William McGonagall and the Folk Scene

This essay by the Scottish poet, song writer, folklorist and critic Hamish Henderson was first published in folk music magazine Chapbook in 1965. It appears here by kind permission of the Hamish Henderson Estate.

“He’s hey the road, ho the road, doon the road; the tods ging tae their holes, and the wee birdies flee awa hame tae their nests — but there’s nae rest for Silly Jack.” — Old tale

“I was much too far out all my life, And not waving but drowning” — Stevie Smith

Is folk-song ever poetry? Can poetry learn from folk-song? Is there a zone where they overlap, or should we speak rather of co-existence? How and where does money come into the picture? (Or how, for Chrissake, can we just occasionally keep it out?) These are our themes, and our presiding genius is William McGonagall, poet and tragedian, and unchallenged prince of bad verse writers.

McGonagall is in the news again — indeed, he is very seldom out of it Every now and then someone discovers that he sounds good with a jazz backing, or a pipe chanter accompaniment. Peter Sellers goes to town, with him, and on him. That whale gets thrown up again on the rocky shores of Associated Rediffusion. And David Winter and Son Limited, of Dundee — the firm which printed the original broadsheets which McGonagall hawked in the streets of that city, and of Auld Reekie, for a penny — have good reason to appreciate the value of the Poetic Gems which they continue to supply to an ever-welcoming public.

But — it may be objected –- why bring McGonagall into a discussion of folk-song? Surely, when we discuss McGonagall, we are scraping the bucket of uninspired “art-poetry.” What has he got to do with the poetry of the ballads, with the poetry of folk-song? Haud your horses — it’s not as simple as that. If you have jumped to the conclusion –- from the title, and these opening paras — that we are going to tie the battered tin-can of McGonagall to the tail of the folk-song revival, and thus knock its “image” for good and all, you are quite wrong. However, we have got to face it that a careful scrutiny of the works of McGonagall can teach us a great deal about the nature of folk-poetry.

Not long back, Folk Music‘s Jack Speedwell took a slap at Bob Dylan.1 He quoted Pete Seeger’s remark, “Bob Dylan is a great poet,” and professed bafflement. Valery, Rilke, Lorca were widely regarded as among the greatest twentieth century poets — yet Speedwell could see little in common between their work and the songs of Bob Dylan. But all of a sudden, he sees the light — he takes from the shelf the well-thumbed works of the great McGonagall, and all is clear.

Well, is it? Speedwell had an interesting point there, but he failed to develop it, except in the most rudimentary fashion. Let us proceed a little further, and see where the trail leads us.

William McGonagall did not regard himself as a folk poet but as an art-poet, and one of the greatest at that; he bowed the knee to Shakespeare and nobody else. However — although the bard himself would have been horrified to hear it — the folklorist can “place” McGonagall more easily than can the literary historian.

The most famous of Scots “worthies” was born in Edinburgh in 1830, of Irish parentage.

My father was a handloom weaver, and wrought at cotton fabrics during his stay in Edinburgh, which was for about two years. Owing to the great depression in the cotton trade in Edinburgh, he removed to Paisley with his family, where work was abundant for a period of about three years; but then a crash taking place, he was forced to remove to Glasgow with his family with the hope of securing work there, and enable him to support his young and increasing family, as they were all young at that time, your humble servant included. In Glasgow he was fortunate in getting work as a cotton weaver; and as trade was in a prosperous state for about two years, I was sent to school, where I remained about eighteen months, but at the expiry of which, trade again becoming dull, my poor parents were compelled to take me from school, being unable to pay for schooling through adverse circumstances; so that all the education I. received was before I was seven years of age. My father, being forced to leave Glasgow through want of work, came to Dundee, where plenty of work was to be had at the time — such as sacking, cloth, and other fabrics. It was at this time that your humble servant was sent to work in a mill in the Scouringburn.

Brief Autobiography

When McGonagall was born, the Coogate of Edinburgh had a big Irish population (still has, in fact); the birthplaces of McGonagall and of James Connolly, the hero of Easter 1916, are not far apart. Orange and Green are both well represented. Also, the Coogate lies “contagious” to the Burke-and-Hare axis, which runs from the West Port, through the Grassmarket and up Candlemaker Row, in the direction of Surgeon’s Hall. McGonagall must have heard, from his cradle onwards and upwards, a rich mixture of Irish and native Scots folk lore. In Paisley and Glasgow especially, he must have heard umpteen songs with first lines like “It was upon the 12th of July in 1690 famous.” Songs with this sort of stock opening are still being composed here and there, but in nineteenth century Scotland and Ireland they were the commonplace of ploughman’s bothy and city gin-palace. The drawling “come-all-ye” tunes brought over to Scotland by bands of Irish labourers- must have been very familiar to McGonagall when he was a child, and when he started composing his own poems he quite naturally adopted the idiom of the pedestrian “come-all-ye’s”.

A large number of his poems begin with lines like:

“Twas in the year of 1842, and on the 27th of May…”

and quite a few can be fitted to these same come-all-ye tunes. Some of his rhymes show that he was thinking, if not talking, with an Irish accent all his life:

…the barque she sprang a leak.
Still the crew wrought at the pumps till their hearts were like to break.

The Wreck of the Barque “Wm Paterson” of Liverpool

And another:

And as for the robbery and outrage at the hands of the ghouls,
I must mention Clara Barton and her band of merciful souls…

The Pennsylvania Disaster

Also, he quite often uses the “wrenched” accent of the ballad stanza, i.e. puts the stress on the second syllable when a trochaic dissyllable ends a line. For example:

Ye sons of Mars, come join with me:
And sing in praise of Sir Herbert Stewart’s little army.

