It is the centenary of the death of Thomas McDonagh, a hundred years ago today, he was taken to the stonebreakers’ yard at Kilmainham and shot by a firing squad. Being English and growing up in a household where there was always a great respect for British servicemen, there was also a deep regard for all who had died in conflicts. From teenage years onward there was a respect for Irish rebels. The leaders of the 1916 Rising were heroic figures.
The passing years raised questions about our naive idealism, but some of the personalities remained fascinating. There was Thomas McDonagh, the gentle Tipperary school teacher. McDonagh was one of those immortalised by WB Yeats in his poem Easter 1916.
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
McDonagh worked with Pearse in running a school where the Irish language was at the heart of education. McDonagh devoted many hours to working on the translation of Irish poems, The Yellow Bittern being amongst the most famous:
The yellow bittern that never broke out
In a drinking bout, might as well have drunk;
His bones are thrown on a naked stone
Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.
O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
Though they say that a sot like myself is curst –
I was sober a while, but I’ll drink and be wise
For I fear I should die in the end of thirst.
It’s not for the common birds that I’d mourn,
The black-bird, the corn-crake, or the crane,
But for the bittern that’s shy and apart
And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.
Oh! if I had known you were near your death,
While my breath held out I’d have run to you,
Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird
Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.
My darling told me to drink no more
Or my life would be o’er in a little short while;
But I told her ’tis drink gives me health and strength
And will lengthen my road by many a mile.
You see how the bird of the long smooth neck
Could get his death from the thirst at last –
Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,
You’ll get no sup when your life is past.
In a wintering island by Constantine’s halls
A bittern calls from a wineless place,
And tells me that hither he cannot come
Till the summer is here and the sunny days.
When he crosses the stream there and wings o’er the sea
Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight –
Well, the milk and the ale are drunk every drop,
And a dram won’t stop our thirst this night.
McDonagh commanded respect, even amongst those whose political views were very different. The Co Meath poet Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge, who was serving with the British army in Flanders, and who was to be blown to pieces on 31st July 1917, wrote a Lament for Thomas McDonagh:
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds,
Above the wailing of the rain.
Nor shall he know when loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
But when the Dark Cow leaves the moor
And pastures poor with greedy weeds
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.
McDonagh was one of those commemorated at the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 by having a railway station named after him; in April 1966 the station in Kilkenny was named McDonagh in his honour. When preparing to move to Kilkenny at the end of 2009, I noticed reference to “McDonagh Junction.” It seemed filled with romantic and poetic resonance, until I discovered it was the name for a shopping centre in the city.
In former generations, we erected statues and wrote poems in honour of heroes; in more peaceful days we name retail outlets after them. Is shopping the best we can now manage by way of honour? Have we no Yeats to mark such moments?