TERESA BRAYTON 1868-1943

by ehistoryadmin on September 2, 2014

In acknowledgement of the Teresa Brayton Exhibition hosted by Maynooth University for Heritage Week 2014 and the Teresa Brayton Heritage Group and Maynooth Community Library we publish an article by James Flynn from The Capuchin Annual 1961, which outlined the importance of the Kildare poet in literary, cultural and political terms.

Teresa   Brayton

1868-1943

By

James Flynn 

THE  OLD  BOG  ROAD, written half a century ago, is still a well-known Irish song.  Strangely enough its author’s name has not shared the same limelight.  Perhaps Teresa Brayton would have preferred it so, for she was a gentle, retiring person; what could better illustrate her humility than the popularity of her song to-day, contrasted with her own modes estimate of her work.  Fifty years ago she also wrote:-

I know that my simple singing will fade from your ears as soon

As the song of a wayside robin you heard by the way in June:

But the dreams I have dreamed for Ireland, please God, they will never die. . . .

 Over and above her poetry, her outstanding patriotism hives her further claim to be remembered. Both were, indeed, inseparable, nearly all her poetry being inspired by her deep love of her country and her people.

She wrote hundreds of poems, many of which have been adjudged superior to The Old Bog Road.  But the notable and distinguished thing about her writing is its close adherence to the old bardic traditions. Scarcely any other Anglo-Irish poet has recalled so vividly the old world of Gaeldom; of Gaelic poets who voiced the irrepressible Faith of their people, or struck out battle cries for their armies, or gave to their exiles loneliness the heart-ease of song.  Not one, but all of these things she herself has done – in our own times.  Yet in recent years she had suffered a neglect that had almost hidden her name and work from the rising generation.

This recent neglect, it must be said at once, was due solely to the unavailability of her writings here, and not to any apathy in the people for whom she wrote, not to any demerit in her writing.  Indeed poetry closer to the hearts of the people than hers it would be difficult to conceive.  It might be the example par excellence in modern times of the writing which lives by Irish suffrage, the type described by Professor Daniel Corkery in one of his penetrating works of criticism as the “literature, which unknown to the outside world, finds shelter and affection in Irish homes.”  Of her books published in New York over thirty years ago, the occasional copy which found its way here is, indeed, closely treasured.  It was through fortunately seeing one of them recently that Padraig McQuillan of Enfield first came to know her poetry, and resolved that so worthy a writer and so great a patriot should not be without public tribute.  Within five months, his plan, warmly supported by the other members of the Enfield Muintir na Tire Guild and backed by subscriptions from friends of Teresa Brayton all over the world, came to fruition with the erection of a Celtic Memorial Cross at her grave in Cloncurry cemetery in north Kildare.   It was unveiled by President Eamon De Valera on 18 October, 1959.  In spite of continuous heavy rain, crowds of people from far and near thronged the cemetery for the unveiling ceremony.

Cloncurry, or Cluain Conaire (Contaire’s Meadow) as it was once known, is a quiet townland two miles east of Enfield on the Dublin-Sligo road.  There is a well-known landmark there – an ancient hill-fort, topped by a tree growing in the exact centre of it.  This fort stands on one of the most storied fields in Ireland, worthy ground indeed for Teresa Brayton’s last resting place, for history tells us that it was once the meeting place of kings and princes, that there another poet of the Gaels died more than eight hundred years ago, that monks and friars sanctified Cluain Conaire from the days of Saint Patrick.

Of the other poet who died there historical records, reduced by the pillage of centuries, tell us little.  But that he was of high rank is clear from the Annals of Clonmacnoise which records his death in A.D. 1137, “Moyleisa, called Crossan Fyn O’King, Chief Poet of Ireland in that type of Irish verse called Crossanaght, died at Cloncorrie in Lynster.”   The monastery, the ruins of which can still be seen, dates from these medieval times when Carmelites and Augustinians had settlements there.  Teresa Brayton is buried close to its south wall, the great doorway which on a long gone day may have opened in welcome to Moylesia, now leading to her grave.

She was born in the adjoining townland of Kilbrook on 29 June, 1868, the fifth of a family of three boys and three girls.  Her father was Hugh Boylan and her mother Elizabeth Downes.  Their farmhouse, now gone, was near the roadside, about three hundred yards east of Cloncurry cemetery.  Before emigrating, at the age of twenty, to the U.S., she had been assistant-teacher to her sister, Elizabeth, in the local national school at Newtown, and her stirring poems in the Irish national and provincial press had attracted wide attention in these Land League days.  She then wrote over the pen-name, T. B. Kilbrook.  In Boston, Chicago, and later in New York, she continued to write, and contributed to scores of American papers and journals.