The Battle of Abu Klea

McGonagall did not compose many actual songs. One of the few on record is “The Rattling Boy from Dublin” which has a “Whack fal de da fal de darelido” chorus, and which was apparently one of his most popular items.

It will be seen from the above that McGonagall’s life and work form a pattern which is really quite familiar. The difference between McGonagall and scores of folk-poets (anonymous) using virtually the same idiom was that he had something — something unique — which the others hadn’t got. It was a gift so extraordinary and so personal to himself that he remains one of the few virtually unparodiable poets. Completely devoid of the lyrical knack which would have set his productions on the road to becoming folksongs, he had the compensating ability — or compulsion — to use nothing but the hobbling and broken backed rhythms and verbiage of pedestrian folk poetry, and to use these so consistently from end to end of poem after poem that in effect he created a new style. This style was formed out of the debris and detritus of folksong — out of all the things which song composed in “the idiom of the people” sheds in the process of becoming folksong.

McGonagall’s work in fact was a sort of frowsy doss-house in which every wooden phrase, every gormless anti-climax was sure to find a bed.

If one listens to the productions of Irish “come-all-ye” folk poets, one realises at once what McGonagall derived from them. The sinuous drawling tones which can accommodate umpteen words per line provided him with his characteristically elongated line; the stock subjects of battle, disaster, eulogy and lament provided him with his themes; the occasional delicious pancake drop into deadpan flatness provided him — unconsciously, I am sure -— with his characteristic gimmick. It is this last feature of the “come-all-ye” — the pantaloon fall with a thickening sud — which is present in McGonagall’s work in classic form.

Indeed, if one were to search for a single designation for the bard of Dundee, one could not do better than dub him a poet of the “belly-flop.” To perform this type of belly-flop continuously demands a certain type of talent, as anyone who ever tries to parody him soon finds out.

Who, for example, has ever succeeded in recapturing the sublime banality of the following:

The authorities of Berlin in honour of the Emperor considered it no sin,
To decorate with crape the beautiful city of Berlin;
Therefore Berlin I declare was a city of crape,
Because few buildings crape decoration did escape.

The Funeral of the German Emperor

(“For crape, read crap,” as Queen Victoria commented ungraciously.)

Or this, from “Lines in Defence of the Stage”:

No, in the theatre we see vice punished and virtue rewarded,
The villain either hanged or shot, and his career retarded.

“Lawn Tennyson” and the other high-heid-yin poets of the Victorian age did not like soiling their lips with references to the smoky industrial life of the busy ports, cities and collieries. McGonagall had no such inhibitions — in fact. he may claim to have anticipated the “Pylon” school of poetry by more than half a century. Also, he was s stickler for scientific exactitude:

Then as for Leith Fort, it was erected in 1779, which is really grand,
And which is now the artillery headquarters in Bonnie Scotland;
And as for the Docks, they are magnificent to see,
They comprise five docks, two piers, 1,141 yards long respectively…

Besides, there are sugar refineries and distilleries,
Also engineer works, saw-mills, rope-works, and breweries,
Where many of the inhabitants are daily employed,
And the wages they receive make their hearts feel overjoyed.

Do we detect the very faintest bulge of a tongue-in-the-cheek at this point? Listen to this, a few verses later: –

Then there’s Bailie Gibson’s fish shop, most elegant to be seen,
And the fish he sells there are beautiful and clean;
And for himself, he is a very good man,
And to deny it there’s few people can.

The Ancient Town of Leith

McGonagall’s paeans of praise to certain Scottish watering-places may also cause a number of eyebrows to be raised:

Beautiful town of Montrose, I will now commence my lay,
And I will write in praise of thee without dismay;
And, in spite of all your foes,
I will venture to call thee Bonnie Montrose

Montrose

Now let’s don our macs (seeing it’s 1965) and take a trip to North Berwick:

North Berwick is a watering-place with golfing links green,
With a fine bathing beach most lovely to be seen;
And there’s a large number of handsome villas also,
And often it’s called the Scarborough of Scotland, as Portobello

Like Willie Gallacher, McGonagall was strongly against the booze, and in The Destroying Angel (or The Poet’s Dream) he paints a grandiose apocalyptic canvas, showing the Demon Drink being overcome by the direct method. The Angel cries:

…”Now, friends of the Temperance cause, follow me:
For remember it’s God’s high degree
To destroy all the public-houses in this fair City;
Therefore, friends of God, let’s commence this war immediately” …

And when the Perth Road public-houses were fired, she cried, “Follow me,
And next I’ll fire the Hawkhill public-houses instantly.”
Then away we went with the Angel, without dread or woe,
And she fired the Hawkhill public-houses as onward we did go.

Then she cried, “Let’s on to the Scouringburn, in God’s name.”
And away to the Scouringburn we went, with our hearts aflame,
As the destroying Angel did command.
And when there she fired the public-houses, which looked very grand.

No-one was ever able to tell the Bard that he had finally and ultimately plumbed the depths of bathos:

Friends of humanity, of high and low degree,
I prey ye all come listen to me;
And truly I will relate to ye,
The tragic fate of the Rev. Alexander Heriot Mackonochie.

Who was on a visit to the Bishop of Argyle
For the good of his health, for a short while;
Because for the last three years his memory had been affected,
Which prevented him from getting his thoughts collected.

