THE SMALL TOWNS OF IRELAND
The small towns of Ireland by bards are neglected,
They stand there, all lonesome, on hilltop and plain.
The Protestant glebe house by beech trees protected
Sits close to the gates of his Lordship’s demesne.
But where is his Lordship, who once in a phaeton
Drove out twixt his lodges and into the town?
Oh his tragic misfortunes I will not dilate on;
His mansion’s a ruin, his woods are cut down
His impoverished descendant is dwelling in Ealing,
His daughters must type for their bread and their board,
O’er the graves of his forebears the nettle is stealing
And few will remember the sad Irish Lord.
Yet still stands the Mall where his agent resided,
The doctor, attorney and such class of men.
The elegant fanlights and windows provided
A Dublin-like look for the town’s Upper Ten.
‘Twas bravely they stood by the Protestant steeple
As over the town rose their roof-trees afar.
Let us slowly descend to the part where the people
Do mingle their ass-carts by Finnegan’s Bar
I hear it once more, the soft sound of those voices,
When fair day is filling with farmers the Square,
And the heart in my bosom delights and rejoices
To think of the dealing and drinking done there.
I see thy grey granite, O grim House of Sessions!
I think of the judges who sat there in state
And my mind travels back to our monster processions
To honour the heroes of brave Ninety-Eight.
The barracks are burned where the Redcoats oppressed us,
The gaol is broke open, our people are free.
Though Cromwell once cursed us, Saint Patrick has blessed us -
The merciless English have fled o’er the sea.
Look out where yon cabins grow smaller to smallest,
Straw-thatched and one-storey and soon to come down,
To the prominent steeple, the newest and tallest,
Of Saint Malachy’s Catholic Church in our town:
The fine architecture, the wealth of mosaic,
The various marbles on altars within -
To attempt a description were merely prosaic,
So, asking your pardon, I will not begin.
O my small town of Ireland, the raindrops caress you,
The sun sparkles bright on your field and your Square
As here on your bridge I salute you and bless you,
Your murmuring waters and turf-scented air.
Love this poem, written by Betjeman while on spy-duty in Ireland in the 1940s; so true, even today. So many of the small towns of Ireland were built for the ascendancy, and never seem to have quite recovered from their leaving; traces of the past remain everywhere, in their ground-rents, deserted churchyards and graveyards, agents’ houses and such mansions as remain. History is layer upon layer, brick upon brick, and if you take one away any edifice so constructed needs the scaffold of fraud; it’s not possible to rewrite part of a country’s past, nor should one want to …
The photos are from a 1920s guidebook to Ireland, available at the University of Oregon here (interesting accompanying text).
More about Betjeman and his sometimes life-imperilling wartime experiences in Ireland here (in true Irish fashion, this most unlikely Scheherazade was saved by his poetry). Some more of his Irish poems (with a line in one surely lifted from Orwell’s old maids cycling to Communion through the morning mist) here.