In New York she met and married Richard Brayton, a French-Canadian, an executive in the Municipal Revenue Department, and their marriage was a happy one.  Along with looking after their home, she continued her career as a freelance journalist, writing mostly for The Irish World, in which her articles and poems became a regular feature, and also contributing poems to the New York Monitor, Syracuse Sun, Boston Pilot, San Franciso Montitor, Rosary Magazine, and many other publications.  Her poetry, vividly expressing the exile’s longing for home, soon won her the affection of every Irish heart, and a place of honour in Irish-American circles in New York.

She was welcomed into the ranks of The Celtic Fellowship, a society which was composed of people who had been successful in theatrical, musical, artistic and journalistic fields, and included many luminaries of the various professions.  Every Saturday night, after the final curtain was rung down on Broadway stages, an   impromptu concert was given in The Celtic Fellowship clubrooms in Greenwich village.  Teresa Brayton was a frequent contributor to these functions, where her reciting of her latest poems was always regarded as a high-light of the programme.

During her visits home to Ireland, she became the close friend of the Easter Week leaders, and, back in America, threw all her energies into the Irish Cause, raising funds, distributing pamphlets, and writing her fervent nationalism into poems that were hailed as “the battle cries of the last struggle of the Gael.”  After her husband’s death, she returned to Ireland for good in 1932, and lived for a time with a sister in Bray, and later at Waterloo Avenue, NorthStrand.  In 1941, she returned to her old home in Kilbrook, to die there two years later, on 19 August, 1943, in the same room in which she was born.

Thus ended a life-span of seventy-five years, so rich in good works, and rounded out at last with the exile’s wish of bás in n-Éirinn. Even its bare outline, inadequately set down, cannot help but reveal some of valorous spirit and lovable nature

How much more her poems reveal!  Even a selection of them show her to be the rich inheritor of great traditions extending back to the golden age of Cluain Conaire, back even to the ancient hill-fort that overlooks her grave.

The opening lines in her first book of poems give a clue to her sincerity, her whole-heartedness.  But they indicate even more.  In exile she inscribes her book thus:-

            Unto my own, the Irish, I send with smiles and tears

            This little book of melodies caught from the flying years;

            With all the love within me and all the best I know

The echo here of Ceitinn’s poem, Beir beannacht leat a sgribhinn, is no accident. The more closely her poems are examined the better one sees that their roots go deep into the Gaelic bardic traditions. Little wonder, then, that, as do the Gaelic poets, she expresses time and again the immemorial forces which have shaped the Gael.

Of these forces, one of the strongest was nationalism – normally no shaper of great poetry. Irish nationalism through ages of persecution became a burning inspiration to every Gaelic poet for over a thousand years. In some corners of a sophisticated age, it has become fashionable to speak of it as being no different from any other country’s nationalism; to say that it is being romanticised, over-drawn; but one need only return to Professor Corkery’s clear-sighted analysis of Irish life and literature to find it described as something which normal countries, unused to ages of near-enslavement, can hardly hope to understand – “one of the deepest things in Irish life, searching into the souls of men, drawing sanction, as it does, from hundreds of battlefields, slaughtering, famines, exoduses, as well as from hundreds of heroic lives and the piety of verse.” So, Corkery. Clearly, then, its expression in Anglo-Irish verse calls for passionate words for vehement speech – not less vehement, surely, than this typical passage from Teresa Brayton: –

Irreconcilables!  Thank God

For freedom’s sacramental wine

That make on Aughrim’s reeking sod

Our father’s death a draught divine.

That set a smile on Tone’s dead lip,

Peace on the brows of the young

Shears . . . .

She has a particular reason for this passionate memory of the 1798 heroes.  Did not her own great-grandfather lead the north Kildare men in some of the most gallant, guerrilla fighting of the whole campaign. Ireland’s history, even its pre-history, its mythology, she had made her special study, but what held her most was the dreadful, and near-glorious, chapter of ’98 – the long, awaited Irish-French victory foiled by ill-fortune, and turned into rout and destruction – the honourable surrender terms for the French soldiers – the poorly equipped Irish abandoned, hacked down in pursuit but turning again to storm the English guns in a last surfeit of courage.  Most of all she recalls her own ancestor leading this gallant band of pikesmen south to Prosperous to give battle to Rodin’s yeos – the same yeos who, a week earlier, had treacherously slain the surrendered insurgents of the Curragh district, leaving “four hundred murdered bodies on Saint Brigid’s grassy plain.”  Their lost battle, their ended lives, weigh heavy on her heart.  But their courage is part of her world too, part even of her blood.  Small wonder if, four generations later, the steel of their brave, outnumbered pikes still sings in her lines.  In her 1916 poem, Ireland Speaks, she writes:-

             I am no beggar at your gate

                No suppliant for your mercy, I;

            Time looms insistent with my fate,

                 I live or freedom’s self must die.