The Tragic Death of the Rev. A. H. Mackonochie

One can’t escape the inevitable question, Lines like these have led some critics to ask, quite seriously — was it all an enormous leg-pull? They point out that McGonagall seems to have done quite well out of his innumerable appearances at parties, socials, soirees and convivial Rotary-type functions. Listen to his account of one such, among well-upholstered burgesses of the Highland capital:

’Twas on the 16th of October, in 1894,
I was invited to Inverness, not far from the seashore,
To partake of a Banquet prepared by the Heatherblend Club,
Gentlemen who honoured me without any hubbub.

The Banquet was held in the Gellion Hotel,
And the landlord, Mr Macpherson, treated me right well;
Also the servant maids were very kind to me,
Especially the girl who polished my boots most beautiful to see.

The Banquet consisted of roast beef, potatoes, and red wine,
Also hare soup and sherry, and grapes most fine,
And baked pudding and apples, lovely to be seen,
Also rich sweet milk and delicious cream.

Mr Gossip, a noble Highlander, acted as chairman,
And when the Banquet was finished the fun began;
And I was requested to give a poetic entertainment,
Which I gave, and which pleased them to their hearts’ content.

And for the entertainment they did me well reward
By entitling me the Heatherblend Club Bard;
Likewise I received an Illuminated Address,
Also a purse of silver, I honestly confess.

The Heatherblend Club Banquet

When McGonagall rose to do his act, on this occasion, he addressed the company as follows: “Gentlemen, I feel proud tonight to be among such a select company of gentlemen.” These words at once underline the difference between McGonagall and his contemporaries, the spinner and weaver poets whose work became folk-song. The people who acclaimed McGonagall and made his name a household word were not his fellow-workers — they preferred “The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow” and “The Wark o’ the Weavers” — but the well-off Victorian bourgeoisie, who laughed at McGonagall not only because of his inimitable gift for the bathetic but also (and perhaps mainly) because he was a haywire working-class rhymster who considered himself a poet.

Not only pillars of the state at home but empire-builders abroad joined with one accord in the mock-respectful derisive chorus. Here is a letter received by McGonagall in 1891 from an officer in the 1st Royal Scots, a battalion then on overseas service in Zululand: “Your poems show a taste not to be met with in many of the writings of the present age, and one can only wonder how you could have produced such a selection of poems, commencing as you did at such a late stage in life … I am confident your book could command an extraordinary sale if you arranged for its being sent out to the Cape or Natal Colonies, where so many well-known men reside who hail from the ‘land o’ cakes’.”

That McGonagall was a butt for rather odious undergraduate snobbism is obvious from the record. In February 1891, three students of Glasgow University wrote him a letter, asking him, inter alia:

Would you recommend us to write direct to the Queen as a patron of poetry; or should we go to Balnoral to see her there?

What chances do you consider we have in knocking out Tennyson as Poet Laureate?

If we should resolve upon going to Balmcral, which route would you recommend? Also name any “models” that may be known to you in that direction; stating landlady’s name, and if married or single.

Self-complacent class superiority oozes from these sentences. The clever young gents also addressed a “poem” to the Bard, which includes the following lines:

They will one day yet rear his monuments of brass, and weep upon his grave,
Though when he was living they would hardly have given him the price of a shave.

McGonagall-baiting became one of the principal pastimes of the Edinburgh students. In the upper room of the “woolpack” — the same room where Dominic Behan and his supporting singers used to drink during the Edinburgh run of “Behan Bein’ Behan” in 1963, and where Pete Shepheard and Jimmy Hutchison of St Andrews had their folk-singing sessions during this year’s Festival — the students loved to confer bogus orders and decorations on McGonagall, hymning his praises in McGonagallese, and generally taking the mickey. In 1894 he was made “a Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant, Burmah.” McGonagall seems to have stood it all with good humour, and because he was once observed leaving one of these functions with rather a curious satiric smile on his face, some have suggested that he secretly enjoyed his ignominious role, and was actually fooling his baiters. They recall the rejoinder of Jimmy Fleemin “The Laird of Udny’s Fool” to a wiseacre who had asked him — with a wink to the company — who he was. “I’m the Laird o’ Udny’s feel — fa’s feel are ye?”

There is an Irish connection here too. One of McGonagall’s benefactors was the Dublin born actor-playwright Dion (short for Dionysus) Boucicault, author of The Colleen Bawn, Arrah na Pogue (a play set in the year 1798) and The Shaughraun. Boucicault, who was as kind and generous as he was shrewd on at least one occasion gave his “fellow Thespian” a handsome hand-out. The grateful McGonagall, given a buckshee seat, may have found something vaguely familiar in his benefactor’s picaresque Silly Jack heroes, of whom David Krause has recently written: “His hero is a wise fool, the master of the mischievous revels, who is the inevitable occasion of hilarity in others as well as natural humour in himself.” (The Dolmen Press, Boucicault, Dublin 1964, p. 13)2

If McGonagall seems graver than the Irish pagliacci — so the proponents of this theory would argue — it is because he had to adjust to the ruling expression — the ruling elder expression of the “elect” — of 19th century Scotland: an unspeakable Calvinist mask of self-satisfied gravity. (Burns hit it off in his day with the devastating line: “Ye are sae grave, nae doot ye’re wise”.)

There may be something in this general idea, and it is perfectly true that McGonagall was in effect earning his living as a sort of licensed buffoon; one suspects, however, that McGonagall, like many — perhaps most — of the professional zanies of history was “not waving but drowning.”

One must remember, too, that the attitude of the Scots bourgeoisie to the poet — any poet, not only the McGonagall type — has usually been one of amused contempt, not unmixed with hostility. Victorian Scotland was horrifyingly Philistine, and the mental attitudes of those days are still very much alive in the country today. When one comes across a portrait of McGonagall, and contemplates his sensitive histrionic features, which so strikingly recall Henry Irving and Oscar Wilde, one can’t help feeling that when that monstrous money-glutted Victorian society was laughing at McGonagall, it was to a certain extent laughing at poetry itself.

