A St. Patrick’s Day selection from the OBVV…(apologies for it being a bit longer than usual.)

106. “The Bells of Shandon” by Francis Mahony (1805 – 1866)


With deep affection,

And recollection,

I often think of

Those Shandon bells,

Whose sounds so wild would,

In the days of childhood,

Fling around my cradle

Their magic spells:

On this I ponder

Where’er I wander,

And thus grow fonder,

Sweet Cork, of thee;

With thy bells of Shandon,

That sound so grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.

I’ve heard bells chiming

Full many a clime in,

Tolling sublime in

Cathedral shrine,

While at a glib rate

Brass tongues would vibrate—

But all their music

Spoke naught like thine;

For memory, dwelling

On each proud swelling

Of the belfry knelling

Its bold notes free,

Made the bells of Shandon

Sound far more grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.

I’ve heard bells tolling

Old Adrian’s Mole in,

Their thunder rolling

From the Vatican,

And cymbals glorious

Swinging uproarious

In the gorgeous turrets

Of Notre Dame;

But thy sounds were sweeter

Than the dome of Peter

Flings o’er the Tiber,

Pealing solemnly—

O, the bells of Shandon

Sound far more grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.

There’s a bell in Moscow,

While on tower and kiosk O

In Saint Sophia

The Turkman gets,

And loud in air

Calls men to prayer

From the tapering summits

Of tall minarets.

Such empty phantom

I freely grant them;

But there’s an anthem

More dear to me,—

’Tis the bells of Shandon,

That sound so grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee.

My Grandpa McCarthy used to say that there were two kinds of people in the world–those who are Irish and those who wish they were–and this poem seems to be written with a similar premise in mind. On the other hand, Margaret Oliphant, writing in the modestly-titled Literary History of England in the End of the Eighteenth and Beginning of the Nineteenth Century, describes Mahony (better known to the readers of Fraser’s and Bentley’s as Father Prout) as “one of that roving band of literary irregulars, hanging on about the Press, generally finding their highest latitude in a monthly magazine, with always some scrap of literature in hand, but more enjoyment of the floating atmosphere of literary life than of the work”–and she goes on to number him with “English writers of Irish birth,” though she ostensibly reproduces “The Bells of Shandon” as an example of characteristic Irish verse. Somehow, this seems to make the poem a fitting topic for St. Patrick’s Day, particularly since The Poem of the Week is coming to you live this evening from Midtown Manhattan.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve found myself increasingly impressed with a text’s versification through the process of typing it out–and it’s one of the reasons why I continue to do this, even when, as is the case with the above poem, I was able to find it online in more than one place. It’s a poem that almost begs to be sung, and I’m inclined to say that it’s a much more delicate realization of the sound of church bells than one generally finds in Victorian poetry; it makes the tetrameter of Tennyson’s “Ring out, wild bells” (section 106 of In Memoriam) seem a bit brutal by comparison. (Though I’ve always thought the brutality was something of Tennyson’s point….) But I think part of that comes from Mahony’s use of assonance rather than strict rhymes–something like wild would / childhood and Shandon / grand on. It allows vowel sounds to be diffused in a way that seems at once completely naturalistic and somehow still highly structured, as in a ballad format. (I don’t know if this is officially a ballad, so to speak. My prosodic education–ironically–is shaky at best. Feel free to correct me if I’m being dumb.) I do, however, find Moscow / kiosk O! to be somewhat indefensible.

What’s notable for me in terms of the subject matter is the subtle disarticulation in the third stanza of Irish and Catholic identities. Mahony himself was Catholic and was ordained as a priest. But his practice–such as it was–seems mostly to have been a performance for the periodical press, where he wrote as Father Prout and was, essentially, a foreign correspondent. (In the interest of fairness, however, I quote his entry in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, accessible from the Wikipedia page: “Although for thirty years Mahony did not exercise his priestly duties, he never wavered in his deep loyalty to the church, recited his Office daily, and received the last sacraments at the hands of his old friend, Abbé Rogerson, who left abundant testimony of his excellent dispositions.”)I can speculate on any number of reasons for why this disarticulation would be useful–some of them going all the way back to the Venerable Bede–but I feel like one shaky-knowledge limb per blog post should probably be my limit these days.

Bonus: the website for St. Anne’s Church in Cork, home of those Shandon Bells, credits the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse for keeping Mahony’s poem in the eye of the public…..

With that, I bid you all a happy St. Patrick’s Day. I’m off to find myself a glass of Guinness to raise to the memory of my Irish grandparents.

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