 

            Down immemorial years I’ve trod;

                 I looked on Time when Time was young,

            I taught to you the word of God

                 When language halted on your tongue.

 

            “The Celt is gone and Ireland dead!”

                 So mocked ye in my hour of need.

            Victors to-day my children tread

                Upon the dust of Cromwell’s seed.

 

            Beyond the farthest ocean’s sweep

               Where once my kith and kin ye hurled,

            They and their children’s children keep

              My living rampart round the world.

 

            I stand before your loaded guns,

                Your bayonets press against my breast;

            Strike if you dare! my soldier sons,

               And God’s strong hand will do the rest.

 

          My banner flaunts down every wind,

               It holds no serf, it knows no crown;

            ‘Tis freedom’s call to all mankind,

                And who shall dare to drag it down?

It is the poetry of the active participant, not of the literati who were above the battle.  One can see in her the Gaelic file reborn again – an Aodhagan O Rathaille nerving and guiding his people, or a Piaras Feiriter urging on his troops – using, too, the same methods that they used, the proud declamation of ancestral feats, the calling up of past glories – a tradition that has its origin in the old sagas where Diarmuid and Oscar and Caoilte prepared for combat by recalling the great battle-deeds of their ancestors.  It was in that old tradition that her rousing poem, so important to the result of the 1920 plebiscite, was written:-

            Roll back the portals of silence.  Summon her dead men forth

            From Munster and Connacht and Leinster and the proud dark hills of the north!

            Blare to the breezes of morning a reveille, wild and free,

            To waken her slumbering Wild Geese wherever their ashes be.

            From the restless torrent of every sea where Irish bones bleach white

            Call ye her dead ere a word is said in Ireland’s plebiscite . . . .

            Of the festering famine pits where coffinless bones were flung,

            From quicklime’s flame and scaffold’s shame let them speak with ye tongue for tongue,

            Bearers of battle-axe, pike or gun waging her centuried fight,

            Bugle them back past star and sun to speak in your plebiscite . . . .

In other poems she calls up the great names separately – Casement – Parnell – Sarsfield – Emmet;  and the numbers of people, at home and abroad, she thus rallied to the cause of Irish independence must remain incalculable.  Before the eyes of a new generation, the film, Mise Éire, has unfolded some of the splendour of those years, some glimpses of the patriots; and many have recounted as one of the film’s most stirring moments the sight of the people filing past the coffin of O’ Donovan Rossa lying in state, and then the sudden glimpse of his noble chieftain-like countenance.  Teresa Brayton had watched that majestic homecoming which was to end with Pearse’s memorable oration, and has spoken words which will doubtless be remembered too:-

            ‘Twas blue and gold the Hudson ran,

                   The harbour tides swung full and free

            When the dead patriot began

               His last, long journey oversea.

 

            Columbia bared her brows to him.

                 The best she breeds gave honour then

            When, out beyond the ocean’s rim,

                Rossa sailed Erinward again.

 

            The seas were green, the seas were grey,

                 The thunderous waves went shouting past,

            Till over night and over day

                His dead heart won to her at last.

 

            And reverent hands in Dublin town

               Bore that dear dust no tears might stir

            And, with his brothers, laid him down

               In her high place of sepulchre.

 

            With muffled drum and wailing fife

               And guns at rest they closed the sod

            Where he, who’d lived for Ireland’s life,

                Lay, sealed in silence unto God.

 

            But, as the pregnant seed of spring

               Thrills to a harvest yet to be,

            So Rossa waits the burgeoning

               Of valour unto liberty.

Not only her poetry, but her whole way of life, her newspaper articles, even her personal letters are instinct with this deep love of country.  This is an extract from a letter she wrote to one of her friends, Michael Walsh, some years after the Rising.  She was then home on one of her visits from the United States.

            “I was permitted to visit Pearse’s grave in the quicklime pit which was prepared for 150 in 1916.  There are fourteen buried there now.  The grave is well-kept.  I was not permitted to enter Mountjoy, however.

            Enclosed is a leaf from Robert Emmet’s vine in Saint Enda’s where I spent a day with Mrs. Pearse.  There is a curious story about this vine.  It was planted by Robert Emmet originally but the old root from which growth sprang has long been moulded almost to dust, quite dead apparently.  Now, from this old rotten wood, leafless for years, a vigorous growth started right after Pearse’s death.  After the deaths of Rory O’ Connor and Cathal Brugha in ’22 another shoot came, the two growing side by side and bearing fruit.  This leaf is from that vine.

