Friday 23 August 2019

The lying Ryan - or the poet who did know it

Lay Of The Land

'Ryan got away with his divine deception by mumbling something that sounded suitably like Latin, along with his leniency when it came to handing out Hail Marys — leading locals to give the poet chapter and verse on all their human frailties for four years.' Stock photo
'Ryan got away with his divine deception by mumbling something that sounded suitably like Latin, along with his leniency when it came to handing out Hail Marys — leading locals to give the poet chapter and verse on all their human frailties for four years.' Stock photo

Fiona O'Connell

Some say we take our cultural cue from America, any trend there invariably making its way here. So maybe the exception is a poet from a neighbouring country town who pipped America's avant-garde geniuses to the post with his visionary use of confessional poetry.

For the poet Ryan had been there and done that over a decade before Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath created their masterpieces in this genre. What's more, he went further by getting his unwitting audience to produce their own works, with performances taking place in genuine confessionals.

No pun intended, but I confess that I had never heard of the revolutionary poet Ryan until I read about him in John Fitzgerald's book Are We Invaded Yet? about his home town of Callan during World War II.

Fitzgerald recounts how Ryan, "a man of rare natural wisdom and psychological insights", was thus inspired in 1939, when he noticed that the absence of a priest led to long queues for confession in his local church. Until one day he slipped surreptitiously into the missing man of cloth's place. "Thus setting into motion not so much Paradise Lost as an epic example of a poet who lost the plot by taking poetic license too far."

The mesh screen emboldened the poet Ryan to urge penitents to express themselves fully. Which they did; from a farmer who threw his pipe at a sheepdog, to a woman who harboured impure and lustful thoughts about the local butcher, whose smile suggested he had more than a pound of sausages to offer.

Ryan got away with his divine deception by mumbling something that sounded suitably like Latin, along with his leniency when it came to handing out Hail Marys - leading locals to give the poet chapter and verse on all their human frailties for four years.

But the poet should have stuck to holy water, for drink led him to pile on the penance for the smallest of sins. Matters came to a head when a grocer, who cursed a dog that had eaten a slice of ham from his shop counter, received a hefty 200 Our Fathers and a dozen Rosaries. "Ah, for Jaysus's sake, Father, come on!" he protested. Prompting the poet to slap on 20 more Rosaries and a spiritual retreat surviving on bread and water up the side of a mountain for a fortnight.

The disgusted grocer complained to the parish priest, who tracked down Ryan and severely reprimanded him for "this scandal that beats every other sin out of sight". He then advised fretting locals to double the number of prayers given to them at confession for a year to compensate for any 'forgiveness shortfall'.

Apparently the bold as brass bard composed a poem on the experience called My forgiving days in the Callan and Coolagh confession boxes. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald says, it has been lost, as it was never transcribed.

Or maybe the poet Ryan felt so much remorse that he deliberately destroyed it, feeling posterity was more than he was 'ode'.

Sunday Independent

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