The Small Towns of Ireland

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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.

      bejeman 12

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

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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.

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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.

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‘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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

John Betjeman

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.

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About sdaedalus

The sibling of daedalus
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4 Responses to The Small Towns of Ireland

  1. Mark O'S says:

    These are great photos. i think one of them might be from my home town, Thurles. Tried to find the accompanying text you mentioned but couldn’t. Any idea what the guide book was called?
    Well done on the blog – very interesting stuff,
    Mark

    • sdaedalus says:

      Thanks very much, Mark, lovely to get positive feedback and new commenters.

      The link just says ‘historic lecture booklet’. Very lazy description. Shame. If you emailed the University of Oregon they might be able to give you more detail though. Which one do you think is of Thurles? The girls and the carts?

      If you click on the link at the end of the post it will take you through to copies of all the photos (and a few more) at the University of Oregon website. Look at the bit beside the photo that says ‘Image Description’, that’s the text I mention. If you click on the photo it also comes up under it I think. It’s quite short but pithy. Example (accompanying photo of jig cart and cab in what I think is Merrion Square):-

      “Today one notices other effects of lack of cooperation. Instead of having one common price taxi men bid against each other and compete as individuals for business. As a result no one is getting much ahead and old fashioned methods and equipments are still in style.”

      Interesting angle on the benefits of cartels as opposed to free competition!

      • Mark O'S says:

        Thanks for that. Yes, the girls and the carts might be in Thurles. I thought I’d seen all the old shots of the town that were out there but this was new to me. I’ll follow up on it as you suggest. Love to see some stuff on Chapelizod on your blog some time – fascinating place I’ve always thought,
        Mark

      • sdaedalus says:

        I wrote a short story about Chapelizod on a previous blog (now both gone). Very interesting place I agree, Finnegan’s Wake, Huguenots, Bram Stoker’ s House by the Churchyard (up for sale only a year or two ago) etc… I don’t get out there very often as I don’t drive, but always something interesting to see. Some fascinatingly old buildings. And I am huge fan of the Strawberry Beds. A bit of Dublin you don’t read about in the tourist books.

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