A Brosnan Gathering is the title of a book produced in 2013.1 It contains an interesting article about Blasket Island writer, Peig Sayers, whose mother was Margaret (Peig) Brosnan.2
It is generally accepted that Margaret Brosnan was from Castleisland. Tom Brosnan, author of The Brosnan Gathering, remarked that, despite Peig’s international literary fame, little seems to be known about her mother, and her Castleisland forebears appear something of a mystery.
It is a long road from Castleisland to Ballyferriter but in the latter there is on record the marriage, in 1851, of Margaret Brosnan to Tomás Sayers (or Sears).3 If this was the marriage of Peig’s parents, there is little more to add than it was witnessed by Daniel Divane.
Tomás Sayers was a farmer, fisherman and storyteller who shared his stories with Jeremiah Curtin 4 He was said to be of Bearla (English) descent (the name of Sayers was not uncommon to the Dingle area; indeed, the parents of another Tom Sayers, the nineteenth century champion bare knuckle fighter who defeated Heenan, were from Dingle).5
The young couple lived first in Ventry but at some point moved to Dunquin.6 In her autobiography, Peig recalled that her parents enjoyed six years of prosperity before their fortunes took a turn for the worse:
They didn’t prosper in Dunquin no more than they did in Ventry … one after another, the children died, until in all, nine children were buried.7
At this time, they had three surviving children, John, Patrick and Mary.8 Margaret Brosnan, now Mrs Sayers, believed that if they moved, their fortunes might improve and so they took up residence in Baile an Bhiochaire (Vicarstown) in Dunquin.9
They moved in 1872 and six months later, on 29 March 1873, Peig Sayers was born. To the great joy of her mother, who had so heartbreakingly seen her last nine infants die, Peig thrived.10 Peig was educated at Dunquin National School but at a young age was put out to work as a maidservant in the Dingle area.
On 13 February 1892, at the age of 18, an arrangement was made for her marriage to fisherman Pádraig Ó Guiheen, son of Michael Guiheen and Mary Sullivan.11 Peig moved to the Great Blasket Island where she would remain for the next forty years. There her children were born, and there, like her mother before her, many of them did not survive.12
As far as can be established, Peig’s parents remained in Vicarstown. In 1901, her 68-year-old mother and 76-year-old father were recorded there on the census. In 1911, they did not appear.
In 1923, at the age of fifty, Peig was widowed. Her sorrows were compounded by the emigration of all of her children, Maurice, Padraig, Micheál, Catherine and Helen.13 Only Micheál, author of A Pity Youth Does Not Last, did not favour life abroad and soon returned to Ireland where he remained for the rest of his life.14
In 1942, Peig and her son moved back to Vicarstown, the old home place on the mainland. On a bleak winter’s morning a few years later, Peig was visited by the wandering bard, Eoghan Roe Ward.15
The red-haired, red-bearded poet, who spent much time in Dunquin, described his approach to the gale swept Mount Eagle and to the little cabin with the black felt roof which was tied down with sugones ‘the rocks at the end of them swinging back and forth with the force of the gale’.16
He found Micheál Sayers and Coady, Peig’s brother-in-law, smoking pipes by the fire, the walls of the neat cabin covered with pictures of students and children, professors and editors, and a church of Scotland bishop, Peig’s ‘best friend’, who visited the Blaskets and remained with her until he had mastered the Irish language.
Ward described the scene:
Peig’s De do Bheachasa rang through the cabin and settled in the depths of my soul. It was even more beautiful than I can describe. Perhaps it was the language in which it was spoken that made it so. I sat for a moment without speaking and as my eyes stared blankly into the back of the fire, I felt ashamed of myself, in fact ignorant, I was a creature of a many who was much too fond of himself, to live the life of simplicity that these Apostles lived … Bail D’ Dia Ar Earinn – such is the hidden soul of Ireland that seldom is shown to the stranger.17
Ward related Peig’s hardships, how her father owned no land whatever, ‘not even the grass of a goat’ and depended on his naomhog, his fishing nets or lobster pots to feed his children.18 He sketched Peig thus:
Imagine a tall handsome woman with auburn hair and a fair wrinkled brow. Her head is thrown back when in her favourite pose. With her hands on her hips, the sea blue eyes will sink into your soul and examine you for what you may be. Her speech is soft and clear, more inclined to be biting like the salt water. Her air is one of independence, but often one is deceived by such airs although her wit will cover her depth to all intents and purposes.19
These were Peig’s twilight years. She would soon enter St Elizabeth’s Hospital, Dingle, for a number of years where, on Monday 8 December 1958, she died in her 86th year.
She was laid to rest in Dunquin.