Not that McGonagall didn’t conform. He conformed to the point of sycophancy. Apart from one poem in which he expresses admiration for Parnell, his flag-wagging jingoism was outrageous enough to scunner even an Empire Loyalist. Furthermore he seems in the main to have been quite successful, acting as his own agent, in extracting money, even from the practical jokers who had their fun codding him. If McGonagall failed on occasion to make the grade financially, it was usually more because of bad luck than lack of judgement. When he was in New York (1887), he tried to get work “I went three days after being in New York to look for engagements at the music—halls. I was told by all the managers I saw that they couldn’t give me an engagement, because there was a combination on foot against all British artistes. In Dundee, after his return home he appeared at Baron Zeigler’s circus and Transfield’s circus, and he had a great success in Glasgow. “I gave three private entertainments to crowded audiences, and was treated like a prince by them. All in all he seems to have done every bit as well as many of the folk singers earning a living from the clubs at the present day.

Nor does the resemblance end there. Like some modern folk-songers, McGonagall composed various pieces which connect with traditional items in the folk idiom. In such poems one can detect folk-motifs blown up or attenuated as if in the distorting mirrors of a fun-fair Let us look at one, which — in the McPeake version at least — will be familiar to every reader Among the top ten of the most popular (and deservedly popular) songs of the folk revival is “Will ye go, lassie, go” (The Wild Mountain Thyme). This, as I pointed out in Sing some years back, is a Northern Irish folk variant of The Braes o’ Balquhidder, one of the songs of the Paisley cotton-weaver poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810) It will be remembered that in the early 1830’s, when McGonagall was a wee bairn his father “wrought at cotton fabrics” in Paisley, and McGonagall junior must have been familiar with Tannahill’s songs, which enjoyed enormous popularity particularly in the west of Scotland. The Braes o’ Balquhidder is Tannahill’s contribution to a well-established genre in European folk-song. It is the call of the town-bred boy to his girl to have a country holiday, and enjoy sex and scenery “where glad innocence reigns.” The best of these songs have a wonderful and often poignant lyric freshness — especially those composed at the time the Industrial Revolution was turning many of our towns into smoky hell-holes. However, these songs have many antecedents in European literature, and the spirit that pervades them — that of young love triumphant — is the ecstatic cry of the Pervigilium Veneris

Cras amet qui nunquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet
(Loveless hearts will love tomorrow, those that have loved will love again)

It is a “ver novum” — a “new Spring”, in every sense — which these songs celebrate.

Well, what will McGonagall make of this darling theme? Wait for it! Wait for it!! Those who have a penchant for the thickening sud will not be disappointed. Here we go!

Bonnie Clara, will you go to the bonnie Sidlaw hills
And pu’ the blooming heather, and drink from their rills?
There the cranberries among the heather grow,
Believe me, dear Clara, as black as the crow.

Then, bonnie Clara, will you go
And wander with me to and fro?
and with joy our hearts will o’erflow
when we go to the bonnie Sidlaws O.

And another, on the same theme:

Bonnie Helen, will you go to Callander with me
And gaze upon its beauties and romantic scenery?
Dear Helen, it will help to drive all sorrow away;
Therefore come, sweet Helen, and let’s have a holiday…

’Tis said two lovers met there with a tragic fate.
Alas! poor souls, and no one near to extricate.
The rail of the bridge upon which they were leaning gave way,
And they were drowned in the boiling gulf. Oh, horror and dismay!

And, ye gods, yet another:

Then, bonnie Annie, will you go with me
and leave the crowded city of Dundee,
And breathe the pure, fragrant air
In the Howe of Kilmany, so lovely and fair? …

And there’s a wood sawmill by the roadway,
And the noise can be heard by night and day,
As the circular saw wheels round and round,
Making the village with its echoes resound.

(This, surely, suggests a variant to the Ball of Kirriemuir:

“Ye couldnae hear the sawmill
For the swishin’ … ” etc.)

We only have room for one other example. Part of the first verse of “The Bonnie Lass o’ Dundee” reads as follows:

Her face is fair, broon is her hair,
And dark blue is her e’e.

This echoes a ballad commonplace; cf. the first verse of a Perthshire version of Childe Maurice (Child 83) which was recorded in the berryfields of Blairgowrie from Hertha Stewart, July 1955:

His face was fair, lang was his hair,
And the green was where he stood.

An Aberdeenshire version of the same stanza is printed in “Last Leaves” (p.64):

His face was fair, lang was his hair,
In the wild wood where he stayed.

The next verse of McGonagall’s poem contains the lines

And her face it is the fairest
That ever I did see.

This at once recalls Annie Laurie, the most famous version of which is itself a literary folk variant of an older song, composed by Wm Douglas of Fingland (see Robert Ford, Song Histories, pp. 23-31).

Like many literary (or pseudo-literary) gents who have borrowed from the folk tradition, McGonagall himself became (in his own life-time) a folk character. People say of him — in just the same way they say of Burns — “there’s mair o‘ him than’s in the book.”

And there is, too. A large sub-literature exists of what one may call Mock-McGonagallese. Ask anyone in Scotland to quote a verse of McGonagall, and the chances are he will recite:

As I was walkin’ doon the road,
I met s coo — a bull, by Gode!