            The block on which Emmet was beheaded is also in Saint Enda’s, the mark of the headman’s axe still showing dark where the blood flowed.  The ivy leaf is from Tone’s grave in Bodenstown.”

In the clamour of Broadway, it was on such scenes her mind rested, such mementoes she cherished.  Around her neck, on a little chain, she wore a piece of the flagstaff which flew the Irish flag on the G.P.O. on Easter Monday, 1916, – a memento which had been presented to her by the late Countess Markievicz.

When the battles were over, she wrote of the pride and sorrow of mothers remembering their lost sons:-

            ‘Twas Maura O’Kelly from Galway

                Walked down the hill with me;

            Proud was her head for her two sons, dead

                And buried in Killalea . . . .

– a poem that ends with lines as intense as those of any Gaelic poet:-

 I said, “Oh, woman of Galway!

                  The toll of death is long.”

      Said she, “They died with their heads in pride

             And on their lips a song.

      And the lads I’ve buried in Killalea

           With blood upon hand and face

      Are a bond between their God and me

           That He will redeem the race.”

While the intensity of her patriotic poems marks her out as one of the most Gaelic-minded of the Anglo-Irish poets, it is in her personal poems that the spirit of high poetry is manifest.  The heart-break of exile, so much a part of her own life, inspired some of her most poignant writing.  Even this more travelled age cannot come to regard that age-old sorrow the parting and grief of deoraidheacht, as an exaggerated theme in Gaelic literature.  To do so would be to forget how many of those partings had then the finality of death, to forget the anguish of her lines:-  “My mother died last Springtime when Ireland’s fields were green.” To show the obverse side of the tragic story – the mother sorrowing for her exiled children – she wrote a much greater poem than The Old Bog Road. It is the estimate of discerning critics that few poems have probed the race consciousness so deeply.  To make it the true heart-cry that it is, she uses the homely accents of the country, “the echoed music of a Gaelic speech winning back to its own again,” and the heart-cry breaks (as heart cries have ever done) into phrases of Biblical immediacy and beauty.  It is, of course, the lament of countless Irish mothers:-

      When the daylight fades from the cabin floor

          And night winds stir in the big ash tree,

      ‘Tis meself sits lonesome beside the door,

             Missin’ the childher that’s gone from me.

      Matt and Mary and Patsy and Mike,

          My three sthrong boys and my girleen dear;

      Sure, ‘tis only a few short days belike

          Since I saw them playing around me here.

 

      Kind and dacint and aisy to rear,

         The bate of my chidlher was not on earth;

      And the only sorrow they made me bear

         Was an empty house and a silent hearth.

      But sure with so many to clothe and keep,

          And nothin’ behind when rent was due.

      I made no moan when they crossed the deep,

          But God and His Mother – They knew, they knew.

 

      My Mary’s a servant in Boston town,

          And Mike and Matt are away out West;

      While Patsy, the rover, sthrays up and down,

         Wherever the foot of him likes it best.

      But never a wan of them fails to write

           With the monthly money and news go leor;

      But, och, ‘tisn’t money I want to-night,

          But my four fine childher about the door.

 

      Mary keeps saying, “In spring, please God,

         I’ll be landin’ back to you safe and sound;

      For nowhere is good as the good old sod,

         And no one like you in the four seas round.

      Sure, I’m cravin’ a whiff of turf fire smoke,

         And a sight of my mother so snug and sweet,

      In her white-frilled cap and her big blue cloak,

         That bate all the fashions in Boston Shtreet.”

 

       O, Mary, my girleen, never at all

       Do I be spakin’ of pain or ache;

      But at night when the corncrakes call and call

      My heart goes wild for my darlins’ sake.

     When shadows lie on the lonesome floor,

      And night winds stir in the big ash tree,

     Then I sit by meself at the open door,

     And cry for the childher that’s gone from me.

Of her many poems this must have been her favourite, for it was the one she usually chose when asked to recite.  How it was received by her fireside audience in Kilbrook or Cloncurry is not difficult to imagine, for the words, handed down orally, are still to be found on the lips of the people there.

Nothing, however, so surely identifies her with the Gaelic poets of the past as another poem which might have come out of the heart of Gaeldom.  That Gaelic civilisation, that deep love of learning; which the most keen-minded analysis has proved to have had “no equal in the world of literature” grew up, as we know, around the bardic schools.  When it was rooted up, broken, as good as slain, its poets still remained its faithful custodians, even when reduced to the most extreme poverty, like Raftery, “tapping beggar-like along the stony roads of the West”.  In this condition they were the living symbols of their country, impoverished during the blackest night in our nation’s history, but still keeping alive the inner light of Faith and learning.  Because of what they did, and because racial memories are long, all poor wayfarers resembling them have still a warm place in the people’s hearts.  Across two thousand miles of sea, and in the toils of a foreign city, Teresa Brayton remembered some such figure tapping along the roads of Kilbrook, and to him she gives words that might be those of Raftery himself:-

      I am Owney, the fiddler,

         Owney, blind and alone,

      The lovin’ of wife and children

         I never can call my own;

      But there isn’t a road in Ireland

         Or a boreen but I’ve trod,

      Owney, the poor old fiddler,

          Who soon will be gone to God.

