Three Wasps and A Skylark: Return of the Nature Poets

They love each other’s company, whatever place they meet,
Though captive in the glass, the three, each knew their life was sweet.
– from The Three Wasps, unpublished poetry of M J Reidy


In an age dominated by technology, with so many – including toddlers and children – perched unnaturally immobile in front of phones and gadgets, a collection of unpublished poetry extolling the joys of movement and nature is a welcome addition to the archive of Castleisland District Heritage.


The unpublished material comes from the pen of the late Cordal poet, M J Reidy – better known as Moss Tommy – who died in 1988.  His good friend and neighbour, Mike Healy, is currently trying to raise awareness of the importance of local literature and the era it encapsulates.


Poet Moss Tommy (pictured centre, courtesy Mike Healy) formed the subject of discussion in the offices of Castleisland District Heritage recently.  Above left, Mike Healy (left) chats with Tomo Burke and John Downey.  Above right, Mike Healy in conversation with Chairman Johnnie Roche (left) and his wife Sheila


Moss Tommy is popularly recalled as a man unique, born before his time.  He journeyed around the country on his bicycle and promoted his work himself.  As far as can be seen, he received no formal education, yet his work travelled, and was recognised in many parts of the world.[1]


Here is an example of his outlook on life from his poem, The Choice:


You need not own a castle hall,
Nor wear one golden tooth,
Just bid each welcome that will call,
And always speak the truth.


In his poem, Focus on Nature, one is reminded of Emily Dickinson:


Who decorates that butterfly,
The silkworm and the moth?
What artist claims the wings that fly
To the sweet of forget-me-not?


James Lyons


In a strange twist to the above collection of verse, Castleisland District Heritage has also just acquired Dream Days in an Irish Valley by the Cork poet, James Lyons, a contemporary of Moss Tommy.  James Lyons, who was born in 1922, grew up in what he described as ‘the most pleasant social period in Ireland’s recent history’:


The ‘Four Glorious Years of revolution’ and the uncivil ‘War of Friends’ had passed and the nation had gathered the shattered pieces together and was relaxing once again in peaceful times.[2]


He put this recognition in verse:


We who were boys in ’Thirty Nine
Were spared the ravishment of war,
And lived a-wheel enjoying the whine
Of dusty cycle tyres on tar.


For boys of his generation, as with Moss Tommy, the countryside was their playground:


We watched the nestlings come and go,
And fed the fledglings crumbs and cheese,
And saw the scattered acorns grow
To saplings near the parent trees.
We never knew what boredom meant,
Nor why grown-ups had time to kill
For we were ever well content
And busy trying to read the hill.


James Lyons published five books; his first, My Irish Hills, appeared in 1968, its subject matter mainly confined to Cork and Kerry:


Mr Lyons has already many admirers throughout the South of Ireland and all will welcome his work in book form for the first time.  It is indeed long overdue, for he has been writing poetry for fifteen years.[3]


James Lyons pictured at the launch of his first book in 1968.  He is flanked by his own pen-and-ink depictions of the Kerry Gaeltacht and the hills of Iveragh


His second volume, My Love the Lee Aspects and Memories of Irish Life and Landscape, published by Foillseacháin Bairre, 24 Grenville Villas, Bachelors Quay, Cork in 1969, was described as speaking of ‘peace and happiness and graciousness and of things spiritual.’[4]  In Wales, Sister Malone of the Good Saviour Convent, Holyhead, recommended the book to those who pondered on what to buy as a gift for a priest or a nun.  ‘Having once spent a week in Cork by the Lee, I could see that beautiful spot as I read the poems,’ she wrote, adding that she loved equally the warm friendliness and courtesy of the people.[5]


In his third book, Dream Days in an Irish Valley published by Tower Books, 86 South Main Street, Cork in 1982, Lyons acknowledged the influence of John Clare.


All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal; and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books.[6]


Lyons decorated the cover of the book with an image of a lady walking along a country road.  It may have been a photograph that he took himself for he utilised photography and pen-and-ink drawings to support his poetry.[7]


I write of things that I enjoy;
In simple terms I tell my mind,
For I am still the wondering boy
Who saw the seagulls on the wind
Glissading down the winter skies
To scavenge among refuse-cans
And plunder crusts before mine eyes
That I intended for the swans.


