Looking Back: Kildare poetess who created Clare legends

“Harken stony hills of Clare, hear the charge we made, see us come together, singing from the fight …”

“Harken stony hills of Clare, hear the charge we made, see us come together, singing from the fight …”

At first glance this reads as an anthem for the Clare hurlers who took the fight to Croke Park in such spectacular manner on the last Sunday in September, 2013.

But strangely enough the lines – prophetic as they seem – were written over a century ago by a Kildare poetess whose verse was recited by patriots and poets in the Ireland of the early 1900s.

Early Years

Emily Lawless was born in 1845 at Lyons House, perhaps the most valued piece of real estate in Ireland, which is located between Celbridge and Newcastle just within the Kildare county boundary.

Her grandfather Valentine Lawless, 2nd Baron Cloncurry, had inherited his father’s fortune from banking and spent vast sums on the house to the extent of shipping in Roman sculptures and marble from Italy.

Her father Edward, the 3rd Baron, had married a society beauty Miss Elizabeth Kirwan of Castle Hackett, Tuam, Co Galway and Emily was the second child and first daughter.

She was evidently from a background of great privilege but seemed to have a genuine interest in meeting the ordinary people in the environs of her Kildare childhood home and in the counties of the western seaboard from where her mother’s people hailed.

In her youth she was described as the girl with “corn-coloured hair” as she galloped her pony across the countryside to visit the people in their villages and farmsteads.

It was said she spent much time listening to their story-telling and joined in herself by reciting poetry and verse.

However this seemingly idyllic adolescence was overshadowed by tragedy and confusion.


Tragedy in that her father and two of her sisters died by their own hand and confusion in that her reaction to the agitations of Irish nationalism provoked in her many contradictions.

On the one hand she immortalised the honour of the Wild Geese with her stirring verse which found a ready audience in the popular patriotism of the early 1900s.

And yet she also she criticised the Home Rule movement as bidding up an expectation that the Irish people would become “rich and happy – as if by a miracle.”

Her identification with the Irish nationalist aspirations had its limitations and she was quoted as saying that she was not “anti-Gaelic at all as long as it is Gaelic enthusiasm and does not include politics.”

Her conflicted sentiments were to leave her open to censure from those who felt they were closer to the spirit of Irish ambition.

Ordinary lives

Her novels set in the Burren and the Aran Islands seemed to be earnest attempts to portray the life of the ordinary people in the extreme landscapes of the western shores.

However the line between empathy and condescension is thin and critics accused her harshly saying that she portrayed the poor as caricatures in a peasant drama rather than as people with legitimate expectations of a better life.

Particularly wounding was a review of her early novel “Hurrish”, set to a background of landlord and tenant disputes in the barren Burren soils.

A reviewer in the Nation newspaper said that she looked down on the rural people “from the pinnacle of her three generation nobility” and had pictured the ordinary people in a way that was “slanderous and lying from cover to cover.”

Yeats criticism

Even W.B. Yeats, who fancied himself as an arbiter of what was authentically Irish or not, had a go, claiming that she had portrayed the Irish as being “untrustworthy and voluble”. For all his criticism he was not beyond using some of her imagery in his own early plays.

However not all were critical of her writing. The Kildare Observer in March, 1901, lauded her quest to experience the lives of those she portrayed: “Miss Lawless is always faithful to local colour, and spent some weeks in the beautiful Aran Isles” when engaged in writing a book.

And her concerns went beyond those of acquiring local colour.

Her sister Mary Lawless had forayed from the family mansion to aid the beleaguered wives and families of striking workers during the 1913 Lockout.

Emily herself gave a typically empathetic but complex reaction to the situation saying that “the helplessness of women workers … is too plain a fact for any fair-minded person to deny.”

No Suffragette

Yet in the same breath she said that she did not support the “Suffragette methods” of campaigning for votes for women and had “personally no wish for a vote”.

Her mother’s death in 1895 affected her badly and that, together with a frustration at the febrile nature of Irish politics, prompted her to move to the Home Counties where she built a house in Surrey and named it “Hazelhatch” after Hazelhatch near Celbridge, the postal address of her childhood home at Lyons.

She continued to write, and to refine her expertise in nature and marine life, but her final years were dogged by ill-health.

A friend in her last weeks wrote of her “half-closed, near-sighted eyes, and limp-white hands” – a long way from the girl with the “corn-coloured hair” who had galloped the broad fields of north Kildare.

She died on 19 October 1913 and is buried in Surrey.

In early 1914 the Kildare Observer published her will in which she had instructed that her unfinished manuscripts and letters were to be burned.

For a time the stirring cadences of her verse glorying in the gallantry of the Wild Geese chimed with a surging interest in Irish nationhood.

Her lines were familiar to many a school child in the heady times leading up to rebellion.

Forgotten among the 
literary heavyweights

But her memory was overshadowed by the heavyweights of the Irish literary revival and today she is little remembered outside of academic circles.

Perhaps on the centenary of her death one might admire again the verse she wrote in her finest moments – and in the process salute the modern hurling warriors of Clare: “

“The old foe musters strongly, he’s coming on at last, And Clare’s Brigade may claim its own … wherever blows fall fast.”

Series no: 352.

Liam Kenny writes the weekly ‘Looking Back’ column in the Leinster Leader