The Canon Of Aughrim By Wilfrid Scawen Blunt
You ask me of English honour, whether your Nation is just?
Justice for us is a word divine, a name we revere,
Alas, no more than a name, a thing laid by in the dust.
The world shall know it again, but not in this month or year.
Honour? Oh no, you profane it. Justice? What words! What deeds!
Look at the suppliant Earth with its living burden of men.
Here and to Hindostan the nations and kings and creeds
Praise your name as a god’s, the god of their children slain.
Which of us doubts your justice? It is not here in the West,
After six hundred years of pitiless legal war,
The sons of our soil are in doubt. They know, who have borne it, best:
The world is famished for justice. You give us a stone, your law.
These are its fruits. Yet, think you, the Ireland where men weep
Once was a jubilant land and dear to the Saints of God.
All you have made it to–day is a hell to conquer and keep,
Yours by the right of the strongest hand, the right of the rod.
History tells the story in signs deep writ on the soil,
Plain and clear in indelible type both for fools and wise.
Here is no need of books, of any expositor’s coil.
He who runs may read, and he may weep who has eyes.
This is the plain of Aughrim, renowned in our Irish story
Because of the blood that was shed, the last in arms by our sons,
A fight in battle array, with more of grief than of glory,
Where as a Nation we died to dirge of your English guns.
So the Chroniclers tell us, and turn in silence their page,
Ending the fighting here. I tell you the Chroniclers lie.
Spite of the hush of the dead, the battle from age to age
Flames on still through the land, and still at men’s hands men die.
Look! I will show you the footsteps of those who have died at your hand,
Done to death by your law, alas, and not by the sword,
Only their work remaining, a nations’s track in the sand,
Ridge and furrow of ancient fields half hid in the sward.
Step by step they retreated. You fenced them out with your Pale,
Back from township and city and cornland fair by the Sea.
Waterford, Youghal and Wexford you took and the Golden Vale.
Tears were their portion assigned: for you their demesnes in fee.
Back to the forest and bog. They shouldered their spades like men,
Fought with the wolf and the rock and the hunger which holds the hill.
Still new homesteads arose where fever lurked in the fen,
Still your law was a sword that hunted and dogged them still.
Magistrate, landlord, bailiff, process–server and spy,
These were the dogs of your pack, which scented the land’s increase.
Vainly, like hares, they lay in the forms they had fashioned to die.
Justice hunted them forth by the hand of the Justice of Peace.
Look at it closer, thus, and shading your eyes with your hand,
Far as a bird could reach, to the utmost edge of the plain,
What do you see but grass! And what do you understand?
Cattle that graze on the grass.–Alas, you have looked in vain.
See with my eyes. They are older than yours, but more keen in their love.
See what I saw as a boy in the fields, as a priest by the ways.
See what I saw in anger with angels watching above
Hiding their faces for shame in the day of the terrible days.
Horsemen and footmen and guns. They were here. I have seen them, though some
Say that two hundred years have passed since the battle was stilled.
Ay, and the cry of the wounded, drowned by the beat of the drum.
Did I not hear with my ears how it rose like the wail of a child?
I was a student then, a boy, in the days now forgotten,
When for our school–house the chapel must serve, for our master the priest.
Many a Latin theme have I scrawled on the altar rails rotten,
Thinking no more of the house of God than the house of the least.
Yet we were saints in Aughrim. An Eden the plain then stood,
Covered with gardens round, a happy and holy place,
Rich in the generations of those who had shed their blood,
Bound to their faith by the martyr’s bond and the power of grace.
They do us wrong who affirm the Irish people are sad.
Sad we are in the lands afar, but not in our home.
Oh, if you knew the gladness with which our people are glad,
Well might you grieve for your own, the poor in your towns of doom.
Here, God knows it, we hunger. But hunger, a little, is well,
Man with full stomach is proud, his heart is shut to the poor.
Well, too, is persecution, since thus through its sting we rebel,
Clinging yet more to our love and our hate in the homes we adore.
Mine is a mission of peace, to save men’s souls in the world,
Not to make converts to Hell, for Ireland’s sake even, you say.
Why should I preach of rebellion, and hatred, words impotent hurled
Each like a spear from the lips to strike whom it lists in the fray?
