An Irishman's Diary


Do you recall these stirring lines from your childhood classroom? "Does any man dream that a Gael can fear?/ Of a thousand deeds let him learn but one!/ The Shannon swept onward broad and clear,/ Between the beleaguers and broad Athlone".

The poem is A Ballad of Athlone and is based on an incident that took place during the second siege of the town in 1691. It celebrates the brave action of a dozen men who managed to destroy the bridge over the Shannon and thus slow the advance of the Williamite army under General Ginkel.

Aubrey de Vere wrote the poem, but who remembers him today? Although the centenary of his death (January 21st) passed without mention so far as I know, his centenary year should not be allowed to pass without calling some attention to his achievements. That one of his collections of poems had the title The Legends of St Patrick makes this an appropriate time for recollection.

Foremost poets

Aubrey Thomas de Vere, the son of Sir Aubrey de Vere, himself a poet, was born at Adare, Co Limerick on January 10th, 1814. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin and afterwards moved to England where he spent much of the rest of his life. As a young man he got to know the foremost poets of the day. He befriended William Wordsworth, who greatly influenced him, and through Wordsworth he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another giant of the Romantic movement.

Later in life he was friendly with Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, arguably the two greatest poets of the Victorian period. He also maintained a friendship with Walter Savage Landor - no small achievement, given that poet's notoriously quarrelsome character.

De Vere was raised in the Anglican faith but in England he came under the influence of the Tractarian movement and especially of the two leading lights in that movement: John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning. He followed a similar path to both of them, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1851. It is likely that his sympathies, which were strongly drawn to Ireland and her people, predisposed him to this move.

He was a prolific writer, producing literary criticism such as Essays Chiefly on Poetry (1887) and writings on political topics as well as verse. Among his volumes of poetry not specifically on Irish subjects were The Waldenses (1842), The Search after Prosperine (1843) and May Carols (1857). But he is mainly remembered - and would probably want to be remembered - for his writing on Irish themes.

History and legend

He wrote in prose about the injustices visited on Ireland by English misgovernment, such as in his English Misrule and Irish Misdeeds (1848), but these works are little read nowadays. Irish history and legend inspired virtually all of the poetry he wrote in the second half of his life. His collection Innisfail (1861), for example, is a history of Ireland in a series of poems. The titles of the collections The Foray of Queen Maeve (1869) and The Legends of St Patrick (1872) are self-explanatory.

From his name one may presume he was of Norman descent. One of his more anthologised poems is In Ruin Reconciled. It considers how the vagaries of Irish history brought the Norman and Gaelic Irish traditions to fight side by side against a common foe which eventually destroyed them both. The poem has a number of memorable images: a woman's voice wailing "between the sandhills and the sea"; a "famished sea-bird" sailing "into the dim infinity"; wide, rainy moors on which a great rock looms, which turns out to be a tomb. Before the tomb are two queenly shapes: "Two regal shades in ruined state/ One Gael, one Norman, both discrowned".

The Little Black Rose

One of his most beautiful short poems is The Little Black Rose. It is similar to James Clarence Mangan's Dark Rosaleen. The opening lines are: "The little black rose shall be red at last!/ What made it black but the East wind dry?" The poem borrows some of its images from well-known poems in the Irish language such as An Droimeann Donn Dilís.

The poet looks forward to the day when Ireland would be free. "The Silk of the Kine shall rest at last!/ What drove her forth but the dragon-fly?/ In the golden vale she shall feed full fast/ With her mild gold horn, and her sloe-dark eye."

Aubrey de Vere belongs to an important and honourable tradition in our country's poetry in both the Irish and English languages. He should not be forgotten.