Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Widow Quinn: Poem for Somme 100

By Kevin McMahon

Just about every village in Ireland had them: old women in black shawls who lived totally secluded lives, often scorned or feared by their neighbours. Few took the trouble to understand such women, or what had made them the way they were. 

At a time of great political upheaval in Ireland, the tens of thousands of men who enlisted to fight in the First World War were derided for turning their backs on the fight for freedom at home  The sacrifice that so many made was disregarded.  This poem focuses on one such case.


Birdsong shrank the road outside her house, 
To a dappled tunnel, thrilled with noise,
Draped with cloak of honeysuckle scent.
Our step quickened when we passed her gate,
Not taking chances, hushed and fearful 
Of the older, bolder ones who risked
A bating shout or threw fir cones at the door.  

We deciphered parents’ warnings,
“Poor woman” comments, shorn of sympathy;
Their surreptitious nods, and knowing looks
Belied begrudged respect for a soldier’s wife.
Her wits had been astray since his early death,
At a place called Somme in France, they said.
A wasted life in England’s war, they said.

One winter day I met her face to face,
Black-shawled as ever, bent with strain
As she hefted water from the roadside spring.
She stopped and gaped a toothless smile at me
But contagious dread tore my gaze aside,
And breathless with panic I bolted home.

That March she died – as she had lived so long – 
Alone, her last instructions written for the priest.
Beneath the widow’s shawl, her waist length hair 
Had been plaited in a coil of startling white.
As she had willed the hair was then cut short,
Its strands hung in the branches of her trees.

When, later, neighbours gathered at the church –
Each drawn by duty rather than respect –  
They shook their heads and shrugged, and all agreed
The “poor old thing was soft this many year”,
While in the budding bushes round her house
The birds wove nests with glinting flecks of white.

Text © Kevin McMahon

Kevin has been a member of Manchester Irish Writers since 1998 – with a few years’ absence due to work commitments prior to his retirement!  He has contributed to the group’s publications “The Retting Dam”, “Stones of the Heart” and “Changing Skies”, and regularly performs at the group’s events.  He is a former winner of the “New Writing” award at Listowel Writers’ Week in Country Kerry, and has been shortlisted for a number of other awards for memoirs and short stories.

With Alrene Hughes, Kevin co-edited the publication of monologues arising from the Changing Skies project.  His scripts have been professionally performed in various venues, and he has had poetry broadcast on the BBC.

To find out more about MIW's Somme 100 Commemoration, please click here.

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