Hark. You shall hear it. This parish was mine. I remember it all
Tilled in squares, like a chess–board, each house and holding apart.
Down where the nettles grow you may mark the line of the wall
Bounding the chapel field where our dead lie heart on heart.
It was not the famine killed them. God knows in that evil year
He pressed us a little hard, but he spared us our lives and joy.
Only the old and weak were taken. The rest stood clear,
Quit of their debt to Death. God struck, but not to destroy.
The wolves of the world were fiercer. The wolves of the world to–day
Go in sheep’s clothing all, with names that the world applauds.
Nobody now draws sword or spear with intent to slay.
Death is done with a sigh, and mercy tightens the cords.
It was a woman did it. Her father, the lawyer Blake,
Purchased the land for a song,–some say, or less, for a debt
Owed by the former Lord, a broken spendthrift and rake–
And left it hers when he died with all he could grip or get.
Timothy Blake was not loved. He had too much in his heart
Of the law of tenures, for love. No word men spoke in his praise.
Yet, in his lawyer’s way, and deeds and titles apart,
All were allowed to live who paid their rent in his days.
Little Miss Blake was his daughter. A pink–faced school–girl she came
First from Dublin city to live in her father’s house,
She and her dogs and horses, unconscious of shame or blame.
Who would have guessed her cruel with manners meek as a mouse?
Nothing in truth was further, or further seemed, from her heart,
Set as it was on pleasure and undisturbed with pain,
So she might ride with the hounds when winter brought round its sport,
Or angle a trout from the river, than war with her fellow men.
She was fastidious, too, with her English education,
And pained at want and squalor, things hard she should understand.
The sight of poverty touched the sense of what was due to her station,
And still in her earlier years she gave with an open hand.
The village was poor to look at, a row of houses, no more,
With just four walls and the thatch in holes where the fowls passed through.
A shame to us all, she averred, and her, so near to her door,
She sent us for slates to the quarry and bade us build them anew.
The Chapel, too, was unsightly. A Protestant she, and yet
Decency needs must be in a house of prayer, she said.
Perched on a rising ground in sight of her windows set,
Its shapeless walls were her grief. She built it a new facade.
What was it changed her heart? God knows. I know not. Some say
She set her fancy on one above her in rank and pride.
Young Lord Clair at the Castle had danced with her. Then one day
Dancing and she were at odds. He had taken an English bride.
This, or it may be less, a foolish word from a friend,
A jest repeated to ears already wounded and sore,
A pang of jealousy roused for the sake of some private end,
Or only the greed of gain, of more begotten of more.
These were the days of plenty, of prices rising, men thought
Still to rise for ever, and all were eager to buy.
Landlord with landlord vied, and tenant with tenant bought.
Riches make selfish souls, and gain has an evil eye.
Oh! the economist fraud, with wealth of nations for text,
How has it robbed the poor of their one poor right to live!
Only the fields grow fat. The men that delve them are vexed,
Scourged with the horse–leech cry of the daughter of hunger, “give.”
Why should I blame this woman? She practised what all men preach,
Duty to Man a little, but much to herself and land.
She made two blades of grass to grow in the place of each.
She took two guineas for one. What more would your laws demand?
If in her way men died, Economy’s rules are stern,
Stern as the floods and droughts, the tempests and fires and seas.
Men but cumber the land whose labour is weak to earn
More than their board and bed; much cattle were worthy these.
So those argued who served her. What wonder if she too grew
Hard in her dealings around, and grudged their lands to the poor?
Cary, her agent, died. The day she engaged the new,
Grief stepped into the village, and Death sat down at the door.
Rent? Who speaks of the rent? We Irish who till the soil,
Are ever ready to pay the tribute your laws impose;
You, the conquering race, have portioned to each his toil;
We, the conquered, bring the ransom due to our woes.
Here is no case of justice, of just debts made or unjust.
Contracts ‘twixt freemen are, not here, where but one is free.
No man argues of right, who pays the toll that he must;
Life is dear to all, and rent is the leave to be.
No. None argued of rent. Each paid, or he could not pay,
Much as the seasons willed, in fatness or hungry years.