Eoghan Roe Ward, ‘Last of the Bards’
If Peig had a story to tell, so did Eoghan Roe Ward, self-styled ‘last of the bards’.20
Among his writings was an account of the Blaskets and Seán Donal, the like of whom was ‘practically non-existent in the modern world’. It is a snapshot of life on the Island about a decade before it was evacuated. 21
Ward claimed descent from the bards of the O’Donnell clan, who accompanied the Earls on their seventeenth century flight to the continent. 22 Indeed, Ward claimed many things, and his life is not easy to unravel. At times he said he was an orphan from Derrybeg, Gweedore, Co Donegal, who had left the orphanage at the age of between 9 and 15 (accounts vary) for life on the road as a balladeer. Other times he claimed to be the son of an unschooled fisherman who made lovely poems.
A civilised gentleman of the roads
Whatever his childhood, it was widely accepted that Ward’s personality and his ballads enlivened many a fair and pattern throughout Ireland. ‘He was a civilised gentleman of the roads, courtly and gentle, ever ready to entertain anyone who wanted to be entertained with his intelligent talk of men and books or his accounts of fabulous adventure among the tramps, writers and other ‘quare’ characters who came his way during his wide-flung travels in Ireland, England and America’.23
Ward’s reputation as a travelling poet seems to have emerged in the early 1940s. A mention is made at this time of his ballad sheet of 55 songs, A bundle of Wrack and Corn.24 Ward described the writer’s lot as impoverished, ‘with little but pride to keep them from the workhouse’.25
In January 1942, Ward was interviewed by the Waterford Standard during a short visit to Tramore and described how he had left Donegal at a young age to travel the world. His story went that in Cork, he stowed away aboard an American bound ship, arrived in Boston rolled up in a sheet of canvas on the ship’s deck. He landed without detection and travelled extensively all over America composing and singing original ballads. In accordance with Irish Bardic tradition, he varied his themes in accordance with surroundings. He subsequently travelled to Europe and was present during the Munich putsch, when Herr Hitler took command in Germany and he was in Valencia during the Spanish Civil War.
By March 1942, Ward had moved on from Waterford to Cork, first to Bandon and in April, while in Adrigole, he composed a poem about the village. He was later in Killarney where he was not well received, a ban on street singers being in place.26
Ward complained about the town to the newly formed Writers’, Actors’, Artistes’ and Musicians’ Association in Dublin who intervened on his behalf. 27
The news of his reception in Kerry reached Waterford, where he had earlier received such welcome. A journalist wrote, ‘The Town Clerk of Killarney must be a mighty man for he apparently claims the right to be sole judge of who should sing and what songs should be sung on the streets of the Kerry resort’.28
Ward on the radio
By the end of 1942, Ward’s popularity was such that he sung some of his ballads on Radio Eireann.29
In January 1943, Ward spent an evening in the company of ‘Piers Plowman’ (Patrick Kavanagh) who described him as ‘not yet thirty’ with ‘a healthy rugged face’. Ward, who he said was born in the Rosses, wore ‘a romantically battered felt hat’:
His real merit is his intimate knowledge of the tinkers and other travelling tribes of the roads of Ireland. So much rot has been written about these people that it is a real education to meet Mr Ward. He has lived with them, been at their weddings and wakes. He has bought and sold with them and fought them. He speaks highly of their morality and their general decency. If they steal, well that is part of their way of life.30
In search of a donkey
Plowman mentioned that Ward had written a book about his experiences and also put out an SOS: Ward’s donkey had died before Christmas and if anybody could help him buy another he could be found encamped ‘on the Dodder bank at Milltown, Co Dublin’.31
The response was not immediate and Ward struggled on alone. In February, he ended up before Judge Reddin in Lucan District Court. There had been a misunderstanding about the use of a donkey. The court reporter gave a good description of the foxy-haired, red-bearded poet:
His spare frame was poorly clothed and from the recesses of the ragged garments he took scraps of paper bearing his own ballad compositions. One of them was entitled The Shilling a Night and according to the author had been broadcast by him from Radio Eireann. It was written to the air of The Ould Orange Flute and whimsically described a celebrated lodging house in Co Antrim. Another ballad was about Williams, the young man executed in Belfast.32
The judge, dismissing the case, enquired how Ward had acquired his education, and the poet informed him he had been travelling all his life and read a good deal while wandering, ‘simple short stories by good writers’. He had read the works of Dickens and Maxim Gorky, to name a few.
Without a donkey, Ward was drawing his makeshift caravan (an inverted part of a navog or canvas boat generally used in the Kerry Gaeltacht) by himself and his health suffered. In March, Ward was in the county Infirmary. ‘Tatler’, a columnist for the Nationallist and Leinster Times came to his aid and opened a subscription, donations to the newspaper office. Within one week, Roe was out of hospital and his donkey had been replaced. Ward sent a poetic thank you to supporters published courtesy of the newspaper.33
By April 1943, Ward was in the Galtees on his way to Cork from where he planned to visit Kerry for the summer. He wrote to ‘Piers Plowman’ in the same month, addressing his letter, in Irish, ‘The Knockmealdowns, The Roads of Ireland’, describing his delight in watching his new donkey jaunting along the road.
