In April 2004 I was launching my first novel at the Irish cultural centre in Hammersmith, London, when a lady came over to me and shook my hand.
“I think I may be your cousin,” she said. “My name is Ethna Herron. You look a bit like my people and I thought I just had to say.” She told me that she lived in London and was a niece of the poet Madge Herron, who had died two years before.
“I saw Madge’s obituary, and I’d love to claim her,” I said, “but I don’t think I can.”
“Where is your father from?” she asked me.
“Cloghan in Donegal,” I told her.
“Sure that’s only a few miles from Madge’s old home in Fintown,” she said. “Did none of your crowd ever say to you about her?”
I shook my head. I had some idea of Madge’s greatness, but had never thought we could be connected. Otherwise, somebody in the clan would have told me. But I’d never even heard tell of her until I read her obituary.
As soon as I got back to Derry I did some checking. But before I could get to grips with her life I saw the opening words of one of her poems that stopped me in my tracks. It went
Where the burnt-out heel of the sky
cocks a hind-leg at God
there He keeps me.
I read it over and over again, and then said it aloud and listened to the sound it made. This is every bit as good as Heaney, I thought. I found out later that when Heaney would come to London to do poetry readings Madge was always there, heckling him from the back of the room. For it turned out that as well as seeing herself as belonging to the bardic tradition (unlike Heaney, in her eyes) she was also quite a character.
Before I tell about one or two of the outrageous things she got up to I must give you something of her background -- and another couple of samples of what she did with words.
She was born in a farmhouse in Gleann na mBuachaill (Glenaboghill) near Fintown, County Donegal, on the 3rd September 1916, one of a family of 10. I could find little about her mother except that her name was Sally – and this little piece that Madge wrote:
AFTER THE BURIAL
The flowers of Mary
Stand white in the field
And the red cow drinks at the river;
Today at four they buried my mother
And took her away from this house forever.
The dog sits by the henhouse door
His snout raised to Heaven;
Oh, my head is full of the song
Of pitying voices:
I will go and bring my cow home.
Her father was known only as An Tailiur Rua (the red-haired tailor) and suffered from mental illness. This had a major bearing on Madge’s temperament and followed her for all of her life. Here is some of what she wrote about him:
A PRAYER TO SAINT THERESA
(On behalf of my father who is mad)
This thing we have they call ‘mental’
In no way restricts us.
Socially, we are tremendous.
If it is friendship you are after
We will come tumbling up to you ....
.... They said – and I’ll quote – nobody at any time is ever
I want to know if it’s true – and if I qualify.
I have, among other drawbacks, a father bereft of reason,
All reserves cancelled out,
The clothes line in his head’s gone bust,
That little line where all his flags hang out to dry is
In the house next to us, there the people take to killing one
Another at odd hours of the night.
I made enquiries about these next-door neighbours. They were also called Herron, but the only other thing I learned was that the father was in the habit of going about with a loaded shotgun under his arm – and it wasn’t game he was after.
I began to wonder if I was going to unearth more bad news, or maybe a treasure trove -- or maybe even both. I found out that there were never any other Herrons in either Fintown or Cloghan so if my family was related to one or both of these Fintown Herrons I wondered why they had never been mentioned in my grandparents’ house in Cloghan. None of my siblings knew and my parents were dead, so I couldn’t ask them. And then a possible answer came to me. My grandparents and maiden aunts might well have been backward in their views on mental illness, though judging by the stigma that even now attaches to that illness here in Ireland – and elsewhere – too many of us still haven’t come very far forward.
Madge’s themes were God, man, nature, animals and sex. She was a mesmerising reader with a hold on her audience that owed much to her earlier career as an actor. That she never made the same commercial impact as lesser poets had a lot to do with her poetic principles. She did not want her poetry published, and most of it stayed in her head and in her scribbles. But this aversion to being published wasn’t through stubbornness or shyness – it was because she saw herself as belonging to the oral bardic tradition that predated Christianity in Ireland. She would often say that her poems were really thousands of years old and belonged to no one. More than one BBC producer considered her to be a better poet than W.B. Yeats, and she was greatly thought of by Yeats himself as well as by Ted Hughes and Brendan Kennelly.
There is no doubt that Madge was brilliant. But she was also eccentric – possibly more than eccentric. During her many years in Kentish Town, some of her London poet friends became concerned for her mental well-being. She was brought to see the greatly renowned unorthodox Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who also wrote poetry. Madge was not impressed. She told Laing his writing was “soulless” and by the time her friend came to collect her, Laing had lost his temper and was just about to throw her out. They then tried her with a more mainstream psychiatrist, whom Madge loved. “Isn’t she wonderful?” the psychiatrist said. “It would be a shame to cure her.”
But her works of mercy were both legion and legendary. On the streets of Kentish Town she was greatly admired for her kindness to people and animals, the human variety just about shading it. She took in stray Irish down-and-outs from time to time. One was an Irish speaker from Caherciveen called Barry. He collapsed and nearly died outside her home, but she brought him in and cared for him over a number of months. When his condition deteriorated she called a doctor, who was reluctant to treat him because he did not think he would get his National Health Service fee. The doctor told Madge that if Barry had been lying out on the street it would be a different matter because then he could tend to him and be sure of payment under the NHS.
“Tell you what,” said Madge. “I’ll open the window here and we’ll both pick him up and throw him out and then you can treat him.”
“Is he a vagrant?” asked the doctor.
“Aren’t we all vagrants?” Madge replied.
She continued to live and write in London, but there is little money in poetry of course so she had to survive by scrubbing floors and making do as an occasional maid. She had many stories from below stairs, including one of trying to extract semen from a dying aristocrat in order that extensive property rights might remain within a family. (Perhaps at this point we should pause quietly for a few moments to allow our minds to gently boggle.)
But even among all the hard times Madge’s reputation as a poet was growing. In 1970 she was invited to appear on ITV’s The Eamonn Andrews Show. She was brought to the studio in a limousine, and Andrews was charm itself as he introduced her to the audience. And everything was going well until the he put his first question, “Now, Madge, surely everyone is writing poetry nowadays?”
“What would you know about f***ing poetry?” she responded – and then walked out.
I mentioned her acting career. George Bernard Shaw invited her to his home to talk about taking the main role in Shaw’s play Saint Joan. He was in the garden when she arrived, and she promptly scolded him for his pretentiousness in pruning and eating strawberries while wearing white gloves. She didn’t get the part.
Madge did finally give up acting, mainly because she didn’t like being told what to do. Instead, the streets of north London became her stage -- and animals became her focus. By the 1970s, she was a familiar sight to locals in Camden Town and Kentish Town, with her shopping bags and collection of dogs. She would shout out poetry that was in her head. Had anyone stopped to listen, they might have heard epic verse.
And now, since the spirit of her father shadowed her for most of her life, I will end with a short poem she wrote in his memory.
To My Father
March is by far the cruellest month
The whirl of the seed in the womb of the goat
The soiling of ether on limestone rock
He died with the Spring, the clutch of the season.
Madge died in a North London nursing home on June 19, 2002.
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Thank you for reading. – Colm