The writings and rebellions of a St Malachy’s old boy

By Liam Murphy

Joseph Campbell, a poet, playwright, patriot and artist was the man behind the words to the famous My Lagan Love.Joseph went to St Malachy’s College and in 1892 in the Intermediate Examination he won an exhibition, £20 and a cup. The following year his poem “The Road Makers” was published.

Bad health – he suffered scarletina fever – prevented him from going to university and he began working with his father. He greatly enjoyed the company of the workers and in a Radio Eireann broadcast in 1942 entitled The Turn of the Century he spoke about the “great characters from the Falls,” Peter O’Toole, Barney Rowan, Tom Mullan of Nail Street, Tom Goodman and Jack Halloran.

His father died in 1900 and as his older brother was a priest he took over the firm. However, after the Boer War, the work dried up and Belfast Corporation stopped giving work to a fiery nationalist. By this time he was a frequent visitor to Francis Joseph Bigger’s home, Ard Righ on the Antrim Road and often was in the company of Roger Casement. Bigger’s library was extensive and Joseph made good use of it. Here he met Herbert Hughes, (organist in St Peter’s Church, Antrim Road and composer) and Bulmer Hobson with whom he co-edited the magazine, Uladh publishing “The Mountainy Man” in the second number; also a play, The Little Cowherd of Slainge (Ulster Theatre, May 1905).

In 1906 he published a collection of poems The Rushlight for which he made all the illustrations. He used the Irish version of his name, Seosamh MacCathmhaoil, for his publications and his artwork.

In August 1902 Bigger brought Herbert Hughes to Donegal to collect tunes. Among those he brought back were the “Belfast Maid” and The Gartan, played for him by the Kilmacrennan fiddler, Prionsas MacSuibhne. On his return to Belfast he headed straight to see Campbell.

“Herbert would come to Loretto. Seated at the piano he would play over the airs, improvising an accompaniment as he proceeded – first in natural tempo and then more slowly, so that I could absorb the peculiar quality of each.”

Campbell’s lyrics for two of these airs have ensured that his name will live on, My Lagan Love and The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby which was a favourite of Mary O’Hara.

Many people contend that My Lagan Love refers to the little stream which flows from east Donegal through the fertile Lagan Valley into Lough Swilly. While the air is undoubtedly of Donegal origin the lyrics are about Belfast’s own river as is shown in the second verse which we rarely hear. When written the Lagan was part of the busy canal system used by many barges travelling to and from the centre of Ulster.

 

Her father sails a running-barge

‘Twixt Leamh-beag and The Druim;

And on the lonely river-marge

She clears his hearth for him.

When she was only fairy-high

Her gentle mother died;

But dew-Love keeps her memory

Green on the Lagan side.

 

He had a mystical nature (as evident in Gartan). In 1906 he wrote, “all things on earth to me are known, for I have the gift of the Murrain stone” (a “magic” hollow stone from which cattle would be made to drink in the hope of preventing them catching the deadly disease, murrain).

He was aware of his place in history which he shows in “The Mountainy Singer.” ‘They were called “the mountainy men”, for the rich valleys and the fertile plains were not for them.’ Here we have a descendant of those very men who refused to go to Connaught—or the other place—but clung to their bare hillsides and their ancient faith, and well and sweetly he sings in spirited cadences the legend, customs and superstitions that yet linger amongst his own folk.

Campbell moved to Dublin in 1905 where he was introduced to the poets Padraig Colum, WB Yeats and the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith. By 1906 he was in London and worked as an English teacher. He met and married Nancy Maude, daughter of Colonel Aubrey Maude of the Cameronian Highlanders despite objections from her family. By 1911 he was living in a cottage in County Wicklow, becoming a recruiter and publicist for the Irish Volunteers while publishing both poetry and plays. He took part in the 1916 Rising working as a medical orderly in Dublin. In 1917 he translated many of Padraig Pearse’s Irish-language stories into English. He stood for election for Sinn Féin and was chairman of Wicklow County Council from 1920 to 1921, having moved to Enniskery with his wife and three sons. By this time, his wife, Nancy, was fiercely Republican. On 7 July 1922 he was interned by the Free State Government and was held until December 1923 in “Tin Town” as the Curragh internment camp was called. While being held captive he continued to write and translated a collection of Pearse’s poems. Just five months after his arrest he learned of the execution of Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Belfast man Joe McKelvey, whom he knew well, by the Free State Government. He was very depressed by the executions and was a forlorn figure when released a year later in December 1923.

Unfortunately, personal tragedy was to meet him on release. On return to his Wicklow home he discovered that his Nancy had a lodger. He worked to complete the translation of Pearse’s poems and separated from his wife and lodger.

Such was his depression and anger over the Free State regime that he decided to emigrate and he in 1925 decided to emigrate leaving for America, completely disillusioned with Ireland. He settled in New York and founded the New York School of Irish Studies. He lectured in Irish literature and Irish culture at Fordham University from 1927 until 1938. At Fordham he established the Irish Foundation, It was the first-ever Irish studies department at any US college. He re-established and edited The Irish Review. In 1939 he returned to his adopted home, Wicklow and apart from some broadcasts for Radio Eireann he lived alone in an isolated cottage at Glencree.

He wrote hundreds of poems and a number of plays but has never to date been regarded as a major writer. He spent the last five years of his life living quietly in the Wicklow Hills. His editor Austin Clarke (himself a major poet, of course) wrote, “In the spring of 1944 his nearest neighbours in the glen noticed that no turf smoke was coming from the chimney and became alarmed. The poet was found dead where he had fallen across the hearth stone”. Appropriately the last sounds Joseph Campbell heard were those that he loved and which had helped inspire one of his best known songs, The crickets sing you lullaby, beside the dying fire…”

One of his shorter poems is a favourite of mine.

 

THE OLD WOMAN

As a white candle

In a holy place,

So is the beauty

Of an aged face.

As the spent radiance

Of the winter sun,

So is a woman

With her travail done,

Her brood gone from her,

And her thoughts as still

As the waters

Under a ruined mill.

 

IN 2001 his prison diary As I Was Among the Captives: Joseph Campbell’s Prison Diary was published and in 2009 Patrick Pearse, Short Stories, trans. Joseph Campbell (UCD Press 2009).

While I was on the Castlereagh Road taking a photograph of the blue plaque an old man came up to me and told me he had lived there all his life and had never noticed it before. He had never heard of Joseph Campbell!

Sadly, the last time I checked I found that neither book is in stock in Belfast. I had to go to Dublin to find them. The journey was well worthwhile.

 

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