 

      I walk with never a stumble

         Where many with sight go slow,

      For I have a light within me

        That only “the dark” can know.

      The sun and moon and stars are my friends,

          The rain on my face is sweet,

      And where is there finer flooring

         Than the grass under Owney’s feet?

 

     

When I hear the birds in the bushes

          I’m seein’ them, every one;

The wren like a fine soft April day,

        The lark like a risin’ sun;

      There’s the blackbird, mellow as moonrise,

        The thrush like a wooin’ lover;

      But the robin is sweet as rest to my feet

        When a long, hard day is over.

 

      I am Owney, the fiddler,

            Who never had eyes to see,

      But the great high spirits of Erin

            Have whispered my tunes to me;

      And whether it was in mornin’

            Or duskin’ you heard me play,

      You’ll think of Owney, the fiddler,

           Over half of a world away.

Or, perhaps, it is not so much Raftery who lives in these lines, as that other poet of the hungry heart, the great MacCuarta, who listened in some far-off summer to the birds he could never see again, and fashioned for us, out of his blindness, the undying light of a lovely poem. That love of nature, which inspired the best lyrics of the Gaelic poets, is all through her work, in lines that capture the natural beauty beyond them as when a recent poet, strong in the same tradition, writes of “the undying difference in the corner of a field”, giving words to something we had thought to be beyond words.  Could there be a more evocative description of the delicate cloud-textures, peculiar to Irish skies than these words which she gives to some exiled Irishman remembering home?

      Sometime I shall leave the city

           Where the best in a man soon dies,

      And seek for the tender pity

          That broods in my native skies.

– or a fresher, more homely, description of the golden promise of spring days than these four lines from another poem?

            When Spring with her dewy fingers

               Sets bowers along the hills,

            And a promise of lark-song lingers

              In the hearts of the daffodils.

But these descriptions of nature, lovely as they are, were only the trappings to what she knew her fellow exiles remember most – the familiar sights and sounds of hearth and field, the welcome of neighbours, all the homely delights which another poet, centuries before, had woven into the imperishable music of Ban Cnuic Eireann Oigh. Their constant preoccupation with the memories of home she expresses in lines that tell their longing:-

            For the old thatched home of my father,

               the turf fires warm and bright,

            The pleasant song and the story where

               neighbours dropped in at night,

            The wild bogs purple with heather, the

                ring of the cross-roads’ set

            For dancing on summer evenings to tunes

               that I can’t forget.

How eagerly her readers must have scanned the pages of The Irish World and the other Irish-American papers for lines like these, which were as a fresh breath of home.  As if to satisfy their need, she worked unsparingly, going so far as to make poems for the exiled of almost every county and town in Ireland, and often working late into the night when her own day’s work was done.

            For what is the city’s luring,

               The calling of street and mart,

            When a wind from the hills of Wicklow

               Is blowing across your heart!

are the lines she gives to a Wicklow man, Hilaire Belloc, yearning for the downs of Sussex, has hardly sounded a sweeter chord than:-

            And so from the weary toiling

               Of many an ill-starred road

            I will go where the hills of Wicklow

               Are blowing their peace abroad,

            For over the seas I’m seeing

               A sugawn chair by the fire

            At home in my father’s country,

               The land of my heart’s desire.

It is not surprising that when she finally decided to come home for good in 1931, her exiles were strangely perplexed; their grief at losing her, struggling with their joy that her own exile was ended.  A fund organised for a farewell party to her was over-subscribed almost as soon as it was opened, and so grateful and affectionate were the letters that poured in, that the organisers decided to bind them into a testimonial book, which they presented to her.  It was her proudest moment.  This tribute of her people’s love for her expressed in the letters quite overwhelmed her.  She prized the book over all her possessions.  It is now treasured by her relatives in Kilcock, and makes moving reading; the letters came from celebrities like John Count MacCormack, from priests, doctors, teachers, newspaper editors, and from the humblest workers of field and factory and building-site.  Seldom can a writer have had such an overwhelming proof of her place in the hearts of all.  This extract from one of the letters (that of Thomas J. Ford, editor of The Irish World) may be taken as typical of the many tributes;- “Her poetry has gone around the world.  It has served to hearten, uplift and inspire countless thousands of the scattered children of the Gael.”         