Blake’s old rental was high. She raised it, and none said nay;
Then she raised it again, and made a claim for arrears.
Joyce was her agent now. The rules of Charity bind
Somewhat my tongue in speech, for even truths wrongs endured;
All I will say is this, in Joyce you might see combined,
Three worst things, a lawyer, money–lender, and steward.
His was the triple method, to harass by legal plan,
Ruin by note of hand, and serve with the Crown’s decree;
One by one in his snare he trapped the poor to a man,
Left them bare in the street, and turned in their doors the key.
How many Christian hearts have I seen thus flouted with scorn,
Turned adrift on the world in the prime of life and their pride!
How many lips have I heard curse out the day they were born,
Souls absolved in their anger to die on the bare hill–side!
All for Miss Blake and the law, and Joyce’s profit on fees!
All for Imperial order, to see the Queen’s writ run!
All for the honour of England, mistress of half the seas!
All in the name of justice, the purest under the sun!
Pitiful God of justice! You speak of order and law?
Order! the law of blood which sets the stoat on the track;
Law! the order of death which has glutted the soldier’s maw,
When Hell lies drunk in a city the morning after a sack.
Order and law and justice! All noble things, but defiled,
Made to stink in men’s nostrils, a carrion refuse of good,
Till God Himself is debased in the work of His hands beguiled,
And good and bad are as one in the mind of the multitude.
All in vain we argue who preach submission to Heaven.
Even to us who know it, such mercy is hard to find.
How then submission to Man by whom no quarter is given?
Vainly and thrice in vain. That nut has too hard a rind.
Then men rise in their anger. Another justice they seek.
Maxims of right prevail traced down from a pagan age;
These take the place of the gospel your laws have robbed from the weak.
Who shall convince them of wrong, or turn the worm from his rage?
Which are the first fruits of freedom? Truth, Courage, Compassion. A man,
Nursed from his childhood in right and guarded close by the law,
Why should he trifle with virtue or doubt to do what he can
Fearless in sight of the world, his life without failure or flaw?
All things come to the strong, power, riches, fair living, repute,
Conscience of worth and of virtue, plain speaking and dealing as plain.
Oh, fair words are easy to speak when the world spreads its pearls at your foot.
Free is humanity’s fetter with pleasure gilding the chain.
The Englishman’s word, who shall doubt it? The poor Celt, truly, he lies.
Fie on his houghing of cattle, his blunderbuss fired from the hedge!
Witness swears falsely to murder. You throw up your innocent eyes,
Rightly, for murder and lying set honest teeth upon edge.
Yet, mark how circumstance alters. You plant your Englishman down
Strange on the banks of the Nile or Niger to shift with new life.
All things are stronger than he. He fears men’s fanatic frown,
Straightway fawns at their knees, his fingers clutching the knife.
He is kindly. Yet, think you he spares them, the servant, the cattle, the child,
The wife he has wedded in falsehood, the Prince who clothed him in gold?
Out on such womanly scruples! He boasts the friends he beguiled,
The poisoned wells on his track, the poor slaves starved on the wold.
This is necessity’s law? Ay, truly. Necessity teaches
Sternly the Devil’s truth, and he that hath ears may hear.
Only the grace of God interprets the wrong Hell preaches.
Only the patience of perfect love can cast out fear.
Joyce was found on his doorstep, stone dead, one Sunday morning,
Shot by an unknown hand, a charge of slugs in his chest,
The blow had fallen unheard, without either sign or warning,
Save for the notice–to–quit pinned to the dead man’s breast.
Oh, that terrible morning of grief to angels and men!
I who knew, none better, the truth that until that day
Sin in its larger sense was hardly within the ken
Of these poor peasant souls, what dared I devise or say?
A deed of terror? Yes. A murder? Yes. A foul crime?
True, but a signal of battle, the first blood spilt in a war.
Who could foresee the sequence of wrong to the end of time?
Who would listen to peace with the red flag waving afar?
War, war, war, was the issue in all men’s minds as they stood
Watching the constable force paraded that afternoon,
War of the ancient sort when men lay wait in a wood
Spying the Norman camps low crouched in a waning moon.
Group with group they whispered. Their eyes looked strangely and new,
Lit with the guilty knowledge as thoughts of the dead would pass.