The O’Donnell Belt
It was probably during this visit to Cork that Ward took abode at World’s End in Kinsale. He was welcomed to the town by Seumus Breathnach.34 Preparations were underway in local museum circles for the making of a film about the Battle of Kinsale. Ward, who again claimed ancestry to the bards of the O’Donnell clan, explained that one of them was present at the historic battle. He wrote a dialogue about the battle which he presented to the regional museum and at the same time, donated a brown leather belt, ‘about three and a half inches in width with two buckles’, worn, he said, by Red Hugh O’Donnell in the 1601-2 campaign.35
Ward continued his travels to Kerry, where he seems to have remained for some time. He was particularly fond of Dunquin where he found ‘more peace than he found in any place in the whole of Ireland’. His good friend there was Sean Kavanagh, ‘the Cota’, whose ‘mellifluous Gaelic stirred the hearts of all who knew him’.36
In January 1944, Ward was still in Kerry when he visited Peig at her home in Dunquin. As he remarked in his sketch about the visit, ‘in these parts I have gone beyond the stage of being called a stranger’.37
He was still in Dingle in April that year when he sent a verse of condolence to the Nationalist and Leinster Times in memory of James Reddy, manager.
It is not known where his wanderings took him next but by February 1945, he was in Dublin where he ‘threw a spanner in the works’ at a gathering of the Writers’, Actors’, Artistes’ and Musicians’ Association. He told the members – ‘including Sheila Richards’ – how a play she had rejected had been staged in Kerry by its author and made £600 in six weeks, ‘Matter a curse what you think, that’ll make you think twice’.
The publicity gave opportunity for a little scrutiny of Ward. A reporter for the Irish Independent observed that the dinner was attended by editors, university lecturers, actresses, journalists, authors ‘famed beyond the frontiers of their own land,’ intellectuals, politicians and industrialists but no speaker made such a hit as Ward:
A young, lank and lean man, somewhat hollow-cheeked of squarish face with deep set light eyes and red, unruly hair. He wore no collar and his broad hands were those of a manual worker. His soft voice with the lovely lilt of his native accent was naturally cultured, the choice of his words was faultless and his arguments so closely knit that the audience hung spell-bound on his lips.38
The writer appears to have been given access to Ward’s autobiography, which he described as ‘one of the most fascinating stories that I have read’. On this occasion, another version of Ward’s past emerged. Ward, he said, went to school in Derrybeg then joined his parents who ‘howked tatties’ in season in Ayrshire and lived in bothies, the transitory workers’ huts on a Scottish farm. One day, in a West Coast Scottish town, Ward found a book by Patrick McGill and thus discovered the lure of literature, reading avidly stories by fellow Donegal men, like Peadar O’Donnell and Seamus McManus.
Thus Ward began making songs as he tramped all over Britain and later America from the Barbary Coast to the Sierras:
When he returned home he built his caravan. In it he follows the seaboard, writing his ballads, short and succinct stories of local gossip and history. He does it in the early morning, for too many have been eaten by rats overnight. He sings them at the Big Fair of Ballinasloe, the Listowel Races, or whatever the occasion is. Dingle Peninsula – ‘the finest scenery, the most generous people’ – is his favourite haunt but he knows every village in Ireland.
End of the Second World War
Perhaps it was the interest in his autobiography that caused Ward to go England in search of a publisher. His friend ‘Tatler’ received a letter from him about his meeting in London with Methuens. Ward’s visit coincided with the day peace was declared in 1945. Ward wrote:
Unrest is rife and morals seem to have gone very low. As I walk out of the milling crowd I can’t help noticing the channel on the roadside that is full of contraceptives. Such things are so common that one begins to accept them as part of the broken-down city through which I wander. People do not think here anymore; they are led by emotionalism. But one thing they strongly express themselves about is that they want Germany crushed. Having knocked her down they want to squelch her good and well into the ground. Vengeance is the cry of London – London that is victory-drunk; a city of bitterness. Hate is in its hey-day, and not only hate for the Germans who have been brought to their knees but also hate for the Welsh and Irish workers who are treated with a great deal of scorn and ridicule. The soldiers of all nationalities, in their several uniforms, are the silent symbols of the nations who have fought for England, and they are now to a great extent unwanted. They are soldiers without a country often than not, especially Poles, who have no place to go. They are left utterly out in the cold. 39
While he was in England, Ward became unwell but refused to go into hospital there. He returned to Dublin in October with hopes that his book would soon be published. He called to the Writers’ Guild where secretary, Barney McGinn, found him in poor health.
He was subsequently admitted to Richmond hospital, Mary Street, Dublin, his young body ‘torn by overwork and a hardship that even he has grown too old to bear without ill effects’. It was remarked that he was suffering from stomach trouble and complaints due to his early working years in the coal pits of Scotland.
Ward asked to be remembered to all his friends in Carlow, Laois and Kildare and asked that they prayed he got the strength to get back to his beloved Ballyferriter as soon as possible where he hoped to rebuild his impaired health and be near his old friend Sean a Chota (Kavanagh) ‘King of the Dingle Republic’.40
In company with Dylan Thomas
In late 1946, Ward was in company with Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who was taking a break from his labours on BBC’s Third Programme, but Ward’s health broke down again and in December, he was admitted to Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, Grand Canal Street, Dublin.
