Today we have a poem, chosen by Angie Billing and written by John Betjeman, the British poet laureate who was once the British attaché in Dublin. He lived in Ireland from 1941 to 1943, and could never be described as a revolutionary poet. But his near-murder at the hands of the IRA makes him worth remembering this morning.
Betjeman, who was born 110 years ago in 1906, ten years before the Easter Rising, had a long if oft-hidden association with a family who lived near Cappoquin in Co Waterford. His poem, ‘The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922,’ is also revolutionary in the way Betjeman challenges many of the accepted mores in Ireland in the 1940s. It opens with the lines: Golden haired and golden hearted I would ever have you be, As you were when last we parted Smiling slow and sad to me. The poem is set in west Co Waterford, with each stanza closing with the line “Dungarvan in the rain.” For me, its descriptions too of Grattan Square in Dungarvan and the Comeragh Mountains, recall my childhood days on my grandmother’s farm near Cappoquin in west Waterford. The woman in the poem has since been identified as Emily Sears, who later married Ion Villiers-Stuarts of Dromana House, near Cappoquin. She and Betjeman met in the Yellow House in Helvick Head, a fishing lodge then owned by the Villiers-Stuart family, and he visited her both in Galway and in Co Waterford. The final lines of the poem show the poet’s respect and his final acceptance of Emily’s decision to remain friends and never to be lovers: You were right to keep us parted: Bound and parted we remain, Aching, if unbroken hearted— Oh! Dungarvan in the rain. Meanwhile, it is romantically curious that all that remains of the Villiers-Stuart family home in Dromana near Cappoquin is the “Hindu Gothic” gate lodge at the end of a bridge over the River Finnisk, close to where it meets the River Blackwater, outside Villierstown.
‘The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922,’
by John Betjeman Golden haired and golden hearted I would ever have you be, As you were when last we parted Smiling slow and sad at me. Oh! the fighting down of passion! Oh! the century-seeming pain — Parting in this off-hand fashion In Dungarvan in the rain. Slanting eyes of blue, unweeping Stands my Swedish beauty where Gusts of Irish rain are sweeping Round the statue in the square; Corner boys against the walling Watch us furtively in vain, And the Angelus is calling Through Dungarvan in the rain. Gales along the Commeragh Mountains, Beating sleet on creaking signs, Iron gutters turned to fountains, And the windscreen laced with lines, And the evening getting later, And the ache — increased again, As the distance grows the greater From Dungarvan in the rain. There is no one now to wonder What eccentric sits in state While the beech trees rock and thunder Round his gate-lodge and his gate. Gone — the ornamental plaster, Gone — the overgrown demesne And the car goes fast, and faster, From Dungarvan in the rain. Had I kissed and drawn you to me Had you yielded warm for cold, What a power had pounded through me As I stroked your streaming gold! You were right to keep us parted: Bound and parted we remain, Aching, if unbroken hearted — Oh! Dungarvan in the rain!