All this long-deserved praise she received with humility.  Indeed, her new-found fame was something she never got quite used to, and it is remembered that, on the day of her return home, she was greatly surprised when, on turning on the radio, she heard Seamus O’Doherty singing one of her own songs.

Her days of retirement were spent quietly.  But on one occasion, while living in Clontarf, and then almost seventy years old, she was prevailed upon to recite some of her rousing poems at an Easter Week Commemoration concert.  She received a tremendous ovation.  This is a description of her given then:- “She was small, dressed in black, and her hair was snow-white.  Reserved in manner, she would talk on anything but herself and her career.  Her eyes were large and showed a sparkling intelligence; her mouth was firm but humorous.”

One of her close friends, William Walsh of the Ben of Fore, County Westmeath, has also recorded his impressions of her:- “I found Teresa Brayton shy and reserved  when in a crowded room.  She was at home only with those who shared her interests, but if one were interested in poetry or the arts she asked no more.

“She had a richly-stored mind and was ‘never less alone than when alone’.  She had a wonderful memory for poetry, and could recite countless poems by heart in her rich, resonant voice; and many a winter’s night I sat enthralled listening to her at her cosy fireside in her little flat in Dublin.”

On a visit to her later in Kilbrook, in the Autumn of 1941, he took what must be one of the last photographs of her, as she stood outside her rose-covered house.  “She loved flowers,” he writes, “and her home in Kilbrook was a bower of roses in Summer”.  Though now in failing health, she still bravely displayed her usual cheerfulness and good humour, and he remembers his last sight of her, “her bobbed, silver hair framing a calm face, the most striking features of which were her bright, alert, blue eyes.”

That quality of humour, as true a touchstone of Gaelic poetry as any, finds its way into her writings too (as it did into Eoghan Ruadh’s and all the others, even in their darkest days).  She describes, for instance, an everyday happening in the country – the villagers, gathered together in the evening, discussing the news of the day.  These are the opening verses of the ballad:

By the crossroads of Knockallen where the bog and upland meet,

There’s a tidy row of houses that the neighbours call “the street”;

It is free and independent, though it pays its tax to George,

For it runs its own Home Parliament in Jerry Connor’s forge.

 

In the quiet dusk of evening, when the iron hammer rings,

That mighty song of labour that has raised and routed kings,

The members take their places, with their backs against the wall,

And who but Jerry Connors should be leader of them all.

 

For the tangles of Westminster there’s little patience there,

Where state affairs are settled in the shoeing of a mare;

And bills that Whig and Tory view with sinking of the heart

Are fixed while Jerry rims the wheel of Kelly’s donkey cart.

 

‘Tis there the Kaiser’s law is scorned, the Czar is roundly cursed,

And every ruling head declared no better than the worst,

When the world around, from China to the Rockies’ farthest gorge,

Is tried before the Parliament in Jerry Connor’s forge.

Many of her ballads and poems in the same happy strain became favourite recitation pieces in the New York of her day, this lighter side of her work providing as richly humorous a commentary on Irish life as Around the Boree Log did on the life of the Australian out-back.

In all the work of her many-sided genius, in poems of humour, sorrow, patriotism, exile, the emotional contents always right, and always full square in the Gaelic tradition.  With this, one feels, she would have been content.  It was all she set out to do.  But even in the criticism of a new age which tends to put form before content, her work can stand up well before the higher-criticism of the perfectionists, its form at times matching that of the best writers.  Of form in Anglo-Irish poetry (or in that part of Anglo-Irish poetry, which lives by Irish suffrage – which is the part that matters) the master moulds have long been acknowledged to be those of Padraic Colum, who performed the unique linguistic marvel (to which some worthy critical pen may yet do justice) of bending and shaping a foreign language to his purpose until the words breathed through them the very soul and spirit of the Gaelic world; breathed them as naturally and easily as if it were not English words he used at all, but Gaelic.   He has related how one of his poems was inspired by his hearing an old Roscommon man, in describing the depopulation wrought by the famine, suddenly and unconsciously throw out a phrase as rhythmic as a piece of poetry:- “I might have stood in Connacht, on the top of Cruckmaelinn,  And all around me I would see the hundreds of my kin.”

Many of Teresa Brayton’s poems are as close-linked as that to the rhythmic speech of the people.  To take an example: in one poem a poor woman tells of her once idyllic life in Glenashee (the poem’s title), her happiness there with husband and family until some tragedy struck, leaving her no life to lead but that of a poor woman of the roads.  And the lines, like those of the Roscommon man, might have been taken down from the speaker’s lips, so true do they ring:-

 But what’s the use of talkin’ now; they’re gone beyond my call,

My fine, strong man, my childher three, my house and cow and all,

I’m but a wanderin’ woman now and what you give to me

Is like the many a bite and sup I gave in Glenashee.