The last poem in the collection, Retrospection, is the poet’s awareness of the passing of time:


With some regret I end this book –
The passing years o’ershadow me,
And chapel bells in every brook
That tumbles downhill to the Lee
Are bidding me to pause and pray;
The autumn tingles in my bones,
And though I walk a well-known way
I tend to stumble on the stones.


A version of Crofton Croker’s Legends of Cork found its way into print in 1988 after James Lyons decided to research some of County Cork’s ‘old half-forgotten stories.’  It was described as ‘a fascinating little book’ and the author acknowledged the assistance of Miss M Collins and staff of Cork City Library in its preparation.[8]


Swan Song: Tetchy Rhymes and Nostalgic Verses (c2005) was aptly titled for we hear little more of James Lyons after this.  It was published by Foillseacháin Bairre, evidently his own publishing house.


James ‘Jim’ Lyons, otherwise Seumas (Seamus/Seamas) O Leighin, was born on 11 June 1922, son of Andrew Lyons of 24 Grenville Villas, Bachelors Quay, Cork and Ellen (1894-1975), daughter of John Egan Murphy and Mary Ann Quinlan.


James Lyons lost his father, who died on 27 February 1928, when he was but five years old, and his mother proved to be a great influence:


My mother was a great walker who made me familiar with the local scene as few others could have done.  She was also a book lover and a nature lover and an exceptionally wise woman in so many, many ways.[9]


He was born of parents whose background was ‘very much a part of the revolution, who loved every stone of Cork and county.’  His grandfather and granduncles had been involved with the Fenians, and his great-grandmother, who was at the time living in Leitrim Street, had defied the military and walked among them to distribute bread to the prisoners who had been marched back on empty stomachs from the siege of Ballyknockin Barracks after spending the night in the snow at Bottle Hill.[10]


He was educated (through Irish) in the North Monastery, Cork.  His fellow students, like him, were outdoor people:


We tramped the hills and glens of Cork with our terrier dogs, fished for thorneens down the watery or in the Tramore, cycled, swam, and enjoyed to the full idyllic days when we children and girls of any age could roam alone or in groups in the loneliest of places without fear of molestation.  All of this became very much the inspiration of my verses.[11]


A three year period of work at Bord na Mona, Co Kildare awakened the muse in him.  He cycled far and wide through the Midlands and on his return to Cork, extended his journeys into Kerry and beyond.  A poetry competition in the Weekly Examiner – ‘essential reading’ – was where his career in verse began.


His mother, however, regarded all poets as ‘ne-er-do-wells’ and feared he would become a drifter but she proved to be a reliable and astute critic of his work.[12]


In 1947, he submitted a collection of poems entitled Down Erin’s Lovely Lee to Dundalgan Press for consideration for publication, most of the collection having already been published in the Cork Weekly Examiner.[13]  It would be more than twenty years before this desire was fulfilled.


In the meantime, the poet went to work at Suttons on South Mall, Cork in what he described as ‘a humdrum existence’ and pursued his love of writing.[14]  In 1964, he reviewed Anvil Books’ new edition of Brinsley MacNamara’s The Valley of the Squinting Windows for the Kerryman, a book that had been publicly burned in the author’s native town of Delvin when first published.[15]


He married, on 17 April 1956 at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Elizabeth, daughter of Michael and Elizabeth O’Riordan, 2 Westbourne College Road, Cork.


James Lyons died in 2012 at age ninety.[16]  The following is taken from the last poem in Swan Song in which he described old age as ‘hell!’:


Life is accurst that lingers into age;
The victim there is crabbed as withered fruit,
Achievements blighted, and the vain pursuit
Of honours ham-strung in a hermitage
Phantasmal screenings of the past engage
The cobwebbed mind, and endlessly dispute
The bankrupt rogueries that tease the root
And branch, the reign and pride, of lineage.[17]