This, as you can see at a glance, has been “fathered” on the Bard — it was never written by him. For one thing, the couplet is in Scots (or as near it as makes no matter), and McGonagall very seldom used dialect, no doubt regarding it as vulgar. The chances are that he delivered his own poems with more than a touch of the shoddy genteel accent of “ould decency.” At this point we call, as expert witness, the late P. W. Joyce, who wrote in his Old Irish Folk Music and Songs (Dublin, 1909):

The Anglo-Irish peasant poets wrote in pure English, so far as lay in their power, and so far as their knowledge of the language extended. They hardly ever used the broken-English words of the Anglo-Irish folk dialect, such as ould, darlint, I’m kilt and speechless, onaisy, wonst as I wint out, becaze, sthrame, come hether, consarnin, let go your hoult, etc. But such words as these were constantly used in conversation, not only by the general run of the people, but by the writers of the songs.

Moreover the composers of Anglo-Irish songs very seldom used Irish words mixed with English, either in correct Gaelic spelling or anglicized; such as asthore, alanna, etc.

Because of the superior status of Scots as a literary language (as compared to Anglo-Irish dialect), and because of the fame of poets like Burns and Robert Fergusson and the Ettrick Shepherd, there is quite a large body of 19th century Scots folk-song in passable ballad-Scots. Nevertheless, Gavin Greig was undoubtedly right when he commented (writing on “Traditional Minstrelsy” in The Book of Buchan, Peterhead, 1910):

Remembering the general tendency of lyrism to raise language to a higher plane, we must not expect to find much of the undiluted vernacular in our folk-songs. Education has made our peasant bilingual in a way, so that in the use of language he readily becomes barometric.

Greig drew attention, however, to the use of local dialect in indigenous ditties like “The Souters’ Feast”, and in his Buchan Observer articles he praised the work of George Bruce Thomson (MacFarlane o’ the Sprots o’ Burnieboozie, and suchlike humorous songs) in which one finds a rich and ingenious complement of the Buchan Doric.

Criteria such as the above make it highly unlikely, therefore that McGonagall was the author of another amusing stanza, which is also fathered on him by popular attribution:

O water o’ Leith, O water o’ Leith,
There the girls gang doon tae wash their teeth;
And ower the stream is a hoose, right knackie,
O’ that grand auld man Professor Blackie.

Any verse mentioning such an exalted figure would have, of course, to be in English.

McGonagall as a folk character bobs up in the Press from time to time. The following news-item appeared in the Scottish Daily Express of 15th September, 1965:

Wearing lum hats and claw-hammer “jaikets”, the loyal and ancient fraternity of Weavers in Ladybank, Fife, set out for Bo’ness, West Lothian on Friday night carrying a coffin – with WHISKY in it.

They are holding a celebration to perpetuate the memory of William McGongall, Dundee’s poet and tragedian.

The coffin contains “The Spirit of McGonagall”, explained Mr Graham Bell, of the Royal Hotel, Ladybank, who holds the proud title “Admiral of the Tay”.

The spirit of McGonagall! This must have been the brew that circulated at Finnegan’s Wake. Two drops and the corpse is guaranteed to rise from the bed with a great roar of resurrection-elation. Here, anyway, is the point at which we clinch the Irish connection, and display a fruity example of the type of verse which supplies the link between McGonagall and Erin’s Isle. It is by Michael O’Brien the “Wexford Bard”, and I transcribed it in 1949 from an old newspaper cutting in the library of the Irish Folklore Comission in Dublin.3

Lament for Canon Dunne

On Friday the 18th day of June, in the year of ’97,
Old Ireland’s son, blessed Canon Dunne, was called away to heaven.
A better sagart4 never lived in Blackwater in our tine.
Only 64, not one day more, he was only in his prime.

(The Canon’s career is faithfully recorded, parish by parish)

… from that he went to Litter and from there to Adamstown,
And when Father Walsh he had resigned, to Blackwater he was sent down,
So that he leaves him here about twelve year, perhaps a little more,
Till God’s angels came his soul to claim for blessed Jehovah shore.

(And here we come to the final bellyflop)

…He was sinking fast for some time past, and though his end was near,
His death was not expected by us so soon around here.

Admittedly this is rather more singable than the majority of McGonagall’s efforts in the same style, but the connection is clear enough. In McGonagall’s “The Death of the Rev. Dr. Wilson” there is an internal rhyme in the last line of the first verse, much as in the Wexford Bard’s threnody:

’Twas in the year of 1888 and on the 17th of January
That the late Rev. Dr. Wilson’s soul fled away;
The generous-hearted Dr. had been ailing for some time,
But death, with his dart, did pierce the heart of the learned divine.

He was a. man of open countenance and of great ability,
And late minister of Free St- Paul’s Church, Dundee,
And during the twenty-nine years he remained as minister in Dundee
He struggled hard for the well-being of the community.

He was the author of several works concerning great men,
In particular the Memoirs of Dr. Candlish and Christ turning His face towards Jerusalem;
which is well worthy of perusal, I’m sure,
Because the style is concise and the thoughts clear and pure.

Like the come-all-ye poets, and indeed like the mediaeval Irish court-poets too, McGonagall is a meticulous chronicler of events, local and national, and as such is in the grand central tradition of “public” poets, From the death of a now unremembered Free Kirk minister to the melodramatic death of General Gordon in Khartoum, all was grist to his mill.

