Father Mat


In a meadow

Beside the chapel three boys were playing football.

At the forge door an old man was leaning

Viewing a hunter-hoe. A man could hear

If he listened to the breeze the fall of wings –

How wistfully the sin-birds come home!


It was Confession Saturday, the first

Saturday in May; the May Devotions

Were spread like leaves to quieten

The excited armies of conscience.

The knife of penance fell so like a blade

Of grass that no one was afraid.


Father Mat came slowly walking, stopping to

Stare through gaps at ancient Ireland sweeping

In again with all its unbaptized beauty:

The calm evening,

The whitethorn blossoms,

The smell from ditches that were not Christian.

The dancer that dances in the hearts of men cried:

Look! I have shown this to you before –

The rags of living surprised

The joy in things you cannot forget.


His heavy hat was square upon his head,

Like a Christian Brother’s;

His eyes were an old man’s watery eyes,


Out of his flat nose grew spiky hairs.

He was a part of the place,

Natural as a round stone in a grass field;

He could walk through a cattle fair

And the people would only notice his odd spirit there.


His curate passed on a bicycle –

He had the haughty intellectual look

Of the man who never reads in brook or book;

A man designed

To wear a mitre,

To sit on committees –

For will grows strongest in the emptiest mind.


The old priest saw him pass

And, seeing, saw

Himself a mediaeval ghost.

Ahead of him went Power,

One who was not afraid when the sun opened a flower,

Who was never astonished

At a stick carried down a stream

Or at the undying difference in the corner of a field.



The Holy Ghost descends

At random like the muse

On wise man and food,

And why should poet in the twilight choose?


Within the dim chapel was the grey

Mumble of prayer

To the Queen of May –

The Virgin Mary with the schoolgirl air.


Two guttering candles on a brass shrine

Raised upon the wall

Monsters of despair

To terrify deep into the soul.


Through the open door the hum of rosaries

Came out and blended with the homing bees.

The trees

Heard nothing stranger than the rain or the wind

Or the birds –

But deep in their roots they knew a seed had sinned.


In the graveyard a goat was nibbling at a yew,

The cobbler’s chickens with anxious looks

Were straggling home through nettles, over graves.

A young girl down a hill was driving cows

To a corner at the gable-end of a roofless house.


Cows were milked earlier,

The supper hurried,

Hens shut in,

Horses unyoked,

And three men shaving before the same mirror.



The trip of iron tips on tile

Hesitated up the middle aisle,

Heads that were bowed glanced up to see

Who could this last arrival be.

Murmur of women’s voices from the porch,

Memories of relations in the graveyard.

On the stem

Of memory imaginations blossom.


In the dim

Corners in the side seats faces gather,

Lit up now and then by a guttering candle

And the ghost of day at the window.

A secret lover is saying

Three Hail Marys that she who knows

The ways of women will bring

Cathleen O’Hara (he names her) home to him.

Ironic fate! Cathleen herself is saying

Three Hail Marys to her who knows

The ways of men to bring

Somebody else home to her –

‘O may he love me.’

What is the Virgin Mary now to do?



From a confessional

The voice of Father Mat’s absolving

Rises and falls like a briar in the breeze.

As the sins pour in the old priest is thinking

His fields of fresh grass, his horses, his cows,

His earth into the fires of Purgatory.

It cools his mind.

‘They confess to the fields,’ he mused,

‘They confess to the fields and the air and the sky,’

And forgiveness was the soft grass of his meadow by the river;

His thoughts were walking through it now.


His human lips talked on:

‘My son,

Only the poor in spirit shall wear the crown;

Those down

Can creep in the low door

On to Heaven’s floor.’

The Tempter had another answer ready:

‘Ah, lad, upon the road of life

‘Tis best to dance with Chance’s wife

And let the rains that come in time

Erase the footprints of the crime.’


The dancer that dances in the hearts of men

Tempted him again:

‘Look! I have shown you this before;

From this mountain-top I have tempted Christ

With what you see now

Of beauty – all that’s music, poetry, art

In things you can touch every day.

I broke away

And rule all dominions that are rare;

I took with me all the answers to every prayer

That young men and girls pray for: love, happiness, riches – ‘

O Tempter! O Tempter!



As Father Mat walked home

Venus was in the western sky

And there were voices in the hedges:

‘God the Gay is not the Wise.’


‘Take your choice, take your choice,’

Called the breeze through the bridge’s eye.

‘The domestic Virgin and Her Child

Or Venus with her ecstasy.’