The Great Hunger


Clay is the word and clay is the flesh

Where the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move

Along the side-fall of the hill – Maguire and his men.

If we watch them an hour is there anything we can prove

Of life as it is broken-backed over the Book

Of Death? Here crows gabble over worms and frogs

And the gulls like old newspapers are blown clear of the hedges, luckily.

Is there some light of imagination in these wet clods?

Or why do we stand here shivering?                             Which of these men

Loved the light and the queen

Too long virgin? Yesterday was summer. Who was it promised marriage to himself

Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Hallowe’en?

We will wait and watch the tragedy to the last curtain,

Till the last soul passively like a bag of wet clay

Rolls down the side of the hill, diverted by the angles

Where the plough missed or a spade stands, straitening the way.


A dog lying on a torn jacket under a heeled-up cart,

A horse nosing along the posied headland, trailing

A rusty plough. Three heads hanging between wide-apart

Legs. October playing a symphony on a slack wire paling.

Maguire watches the drills flattened out

And the flints that lit a candle for him on a June altar

Flameless. The drills slipped by and the days slipped by

And he trambled his head away and ran free from the world’s halter.

And thought himself wiser than any man in the townland

When he laughed over pints of porter

Of how he came free from every net spread

In the gaps of experience. He shook a knowing head

And pretended to his soul

That children are tedious in hurrying fields of April

Where men are spanging across wide furrows.

Lost in the passion that never needs a wife –

The pricks that pricked were the pointed pins of harrows.

Children scream so loud that the crows could bring

The seed of an acre away with crow-rude jeers.

Patrick Maguire, he called his dog and he flung a stone in the air

And hallooed the birds away that were the birds of the years.


Turn over the weedy clods and tease out the tangled skeins.

What is he looking for there?

He thinks it is a potato, but we know better

Than his mud-gloved fingers probe in this insensitive hair.



“Move forward the basket and balance it steady

In this hollow. Pull down the shafts of that cart, Joe,

And straddle the horse,” Maguire calls.

“The wind’s over Brannagan’s now that means rain.

Graip up some withered stalks and see that no potato falls

Over the tail-board going down the ruckety pass –

And that’s a job we’ll have to do in December,

Gravel it and build a kerb on the bog-side. Is that Cassidy’s ass

Out in my clover? Curse o’ God –

Where is that dog?

Never where he’s wanted.” Maguire grunts and spits

Through a clay-wattled moustache and stares about him from the height.

His dream changes again like the cloud-swung wind

And he is not so sure now if his mother was right

When she praised the man who made a field his bride.


Watch him, watch him, that man on a hill whose spirit

Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time.

He lives that his little fields may stay fertile when his own body

Is spread in the bottom of a ditch under two coulters crossed in Christ’s name.


He was suspicious in his youth as a rat near strange bread,

When girls laughed; when they screamed he knew that meant

The cry of fillies in season. He could not walk

The easy road to his destiny. He dreamt

The innocence of young brambles to hooked treachery.

O the grip, O the grip of irregular fields! No man escapes.

It could not be that back of the hills love was free

And ditches straight.

No monster hand lifted up children and put down apes

As here.                                 “O God if I had been wiser!”

That was his sigh like the brown breeze in the thistles.

He looks towards his house and haggard. “O God if I had been wiser!”

But now a crumpled leaf from the whitethorn bushes

Darts like a frightened robin, and the fence

Shows the green of after-grass through a little window,

And he knows that his own heart is calling his mother a liar.

God’s truth is life – even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.


The horse lifts its head and cranes

Through the whins and stones

To lip late passion in the crawling clover.

In the gap there’s a bush weighted with boulders like morality,

The fools of life bleed if they climb over.


The wind leans from Brady’s, and the coltsfoot leaves are holed with rust,

Rain fills the cart-tracks and the sole-plate grooves

A yellow sun reflects in Donaghmoyne

The poignant light in puddles shaped by hooves.

Come with me, Imagination, into this iron house

And we will watch from the doorway the years run back,

And we will know what a peasant’s left hand wrote on the page.

Be easy, October. No cackle hen, horse neigh, tree sough, duck quack.



Poor Paddy Maguire, a fourteen-hour day

He worked for years. It was he that lit the fire

And boiled the kettle and gave the cows their hay.

His mother tall hard as a Protestant spire

Came down the stairs barefoot at the kettle-call

And talked to her son sharply: “Did you let

the hens out, you?” She had a venomous drawl

And a wizened face like moth-eaten leatherette.

