The poetic connection between Galway and Gogarty

Oliver St John Gogarty: despite his youthful exploits,  was loyal to the women in his life (painting by William Orpen 1911).

Oliver St John Gogarty: despite his youthful exploits, was loyal to the women in his life (painting by William Orpen 1911).


A grey town in a country bare,

The leaden seas between,

When light falls on the hills of Clare

And shows their valleys green,

Take in my heart your place again

Between your lake and sea,

O city of the watery plain,

That means that much to me!

Your cut-stone houses, row on row,

Your streams too deep to sing

Whose waters shine with green as though

They had dissolved the spring:

Your streets that still bring into view

The harbour and its spars;

The chimneys with the

turf-smoke blue

That never hides the stars!

It is not very long since you,

For memory is long,

Saw her I owe my being to,

And heart that takes to song,

Walk with a row of laughing girls

To Salthill from Eyre Square,

Light from the water on their curls

That never lit more fair.

Again may come your glorious days

Your ships come back to port,

And to your city’s shining ways

The Spanish dames resort!

And ere the tidal water falls

Your ships put out to sea..

Like crimson roses on grey walls,

Your memories to me.

It was recently suggested that the above poem, written by the surgeon, wit and senator Oliver St John Gogarty in 1928, should be adopted as a city anthem by the Galway City Council. The writer and poet Moya Cannon has taken up the suggestion impressing upon the city manager Brendan McGrath, that as a city of literature and music, we deserve an anthem of this quality. The poem, she said, is exceptionally evocative of the Galway which we all know and love. In its descriptive detail and freshness:

‘Your cut-stone houses, row on row

Your streams too deep to sing’

it could just as easily have been written last week. Also, appropriately for an anthem, it touches on the history of the city.

Set to music

Gogarty was the son of a well-to-do Dublin physician, Henry, and his wife Margaret (nee Oliver ). Margaret was the daughter of a Galway mill owner. In the third verse of his poem he pays her an affectionate tribute as he sees her walking ‘with a row of laughing girls’ to Salthill. He acknowledges that as a poet, he owes her his ‘heart that takes to song’.

The late singer and song-writer Tony Small successfully set the poem to music. Tony was a prominent member of very talented Galway musicians who lived here in the 1960s, who established Galway as a centre of excellence for traditional Irish music. As well as writing songs, Tony set many poems to music, among them Dolores Keane’s version of ‘Galway Bay’. He also collaborated on the well-known song ‘Caledonia’.

The esteem in which he was regarded by his peers was evidenced by the sell-out tribute concert recently held in his honour in the Town Hall. The performers included, among others, Christy Moore, Dolores Keane, Sean Keane and Alec Finn. All the performers expressed their enormous respect for the musician, and their affection for the man. The concert was attended by President Michael D Higgins, and the Mayor of Galway.

‘A gifted paranoid’

Gogarty was an interesting man, whose reputation probably suffers from James Joyce’s famously hostile portrait of him as Malachi Mulligan in Ulysses. The two men were once close friends. They briefly shared a Martello tower at Sandycove in September 1904. Both men were brilliant emerging talents, but the close confinement of the tower brought out their contempt for each other. Joyce resented Gogarty’s ostentatious generosity, and considered him a conformist; while Gogarty came to see Joyce as a gifted paranoid, compelled to bite the hands that fed him.*

Yet for all Gogarty’s Rabelaisian youth, his brilliance on the athletic field, his scholarship, an influential Sinn Féin supporter, his poetry (some of it bawdy but repeated with relish throughout the Dublin of the time ), and medical success, Gogarty was loyal to the women who were close to him. In March 1939 he successfully sued the poet Patrick Kavanagh for libel over the poet’s remarks (in his autobiography The Green Fool ), that the housemaid who opened the door of Gogarty’s home was his mistress. Gogarty’s celebration of his youthful exploits should not obscure the fact that he was genuinely fond of his wife Martha, nee Duane, of Moyard, Connemara. He did not see any humour in Kavanagh’s remarks. Gogarty was awarded £100, but Kavanagh’s career was severely damaged.

Next week: Gogarty’s political career that almost got him shot; and his love for Connemara turning the former Blake home at Renvyleinto a hotel.

Notes: *Joyce’s portrayal of him in Ulysses stung Gogarty to the extent that he publicly mocked the pretensions of the book, and wrote pityingly of Joyce as ‘an unlovable and lonely man’.


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