‘Tatler’ once again came to his aid and in the issue of 28 December, asked readers, ‘If you would like to help this poor man you can send a little donation to Roger McHugh, Rose Cottage, Killiney, Dublin’.41
There was real concern that Ward’s autobiography awaited revision before going to press, and illness prevented him discharging the task. Most of it had been ‘written on the roadside, or sitting on his covered cart’, his great hope to have it published to ‘buy a real caravan with the money’. It was hoped his recovery would come quickly to speed the work into the hands of the publisher.42
In January 1947, Ward’s doctor let it to be known that the poet’s condition meant he urgently required a dietary supplement of bananas – at least six daily – to save his life. The response was rapid and generous. The Mayor of New York, William O’Dwyer, rushed a crate of bananas to Ireland after a cabled request from John McCann, Mayor of Dublin. Three air companies responded, Aer Lingus, American Overseas Airlines and Pan-American. Mr Jesse Boynton, manager of Pan-American Airways, Shannon Port, sent a request to the New York office that bananas be sent daily on their planes.
The fruit was rushed from the airport to the hospital by Irish Independent newspaper van to Dublin. Local people also responded, including Hugh A McBryan, proprietor of the Snack Bar in Upper Leeson Street, Dublin, who immediately supplied fruit to the hospital.
But it was all in vain. Ward died in hospital on 22 January 1947.43
‘Tatler’ published a tribute in the issue of 1 February. He recalled how Ward used to say ‘a man on the roads would never starve, I was never turned away hungry.’ ‘Tatler’ wrote that Ward left Derry orphanage as a boy, went to Scotland and spent time as a miner. He travelled to Mexico and the United States and England. But the open road was his ‘meat’:
When privation and bad health struck him he became a sad man. A year ago in spring I met him near Foxrock in Co Dublin, sitting on the roadside brooding. He had just come from hospital after a serious operation which was really the beginning of the end for him. And as we talked he told me of his longing to continue the troubadour’s life which in his heart he knew he could never do again.
‘Tatler’ had met Ward in the hospital about three weeks before he died:
I found him a lean, shadowy man with the light of heaven already flickering in his feverish eyes … ‘This is the end of me’ he told me, and he caught my hand as tightly as his feeble grip could, and thanked me for a few little turns I did him from time to time. That was the last of him I saw until I got word of his death … Those of you who knew him will pray too that the sod may rest lightly over his frail corpse, and that the soul of Eoghan Roe Ward, The Bard of Tirconnaill, may enjoy the peace that passes understanding.44
Ward was buried in Glasnevin. 45
Shrewd Peig Sayers
One must praise Peig Sayers for eyeing Ward with some suspicion back in 1942 for a subscription fund was subsequently opened for Ward’s family, his expectant wife, Doreen, and young daughter.46 Ward, it transpired, was a pen or adopted name of Patrick Michael O’Connell.47 His marriage certificate described him as a journalist.48
Ward was the son of Patrick O’Connell, farmer, ‘deceased’. This is about as much as is known about the travelling bard and he remains something of a mystery. His remarks about his ancestry may well hold truth, for he certainly donated an historic belt to Waterford museum.
In 1966, Sigerson Clifford, on reviewing Getting Up Early, the collected poems of Brendan Kennelly, remarked on a recent visit to a pub in the capital:
Last time I sat in that same chair I saw Maurice Walsh, Brinsley MacNamara, Francis MacManus, M J MacManus, Philip Rooney, Seumas O’Sullivan, Patrick MacDonagh, Myles na gCopaleen, Brendan Behan, Lyle Donaghty and Owen Roe Ward lilting and lively at the various tables. Now they are all dead and Dublin a drab and dull city without them.49
It suggests that Ward was well known in writing circles though it does not explain his reasons for taking to the road. Perhaps he wished to sample the bardic life for what it would offer him in a literary sense, or he accepted a challenge among his writing friends to see if such a livelihood could be maintained.
In June 1963, it was announced that Ward’s daughter had become engaged to Edward Peter Guy Vatcher.50 After this, the record is silent.