Two black cats peeped between the banisters

And gloated over the bacon-fizzling pan.

Outside the window showed tin canisters.

The snipe of Dawn fell like a whirring stone

And Patrick on a headland stood alone.


The pull is on the traces, it is March

And a cold old black wind is blowing from Dundalk.

The twisting sod rolls over on her back –

The virgin screams before the irresistible sock.

No worry on Maguire’s mind this day

Except that he forgot to bring his matches.

“Hop back there Polly, hoy back, woa, wae,”

From every second hill a neighbour watches

With all the sharpened interest of rivalry.

Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap

These men know God the Father in a tree:

The Holy Spirit is the rising sap,

And Christ will be the green leaves that will come

At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.


Primroses and the unearthly start of ferns

Among the blackthorn shadows in the ditch,

A dead sparrow and an old waistcoat. Maguire learns

As the horses turn slowly round the which is which

Of love and fear and things half born to mind.

He stands between the plough-handles and he sees

At the end of a long furrow his name signed

Among the poets, prostitute’s. With all miseries

He is one. Here with the unfortunate

Who for half-moments of paradise

Pay out good days and wait and wait

For sunlight-woven cloaks. O to be wise

As Respectability that knows the price of all things

And marks God’s truth in pounds and pence and farthings.



April, and no one able to calculate

How far is it to harvest. They put down

the seeds blindly with sensuous groping fingers,

And sensual sleep dreams subtly underground.

Tomorrow is Wednesday – who cares?

“Remember Eileen Farrelly? I was thinking

A man might do a damned sight worse…” That voice is blown

Through a hole in a garden wall –

And who was Eileen now cannot be known.


The cattle are out on grass,

The corn is coming up evenly.

The farm folk are hurrying to catch Mass:

Christ will meet them at the end of the world, the slow and speedier.

But the fields say: only Time can bless.


Maguire knelt beside a pillar where he could spit

Without being seen. He turned an old prayer round:

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph pray for us

Now and at the Hour.” Heaven dazzled death.

“Wonder should I cross-plough that turnip-ground.”

The tension broke. The congregation lifted its head

As one man and coughed in unison.

Five hundred hearts were hungry for life –

Who lives in Christ shall never die the death.

And the candle-lit Altar and the flowers

And the pregnant Tabernacle lifted a moment to Prophecy

Out of the clayey hours.

Maguire sprinkled his face with holy water

As the congregation stood up for the Last Gospel.

He rubbed the dust off his knees with his palm, and then

Coughed the prayer phlegm up from his throat and sighed:




Once one day in June when he was walking

Among his cattle in the Yellow Meadow

He met a girl carrying a basket –

And he was then a young and heated fellow.

Too earnest! Too earnest! He rushed beyond the thing

To the unreal. And he saw Sin

Written in letters larger than John Bunyan dreamt of.


For the strangled impulse there is no redemption.

And that girl was gone and he was counting

The dangers in the fields where love ranted

He was helpless. He saw his cattle

And stroked their flanks in lieu of wife to handle.

He would have changed the circle if he could,

The circle that was the grass track where he ran.

Twenty times a day he ran round the field

And still there was no winning-post where the runner is cheered home.

Desperately he broke the tune,

But however he tried always the same melody crept up from the background,

The dragging step of a ploughman going home through the guttery

Headlands under an April-watery moon.

Religion, the fields and the fear of the Lord

And Ignorance giving him the coward’s blow,

He dare not rise to pluck the fantasies

From the fruited Tree of Life. He bowed his head

And saw a wet weed twined about his toe.



Health and wealth and love he too dreamed of in May

As he sat on the railway slope and watched the children of the place

Picking up a primrose here and a daisy there –

They were picking up life’s truth singly. But he dreamt

of the Absolute envased bouquet –


All or nothing.      And it was nothing.     For God is not all

In one place, complete

Till Hope comes in and takes it on his shoulder –

O Christ, that is what you have done for us:

In a crumb of bread the whole mystery is.


He read the symbol too sharply and turned

From the five simple doors of sense

to the door whose combination lock has puzzled

Philosopher and priest and common dunce.


Men build their heavens as they build their circles

Of friends. God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday –

A kiss here and a laugh again, and sometimes tears,

A pearl necklace round the neck of poverty.


He sat on the railway slope and watched the evening,

Too beautifully perfect to use,

And his three wishes were three stones too sharp to sit on,

Too hard to carve. Three frozen idols of a speechless muse.

(Patrick Kavanagh)