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Shamrock of stone

Friday, 17 March, 2017

When the British poet and war-time diplomat Sir John Betjeman visited the west of Ireland in the 1940s, he stayed with Lord Hemphill and his beautiful American wife Emily. She had met her titled husband while riding in the Borghese Gardens in Rome in 1926 and they married a year later in New York. The couple then moved to Tulira Castle, the Victorian bastion built in Galway by Edward Martyn and immortalized in George Moore’s Hail and Farewell. By the time Betjeman arrived, however, Emily was involved in a passionate affair with Ion Villiers-Stuart, as she revealed to him when they cycled through the primeval-looking landscape of The Burren. That day’s events led to one of Betjeman’s finest poems, Ireland with Emily. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Ireland with Emily

Bells are booming down the bohreens,
White the mist along the grass,
Now the Julias, Maeves and Maureens
Move between the fields to Mass.
Twisted trees of small green apple
Guard the decent whitewashed chapel,
Gilded gates and doorway grained,
Pointed windows richly stained
With many-coloured Munich glass.

See the black-shawled congregations
On the broidered vestment gaze
Murmer past the painted stations
As Thy Sacred Heart displays
Lush Kildare of scented meadows,
Roscommon, thin in ash-tree shadows,
And Westmeath the lake-reflected,
Spreading Leix the hill-protected,
Kneeling all in silver haze?

In yews and woodbine, walls and guelder,
Nettle-deep the faithful rest,
Winding leagues of flowering elder,
Sycamore with ivy dressed,
Ruins in demesnes deserted,
Bog-surrounded bramble-skirted —
Townlands rich or townlands mean as
These, oh, counties of them screen us
In the Kingdom of the West.

Stony seaboard, far and foreign,
Stony hills poured over space,
Stony outcrop of the Burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a Stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe’s stone age race.

Has it held, the warm June weather?
Draining shallow sea-pools dry,
When we bicycled together
Down the bohreens fuchsia-high.
Till there rose, abrupt and lonely,
A ruined abbey, chancel only,
Lichen-crusted, time-befriended,
Soared the arches, splayed and splendid,
Romanesque against the sky.

There in pinnacled protection,
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates.
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover,
Graves of spinster, rake and lover,
Whose fantastic mausoleum,
Sings its own seablown Te Deum,
In and out the slipping slates.

John Betjeman (1906 – 1984)

The Building, Ballylanders, Limerick, Ireland


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