Ward’s autobiography might reveal more about the ‘last of the bards’. It is held in the National Library of Ireland. It might yet see the light of day.51
1 A copy of the full-colour, 68 page illustrated publication is held in the collection, IE MOD/C17. It includes a foreword by Eoin Brosnan and stories on Brosnan emigrants and ‘Who We Are’. It documents Brosnans in religion, business, sport, the arts and places including family trees. A useful map to old graveyards and the layout of plots in Killeentierna cemetery is also added and well as Brosnan photographs. 2 Mairead Ni Bhrosnachain or Peig Ui Brosnachain. 3 The marriage took place on 1 or 10 March 1851. 4 Jeremiah Curtin (1835-1906) author and translator who travelled to Kerry in search of folktales ‘from the mouths of men who spoke only Gaelic’. His publications include Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland (1890) published following his visit in 1887. 5 Tom Sayers (1826-1865), born in Pimlico, Brighton, was a bricklayer, a trade he learned from his father. 6 It is not clear where in Ventry they resided, nor where in Dunquin. 7 For genealogy purposes, Griffith’s Valuation records a Thomas Sears in Ferriters Quarter, Dunquin in which townland is Carhoo (Carhue). In 1865, in Ferriter Chapel, Thomas, widower, son of John Sears, farmer, Ferriters Quarter, married Mary, daughter of Patrick Fitzgerald, Couminole. In the same place, year and month (February), Mary, daughter of Thomas Sears of Lateeve More, married Daniel, son of Michael Sullivan, farmer, Corrig. 8 Sean, Padraig and Maire. It is not clear if the children remained in the area, though the census of Ireland 1901 records John Seyers (sic), age 48, and wife Kate age 44 and children Patrick (22) Ellen (17) and Jane (6) resident at Vicarstown with his parents Thomas and Margaret (by 1911, John and Kate and their children (Ellen married less than one year) are in residence alone). The 1901 census shows Patrick Seyers (sic) age 50, farmer, widower, living in Vicarstown with children John (17), Bridget (21) and Kate (10). In 1911, only Bridget remains with her father, now the wife of Michael Guiheen, also resident, and their children Thomas (7), Mary (3), John (3) and Michael (6 months). Other names in the townland included Brown, Boland and Daly. John Daly (Seaghán Ua Dálaigh), national school teacher, was a collector of folklore. A 34-stanza poem (in old Irish) about the beauty of a Blasket Island quilt is held in the collection (IE MOD/C10). Daly collected the poem from John Dunlevy. 9 Sometimes Ballinvicar. 10 Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island. Translated into English by Bryan MacMahon in 1974. In this townland is the place of Tivoria (Tigh Mhoire – Mor’s House). 11 Var: Guithin, Gaoithin (Flint). The census of 1901 records Peig resident with her husband Patrick and in-laws, Michael and Mary Guiheen, also her brother and sister in law, Michael, age 30, and Margaret, age 20. 12 Accounts vary, but it seems the couple had up to 12 children. The census of 1901 records children Maurice age 8, Kate age 6 and Patrick age 4. The census of 1911 records Maurice (18), Kate (16) Patrick (14) Michael (8) Thomas (5) and Ellie (1 month). Thomas would die in a fall from a cliff in 1920 (his sister Siobhan, born in 1911, died the year before him). 13 Maurice Guiheen, who was born in 1893, worked in a factory in America and lived with his sister Kate and her family all his life. He died in 1967. Catherine (Kate) Guiheen, who was born in 1895 and worked as a nurse, emigrated in c1925 and met and married there Daniel J Sheehan, a Kerryman (their son, Daniel G Sheehan, who maintained strong links to the Blaskets, died on 17 October 2011). Catherine died in 1977. Padraig Guiheen, born in 1897, emigrated with his sister Helen (Eibhlín), the youngest. He died in 1933. Helen was known as Nelly Peig (Neillí Pheig), later Mrs Helen Copley, Torrington, Connecticut. Mrs Copley died in 1999. A man named Dan O’Sullivan, Connecticut, was photographed at the Dingle stand of a trade fair in Massachusetts in 2001 when he described himself as grandson of Peig Sayers. 14 A Pity Youth Does Not Last Reminiscences of the Last Blasket Island Poet was translated into English by Tim Enright and published in 1982. In the introduction to this work, Micheál names his great-grandfather as Micheál O’Sullivan. Micheál (Maidhe) O Gaoithin, who never married, died in Dingle hospital on 27 April 1974. He was buried in his mother’s grave in Dunquin. His contribution to his mother’s literature is recorded in the biography and bibliography in ‘Peig Sayers’, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol 4, 2002, p1212. 15 Ward published his interview in the Kerry Champion, 19 February 1944. Within three years, he was dead. An account of Ward is given below. 16 He added, ‘At the Tigh Mhoire I paused for a brief spell to shake the rain from my brow. The wind roared unmercifully at me, but the ruins of Baile-an-Bhiocaire stood erect in defiance. Should I have lived somewhere back in the hidden past, it is probable that I would be writing the lament of the forgotten village because as Baile-an-Bhiocaire it is forgotten except for its Bearla translation Vickerstown and Peig Sayers who dwells in it. O Tig moire go Donnchadha Di – faith indeed no! I wasn’t Donnchadh returning to his wife Mor after his flight to Donachadee but like him I myself had a date in Baile-an-Bhiocaire and it was with a woman too’. 