Madge Herron: Eccentric and brilliant Irish poet of London’s streets

The legacy of the Donegal-born poet and performer has been reclaimed in a new book

Madge Herron on the streets of Kentish Town. “Isn’t she wonderful,” a psychiatrist once said of the poet. “It would be a shame to cure her.”

Madge Herron on the streets of Kentish Town. “Isn’t she wonderful,” a psychiatrist once said of the poet. “It would be a shame to cure her.”

 

Here is a memory of Donegal poet Madge Herron.

We are walking to the tube station in Camden Town, her recalling how shortly after the second World War she stormed into the BBC in London to demand back a short story she had submitted. As a former Abbey actress, Herron’s infuriation was voiced vociferously and eloquently.

The BBC man apologised that her script was mislaid in the literary slush pile. But, on the strength of her vocal performance, she was invited to audition for Frank O’Connor’s newly translated version of Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court, a rowdy 18th-century story of the grievances (predominantly sexual) of the women of Ireland against the men of Ireland. A week later Herron was back, playing the “young woman with downcast eye/attractive, good-looking and shy” for BBC radio.

The Northern Irish poets Louis MacNeice and WR Rodgers were involved in the production of The Midnight Court, and its cast included Abbey actress Maire Brennan as well as Frank O’Connor himself. Herron described O’Connor as a great character, a dapper dresser wearing a “brownish-green suit, light green shirt and mustard coloured tie”. She said his liveliness and good humour rubbed off on the rest of the cast.

MacNeice, she said, “dressed in the English manner, a university type but in some way he was still distinctly Irish”.

As we strolled through Camden Town, Herron uninhibitedly launched into O’Connor’s part: “Then up there jumps from a neighbouring chair/ A little old man with a spiteful air/ Staggering legs and panting breath/ And a look in his eye like poison and death . . . ”

People walking behind us fell in step just to listen and delight in her delivery.

Remember the voice

Anyone who ever met Madge Herron will have such memories, but particularly they will remember the voice: resonant, mellifluous and beautiful when reciting her own poetry; sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel when expressed in frustration or annoyance – as often was the case with Madge.

Madge Herron was born in Glenamohill, near Fintown, Co Donegal in 1915 and died peacefully in a London nursing home in 2002. Her ashes are buried in the family plot in Fintown. Now her niece, Patricia Herron, a Scot and voluntary paralegal who lives in Sliabh Luachra in north Cork, has written a portrait of the poet.

Madge captures the volatility, eccentricity, cussedness, generosity, compassion and warmth of the poet who was utterly true to her craft. It also includes a CD of Herron reading a number of her poems, taken from a 1977 RTÉ interview with Kevin O’Connor.

There is an elemental power to Herron’s poetry, which range in issues from God and humanity to nature and sex, with sometimes all of them interwoven. There is muscular strength and vividness to her images and language. “I’m not much good at writing roses and daffodils,” she said once.

As a young woman, Herron was encouraged by WB Yeats; her poetry was well regarded by the likes of Ted Hughes and Brendan Kennelly, who described her as “half child, half genius”. But her work is not widely known, because of an almost pathological reluctance on her part to have it published.

She was one of a family of six girls and four boys, whose first language was Irish. Patricia Herron has unearthed references in The Irish Times and other newspapers in the mid-1930s to “Miss Madge Herron” reading her poems in Irish on 2RN and on its successor station, Radio Éireann. She also wrote a number of plays and short stories.

The Irish Press found her performance in the Abbey’s 1937 production of George Shiels’s Quin’s Secret as “good but rather too forceful”, while The Irish Times reviewer called her a “most promising” actress.

Herron moved to London in 1937, where she made a favourable impression on actors Charles Laughton and John Gielgud. It was reported that she was being coached for film work in Hollywood. She also won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), which she had to abandon due to lack of funds.

It seems that Herron’s health broke down and she returned to Donegal, eventually moving to Belfast to work as a domestic servant while continuing to act and write. After the war she returned to London, where that encounter with O’Connor and MacNeice took place in 1947.

Pretentious pruning

At that time. Herron was in contention for the principal part in a planned film of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, to be directed by Gabriel Pascal. She is reputed to have scolded Shaw for his pretentiousness in pruning and eating strawberries while wearing white gloves, with the playwright remonstrating: “Miss Herron, you must not speak to me like that.” The Shaw/Pascal film was never made.

Herron continued to live and write in London, frequently earning her crust through scrubbing floors and similar work. Nonetheless, she was making her reputation as a poet in the city. In 1970 she was invited to appear on ITV’s The Eamonn Andrews Show. She was brought to the studio in a limousine and Andrews was charming.

All was going well until the host put his first question: “Now, Madge, surely everyone is writing poetry?”

“What do you know about f***ing poetry?” she responded, promptly taking her leave of Andrews, the interview and the studio.

Patricia Herron wonders if these stories were gilded by her aunt. But they do accord with her hot-tempered personality.

I interviewed Herron in 1980, when she lived – or perhaps squatted – in a big house on Fortress Road in Kentish Town, sometimes without electricity. She loved animals and kept a menagerie of cats and dogs. She also took in stray Irish down-and-outs from time to time.

One she told me about was an Irish speaker from Caherciveen called Barry. He nearly died outside her home, but she brought him in and tried to get him back in shape over a number of months. When Barry’s condition deteriorated, she called a doctor, who was reluctant to treat him because he did not think he would get his National Health Service fee.