The Scottish and Irish popular traditions have innumerable points of contact, and those we are surveying are certainly not among the least interesting and curious. Perhaps I may be allowed at this point a word of personal reminiscence. When I was working in Ireland, in the late 40’s, I invented (for the entertainment of friends) an imaginary M.P. — Mr Donegal McGonagall, T.D., leader of Clann Gombeen in Dail Eireann — whose exploits I hymned in McGonagallesque come-all-ye stanzas, sung with the authentic native nyaaaa. These proved quite popular among a select circle in Belfast, Dublin and Dungannon — a circle, I might add, consisting impartially of diggers with the left and the right foot. One of these ditties — it began “At Poguemohone, when the moon was shining” — was a satire against the T.D., and people like him, who sang anachronistic “patriot” songs to divert the attention of the Irish people from the pressing social and economic problems confronting them.

However, the commerce was, as always, a two-way affair. At one of the Belfast hoolies, I heard such a spirited rendering of “Johnstone’s Motor Car” (from Jean Connor) that the tune kept dancing in my memory. A few weeks later, when I was returning from a short holiday in Scotland aboard one of the Burns-Laird steamers, I composed “The Men of Knoydart” to that same air. The song began while we were lying at the Broomielaw, and was complete before the Clyde coast faded from sight. It had its premiere in Kelly’s Cellars in Belfast the following lunch-time.

While we are still across the water, the reader may be interested to know that there was once a “prose McGonagall” in Ireland — a lady-novelist called Amanda McKittrick Ros. If you aren’t familiar with the works of the “Irish Ouida”, you should beg, borrow or steal a copy of Delina Delaney without delay. Funniest of all unconsciously funny prose-writers, Amanda was the wife of the station-master at Larne, so, in a sense, she commanded the sea and rail cross-roads of Irish and Scottish folkways. After a few pages of Amanda, you will begin to wonder if we aren’t maybe dealing with a compulsive grotesquerie which is distinctively Scots-Irish.

Although McGonagall is the supreme practitioner of the art of the belly-flop he turns out to have some unexpected rivals. That extraordinary mixed up genius, Hugh McDiarmid, who has written some of the best poetry Scotland has ever seen, and some of the worst, has done a lot of notable belly-flopping in his time. One example is his incredible poem, “The Fingers of Baal contract in the Communist Salute,” which was published in 1946 in Poems of the East West Synthesis. This is supposed to be a poem of ideas — the “ideas” being lifted bodily from a haywire tome, 6000 Years of Gaelic Grandeur Unearthed, which was published in Berlin in 1936, during the Nazi regime — but the end product is the purest “babu” McGonagallese.

Here are two sample stanzas:

Infernal fantasies contrived to hide
The simple unacceptable truth!
— Read Hommel’s History of Babylonia,
And Fink’s Die Sprachstamme des Erdkreises, sooth.

The Atlantis Fable is but a colossal exaggeration
Of the natural catastrophe of 1031 B.C.
Which broke in upon Cornwall — fantastically embellished,
To hide the simple report of the Scilly Isles tragedy.

In this truly fantastic production, which deserves to be read in full, McDiarmid displays all McGonagall‘s compulsive “come-all-ye” desire to extend his line and get in his rhyme.

McGonagallese poems which are not just parodies, and which display the clod-hopping belly-flopping techniques of folk-poets at the very bottom of the echelon turn up occasionally here and there. One such is “The Glen Cinema Disaster,” composed by an anonymous Paisley bard. Here are a few verses, transcribed from a MS collection of circa 1958:

It was afternoon, in a Cinema called the Glen,
No thoughts of death had anyone in the cinema then;
The picture on the screen was a picture called the “Crowd,”
And it got a rousing welcome, the children cheered it loud.

There was nothing but happiness, inside that cinema hall,
Until by mistake, there rose a dreadful call,
It caused immediate havoc, it holds terror, even for men,
What was the effect on children, that fateful day in the Glen.

The hall was packed with children, the cream of our future generation,
Whose one object in being there, was harmless recreation,
To enjoy the last day of the year, was their main desire,
But fate was very cruel, to them, when some-one shouted “Fire.”

Those poor innocent children, did what only others would do,
They rushed for the nearest exit, but couldn’t all get through
Some were trampled underneath, never to rise again,
And their beautiful faces, were distorted with pain-

Words cannot be found, to describe that horrible scene,
To the whole of Paisley, such a tragedy never has been,
It will be remembered in Paisley, for many a long day,
As the Glen Cinema disaster, and the “Black Hogmanay.”

So in your thoughts of disaster, try if you can to pray,
For those poor innocent children, who lost their lives that day,
Think of the Fathers and Mothers, Relatives, wives and men,
Who lost their Sons, Daughters, or Relatives, that awful day in the Glen.

Now let us look back at our opening questions. The hard truth is that folk-song becomes poetry — or has a chance of becoming poetry — as and when it gets rid of McGonagall. He is, as it were, the sump into which all that is least creative in folk-song is bound to drain. However, the work of McGonagall, anti-hero of the un-folk process, serves, paradoxically, to illuminate a wide stretch of the debatable land between art-poetry and folk-song.

