John Arnold: Waxing poetic after a chance phone call from Cork’s Bard

For years I was on to John Spillane to write The Ballad of Marengo, about Napoleon's horse, and eventually he did, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: Waxing poetic after a chance phone call from Cork’s Bard

CRAFTSMAN: Cork singer John Spillane wrote a song about Napoleon’s horse being sold at John Arnold’s local fair many years ago

LAST Friday morning — Good Friday — I was trying to get a pair of ancient iron gates back in the swing again. These two particular gates are hanging from stone piers with well over a century, maybe longer.

They must have had mighty iron back then because we have two similar pairs of gates and despite their antiquity they never seem to rust.

Anyway, these two gates were getting stuck in the ground so you couldn’t open them fully — and cows don’t like waiting! The gates hadn’t dropped — no, they are as firm as the hobs of hell with stout hanging irons and solid stone heel cups.

No, it was just over the passing years dirt and dust and grit and gravel had been deposited inside the gates, thus ‘rising’ the ground by an inch or two.

So a few hours with pick and shovel solved the problem and now the gates are swinging as freely and fully as they were in the time of Parnell.

I’m telling of the gates as a backdrop to a lovely conversation I had. Friday was a grand day, the morning was more akin to June than early April and several people walking the road stopped for a chat.

Good Friday — so there was a stilly silence pervading the countryside with heat, yes, normally ‘twould be a bitter bitingly cold day. These past weeks have been marvellous weather-wise — as if to cheer us up in these difficult times.

Well, on Friday I nearly finished the work when the mobile rang. I don’t have glasses with me around the farm so I can never see who is ringing — just answer and say ‘Hello’.

‘Hello,’ says he, wasn’t it John Spillane, yeah, the Cork wordsmith.

Last week, I’d sent him a text saying he’d be making a fortune from Royalties as his The Dance of The Cherry Trees had been played several times on the radio!

Well, I put down the pick and shovel and sat down at the butt of the ditch. We talked and laughed for quarter of an hour or so and I was enthralled;

And every word the poet did say

would send me away, send me away.

Away through the window away in the rain

over the city away on the air

To a field by a river where the trees are so green

the deepest of green that you’ve ever seen

Where once you have been you can go back again

you can go anytime you can go anytime

Because it’s only in your mind

For years I was on to John to write The Ballad of Marengo and eventually he did, versifying the story of how a Wexford-bred white horse was sold at Bartlemy Fair — just two fields away from where I was standing — and ended up being the favourite horse of Napoleon Bonaparte. John could write a poem or ballad about anything.

We spoke of these troubled times, gigs cancelled, tours cancelled, but ever the optimist, John looked on the bright side. Hopefully we’ll meet up soon and he’ll have a new poem for me.

With the gates swinging and the sun shining, I was in good form as I walked back down to the haggard in the heat of the midday sun with songs and poems in my head.

“Write a poem, he said.”

“Is he serious,” Joan asked.

“He’s dead in earnest,” I replied

“Dead in earnest.”

Of course he’s in earnest

but he’s not dead at all,

he’s full of life and living

with words. Living with words.

Words, but what are they and

Where do they come from?

And what are they made of and

Where do they go?

Let them go and blow and flow

in the wind, in the wood

in the light, in the dark.

In the dawn

Let them be and let

me be for I am no more

than them and sometimes

I am more than me...

A lovely poem written by Sheila Murphy, published in Remembering the Present, an anthology of poems from North Cork which was brought out in 2012 and dedicated to all sufferers of Alzheimer’s and their families. Too Busy, written by Mary Moriarty in the same collection, could have been penned last week for the times we are in now:

My body may age

but my mind is still young,

I have much left to do

many songs to be sung.

Many roads to be travelled

much love to express

many souls that need care

who are now in distress

I will do what I can

to help brighten your day,

to spread cheer and friendship

as I go on my way.

The world is my oyster

to have and to hold;

why, I’m really too busy

to ever grow old

Isn’t that a powerfully positive verse for these days?

Vincent Murphy of Bridestown, Kildinan, was my wife Mary’s godfather — a first cousin of her late father. Vincent was a farmer, musician and also a poet. In this month of April in the year 1999, he wrote a beautiful piece on Signs of Spring:

Darkness holds its grip no longer

As daylight beams a little stronger,

For springtime now is on its way.

Buds and plants from earth are looming,

Soon for all to see them blooming,

Adding beauty everywhere.

The frozen wastes, the birds’ migration,

The secret of this hibernation,

We can but wonder what it means,

The beauty of the white coronation,

The glorious marvel of creation,

For we are as yet but human beings

So evocative with hope, and hope is so vital nowadays as we strive to battle an unseen yet powerful foe.

Thirty years ago a friend of mine, Mossy Canning, published My Poems For You. He has the eye to see and ear to hear the heartbeat of nature, the gurgling of a stream, the blushing flowers and he watched A Robin:

A little red breast on a twig

above a singing stream

it sang more sweeter than the stream

the precious blood the saviour shed

still marks the breast so sweet.

He sang his sweet notes through the air

he hops from twig to twig

bows his head against his breast

sings peace into our hearts

A small wee bird upon a twig

it makes one realise

that God above he chose a friend

to sing us lullabies.

Yes, Mossy, you can sum it up well the — mystery of this world and the next.

Years ago, when I tried my hand at trying to put random thoughts on paper in the form of poetry, I wondered if readers would shake their heads and frown in puzzlement?


These lines I write

By day and night

To some make no sense at all

Like foreign graffiti on a wall

But they for me a message yield

About a stone or a field

A prince or a king

A well or some holy thing.

Some readers will, no doubt

Ask ‘What at all is he on about?’

The answer is I no not where

‘Tween pen and paper — somewhere.

In today’s virus-stalked world, we are given advice by many and in fairness it’s all for our good. My friend Maurice O’Connor in his Unlocked Secrets has a poem simply called Advice.

A friend of mine is a successful man,

His motto is, do the best you can.

Since he got this in his head,

It has stood him in good stead.

Some good advice I also got,

Was choose your friends and who’s not,

Another lesson that worked out fine,

Is a stitch in time does save nine,

But the best advice I got from a wise old man,

Never fool yourself if you can.

The man from Inniskeen in Monaghan, Patrick Kavanagh was a cobbler turned farmer turned poet who kept turning and twisting thoughts from his fertile mind onto paper. Of April he mused;

Now is the hour we rake out the ashes

Of the spirit-fires winter-kindled.

This old temple must fall

We dare not leave it

Dark, unlovely, deserted.

Level! O level it down!

Here we are building a bright new town.

That old cranky spinster is dead

Who fed us cold flesh.

The maiden of Spring is with child

By the Holy Ghost.

And when this is all over, as Francis Ledwidge wrote ‘when the dark cow leaves the moor’, and brighter days are with us one and all, I’d like to spend a few quiet days in Kerry and the maybe in the autumn travel to Clare and do as Seamus Heaney said:

And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind

And the light are working off each other

So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,

Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,

Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads

Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.

Useless to think you’ll park and capture it

More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

John Spillane, you’re a woeful man putting such thoughts of love and loss and poems into my head with ‘the Queen of hearts still making tarts and I not making hay’.

Alright, ‘tis a bit early in the year for hay, but hey Spillane, you’re like me — a bit of a dreamer, but dreams don’t last, though dreams are not forgotten, and soon I’m back in stern realty — aw shure, we all need a bit of divarsion at least once a week.

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