Thomas MacDonagh remembered – on CD

If you grew up in the County Tipperary town of Cloughjordan, like Boston-area resident Martin Butler did, you couldn’t help but know about Thomas MacDonagh.

Poet, playwright, educator, MacDonagh is a compelling figure in Irish history, a co-leader of the 1916 Easter Rising and one of the seven signatories of the Easter Proclamation executed by the British. MacDonagh was born and bred in Cloughjordan where, it is said, he had instilled in him early on the affinity for music, poetry, and Irish culture that defined his life.

Butler heard all about MacDonagh from his father, an aficionado of local history, and from a teacher who was equally passionate about history and had interviewed many Cloughjordan residents who grew up with MacDonagh.

“The more I learned about Thomas MacDonagh, the more impressed I was,” says Butler. “He had been respected in so many aspects of life. But he had been a kid from our hometown, had played in the fields where we played, walked the same streets we did. To have someone so heroic as part of your town history was very inspiring.”

In fact, Butler carried MacDonagh close to his heart – literally. “The local GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] club was named for MacDonagh,” he says, “and on the uniforms we wore was a crest with his picture, right over our hearts.”

Now, years later, Butler has fashioned his own tribute: a CD, “Thomas MacDonagh: Poet and Patriot,” featuring poetry, songs, and music that recall the life and legacy of Cloughjordan’s famous son. Included are readings of some of MacDonagh’s signature poems, such as “Knocknacree” (“They keep the boons which patriots prize the most/Yet now with joy again I greet thy smile”), “John John” (“I dreamt last night of you John-John/And thought you called to me/And when I woke this morning, John/Yourself I hoped to see”) and “At the End” (“The songs that I sing/Should have told you an Easter story/Of a long sweet Spring/With its gold and its feasts and its glory”).

Some two years in the making, “Poet and Patriot” is a testament to the power of friendship and camaraderie in the Irish music community, especially Boston’s: Most of the 55 guest musicians, singers, and speakers appearing on the 24-track album have current or past ties to the area; their ranks include Tommy McCarthy, Aoife Clancy, Brian O’Donovan, Regina Delaney, Janine Randall, Amy Basse, Declan Houton, Joan Linnehan, Liam Hart, Levi Abrams, David Bowman, Stuart Peak, Caroline O’Shea, and the Boston Police Gaelic Column, among many others.

Butler – who plays bodhran, tin whistle, and guitar on the CD in addition to reading poetry – and his chief collaborator, John Owens (guitar, bouzouki, and keyboards), didn’t go the easy route in mapping out the CD project. Instead of a straightforward biographical and chronological profile, “Poet and Patriot” is more thematic. The perspective shifts back and forth, focusing not just on the man himself but providing context, evoking the place and times in which he lived.

The experience of putting together “Poet and Patriot” has deepened Butler’s appreciation of MacDonagh.

“I only knew a dozen of his poems really well, and as I researched, I found a treasure trove of his work I hadn’t known. MacDonagh wrote poems in much the same way that John Lennon wrote songs – they were very personal, and, in fact, Yeats told MacDonagh that they were too personal. But he used his poetry to express that which would’ve been difficult for him to talk about. He wrote with his heart on his sleeve, and that’s what makes his work so relatable. The poems I emphasized were those that really were about him, and told who he was, what his passions were. That meant I had to part company with some poems I’d really grown attached to.”

While the CD was completed in time for the centenary year observance of the Rising, Butler delayed the release until after the official commemoration in April, and the accompanying influx of publications and recordings marking the occasion.

“I didn’t want this to be just ‘another 1916 album,’” he says. “Obviously, MacDonagh is forever associated with the Easter Rising, and with good reason. While you can point to him as representing the unique character of the Rising’s leadership – that so many were neither soldiers or statesmen but men of learning, and the arts – as an individual he is remarkable in his own right. So the point of making the CD was to allow people to consider who he was and how he came to be that person, and the impact he had on others.”