If we must admit that a song in the folk idiom is more likely — at any rate in its initial stages — to resemble McGonagall than to resemble Lorca, Rilke, Valery etc., it is also true that the work of the real folk-poet is never — or almost never — as insipid, nerveless and generally banal and moribund as the work of the great ruck of minor and minuscule art-poets. The dimwits among such art-poets often affect to despise oral folk-culture, usually for vulgar reasons of exclusiveness and preciosity, but the top-notchers nearly always have more sense. Writers like Burns and Lorca have, in fact, learned much from a lively and virile folk-culture, and have themselves written songs which were to become absorbed into local folk-tradition. The art of the people, says Davenson is “la curiosite permanente de l’elite.” Yeats and Auden have experimented, successfully with the folk idiom and writers like Charles Causley, W. S. Graham, and Christopher Logue have carried these experiments a stage further (cf. the latter’s “Song of the Dead Soldier.”) Organisers of poetry readings now regularly invite folk singers to participate; for example, Jeannie Robertson at John Wain’s Mermaid Theatre Festival of 1961. Frankie Armstrong at the “official” Edinburgh Festival poetry readings in 1965 run by George Macbeth, and Andy Hunter at the readings organised by Pete Brown and Alan Jackson at the Traverse Theatre. “Poetry and Jazz” have been cohabiting off and on, sometimes producing rather curious offspring. Sydney Carter has been a sort of Bishop of Woolwich of the revival, demonstrating with ecumenical bonhomie that religion and folk-song are not incompatible, while secular cross-currents from folk-song, art literature and the theatre converge turbulently in the work of Ewan MacColl.

The folk process is not only a matter of unconscious modification; it is also a matter, at many different levels, of conscious creation. The moment experienced by the creator of “folk art” can be comparable with the moment experienced by the “art” poet or composer. As in all forms of human activity, it is a question of time, of slow (often necessarily slow) maturing. Think of the people at a ceilidh who sit the night long hardly opening their mouths, and who emerge in two or three months — or years — as folk-artists. The absence of direct money stimuli seems to me very important, especially in the early stages. Professionals and professionalism are no new thing in folk-song, of course, but the high-powered American pop-folk set-up, with its escalating onslaught on the sensibilities, is quite definitely a new and highly disquieting phenomenon. One feels that the growing folk-artist should earn his or her living in almost any other way than by tying up the creative strain with the ordinary tin-pan alley cash nexus. Folk-song has, in the past, been an “underground” as against official or establishment culture. From now on, it will also (I reckon) be an “underground” as against money-minded pop-folk skulduggery, now rampant in “folk” clubs all over the country.

The difference between the one thing and the other has been delineated in mordant prose by Gershon Legman (The Horn Book, p. 503):

The final identifying rule is therefore this — and it has no exceptions. All folkniks, folk-songers, folklore-fakers … have one characteristic in common, and by it they can invariably be told from the real thing; They are all out for the money, plus a goodly bit of cheap public attention and acclaim … Folk-fakers will not sing, record or print one bloody word or note without a brassbound contract for e cut of the box-office take … The -above unfailing stigmata are not only the most infallible characteristics of the breed, but also the most peculiar thing about then, since they are so completely at variance with the whole soul and character of folklore. Real folksingers, and for that matter real folk, whether they can carry a note or not, will occasionally give forth with a song, or tell a joke, spin a tale, crack a riddle, or cut a caper at a local dance or beer-joint, just on the basis of good spirits, or having had a couple of drinks, or trying to please s pretty girl, or all three combined; without requiring cash payment and a 56-year copyright made out to them in advance. This is not even considered praiseworthy or peculiar of them, but simply the way it is done — the way folklore is (to coin a phrase) orally transmitted.

Legman puts it in a nutshell when he says, referring to the commercial folk scene and its victims, the real folksingers:

The lesser breeds without the Know How — the northern Scots, Southern Italians, Deserted Arabs, etc., — who have been doing all the folksinging, will receive as their share: folk-all.

David Wright in Moral Story II thinks of Poetry as an old street-walker, but his words apply equally well to Folk-song, looking from the pavement at a car load of prosperous folk-fakers driving past:

…out of the corner of my eye I’d seen a Rolls Royce
Purr by us with a back seat full of her old friends,
Passing, like the gent in the song, the girl they’d ruined.
They lifted a disdainful nostril at her noise,
And continued, as you might expect, to pursue their ends,
With cigars drawing, and the radio carefully tuned
To a highbrow programme. So across the gutter
We caught one another’s look; and as their exhaust
Echoed outside of the Ritz like a burst paper bag,
Laughed like hyenas; she, with a shaking udder,
Said, “I was a lovely piece, when they met me first.”
And lineaments of desire lit the old hag.

This being the rather depraved scene we are faced with, let us be grateful, at any rate, for the creators, the makars, the composers, those with a spark of the divine fire — if anyone can leaven this unholy lump, they will. And before we start reaching for stones to chuck at Bob Dylan, as if he were a sort of folk-song equivalent of the woman taken in adultery, and before we join the hooting chorus when his 1965 Newport “image” comes up for discussion, let us for heaven’s sake remember that an unmistakable vein of genuine poetry runs through the best of his work. If the American success machine is currently giving him the treatment, it is our loss as well as his. “There is one sin, to call a green leaf grey”; and ill-natured girding at Bob Dylan comes gey ill from people who (because of the positive contribution they had to offer) have themselves been the beneficiaries of a man-sized portion of consideration and forbearance, as well as open-handed help.

All the same, I think the time has probably come to take a cool unhurried look at the identity and motives of some of the people who are doing their best to hash Bob Dylan out of the ring — in so far as one can see past their pseudonyms. The folk scene has been bedevilled not only by the cynical money-grubber — and the witless bonehead — of the commercial revival, but also by the phoney purist: the bloke who poses as the cleaner out of an Augean stable into which he himself has tipped a goodly amount of muck, Not all the evidence makes particularly pleasing reading. The phoney purist just can’t stand it if he’s not right in the middle of the picture; far from discouraging his personality cult, he’s likely to be its most assiduous promoter and actor-manager. There’s usually little anyone can teach him about the money angle. Furthermore, he can do any God’s amount of folk-faking himself, when he feels inclined.

It has been said that, to get through, we need pity and irony. Let us add tolerance — although this certainly doesn’t mean that we should sacrifice our standards, or be content with anything other than the best, if it is to be had. Having examined McGonagall’s lucubrations, and made an attempt to get them into focus, we’ll now open the windows wide and show what poetry in the folk idiom can be like. The voice is W. S. Graham’s and the poem “The Ballad of Baldy Bane.”

Shrill the fife, kettle the drum,
My Queens my Sluts my Beauties.
Show me your rich attention
Among the shower of empties.
And-quiet be as it was once
It fell on a night late
The muse as felled me in this bed
That in the wall is set.
Lie over to me from the wall or else
Get up and clean the grate.

On such a night as this behind
McKellar’s Tanworks’ Wall
It seems I put my hand in here
As we played at the ball.
So began a folly that
I hope will linger late,
Though I am of the kitchen bed
And of the flannel sheet.
Lie over to me from the wall or else
Get up and clean the grate…

Squeeze the box upon the tune
They call Kate Dalrymple O.
Cock your ears upon it and
To cock your legs is simple O.
Full as a whelk, full as a whelk
And all my hooks to bait.
Is that the nightshift knocking off?
I hear men in the street.
Lie over to me from the wall or else
Get up and clean the grate.

Move to me as you birl, Meg.
Your mother was a great whore.
I have not seen such pas de bas
Since up in Kirriemuir
I waded in your shallows once,
Now drink up to that.
It makes the blood go up and down
And lifts the sneck a bit.
Lie over to me from the wall or else
Get up and clean the grate…

(And here’s a verse for McGonagall)

If there’s a joke between us
Let it lie where it fell.
The exact word escapes me
And that’s just as well.
I always have the tune by ear.
You are an afterthought.
But when the joke and the grief strike
Your heart beats on the note…

She lies to fell me on the field
That is between us here.
I have but to lift the sneck
With a few words more.
Take kindly to Baldy Bane, then
And go your ways about.
Tell it in the Causewayside
And in Cartsburn Street.
Lie over to me from the wall or else
Get up and clean the grate.

Love me near, love me far,
Lie over from the wall.
You have had the best of me
Since we played at the ball…

This poem owes a good deal to “John Kinsella’s Lament for Mary Moore”

(What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd. is dead?)

which is one of Yeats’s supreme achievements in the genre (and which incidentally goes quite well to the tune of Nicky Tams) but Graham’s Baldy Bane comes closer to the idiom of the people (of Greenock, and pairts adjacent.) The refrain recalls Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship (Child 46):

The cock crows first, the sea bird’s next,
The dew doth on them fa’,
And we’ll baith lie in ae bed
And ye’ll lie neist the wa’.

It has been suggested (by G. S. Fraser) that McGonagall’s work reflects the civic soul of Dundee, but this has always seemed to me an unjustified slight on that long-suffering city. In any case, I think we may claim to have shown that it isn’t true. McGonagall certainly spent much of his life in the city of “Jute, jam and journalism,” and he always spoke up for Dundee; however, he removed finally to his birthplace Edinburgh, and the last years of his life were played out against the backcloth of the great Calvinist capital itself, sombre, elegant, sinister. One thinks of him, soldiering on into the new century, his ulster buttoned up to his chin against the snell East wind, bound perhaps for the Woolpack (always his favourite howff), or else for the Parliament House, where he sold signed copies of his poems, written in pencil, to the bewigged advocates and their clients. The most theatrical-looking of European capitals provided a fitting stage-setting for the old trouper playing his final scene — and made him in spite of all, one of the company of Burns and poor Robbie Fergusson, and Herd, and Hume, and the roystering boon-companions of the Crochallan Fencibles.

Did Burns no read, ere he micht taste
LORD IN THEE IS AL MY TRAIST

The lintel-stane o‘ Bacchus Court
THE LORD IS ONLIE MY SUPORT

During the course of this article we have said some harsh words — harsher words than McGonagall himself would probably have used — about the students who baited the old man. Let us make amends by quoting, as envoy, some lines from the “McGonagalliode,” written by a present-day student — Gordon Farquharson, Laureate Bard of the Edinburgh University McGonagall Society…

O beautiful gilded statue of Eternal Youth, standing above the Old Quad in state,
With your flaming torch, the darkness of ignorance to illuminate,
Hear new my praise of one who knew you well,
As he, for some considerable time, nearby did dwell.
He was none other than William McGonagall, the poet and tragedian of renown,
A citizen and worthy inhabitant of Edinburgh’s fair town.
He was truly gifted as a great poet should be
With wisdom, imagination, innocence and sincerity.
Often have I felt as I have left a. certain hostelry in South College St, in which I have been quenching my drouth,
That I have seen the shade of the poet himself standing in the nearby close mouth,
Which has given me greater inspiration for the cause,
That is, of proclaiming the greatness of McGonagall to all without pause,
Therefore, I now declare to all who read or hear my lay,
And solemnly avow that from now until I reach my hindmost day,
And. I am lowered into my grave clad in my funeral robe,
That I shall wholeheartedly endeavour with all my might to spread the knowledge and fame of the works of William McGonagall throughout the globe!

Footnotes

  1. See also Ewan MacColl, Sing Out! September 1965, p. 12, and Melody Maker, 18th September 1965 []
  2. Readers unfamiliar with Boucicault’s work will be surprised to find how much of the comic flamboyances of O’Casey and of Brendan Behan is foreshadowed in his characterizations. []
  3. I should like to express my indebtedness, for many kindnesses over the years, to Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist of the Commission. His “A Handbook of Irish Folklore” is one of the best collectors‘ manuals in existence. []
  4. Priest []

Further Reading

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