It was not an inexpert poet who could recognise this everyday speech for the poetic coin that it is.  But form, as has been said, was not her main concern; her largeness of heart gave her to know that content must always come first.

The deep love of humanity, so much a part of her nature, is seen most clearly in a poem so personal to her that one could not imagine its being written by anyone else.  There is a two-fold commiseration involved – the heart of a priest going out to the poorest of his flock, and her heart I turn going out to him for is kind action.  This is her own account of the subject matter;-

One of the noblest monuments to humanity, in my humble opinion, is the Celtic Cross which Father Tim Dempsey of Saint Louis has placed in Calvary Cemetery, there on the plot which he purchased for the friendless poor who so may rest peacefully untroubled by the earth of a “Potter’s Field.”  Forty-seven wandering sons of the Gael are sleeping there to-day.

Father Tim died on April 6th, 1936, and all America mourned his passing.  Even death did not separate him from his poor people, for he was laid to rest in the plot which he purchased for the poor – “The Exiles’ Rest.”

Here is the poem she was then moved to write:-

            From roads that were dark and dreary,

                 From ways that were walked in vain,

            From toils that had long grown weary,

                From scourgings of sun and rain;

            From the lonesome path of the friendless

                  That leadth to no man’s breast,

            They have found the peace that is endless

                 Asleep in the “Exiles’ Rest.”

 

            Who knows of the wistful yearnings,

                 They carried through street and mart,

            The dreams that their cheerless mornings

                Hid in the dark of their heart?

            Who knows of their soul’s high hoping

                To stand and shine with the best?

            Alas, for their fruitless groping,

                They lie in the “Exiles’ Rest.”

 

            Who knows of the inward vision

                The pictures mystic and sweet

            That blessed them from lands Elysian

               And healed the fret of their feet?

            Who knows how across the billows

                Wind-scattered and all astir

            The old sod haunted their pillows

                And they lived in their dreams with her?

 

            So the God of their ceaseless praying,

                The God whom they ne’er denied,

            Made out of their deaths a Maying

               With an Irish soggarth beside.

            Nor altar, nor fane, nor steeple

               He raised at his Lord’s behest,

            But he gave a grave to his people

               And called it the “Exiles’ Rest.”

 

            He gave them their crown of living,

               The guerdon they craved for most-

            An Irish priest for their shriving

               And peace at the utmost post.

            A grave where the public finger

               Of charity writes no crest,

            But ever the angels linger

                To hallow the “Exiles’ Rest.”

 

            And so with the stars for keepers

              The dawns and the midnights go,

            ‘Tis little the worn-out sleepers

               Are caring who rest below.

            And though the road through the shadows

              Still leads to an empty quest,

            The Cross of their country hallows

               Their sleep in the “Exiles’ Rest.”

 

            God bless you, O Irish soggarth

             God keep you in shine and gloom

            For sake of the homeless Saviour

              Who lay in a stranger’s tomb.

            For your love like his outreaching

              Draws the friendless home to your breast,

            And you gave them for noblest preaching

              His peace in your “Exiles’ Rest.”

Who can doubt that the writer of these lines possessed that greatness of heart which Goethe has set down to be the clearest mark of the true poet?

It is the quality that distinguishes all her writing, giving her kinship with the old Gaelic poets, whose amhrans, born of the heart and spirit, found their way into the people’s hearts, and still live on their lips wherever Gaelicism survives.  Despite her having to use an alien language, she can be seen to be one in the same tradition, following closely in their footsteps, aware of their role, and hers, in handing on the old traditions, as these lines from one of her early poems reveal:-

            Oh, Isle of mine, where the ancient glories

               Of ages linger by hill and dell,

            The harper’s song and the Druid stores,

               The old traditions that poets tell!

How faithfully she sought to preserve the old traditions is now part of our history.  In her writing, she is the great-hearted interpreter of the forces in her people’s lives, their nationalism, their humour, their exiles’ love of home. Of the other strong force in Irish life – the religious consciousness of the people – we can say that it informs and lights all her work.

Christmas Verses, a booklet of seven of her religious poems, has the quality of naturalness that comes through in all religious poetry of writers whose religion is part of their country’s everyday life.

A Christmas Fancy tells in homely words the meaning of the Irish traditional custom of setting the Christmas candle at the window of the house:-

 

                She set her holy candle inside the window pane,                                                                                        

               The happy time of Christmas has come to earth again;

              She said, “O Mary mother, and Joseph good and true,

            And little Child of Bethlehem, there’s welcome here for You.

