Spike Island has had a long association with writers. Several former residents have published books, while a number of other visitors have inspired them, including former prisoners. These published works range from the adventures of explorer Percy Fawcett to the nationalist writings of rebel John Mitchel, to the serene works of visitor Canon Sheehan.
A poet of note also walked the island shoreline, in the form of one time prison schoolteacher Edward Walsh. His work is known to many Irish people today, but in a way most do not realize.
Edward was born in Derry in 1805, which is where his Cork born father’s military militia were serving at the time. The militias in which Walsh senior served had been set up up as a form of home guard in Ireland, while the British Army was off fighting Napoleons forces overseas. Edward’s father joined the militia service out of want, having made an imprudent choice for marriage that left him penniless. With Napoleons defeat in 1815 the threat of invasion evaporated, so the family were permitted to return to their hometown of Millstreet, County Cork, where Edward spent most of his early life.
Edward was educated in a hedge school, a secret school for young children who could not avail of normal schooling due to their Catholic faith. The penal laws stated that only Anglican faith schooling was allowed, and the Irish hedge schools were an attempt to circumvent this. They were a place where the Irish language could be freely spoken, and Irish tradition could flourish. The teachers in the schools often roamed from location to location, risking severe punishment for a meager living.
Despite the challenges and limitations of this schooling, Edward showed great intellect and was making a living tutoring the children of wealthy families in his twenties. He returned the favor of hedge school teaching, giving his time and energy at Boherbue and Kiskeam Cullen to preserve Irish tradition.
He became a teacher and worked at Millstreet and later Tourin in west County Waterford, near Cappoquin, but teaching was a distraction for a man motivated by other themes. Edward’s passion was in Irish song and poem, and between 1832 and 1847 he translated many Irish texts in a bid to preserve them. He engaged in writing entirely new material and wrote credible poems and song, keen to preserve the Irish tradition.
He also became active in opposition to British rule, participating in opposition to ‘tithes’ which were an enforced payment or tax that contributed to the state religion, the Church of Ireland. For this he reportedly endured a short stay in prison, which was no place for a man described as a gentle soul by all that encountered him.
It was during his stay in Waterford that Walsh fell for a local lady, Miss Power, the daughter of a gardener. He wrote the revered love song, No chraobhin Cnó, ‘My Nut brown maiden’, in her honour, which contains the lines;
My heard is far from Liffeys tide and Dublin town
It strays beyond the Southern side of Cnoc Maol donn
Where Capa chuinn hath woodlands green
Where Abanni Mórs waters flow
Where dwells unsung, unsought, unseen
Mo Craobín Cno
Low clustering in her leafy screan
No Craobín Cno.
It was another Waterford woman that he married, Bridget Sullivan, daughter of a teacher from Aglish, County Waterford. They had two sons and two daughters which were the apple of his eye, but his work preserving Irish language and heritage continued. His writing was appreciated in his lifetime for its quality, with Edward asked to produce content of a more rebellious nature for the Nation and the Dublin Monitor.
Some of his content was considered controversial, and he left a teaching role near Mallow due to anger with one of his articles in the Nation, ‘What is repeal, papa?’. He would suffer once again for Ireland’s cause.
Sadly, his writing did not provide sufficient financial compensation, so Edward continued a teaching career he endured rather than enjoyed. With a young family he required the steady wages the position brought.
He was posted to Spike Island as the schoolmaster of junior convicts in 1848, highlighting some form of schooling for the island prison convicts which had opened in 1847. Comments abound from the time suggesting many senior British officials were of the view that the Irish were inferior, and not receptive to schooling and education. Edwards appointment shows that some efforts were made, and the prisoners could not have asked for a more competent instructor.
It was during his tenure on Spike Island that famous Nationalist John Mitchel was sent to island prison. Edward and John knew one another from previous encounters, having both written for the Nation. They also shared social circles, with Walsh close to poet and Young Irelander Charles Gavin Duffy and Irish scholar John O’Daly.
The teacher went out of his way to arrange a meeting with John Mitchel, who was to be sent overseas to a penal colony in Bermuda. The encounter held great significance for him, as Mitchel describes the scene;
“Tears stood in his eyes as he told me he had contrived to get an oppor- tunity of seeing and shaking hands with me before I should leave Ireland. I asked him what he was doing at Spike Island, and he told me he had accepted the office of teacher to a school they keep here for small convicts — a very wretched office, indeed, and to a shy, sensitive creature, like Walsh, it must be dally torture.
He stooped down and kissed my hands. ” Ah ! ” he said, ” you are now the man in all Ireland most to be envied.” I answered that I thought there might be room for difference of opinion about that; and then, after another kind word or two, being warned by my turnkey, I bade him farewell, and retreated into my own den.
Poor Walsh ! He has a family of young children; he seems broken in health and spirits. Ruin has been on his traces for years, and I think has him in the wind at last. There are more contented galley-slaves moiling at Spike than the schoolmaster. Perhaps this man does really envy me; and most assuredly I do not envy him”.
Mitchel was sadly correct about Edward, and the ill health he perceived in his eyes. A man frequently described by friends as timid, he seemed unsuited to the coarse life he encountered in the prison on Spike Island. The harsh weather conditions of its exposed coastal situation were also unlikely to help his ailments. His wife was unable to join him on the island owing to poor health and the separation from her strength weakened him further.
It was said the meeting with John Mitchel cost Walsh his job on Spike Island, though this is not certain, and he took up the school mastership at the Cork Union workhouse. This was another challenging position for a likeable character keen to contribute to the world around him, but ill equipped physically to do so.
Edward Walsh, poet, teacher, father, husband, song writer and champion of Irish tradition, died in 1850, just 45 years of age. He was a young man seemingly not one for the troubled Victorian world of 19th century Ireland, and certainly not one suited to the harsh world of prison islands and famine era workhouses.
His writing drew acclaim and was often reprinted in the remaining decades of the 1800’s, but it is by another means that most modern Irish people have encountered his work. A song published by Walsh, ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’, later translated as ‘The dawning of the day’, gained Irish immortality when its tune was chosen by Patrick Kavanagh as the melody for a musical version of one of his greatest poems, ‘ On Raglan Road‘.
Kavanagh asked his friend Dubliner Luke Kelly to perform the piece and the Walsh published melody proved to be an astute choice, one that has resonated across generations. The song was recently voted ‘Ireland’s favourite folk song’, showing its enduring appeal.
The songs mix of Kavanagh’s poetic mastery and the older Irish tune see it sung in many an Irish pub, with the Dubliner’s version remaining unsurpassed.
It was a sad end for Edward Walsh to pass so young in his lifetime, but his work lives on in the country he fought valiantly for, and the tradition and heritage he sought to preserve.