100 years on, Irish Volunteer's great-grandson turns poem into song

A powerful and evocative piece of writing by an Irish Volunteer has been turned into a song by a relative, set for release this week, writes John Arnold
100 years on, Irish Volunteer's great-grandson turns poem into song

LEGACY: Christine and Patrick Coughlan - his poem written on Spike Island in 1921 was found by his great-grandson, a singer.

ON Tuesday, June 14, 1921, the Irish War of Independence was still being waged widely in the Cork area.

On that day, the 5.20 train from Fermoy to Mitchelstown was held up near Ballindangan and the mails seized, while a wagon containing coal for the military at Kilworth Camp was burned.

That same day, Patrick Coughlan from Rathcormac was arrested by the British Forces. Under the law of the land at the time, the Military had wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention and many deemed to be Republican sympathisers were simply picked up and locked up.

Patrick Coughlan was born at Mondaniel, Rathcormac, in August, 1897, to Michael Coughlan, a shoemaker, and his wife Norah O Keeffe, from Corrin, Fermoy.

After being taken initially to the Military Barrack in Fermoy, where he spent two weeks, Coughlan was then transferred to Kilworth camp on June 29. Then, on September 15, he was ‘on the move’ again, this time to the internment compound on Spike Island in Cork Harbour.

Patrick’s travelling was not yet finished as, on the night of November 18/19, he was transferred to Portlaoise Prison - then still called Maryborough. He was finally released in the month of December and probably back in his native Rathcormac for Christmas.

That’s a chronicle of a century ago, when times were tough and brutal in this country and killings, shootings, burnings and imprisonment were commonplace.

Ah yes, a hundred years seems a long stretch and much has changed. Patrick Coughlan died in 1940, aged just 42. All of 81 years have elapsed since then and a lot of water has flown in the River Bride under Dr. Barry’s Bridge outside the village of Rathcormac.

The story of Patrick Coughlan and his role in gaining Irish freedom might well be forgotten were it not for a remarkable series of events. 

We often hear of ‘voices down the years’, well, this is truly an amazing collaboration between two family members, three generations apart -one alive and one dead.

Patrick Coughlan married Christine Canavan in Rathcormac Church in September, 1927 – one of her brothers, Augustus, had joined the Leinster Regiment of the British Army and was killed on the Western Front in 1915, whilst another brother, Patrick, was a member of the Rathcormac IRA Company.

The Coughlans had four sons, James, Michael, Peadar and Noel. James was known all his life by the title of ‘Coach’ - not because of his training or coaching skills, though he was a brilliant hurler. No, he acquired the name because he walked all the way from Coachford back to his home in Rathcormac!

Well, in the month of May, 2019, Damien Coughlan, a grandson of ‘Coach’ and great grandson of Patrick, paid a visit to Spike Island. Like so many others, so many thousands who visit the place, Damien got the Guided Tour of the island fortress. Afterwards he visited the War of Independence exhibition.

On a table were plastic folders which contained copies of the autographs of many of those who were incarcerated on Spike in 1921. He saw the name ‘Patrick Coughlan’ and the address of Rathcormac and realised that this was the handwriting of his own flesh and blood.

Damien’s excitement was doubled when in the same handwriting he saw a poem written by his ancestor. It was a beautiful, poignant composition recalling 1916, remembering MacCurtain and McSwiney, and longing for his home in Rathcormac.

Damien, himself an accomplished songwriter, singer and musician, was stunned - even dumbfounded. The date on the 1921 poem written by Patrick Coughlan was October 6, 1921 - exactly a century ago yesterday.

Damien resolved to take this lovely gem and put music to it. He ‘reworked’ the verses and chorus and, between himself and his great- grandfather a magnificent work has emerged.

Yesterday, on the actual centenary of its original composition, Damien launched the completed work using modern technology. The gramophone record, disc, tape and CD have now been overtaken by iTunes, Spotify and Amazon, and using these and other platforms, Damien hopes to both honour and remember his ancestor who penned the lines on an island prison.

The waters gently ripple as they push against the shore,

Over shadowed by a fortress holding prisoners of war.

Its cold grey walls of cruelty echo ghostly cries of pain,

Of the destitute deported, tortured by the crown.

The smokey Autumn winds still blow the embers of Cork City.

And on it dance the brave souls of McCurtain and McSwiney.

While the ambush sites lay silent with Lloyd George against the wall,

each volunteer beside me is longing to go home.

Here’s to the men of Easter week in the year 1916,

Fling out the folds of freedom, the Orange, White and Green.

Here’s to the men who fighting fell and here’s to the men who died,

In daylight pale or in Cork jail, With their martyrs pride and smile,

And Ireland free shall surely be, in memory ever green

For those who fought for freedom in the year 1916

I sit in my cell on Spike Island it’s 1921,

I hope to god I’ll hear no more the echos of a gun,

Or a pleading cry for mercy by a mother for her son.

Who gave his life for freedom in the hope this war is won.

Take me to Rathcormac, far from this prison shore,

Let me be free with my family and ill speak of you no more.

Load up your Crossley Tenders with your horrid Black and Tans,

And take your butcher’s apron, this is no longer your land.

Here’s to the men of Easter week in the year 1916,

Fling out the folds of freedom, the Orange, White and Green.

Here’s to the men who fighting fell and here’s to the men who died,

In daylight pale or in Cork jail, With their martyrs’ pride and smile,

And Ireland free shall surely be, in memory ever green,

For those who fought for freedom in the year 1916.

It’s a powerful and evocative piece of writing and we have no record or even idea if Patrick Coughlan committed other thoughts and emotions to paper during his short lifetime.

It seems strange to think that he only wrote one piece, but then being detained on Spike Island must have been difficult and perhaps in writing he was able to express his innermost thoughts and feelings.

I think he would be very proud of his great, grandson Damien - not just for preserving his work but for enhancing and adding to it.

Next Saturday night, Damien will perform the song publicly for the first time in Barry’s bar in Rathcormac.

When the Fight for Irish freedom was over, Patrick Coughlan stayed on in his native place. He was a great supporter of the local hurling club, After his marriage to Christine, the Coughlan family lived on Main Street, Rathcormac.

Patrick was a carpenter by trade and in April, 1940, he was doing a house roofing job in Rathcormac village. He got a severe wetting and developed influenza and bronchitis and succumbed to these ailments on April 12. This Irish Volunteer, poet and carpenter was buried in the local cemetery. His memory will live on forever now in his own words, interwoven with the work of his great, grandson Damien - a legacy he’d be so proud of.

Damien Coughlan Live Music can be found on Facebook.

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