Three Poems from the History of Ireland

1. Two ragged beggars, 1829.  
Two ragged beggars
traverse old roads and small fields,  
a husband and wife,
Breathless, tired and pale,
she carries him, in her arms,
over a river.
Waist deep in water,  
long limbs straining, she staggers,  
her duty forged in mud.

2. Crowley returns, 1832
Crowley returns, near blind, from Africa.
An old man in blue breeches and black hat.   
He reaches a flat field farm, stops and pleads,
arms outstretched, for any place to rest.  
In a cold barn, with workers and beggars,
he struggles to sleep on an earthen floor.  
Among the choleric, blue and aching,
Crowley quietly prays for meagre respite.
While in the fading light, the beggars sing.
Their melodies hang in the piss-heavy air.  
When sour day comes, they mutter and stir.
All with roads to tramp, pennies to grasp.  
In their rags, holding relics, they join the crowd.
Farmers and butchers, smiths’ sons are marching,
pacing the dirt with blessed turf held aloft
crackling and smoking in pale morning light.
Their prayers rise and fade in the cold air.
The men remain lost among rocks and rain.  
Crowley walks behind, his hands stretching,
searching for home. He finds no one.

3. Luck, 1867
Cursing his luck, Michael Mullins,
roulette gambler and thimble rigger,
takes his one-year-old daughter
through the racecourse to an empty field
where he raises her, for a second,  
high above his spinning head —
then hits the luckless child,  
like an old muddy coat,
upon the barren ground.
Her little body broken and cut,
he stumbles back—barefoot—
into the arms of the law.

Richard McMahon
[1] This poem is inspired by W.H. Maxwell’s report of a woman carrying a man over a river in the west of Ireland in the 1820s.  The poems imagines them, years later, married and impoverished during the economic crisis of 1829 and the woman still adhering to a sense of ‘duty’ in carrying her husband across a river. 
[2] The above is based on a short excerpt from the 1835 Irish poor law commission about a man by the name of Crowley who had returned to Ireland from Africa:
‘There is a man of the name of Crowley, a native of Carlow, who left it thirty years ago in the capacity of a servant, and served with Captain Denman in his travels in Africa, where his sight became impaired, so as to induce him to return to his native place, where he found his relations all dead and gone; he has no resource but begging, and is quite blind, and sixty years old’. 
The poem imagines Crowley returning to Ireland in 1832 amidst the cholera outbreak of that year when ‘blessed turf’ was carried from town to town to ward off the disease.

[3] Michael Mullins, a ‘roulette gambler and thimble rigger’ was arrested for the murder of his one year-old daughter Winifred Mullins in September 1867.  Mullins was later tried and found guilty but insane at the Limerick assizes.


If you have any thoughts on this poem,  Richard McMahon 
would be pleased to hear them.