As we come to the end of the Walter Macken centenary, we thought it appropriate to reprint the only known piece of poetry that he wrote. It was first printed in 1963 in Criterion, a UCG magazine that was edited by Kevin Brophy at the time. It is homage, ómós if you like, to an old fisherman and reflects Macken’s love of fishing, of the Corrib, and of his understanding of people. The photograph of himself and his wife Peggy was taken in the garden of their home Gort na Gainiv near Oughterard c1960.
Pat The Boat, a story in an odd Shape by Walter Macken
Called by the sound of the chapel bell,
swelling white clouds in the blue sky ---
The priest said: Come to the funeral:
Let you make the three steps of sorrow
For the dear dead.
And who is dead that I know, I ask,
the mourners are as sparse as
blossoms after frost in June?
All the more reason, he said,
to follow the few.
For Pat the Boat is dead, he sighed
outliving memory with age,
forging forgetting by men
with ten long years in a crippled bed.
Who will recall him?
Walking slowly in the warm spring sun,
I see him advancing from time gone,
coming from the river of the boats
disturbing the stones with a lame foot,
Oh, well I recall him.
I do, I said. I see him in Camp Street
wearing a home-made canvas satchel,
false flies in a weather-worn hat,
sunburned face and Ghengis Khan moustache --
And is he dead?
He lived too long past useful life,
the priest said; for ten years gone
and half the world of fishing men
would mourn him; now so few – with you
a simple baker’s dozen.
I could hear him now, saw-rusted voice,
Boat riding the drift of the waves,
fingers tying a colourful fly,
wind whipping the brim of his hat,
the leaping trout on the hook.
He never roamed and yet he knew --
the rivers of India, the high lochs of Scotland,
the steamy jungles of South America,
the flies that lured the fish of Europe,
all these he knew,
For men came from many lands to fish
the glinting lake of the hundred isles,
and in their wisdom like all the clan
they asked and cried for the better man,
none more than Pat the Boat.
Every rock and every shallow
spring summer and heavy autumn,
he knew the ways of the fish
like he knew the lines in his own hand,
who will replace him?
He is gone and he is forgotten,
here in a hole on the hill.
Lift up your head and you will see the great lake
lying supine under the sun,
deceptively calm and still.
The prayer of the priest is loud in the air;
the coffin booms from the fall of clay;
a destroyed chapel lies under the clutch of ivy,
the yellow soil cascades impatiently on the wood
and my eyes are sad.
Forgotten so soon? Buried by a dozen,
a life of knowledge, of the movement of water,
spring floods and west winds
and great fish doomed to the rod --
Was this useless knowledge?
To know the ways of the wild geese,
the duck and the cormorant,
the great brown trout and the silver salmon
the pike and the perch and the flat bream --
was this waste then?
Not to have killed in war or wounded in anger,
to have loved outside the marriage ring,
to have swayed a nation from a wooden platform,
to have clutched a wounded breast to freedom’s call --
He did none of this.
He knew the clouds and the sun and the stars,
the movement of wood over deep waters,
the frozen fingers on the triple hooks,
the ring of the bell on the end of a pole,
the fear of the Maam gale;
The joy and regret at the death of a fighting fish,
the hot tea from a wood-boiled kettle,
the black midge and the dancing Mayfly,
the green grasshopper and the long legged Daddy,
all these he knew.
He shared the sight of the sunrise with God
alone in a frail punt on a March morning.
He watched the red sun embracing the mountains
when with tired muscles he rowed home ---
a trace in the evening.
He did nothing, they will say, and he left nothing.
But nobody knows the secrets he learned
from the vault of the sky or the cry of a tern --
but now he will know and confirm it all
on the other side of the tapestry.
So sleep, Pat the Boat, in the limestone soil,
or watch the great lake you knew with wonder,
you are never alone for it will talk to you
when the wind blows from the northwest
or the east or the south.
Who knows the ways of men, the priest said.
Kings have keeners by thousands but who loves them?
Monuments are built for the great and decay,
Some where a fisherman will talk of Pat the Boat,
and he too will die.
There are bones of men in the old chapel, I say
They never thought to be forgotten.
Certain fish in the lake will say; we are
because Pat the Boat no longer is --
Let that be his monument.
Amen, said the priest, with a smile.
The old gate squealed as it closed --
it was as old as the yew tree,
have a longer span, than man.