17 He added, ‘Perhaps our universities or Leinster House might take a tip from her and employ her methods for the purpose of showing to the students and TDs that the Gaeltact mind is for Ireland first and themselves afterwards’. 18 Ward stated Peig was one of fourteen. 19 Ward reflected on his visit, the tidily hung creels on the wall, the green painted step-ladder to the loft, the row of black Mount Eagle turf stacked along the wall, and concluded it would remind him forever of the most unique piece of unconventionism he had ever seen. 20 Sometimes Eoghan Ruadh Ward, Paddy Ward, the Wandering Bard, the Walking Bard, the Tramp Bard, the Tramp Poet, the Bard of Tirconnaill or Tirconnail, Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird or Mac a’Bhaird, Owen the Red Son of the Bard. 21 The account is given thus: Down through the twisted red hill-track an old man doggedly plods under the weight of age and a bart of dead kindling furze. I am more than interested in his approach because in my mind’s eye I visualise his flashing diamond eyes as they rise and follow the trail of a creel-burdened donkey dragging its long hooves between massive boulders as it heads for the cabin on the edge of the cliff. I’ve watched Seán Donal’s approach. His load rises and falls as if trying to break the ruggedness of the skyline. I know his ways fairly well, because we have occasionally fished lobster and pollock together among the black, deadly rocks of the Blasket Sound. He was obstinate and contrary, yet something struck me about him which compelled me to like his ways. I suppose it was the humble manner of simplicity which one finds among fishermen the wide world over. In Dunquin, Seán Donal was a force to be reckoned with. His Bearla, no doubt, was a little erratic but apart from that he could express himself with a logic of blunt shrewdness of which even Poe or the learned Aristotle could find little reason to complain. He’s just another of Gaeldom’s hidden scholars, I thought, when sooner than I had anticipated he bore down on the spot where I lay, and pitched his load at my feet. Though small of stature, Seán Donal had ever a knack of drawing himself up to his full height when in meditation. Every line, sinew, muscle, even his very veins stood out as marks of individuality which one would be more inclined to think were in keeping with the make-up of a prize-fighter. But looking at Seán Donal from the feet up one was immediately aware of the presence of a fisherman whose life’s toil had produced a species of humanity practically non-existent in the modern world. No artificiality about those aged lines on his face. Even the weather-beaten crows-feet around the eyes were in themselves marks of distinction which had no terror for him. ‘These are the lines God gave me,’ he would often declare, ‘so why should I spite God by being ashamed of His image?’ Falling on bended knee beside where I lay, Seán Donal selected a coarse stalk of dog-grass and as he chewed it with toothless gums, his head shot thither and over in search of wreck. As the old man’s eyes fastened on the heaving ocean I knew better than to interrupt his thoughts. Perhaps he is thinking about the children whom he reared on the fruit of the deep or the stony pratie patch. Maybe the fatherly instinct is twitched by the rumours of evils which lie beyond the horizon in the world’s slave market. Yet, whatever his thoughts, I dared not interrupt. A thin voice cuts the air around us. We both eagerly crane our necks and sight the postboy’s canoe, her sail quivering into gentle bulges as her skipper steers her nose towards Blasket Mor strand. The crew, even though big, able men, look to me like midges. Their cradle has weathered the perils of many storms, yet they fear no terror, not even the pitching of their frail craft into black swirling pools, nor when she leaps on the rifts of white foam. These are the men of Seán Donal’s breed, men of his very own heart, men of the Creator of the tumult in which they exist. Not without terror, with my chin cupped in the palm of my hand. I glare at the namhoge with an expectation of its swamping any minute. Seán Donal too is looking excited, but when my eye catches his I can see fire burning back. His eyes sparkle, reflecting on so many desperate moments he withstood the colossal gullet which swallowed the flower of his breed. Not till the day I die shall I ever forget this heavenly art gallery which only the Supreme Master of the world could possibly carve. Where, I ask myself, will I find a canvas with the painting of a real mackerel sky on it? Aye, or where was the poet who could rhyme the dignity of a herring-gull skimming the bows of a tossing canoe? Ah, but what is the use. Sure isn’t the shanachie of the crisp words who told the story of the blind eagle that lived on the mountain crag of the horse-shoe bulwark and guarded the tongue of Seán Donal; hasn’t he, too, departed to leave us galloping up a fake, foreign culture. Forgetting myself for a moment, I turned to Seán Donal. ‘Aren’t the lads givin’ her too much top sail?’ I asked. In a flash he had turned and with his razor stare and an enlarged chin he fired back: ‘Why are ye such a roasted amadaun? Why in hell wouldn’t they ride on the win’ if they’re to ground with the flow?’ But after hesitating he went on, in afterthought: ‘Heed my gospel – An Beal Bocht. Some holy day them lads ‘ll grasp eternal glory on a golden bed of a hundred fathoms where the divil, and not the cormorant, ‘ll pick out their steel brains.’ Arising, Seán Donal, without uttering another word, picks up his bart, scans the horizon, looks hard at me, then turns and catches up with a galloping breeze driving from the headland. I arise just as a low gust rasps the heather. I stand for a brief moment whilst my look is diverted from Seán Donal’s departing gait to the turf-cutters’ fires dying at eventide. My friend has gone, but his ghost remains forever. Now on the white-ribbon road of the east, my weary trudge shoots a Gaeltacht song into my heart, but before I can utter a note the namhogue again catches my eye and stumbles my forward move. She is all but a speck with furled sail. The crew are rowing with all their might, yet they can’t keep her from a broadside lurch onto the dangerous Blasket Mor. But what – what is that I see? Here they come, men of the Island, hardy men with strong, tulted hands, wading into the tide and dragging the canoe up the sandbank. And so the battle of man against might goes on and on. Man cannot always win, so the sea takes her toll of lives. Seán Donal’s kith and kin fade away, and we are left to wonder how enough of them survive the perils of the deep to carry on a great tradition (Seán Donal by Eoghan Roe Ward, Nationalist and Leinster Times, 29 December 1945). 22 The bardic history sketched in the Dictionary of Ulster Biography: Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird [Ward] was probably born in Donegal. He was of the family of hereditary poets to the O'Donnells, which flourished from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. About the year 1600 he became chief poet to Red Hugh O'Donnell, and when Red Hugh fled to Spain, Eoghan Ruadh stayed in Ireland in the service of Rory O'Donnell. He composed a poem condemning Rory for surrendering to the English, but he also wrote a lament for him on his death. His last datable work was a lament for Niall Garbh O'Donnell, who died in the Tower of London in 1625. A history of the O’Donnells was sketched in 1946 when the Abbey of Donegal was re-established in Ulster where once it flourished. See ‘Friars’ New Home in Donegal’, An t’Iolar, The Standard, 10 May 1946. 23 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 18 January 1947. 24 Published by Messrs Cahill in 1941, ‘55 poems for sixpence’. Ward’s emergence as a ‘tramp poet’ coincided with the death of poet William Henry Davies (1871-1940) author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. 25 ‘An author is unconsciously a deceptive person. Most readers equate them with hair oil, plush carpets, and stack upon stack of reference books. To be candid I think that the pawn shop’s best customers are to be found amongst the writing fraternity of the artists. A few may have a typewriter on the up and down system but the vast majority apart from the clothes they stand up in have little but their pride to keep them from the workhouse’ (Kerry Champion, 19 Feb 1944). 26 ‘Those singers were coming into the town in cars in organised groups, dividing up the street between them and then meeting after the day to divide the spoils. They often took £5 each out of the town’ (Kerry Champion, 16 May 1942). 27 WAAMA’s acting general secretary, Lionel A Cranfield, addressed the situation by letter but Killarney UDC responded that the ban would remain in place. Public sympathy was on Ward’s side but he was fighting a losing battle with the council and a changing society, ‘The radio and the cinema are doing their work all too quickly and it is probably only a matter of time till we speak of the last of the ballad singers, as our fathers spoke of the last of the bards. Another tradition is going and surely it is a little churlish to speed it on its way.’ WAAMA, the newly styled Actors’ Union, was formed in June 1941 when Sean O Faolain was elected president of the association. A number of Kerry people were involved, including North Kerry’s Maurice Walsh, author of The Quiet Man, who acted as trustee (see Cork Examiner, 26 June 1941). 28 The writer added, ‘Killarney has always been that the folk there believe a kind fate caused their birth beside the Lakes so that they could make money out of the locality; one is not welcome there at all unless one is prepared to spend a small fortune … the sooner the mist of codology is swept away from Killarney the better’ (Waterford Standard, 16 May 1942). 29 The broadcast seems to have taken place on Monday 14 December 1942 at 8.30 pm. 30 Irish Press, 18 January 1943. Piers Plowman, otherwise Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), author of Come Dance with Kitty (1960) contributed to the Irish Press during the period 1942-44. Eily MacAdam, in the Catholic Standard of 31 January 1947, wrote, ‘He knew the tinkers’ slang such as it is and once had a fierce fist fight with a young tinker whom he defeated and thereby initiated himself into the confidence of the tribes. I suggested that he who was on the inside could write a good book, those by Synge and others are essentially phoney, but he preferred to write songs’. 31 Ibid. David Hayes wrote a pen-picture of Ward at this time with accompanying sketch of him with his dog. It was published in Cuisle na Tire, The Pulse of the Country in April 1947 (Vol IV, No 1), a magazine for ‘everyone interested in Ireland’s transport’ (‘The Man with Red Hair’, pp6-7). He described Ward’s appearance and noted his dialect had ‘a northern sharpness about it, but the keen edge was blunted by a slight drawl’. Hayes remarked that Ward ‘might have come straight out of a Maurice Walsh novel, and I think he knew it,’ adding, ‘the picaresque appearance was too close to type to be real’. He included Ward’s poem, ‘Battle Cry from the Silver Glen’. 