 

            “I’m poor and old and lonely, but peace is on my floor,

            And there is always greeting for travellers at my door;

            And glad would be my sharing of bite and sup with Them

            Who’d seek the room in Erin denied at Bethlehem.

 

            “I have two sheets of linen, sun-dried and beautiful,

            I have two fleecy blankets of snowy Irish wool,

            A knitted quilt with fringes to lay upon the bed,

            And a little downy pillow to fit a Baby head.

 

            “I have two cups of china with saucers that are mates,

            A jug with roses on it, and two blue china plates,

            I’d take these from my dresser for Lady Mary’s sake,

            To serve with milk and apples and floury raisin cake.

 

            I’d tend the Maiden Mother with eager hands of joy

            And ask no finder pleasure that gazing at her Boy;

            Then, when my Guests were slumbering I’d say my Rosary,

            Nor pray to enter Heaven for Heaven had come to me.”

In this verse from A Christmas Song how pithily the tragedy of the proud would is mourned:-

            The world, grown weary of wasting strife,

                        Had called on the Christ to rise,

            For sin had poisoned the springs of life,

                        And only the dead were wise;

            But, wrapped in a dream of scornful pride,

                        Too high were its eyes to see

            A Child, foredoomed to be crucified,

                        On a peasant Mother’s knee.

Christmas Verses, published in 1934 at The Sign of the Three Candles, Dublin, was the only book of her poems published in Ireland until the Souvenir booklet to commemorate the unveiling of her monument last year.  In New York the first selection of her poems was published in 1913 by P. J. Kenedy and Son under the title Songs of Dawn.  In 1926, The Irish Book Shop, Lexington Avenue, brought out another book of her work, The Flame of Ireland.  Very many later poems of hers appeared in newspapers and periodicals here and in the United States.  They have yet to be collected into a new volume of her works.

We who are fortunate enough to have the literary canons proposed by Professor Corkery may assess her place in Anglo-Irish literature or compare her best poems with the poems of Colum, and we heartily concur with the view of the late Aodh de Blacam, who pleaded that all such writing which preserved the soul of Gaelicism was the means, powerful above all others, towards Gaelicisation, its medium of English being, he held, all to the good, in the years of transition.  Perhaps we may yet see the realisation of his hopes that the selected works of William Byrne, Patrick Kelly, Teresa Brayton and other poets, who expressed the true soul of Ireland’s Catholic people, will be published in inexpensive editions easily acquired by our people.

In believing that there was a demand as well as a purpose for the work of these writers, it would seem that he had too true a sense of literature and history to be very much wrong.  One thousand copies of the Teresa Brayton Souvenir booklet (containing some of her poems) sold out within a few days, and a second thousand copies sold out as quickly.  He would, doubtless, have regarded as further proof of the faces, avid with interest, of all the people who braved the downpours on that October day to witness the unveiling ceremony in Cloncurry graveyard and their applause for the Very Reverend Doctor Corkery when he said in his graveside address:-

“Some people in their ivory towers and synthetic garrets might decry our presence here and the verse of the poet, but she spoke in the language she knew, expressing the heart-break of the exile and the yearning for freedom.  Some of the beatniks might think us foolish, but those who would advance Ireland furthest must base our future on the traditions of the past.

“We honour Teresa Brayton, too, as a woman, for it was the mothers and grandmothers of Ireland who kept the traditions of the country alive.

“We hope that this occasion is symbolic not only of our pride in the past, but also of our determination to make the future worthy of the past.”

Many elegies and personal laments came from Teresa Brayton’s pen, and, for the people leaving Cloncurry cemetery, these lines which she wrote on the death of another patriot Irish-woman, Elizabeth Somers, must surely come nearest to what they carried in their hearts:-

            Soon will the spring with tender breath

                        Woo verdure from your covering sod

            While you, triumphant over death,

                        Go singing up the slopes of God.

            But Irish lips will speak your name,

                        And Irish hearts hold as their own

            The one whose life burned as a flame

                        Upon her country’s altar stone.

A wise American critic had said, over forty years ago, that the songs of Teresa Brayton, like Beranger’s of France, will live when more ambitious efforts are laid in dust on the shelf.  But the intuition of that graveside throng was not, of course, to make comparisons with Beranger or Burns, nor to pay tribute to a mere writer of English verse, but to honour the most lately deaf of the poets of their own Gaelic tradition, one in spirit with Seamus Mac Cuarta who sleeps in the plains of Louth, or Aodhagan O Rathaille far south in Muckross, or that other poet from the Golden Age, who, for all we now know, may have been laid to rest within sight of her own grave.

Note: There are a number of photographs illustrating this article as it appears in its original form, including one of Teresa Brayton soon after her return to Ireland. (Mary Mahon)

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