The doctor told Herron that if Barry had been lying out on the street, he could tend to him and be sure of payment under the NHS.

“Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll open the window here and we’ll both pick him up and throw him out and then you can treat him.”

“Is he a vagrant?” asked the doctor.

“Aren’t we all vagrants,” Herron replied.

A Kentish character

With her big heavy coat and her grey hair tied up in a bun, everyone knew Madge Herron around Kentish Town. Her more decrepit dogs and cats she would wheel around in a pram. It was a vehicle she sometimes also used to ferry the old Irish navvies she befriended.

At one stage, some of her London poet friends became concerned for her mental well-being. She was brought to see the unorthodox Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing, who also wrote poetry. Herron was not impressed. She told Laing his writing was “soulless” and by the time her friend came to collect her, Laing “had lost his temper and was throwing her out”.

They then tried her with a more mainstream psychiatrist, whom Herron loved. “Isn’t she wonderful,” he said. “It would be a shame to cure her.”

Whatever were the occasional demons that possessed her, Herron told him of an “undivulged crime” that she could not tell – “it was that tight in her fist”.

“What do I do for her then?” her friend asked.

“Just be nice to her,” said the psychiatrist.

In 1979, Kevin O’Connor persuaded Herron to take her first flight, which she enjoyed, and travel to Dublin to give a reading in the Abbey’s Peacock Theatre. Irish Times reviewer Elgy Gillespie was impressed, describing the night as a “grateful miracle” and reporting on the “extraordinary breathless images” that Herron created in her poetry.

Herron also allowed me, after much cajoling and occasionally tetchy correspondence, to publish a number of her poems in a monthly arts page called “The Rat Pit”, which I edited in the Donegal Democrat in the early 1980s. Not that she’d have admitted it, but I think she was happy to see her work celebrated in her native county.

Two launches

Patricia Herron’s book about her aunt was recently launched in the library in Fintown, and on November 15th it will be launched at the Irish Centre in Camden Square, London. As well as Madge’s life history, the book features many of her poems and more anecdotes about her life and times.

Patricia is certain there are more of her aunt’s unpublished poems out there. Indeed, on the launch day one local man presented her with a poem that Madge had sent him. If more such poems turn up, she said a collection could perhaps be published.

At the launch, a CD of Herron reading her poems was played. All in the room could tell that her poetic voice, vision and gift were special. No wonder strangers fell in step to listen to her all those years ago in Camden Town.

Madge is published by Clo Duanaire/Irish and Celtic Publications in a limited edition (€10/£10 plus postage.) Email patsparalegal@yahoo.com.

AFTER THE BURIAL
Donegal 1932

The flowers of Mary
Stand white in the field
And the red cow drinks at the river;
Today at four they buried my mother
And took her away from this house forever.
The dog sits by the henhouse door
His snout raised to Heaven;
Oh, my head is full of the song
Of pitying voices:
I will go and bring my cow home.

The preceding was written for Madge Herron’s mother Sally, who died in 1932. The poem is inscribed on Madge’s headstone in the cemetery at Fintown.

A PRAYER TO ST THERESA
(On behalf of my father who is mad)
This thing we have they call ‘mental’
In no way restricts us.
Socially, we are tremendous.
If it is friendship you are after
We will come tumbling up to you.
In Donegal Gaelic is our language,
With its humps, its shadows, it is like ourselves.
You go up a mountain and down the other side
To find out who you are.

Theresa – go De mar a ta tu?
(In English that means, how do you do?)
Theresa, they said last night you were all love,
Tossing rose bushes out of the sky.
What’s that supposed to mean?
They said – and I’ll quote – nobody at any time is ever
Refused anything.
I want to know if it’s true – and if I qualify.
I have, among other drawbacks, a father bereft of reason,
All reserves cancelled out,
The clothes line in his head’s gone bust,
That little line where all his flags hang out to dry is
Now collapsed.
In the house next to us, there the people take to killing one
Another at odd hours of the night.
My father thinks it’s him they’re after.
He charges into the dark night with a ‘hip hi and ‘Be
Jaysus, I’ll plug one of them.’
‘How can you Da, you haven’t got a gun?’
‘Never mind, I’ll throw the horse at them.’
I never try stopping him.
I don’t do anything to interfere with the way he is
Constructed.

Theresa, take him by camera – and you kill the light.
My father isn’t photogenic.
Call to him, get him the first time around,
The ink-quick splash of his heel,
I don’t want him coming out with half a face.
I don’t want him to be seen going around
And him looking uneven.
I don’t want my father full of holes
With scores of dead sheep pouring out of him.
Put him seated between two mountains
And at his ease,
That to future generations, when looking up.
He will be giants.

PADDY GILL’S BULL
I tell you
He bugles
And is akin to birds.
He pipes streams
From fine thin fluting.
Angered, he cracks
Mountains.
Sensational is his
Arithmetic.
Bell-bugling brute
You threaten my
Identity.
You flank my entrance,
And put out my light,
And would diminish me
In outraged bullery.
But come a day
A cock crows,
And I am free
I will come to you.
Then will your black
Tears
Redeem the earth.
And if Noah
Ever doubted you
Let him now listen,
For I say,
You do bugle
And are beautiful.
Sing then,
Split me with your
Bugling,
And I will tell him
The music comes
From you
And not his
Brittle lark.

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