Recently, an item appeared in The Kerryman which stated that Kerrys rich legacy in GAA poetry is being researched by a Kilgarvan man, Denis Healy, whose work on this subject is already well advanced. Kilkenny and Tipperary hurling poems were published a few years ago and it is past time that somebody should do the same in Kerry before the great poetry of yesteryear is lost forever.Some of these poems (or ballads) were featured on Radio Eireann many years ago in The Balladmakers Saturday Night where the man to do the honours was invariably Sean O Siochain, then a leading GAA official in Croke Park. O Siochain had the charisma of a Micheal O Muirceartaigh and he had a fine voice as well which gave him instant appeal. He was part of that rare species
The songs of the Kingdom have been badly neglected down the years and, sometimes, one feels that Kerry people do not realise the treasure that has been handed on to them. You have only to hear – as I did – Mick O’Dwyer sing in a croaky voice “The Boys of Barr na Sraide” in places like the Irish Cultural Centre in San Francisco or the Maghery GAA clubrooms in Co. Armagh and observe the reaction of the locals to fully appreciate that this is so. O’Dwyer was a fine singer in his younger days but in later years his vocal cords have been irreparably damaged from too much shouting at various venues around the country.
Dan Keane of Moyvane is probably the last of the great ballad-makers whose work extends to over 400 poems, none of which have ever been promoted as they should have been with the possible exception of “Kerry’s 25th” which was recorded by Ann Mulqueen. This poem is a masterpiece and honours the team captained by Tim Kennelly that won the All-Ireland final in 1979. The opening verse prepares the reader for the feast that is to come:
Awaken ye hills of The Kingdom
Awaken ye glens all around
It is written in song and in story
Its slogans and echoes resound
Awaken ye streamlets and rivers
Your murmuring whispers give o’er
And shout like the torrent of waters
That lashes the broad Kerry shore
Dan Keane who can claim family lineage with the Bard of Erin himself, Thomas Moore, wrote another great GAA poem which had as its theme the 1954 North Kerry final between Clounmacon and Tarbert. Clounmacon captained by Joe Shanahan won the match and when he brought home the cup, his young daughter, Joan, then aged five, asked him: “Where did you get the bucket”? The name of the poem is “Ball, Battle and Bucket”. Listen to this:
The rock rim rattled as brave men battled
And echo ran and ran
’Twas deed for deed and speed for speed
And ever man for man
’Twas pace and power for one hard hour
As fortune rocked and reeled
Men trained and strained of strength were drained
To finish that fierce field
Bryan MacMahon of Listowel had a way with words, both in prose and verse, that few have ever equalled and he composed some great poems, most notably “None Can Beat the Kingdom Sweet” and “The Lament for Tommy Daly”. However, it is “A Song for Christy Ring” that has arguably given him the highest profile in GAA literature.
Come gather round me boys tonight
And raise your glasses high
Come Rockies, Barrs and Rovers’ stars
Let welcome hit the sky
Let bonfires blaze in heroes’ praise
Let Shandon’s echoes fling
For homeward bound with hurling crown
Comes gallant Christy Ring
Garry MacMahon, Bryan’s son, is a fine rhymer in his own right and has numerous poems to his credit like “The Lament For Paddy Bawn” but it is “The Centerary Champions” that has identified him most strongly with a later generation of Kerry footballers. This song goes to the air of God Save Ireland.
Now the greatest of them all, Jack O’Shea is on the ball
Catching, kicking, ranging up and down Croke Park
Like a stag he moves with grace, a broad smile upon his face
Yes, the Green and gold has conquered once again
Yet another Listowel man, John B. Keane, whose name went up in lights on Broadway, always maintained that his proudest moment was scoring the winning point for Listowel Emmets in the 1951 North Kerry junior final. Not surprisingly, therefore, he captured better than most what the late Joe Keohane was wont to describe as “the innocent arrogance” of Kerry people in matters relating to football. The poem in question is titled “Glory Go With Kerrymen”.
Now, maybe you’re a businessman above in Dublin town
A Bishop home on holiday, a writer of renown
A sober, staid executive, a man who’s down and out
Or a navvy home from Blighty who’s most likely knocked about
I’ll bet the shirt upon my back you’ll shout the very same
When the Green and Gold is out there fighting back to win the game
Any perusal of old microfilm from the 1920s and ’30s at the County Library in Tralee will unearth numerous poems composed by a man who signed himself P.C. His name was Pat O’Connor, a Tipperary man by birth, who worked for a horse trainer named Hewson at Ennismore (near Listowel) and who composed several marvellous poems that honoured the Kerry teams of his era. His “Call To Arms to The Kerry Team” written in advance of the 1930 All Ireland final is one of his best.
Summon all the boys together from Craughdarrig, Camp and Dingle
From Newtownsandes and Beauty’s Home, from Doon and Boherbee
When they’ve reached the Kingdom capital let them join hands and mingle
With Rock Street men of county fame, what finer could you see?
With bands and banners streaming and with hopes of victory teeming
We’ll follow you, the tried and true, from hamlet, hill and town
And when the fence you’re clearing, sure with smiles we’ll all be beaming
Don’t be thinking that ‘tis easy lest you stumble and come down
Sigerson Clifford penned the beautifully evocative “Ghost Train to Croke Park”, Joe Smyth of Valentia wrote “The Secret of Kerry”, Denis Bowler of Glenbeigh composed and recorded “Mick O’Dwyer’s Young Men” while Cormac O’Leary of Moyvane, a die-hard Kerry supporter, had another fine composition to his credit before his untimely death some years ago. In O’Shea’s Hotel at the corner of Talbot Street and Gardiner Street in Dublin’s city centre, Phil McCaffrey of the Dublin City Ramblers, has often given a rendition of this song to a captive audience.
Good poetry has that special ingredient that will evoke the deepest emotion of the human heart and dead, indeed, is the spirit that remains unmoved in the presence of such genius – because genius is what it is. Only a select few are bestowed with such a rare gift. Liam MacGabhann, a nephew of the aforementioned Joe Smyth and a native of Valentia, was one who had it in rich abundance. His “Blind Man At Croke Park” captures brilliantly the spiritual essence of Kerry’s football pride.
Listen, asthore, for those old eyes are sealed
Tell me once more when the Kerrymen take the field
Tell an old man who is feeble, grey and old
Do they walk proudly still wearing the Green and Gold?
You won’t find a better cross section of GAA poems in any other county and that is just one reason why Denis Healy’s forthcoming publication will be welcomed. It should be well worth waiting for.