ON May 17, 1910, the body of Edward VII, late King of Great Britain and Ireland, was removed to Westminster Hall in London, where more than 400,000 people filed past his coffin.
Of more immediate interest to Corkonians, however, was the burial, that same morning, of one of the city’s most famous and well-regarded senior citizens, as a lengthy editorial in the Evening Echo recalled:
“The death of Mr John Fitzgerald, ‘The Bard of the Lee’, is an announcement that will be received far and wide with deep regret by thousands of Irishmen, but to none will it bear such sad tidings as it will to Corkmen of all classes and creeds, for it means that ‘The Cock o’ Sinbarry’s’ has sent forth his last greeting to his beloved Corkonians.
“Though Mr Fitzgerald lived in our time, had his life dated back into the 18th century, he could not be more familiar with the history and doings of the Cork of that period.”
But who was ‘The Bard of the Lee’ and why is he still fondly remembered, as the 110the anniversary of his death falls this month?
John Fitzgerald was born in Hanover Street in 1825, and received his early education at Blackamoor Lane School (aka ‘Fr Mathew’s School’) and at the nearby Christian Brothers at Sullivan’s Quay (established in 1828).
He continued his secondary education with the Brothers at the North Monastery, as, at that time, classes at Sullivan’s Quay did not extend beyond primary level.
During Fitzgerald’s time at the North Mon, he studied under the noted scientist Br James Dominick Burke, who, in 1877, enthralled the citizens by flashing beams of electric light into the night sky over Cork — two years before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.
Fitzgerald’s childhood seems to have been a happy and fruitful one, for he later penned lengthy poems in honour of the Brothers in general and to Br Burke in particular.
In 1840, he went to London, where he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, Michael Murphy, a cabinet-maker of some note, but he pined for his beloved Leeside.
Returning to Cork, Fitzgerald worked first as a chemist’s assistant at Queen’s College (now UCC) before resuming his first passion: cabinet -making and wood-carving.
In this he became a master and was employed on the staff of the School of Art as a teacher of the crafts. To supplement his income, he also worked as a reader with the Cork Examiner.
In 1853, Fitzgerald was Superintendent of the Wood-Carving Department at the Great Industrial Exhibition held in Dublin, and, 30 years later at the Cork Exhibition, his intricately carved shields won First Prize.
The Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald’s Park contains a wonderful illuminated address for Father Mathew — the ‘Apostle of Temperance’ — executed by Fitzgerald.
John Fitzgerald, who wrote under the pen-name ‘The Cock o’ Sinbarry’s’ (St Fin Barre’s), composed many poems and ballads, some of which were contained in the anthology Gems of the Cork Poets in 1883.
Arguably the most enduring of his works is the evergreen The Green Hills of Cork (aka Beautiful City, My Home by the Lee), still sung at many a social gathering on Leeside.
A bigger volume was published posthumously in 1913, entitled Legends, Ballads and Songs of the Lee, edited by his friend D. A. O’Shea.
When, after Fitzgerald’s death, the words of The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee were found among his papers, it was assumed that he was the compiler.
Later, however, when J. C. Shanahan, who put the words to music, contacted Fitzgerald’s daughter, Elizabeth, she replied that the poem had wrongly been attributed to him. It was, in fact, written by her father’s friend, who had long since emigrated to the United States and she could not remember his name or any other details. (The well-loved ‘Cork anthem’ was first sung, in Cork Opera House, in December, 1933 by Margaret Dempsey).
A founder-member of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Fitzgerald’s antiquarian writings were published in its Journal and elsewhere, and in a volume entitled Echoes of ’98 in 1898 (the 100th anniversary of the abortive Rebellion of 1798).
Fitzgerald’s topographical drawings and watercolours of a long-forgotten Cork are particularly insightful and provide us with a delightful window on the, pre-camera, past.
While much of Fitzgerald’s verse was devoted to lampooning the pomposities of Cork society, he also had the poet’s keen eye for the everyday and seemingly mundane. One of his more poignant offerings was dedicated to a poor little Cork boy who never became famous for anything.
While employed at the Crawford School of Art (as it was then) on Emmet Place, and the Cork Examiner, Fitzgerald regularly attended early morning Mass at nearby SS Peter and Paul’s church. After a while, he began to take notice of the little altar boy, a small, delicate child whose health seemed to have disimproved every time he saw him.
Gaunt of face, little Jack Barrett never missed a morning serving Mass. Come hail, rain or shine, each day before attending school at the North Monastery, through the bitterest winters and lacking warm clothing, Jack would limp up onto the altar steps to respond to the priest’s Latin intonations. After his evening meal and lessons were done, he would return to the church to assist at evening Devotions.
And then, one day, through a friend, Fitzgerald learned the reason behind the boy’s indisposition. Jack, who lived in one of the festering tenements on ‘The Marsh’, was afflicted with the deadliest disease of the time, the dreaded TB: then a virtual death-sentence.
Shortly after, the poor little chap passed away, mourned only by his family and school chums, unnoticed and unsung in the great anonymity of the hustle and bustle of the city outside the church’s four walls.
Fitzgerald was determined that the lad’s all-too-brief time on this Earth would not go unremembered, and penned the poem Jack Barrett in his memory.
The verses, which may sound maudlin and overtly sentimental to modern ears, are long-forgotten now, of course, but they are of their time and it is in that spirit that I quote them here, in remembrance of the little altar boy from long ago who touched the heart of a good man; humanitarian and socialist, John Fitzgerald, The Bard of the Lee.
John Fitzgerald died, aged 85, at the North Infirmary on May 14, 1910, and is buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery, Tory Top Road. His headstone is unmarked.
Ah! little Jack Barret is gone at last,
In the sultry summer glow,
And the tears of his parents fall thick and fast
On the small dead face below :
Though his figure was bent and his body frail,
And his life but a little span,
He’d a brave little spirit that would not quail,
And the heart of a sterling man.
Though he never revelled in garden bowers
In the morning’s peaceful light,
He was fond of nature’s sweetest flowers,
And beheld them with delight:
His small dead hands were clasped around
The bright lily and the rose,
And they decked his bier and they strew the ground
Where he takes his last repose.
Perhaps Jack Barrett saw sights far off,
As he braved the driving rain —
Of a land not troubled with ceaseless cough,
Where no children suffer pain;
Though he dearly loved his native land —
The shamrock-spangled shore,
He might have looked on a happier land
Where sorrow shall come no more.
There’s ‘a mission’ waiting some other boy
In the church he loved so well,
Where he hastened, with a Christian joy,
At the softly-booming bell.
Some other voice must ‘answer Mass’,
In Jack Barrett’s vacant place,
For the sunlight through the tinted glass
No more shall gild his face.
Ah, the very best thing he ever did
Was to make up his mind to die,
For the meek Redeemer His followers bid —
‘Let the dear little children nigh’.
In some nook of Heaven, in peace and rest,
Jack Barrett is safe to be —
Looking out on the north and east and west
When the storm sweeps over the Lee.