James Lyons was encouraged in his work by a fellow poet living in America, Kerryman John P Barton.  Barton had commenced a correspondence with the Cork poet after reading some of his work in The Capuchin Annual, and later visited him in person.  One of the last things Barton did before leaving Ireland was to extract a promise from Lyons that a book would come out, and so My Irish Hills was a promise fulfilled.[18]


It must be nice to rise and go
Down where sea waters ebb and flow;
To find a place where one can walk
Close to the tide, and hear the talk
Of seagulls who come near to spy
When’er a stranger wanders by.[19]


John Patrick Barton


John Patrick Barton was born in Kerry on 29 July 1894, eldest of four boys of Glenbeigh native Michael Barton, and Johanna Casey, Tralee.[20]  He was educated at Ballyroe National School, and was later employed in the building of the new school there.


In 1912, he left Ballyroe to join his uncle, Tom Casey, in Boston, Massachusetts.  He was to sail as a passenger on the doomed Titanic but for reasons unknown, he left on another liner from Cobh.  In Boston, he worked at various jobs.  His poems ‘The Labourer’ and ‘The Lodging House’ may offer clues about his lifestyle during those years.[21]  He spent two years in the US navy during the First World War.


Barton was first attracted to poetry from the age of about twenty, and in the 1920s and 1930s, he contributed verse to the Kerryman newspaper, much of it focussed on nature, as in this composition, addressed ‘To A Skylark’:


O Merry minstrel of the sky!
Sweet be your song today,
For those who, happily, pass by
Your fragrant fields this May.[22]


In 1931, he married Mary Keelan, an Irish-American whose mother hailed from Glencar. Though then settled in America, his thoughts were never far from home:


If I could spend this sunny noon
Upon the hills above my home,
And view the meadow fields of Doon,
I never more would wish to roam.[23]


In mind and spirit, John P Barton never left his Kerry homeland


Following brief holidays in Ireland in the 1960s, Barton began to publish his work in book form, with some seven collections to his name over a period of about a decade.[24]


The death of John Patrick Barton was registered in Goffstown (Pinardville), Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, USA, on 19 November 1977.  He was survived by Mary, and his son John F Barton, of New Hampshire, and his brother Michael, of The Kerries, Tralee.


In My Great Uncle’s Footsteps
A Tribute, by Brian Ward, Centerville, Massachusetts, USA
Great Nephew of John Patrick Barton


Since I went down that little road to Caragh, in the West,
It seems to me this heart of mine will never be at rest;
Nor peace of mind I’ll have at all, whatever way I take,
Until I walk again the road that runs by Caragh Lake.

– From ‘The Road to Caragh,’ Tulips in a Window


John P. Barton was born in 1894 in Ballyroe, county Kerry to Michael Barton and Johanna Casey. Throughout his early years he developed a deep and lasting passion for the natural world around him particularly to the world he knew and experienced during his daily life in his native county Kerry.


John left Ireland for United States in 1912 and through some miraculous twist of fate, avoided his originally scheduled departure on the Titanic.  Sailing instead on the SS Laconia and safely arriving in Boston on April 25th.


John’s experiences in his new country continued to inspire him.  From his daily life as a simple laborer, and living in a boarding house on Boston’s Upton Street, he was constantly seeking out some form of inspiration.  John’s writings reflected such simple things, such as paper tulips in a schoolhouse window or of the sounds of a babbling brook.


I have no doubt that John’s passion kept his heart and soul firmly connected to his native Kerry, and stayed with him and guided him throughout his life.


After serving in both the U.S. Army during the Mexican Border Conflict and the U.S. Navy during WWI, John continued on with his life in Boston.  During this time, he worked various jobs in and around Boston.  In 1930 John married Mary Keelan, whose mother was Ellen Moriarty from Glencar. John and Mary had one son together, John F. Barton.


In 1950 the Bartons left Boston for the small rural New Hampshire town of Goffstown.  It is here where they spent their remaining lives together and where John returned to a more familiar and natural way of life which he had left behind many years earlier in Kerry.  It was here also where John began publishing his many poems he had produced over the years, many of which would reflect his days in his Kerry homeland.


It was in the early 1960’s when I would visit my uncle, aunt and cousin John in New Hampshire.  Their house was on a rural country road on small pond.  Although it could never have been the same to my uncle as being in Kerry, I do believe he found a connection to his native home there.