It was a pitiful sight to mark how the anger grew
In souls that had prayed as children that very morning at Mass.
The answer to Joyce’s murder was swift. Two strokes of the pen,
Set by Miss Blake’s fair hand on parchment white as her face,
Gave what remained of the parish, lands, tenements, chapel, and mill,
All to a Scotch stock farmer to hold on a single lease.
Here stands the story written. The parchment itself could show
Hardly more of their death than this great desolate plain.
The poor potato trenches they dug, how greenly they grow!
Grass, all grass for ever, the graves of our women and men!
And did all die? You ask it. I ask you in turn, “What is death?”
Death by disease or battle, with gaping wounds for a door:
Through it the prisoned soul runs forth with the prisoned breath,
And what is lost for the one the other gains it and more:
This is the death of the body. Some died thus, fortunate ones,
Here and there a woman taken in labour of birth,
Here and there a man struck down on his cold hearth stones,
Here and there a child, or grey beard bent to the earth.
Heaven in pity took them. Their innocent souls received
All that the Church can give of help on the onward way.
Here as they lived they died, believing all they believed.
Here their bodies rest, clay kneaded with kindred clay.
Every eviction in Ireland brings one such physical loss,
Weak ones left by the road, grief touching the feeble brain.
None of us mourn such dead who hold the creed of the Cross,
Counting as sure their certain hope of eternal gain.
Not for these is my anger. Love grieves, but the cicatrice closes,
Ending in peace of heart. The dead are doubly our own.
But what of that other death for which love strews no roses,
Death of the altered soul, lost, perished, forever gone?
Deep in the gulf of your cities they lie, the poor lorn creatures,
Made in God’s image once, His folded innocent sheep,
Now misused and profaned, in speech and form and features
Living like devils and dying like dogs in incestuous sleep.
Seek them where I have found them, in New York, Liverpool, London,
Cursing and cursed of all, a pustulous human growth,
These same Irish children God made for His glory, undone,
Ay, and undoing your law, while black Hell gapes for you both.
There! You asked for the truth. You have it plain from my lips.
Scientists tell us the world has no direction or plan,
Only a struggle of Nature, each beast and nation at grips,
Still the fittest surviving and he the fittest who can.
You are that fittest, the lion to–day in your strength. To–morrow?
Well, who knows what other will come with a wider jaw?
Justly, you say, the nations give place and yield in their sorrow;
Vainly, you say, Christ died in face of the natural law.
Would you have me believe it? I tell you, if it were so,
If I were not what I am, a priest instructed in grace,
Knowing the truth of the Gospel and holding firm what I know,
Where should I be at this hour? Nay, surely not in this place.
Granted your creed of destruction, your right of the strong to devour,
Granted your law of Nature that he shall live who can kill,
Find me the law of submission shall stay the weak in his hour,
His single hour of vengeance, or set a rein on his will.
Where should I be, even I? Not surely here with my tears,
Weeping an old man’s grief at wrongs which are past regret,
Healing here a little and helping there with my prayers,
All for the sake of Nature, to fill the teeth she has whet!
Not a priest at Aughrim. My place would be down with those
Poor lost souls of Ireland, who, loving her far away,
Not too wisely but well, deep down in your docks lie close,
Waiting the night of ruin which needs must follow your day.
England’s lion is fat. Full–bellied with fortune he sleeps;
Why disturb his slumber with ominous news of ill?
Softly from under his paw the prey he has mangled creeps,
Deals his blow in the back, and all the carcase is still.
Logic and counter–logic. You talk of cowardice rarely!
Dynamite under your ships might make even your cheek white.
Treacherous? Oh, you are jesting. The natural law works fairly,
He that has cunning shall live, and he that has poison bite.
Only I dare not believe it. I hold the justice of Heaven
Larger than all the science, and welled from a purer fount;
God as greater than Nature, His law than the wonders seven,
Darwin’s sermon on Man redeemed by that on the Mount.
Thus spoke the Canon of Aughrim, and raised in silence his hands,
Seeming to bless the battle his eyes had seen on the plain.
Order and law, he murmured, a Nation’s track in the sands,
Ridge and furrow of grass, the graves of our women and men.