32 Leinster Leader, 27 February 1943. Ward also explained to the judge he had published some short stories and had written his autobiography. ‘It’s not much good but there’s a chance of it being published’ he said. He added that it was with the publishing firm of Michael Joseph. Told judge Reddin he was born in Derrybeg, left school when he was in the second class and about 12 years of age. ‘The Shilling a Night’ was published in Ballads from the Pubs of Ireland collected and published by Cork musician, writer, actor and theatre producer James N Healy, author of about 20 titles including Percy French and his Songs (1966), Irish Ballads and Songs of the Sea and The Mercier Book of Old Irish Street Ballads (1967) in the 1960s. Healy staged 16 John B Keane plays over a period of 20 years. 33 See issue 27 march 1943. ‘Tatler’s’ identity is not known. He seems to have contributed to the Nationalist until about 1957. On one occasion, ‘Tatler’ highlighted Roe’s article about trampology in Puck Fare, the magazine of the new Writers’ Guild (probably the autumn issue of 1945) and mentioned that he (Tatler) was on the committee. In 1983, the paper published an account of its history in its centenary edition but there was no reference to ‘Tatler’. 34 Seumus Breathnach was curator of the Kinsale Museum and with Father McSwiney was responsible for the setting up of the institution c1940. A Gaelic scholar, he published extensively including On the Ramparts of Kinsale (1911). He died suddenly on 10 March 1944, obituary Irish Examiner, 11 March 1944. 35 Southern Star, 1 February 1947. An article in the same paper more than fifty years later contained a sketch of the belt: ‘When Rua Ward, the gentle traditional poet of the O’Donnells came to Kinsale in his little donkey and cart he soon found Seumus Breathnach. After a real Irish welcome they became lifelong friends. That night people gathered to meet him in the Vocational School where words simply flowed from him. He then presented the museum with The O’Donnell Belt, the heirloom of a family that appreciates heritage more than any family I know’ (Southern Star, 1 May 1999). 36 Tribute by columnist ‘Tatler’, The Nationalist and Leinster Times, 1 February 1947. Sean Kavanagh, otherwise Sean Og O Caomhanaigh, the Cota or Chota, Sean MacMorrogh Cavanagh. Kavanagh, Gaelic scholar, teacher, translator, was born Dunquin, Co Kerry. He took active part in struggle for independence. His brother Seumas was professor of Celtic Studies in UCC, another brother Maurice lived in Dunquin. He died in the same week as Ward and was buried in Dunquin. See obituary in Irish Press, 17 January 1947 which contains an image of Kavanagh. 37 He added, ‘Children and old people alike have a soft spot in their hearts for me. I travel unnoticed through the bogs and mountains without casing much comment. Nobody had taken the slightest notice of me as I strolled into Peig’s cabin and sat down by the fireside’. 38 Irish Independent, 17 February 1945. 39 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 9 June 1945. 40 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 20 October 1945. 41 Subscriptions later to Dr W R F Collis, Mr Nolan, Secretary WAAMA, Grafton Street, Dublin; Mr Roger J McHugh, Rose Cottage. 42 Nationalist and Leinster Times, 18 January 1947 & 1 February 1947. The autobiography, complete in manuscript, covered a lifetime of wanderings in two continents and ran to over a hundred thousand words. 43 His death certificate identified the cause as pancreatic cyst, cardiac failure. My thanks to Marie Wilson, Tralee, for research of genealogical records. 44 Tribute by columnist ‘Tatler’, The Nationalist and Leinster Times, 1 February 1947. The newspaper continued to publish Ward’s verse in the months that followed, including Brightness and The change. Another visitor shortly before he died was Sir Shane Leslie who assured him that some provision would be made for his children. Their relationship is not known, but Sir Shane Leslie edited a literary magazine which contained much Irish verse. 45 Chief mourners at his funeral were his pregnant widow, Mrs Doreen O’Connell, and Miss P O’Connell, daughter. Relatives were named as Mrs Williams, Mrs O’Farrell, Mrs J Tighe, Mr C Dunne, Mrs Dunne and Mr R Kenny. At the time of his death, Ward’s address was 38 Clarinda Park East, Dun Laoghaire. 46 Contributions to Dr Robert Collis, Fitzwilliam Square; Roger MacHugh UCD, and Mike Nolan WAAMA (Writers’, Actors’, Artistes’ and Musicians’ Association), Grafton Street. 47 He was once described as ‘a Trinity man’ (Irish Press, 9 May 1942). ‘I have consulted the admissions registers for Trinity College Dublin from 1920 to 1950, but have been unable to find any evidence that Patrick Michael O'Connell attended this University’ (email from Aisling Lockhart, Reading Room Services Executive, Trinity College Dublin, 21 June 2018). 48 He married in Dublin on 18 October 1939 to Doreen Mary, daughter of James H Dunne and Mary Kenny. Doreen was born in Co Longford in 1910 and died in Pointe Claire, Quebec, Canada on 15 August 1998. 49 Kerryman, 17 September 1966. 50 Una Margaret Mary (Trudy), daughter of Mrs Doreen O’Connell, Grove Park, Rathmines and of the late Patrick Michael O’Connell, Clarinda Park East. Marriage took place Portsmouth district in 1964. Mr Vatcher was of Bosham, Chichester. It seems that Una had a brother, born in 1947. 51 ‘Miscellaneous fragments of short stories, essays, etc’ by Eoghan Roe Ward, call no: Ms 31,755.