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

The Light of Other Days
by Thomas Moore

Oft, in the stilly night,
  Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
  Of other days around me:
    The smiles, the tears
    Of boyhood's years,
  The words of love then spoken;
    The eyes that shone,
    Now dimm'd and gone,
  The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
  Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
  Of other days around me.

When I remember all
  The friends, so link'd together,
I've seen around me fall
  Like leaves in wintry weather,
    I feel like one
    Who treads alone
  Some banquet-hall deserted,
    Whose lights are fled,
    Whose garlands dead,
  And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
  Ere slumber's chain has bound me.
Sad Memory brings the light
  Of other days around me.

The Wild Swans at Coole
by William Butler Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

So We'll Go No More A-Roving

by George Gordon, Lord Byron

So we'll go no more a-roving
   So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
   And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
   And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
   And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
   By the light of the moon.

She Walks In Beauty
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

On the Beach at Fontana
by James Joyce

Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
Slimesilvered stone.

From whining wind and colder
Grey sea I wrap him warm
And touch his trembling fineboned shoulder
And boyish arm.

Around us fear, descending,
Darkness of fear above;
And in my heart how deep unending
Ache of love!

O, It Was Out by Donnycarney
by James Joyce

O, it was out by Donnycarney
When the bat flew from tree to tree
My love and I did walk together;
And sweet were the words she said to me.

Along with us the summer wind
Went murmuring — O, happily! —
But softer than the breath of summer
Was the kiss she gave to me.

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
by William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Leda and the Swan

by William Butler Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                        Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

The Balloon Of The Mind
by William Butler Yeats

Hands, do what you're bid;
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

Fairytale of New York
by Jem Finer and Shane Macgowan
recorded by the Pogues

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song
"The Rare Old Mountain Dew"
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I've got a feeling
This year's for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It's no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing Galway Bay
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead
on a drip in that bed

You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing Galway Bay
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas day

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing Galway Bay
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas day

Related Pages: St. Patrick's Day Poems, Ethna Carbery, Seamus Cassidy, Martin Mc Carthy

The HyperTexts