In August of 2017 I traveled to Ireland where I rented a thatched cottage on a hillside overlooking picture-perfect Caragh Lake in Kerry.  Each day as I explored some of the more remote locations in the area, I quickly imagined myself walking in my great uncle John’s footsteps.


After returning home to Massachusetts, I came across one of John’s poems, “The Road To Caragh,“  which will always hold special meaning for me.  As will my great uncle John!


Ross Castle from Long Ago in Kerry, drawn by John F Barton, son of John P Barton



Since publication of the above article, Brian Ward has kindly and generously donated two of John P Barton’s books to the archives of Castleisland District Heritage.  The titles are Tulips in a Window (1965) signed by the author and inscribed to his mother, and Mayflowers and Other Poems (1968), inscribed to the author’s brother, Danny.  They have been assigned Collection Reference IE CDH 69.


[1] See and on this website.

[2] Cork Examiner, 3 December 1982.  

[3] IE CDH 68.  Cork Poet’s First Book,’ Cork Weekly Examiner, 10 October 1968.  A photograph of James Lyons appeared with the article. My Irish Hills (1968) is a collection of 56 poems relating to Kerry and Cork, some with pencil illustrations such as ‘Kilcrea Abbey’ and ‘Inniscarra Churchyard.’  The poem ‘Beal Na Blath’ is a tribute to Michael Collins.The book contained material which had been published in the Cork Holly Bough, The Capuchin Annual, The Kerryman, Irish Independent and An Meitheal[4] Southern Star, 8 November 1969.

[5] Letter to the Editor of the Corkman, 1 September 1973.

[6] John Clare’s lines are quoted in the book.  He also acknowledges Cork Hollybough, Capuchin Annual, Our Games Annual, The Kerryman and Independent Newspapers ‘where many of these poems appeared in print.’

[7] Irish Capuchin Archives hold some of his photographs including Kerry scenes taken in 1964, ie, The tomb of the Mac Finin Dubhs at Kilmackillogue; The ruins of Ardea Castle and the ruins of the old church at Kilmackillogue, County Kerry.

[8] Irish Examiner, 20 August 1988.  ‘The book includes 22 tales from Cork folklore.  Those told by James Lyons have involved him in considerable research and travel’ (Holly Bough, 25 December 1988).  The book was reprinted in 1992.

[9] Cork Examiner, 3 December 1982. 

[10] Cork Examiner, 3 December 1982. 

[11] Cork Examiner, 3 December 1982. 

[12] Cork Examiner, 3 December 1982. 


[14] Cork Examiner, 3 December 1982. 

[15] Kerryman, 19 September 1964.

[16] Holly Bough, 25 December 2013: ‘A regular Holly Bough contributor in his younger days, Cork poet James Lyons passed away a few days before last year’s edition was printed.’

[17] ‘Three Score Years – And Then,’ Swan Song (c2005), p151.

[18] Cork Weekly Examiner, 10 October 1968. 

[19] From ‘It Must be Nice’ published in the Kerryman, 16 September 1972.

[20] Michael Barton of Glenbeigh, son of Daniel Barton, and Johanna Casey of Tralee, daughter of Thomas Casey, married in Tralee on 12 September 1891.  Their other sons were Daniel, Thomas and Michael.  Johanna Barton died in about 1902, when John Patrick Barton was about eight years of age.

[21] ‘The Labourer’ appeared in the Kerryman, 24 March 1934 and ‘The Lodging House’ in the same journal, 7 April 1934.

[22] ‘To A Skylark’ appeared in the Kerryman, 5 May 1934.  In that year, his address was William Cullen Bryant School, Kenilworth St, Roxbury, Massachusetts.

[23] From ‘The Wanderer’ published in the Kerryman, 1 August 1925.

[24] Tulips in a Window (1965) The Green Hills (1967) Mayflowers and Other Poems (1968) dedicated to his brother Danny in which appears the poems, ‘The Talking Leaves’ and Advice to a Violet; Verse for Young People (1969) Long Ago in Kerry and Other Poems (1969) Fields of Home and Other Poems (1974) Here and There and Other Poems (1976).