Butler says the best way to regard “Poet and Patriot” is as “a three-act play.” The first part establishes MacDonagh as a poet, and a person, influenced by nature, country life, music, Irish legends, mythology, Gaelic culture as well as love and heartache – particularly for his wife, Muriel. Amidst readings of “Knocknacree,” “Mayday” (by actor Ciaran Crawford from “Black Mass”) and “The Parting,” musical interludes include an Owens original (“Summer Joys”), a slowed-down version of the classic reel “The Banshee” by cittern player Glenn Scott, and a vibrant setting of “Aililiu Na Gamhna/ The Lilting Banshee,” enlivened by Liam Hart’s robust Gaelic singing.

The middle part deals with MacDonagh’s growing nationalism, his entry into politics and activism, culminating in his participation in the Rising and his death. Readings of MacDonagh’s “Postscriptum” – written after the 1913 Dublin labor strife – and an excerpt from Patrick Pearse’s oration at the funeral of Fenian legend Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (an event organized by MacDonagh) highlight this portion, as does a rendition of “Down by the Glenside,” written by MacDonagh’s fellow Easter Week combatant Peadar Kearney, and a melancholic fiddle-piano duet by Amy Basse and Janine Randall of an O’Carolan piece, “Captain O’Kane” – a familiar tune from MacDonagh’s childhood, depicted here as a memory that perhaps came to him before his execution.

In the third part, Butler says, MacDonagh and his personal, artistic, and political legacies are explored through a variety of vantage points: the song “Ned of the Hill,” which MacDonagh translated from Old Gaelic; recollections of James Stephens, who published a book about MacDonagh’s poetry shortly after the Easter Rising; William Butler Yeats’s gripping “Easter 1916” (“A terrible beauty is born”); “A Warning to Conquerers” and the song “Dublin 1913,” both written by MacDonagh’s son Donagh, and given heft here by Colm O’Brien with grit and passion. The album closes, fittingly, with Francis Ledwidge’s “Lament for Thomas MacDonagh.”

“What we wanted in that last ‘act,’ ” explains Butler, “was to imagine a salon of poets and friends, all thinking of Thomas and his life and death was all about. But we also included a reference to the British officer who witnessed MacDonagh’s execution, and said he had ‘died like a prince.’ In fact, when MacDonagh came out to the firing squad, he could see many of them were young lads who were upset about having to perform this task, and he said to them, ‘It’s a lousy business, fellows. I don’t hold it against you.’

“To think about others during your last moments is incredible, and very indicative of the honorable gentleman that he was.”
Ironically, “Poet and Patriot” had its beginnings in an unsuccessful 1916-themed recording project in which Butler and Owens had been involved. “John and I were kicking around ideas for an album of poetry, and it didn’t take shape as we hoped. So we just chatted over tea about what we might do, and John – who’s a fine historian as well as a great musician, and whose family came from the area as MacDonagh’s – put some tracks down as a start. So we had some nice material to work with.”

As the album began to take shape, Butler at first recruited people with whom he’d worked most often, in musical or dramatic settings. Then the circle began to expand outward to include others he’d never met before, but who he believed could make a solid contribution.

“The generosity of all these artists was just amazing,” he says. “Nobody I asked said ‘no’ – there were some who gave their time, but as it turned out there was just no space for them, but everyone was so good about it.

“To a large extent, I wanted everybody involved – especially those who did readings – to represent somebody in MacDonagh’s life, some chapter in his development. I couldn’t have a hard-and-fast approach, because there was such a variety to his work, and I wanted the album to reflect that.”

He and Owens are planning an album release event for sometime in the future, but are still working on the details: “Although it would be wonderful, of course, to get all the 50-plus people who contributed to the album together for a gig, that’s probably not going to happen,” says Butler, who recently donated 100 copies of the CD to the Thomas MacDonagh Heritage Center in Cloughjordan, out of gratitude for their assistance in his research.

“I just cannot say enough how grateful I’ve been to everybody who helped in some way shape or form, whether they appeared on the recording, or just simply gave advice and encouragement. This project meant a lot, obviously, and it took a lot to put together – it’s in cases like this when you find out how truly generous people can be.”

“Thomas MacDonagh: Poet and Patriot” is available via iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby.