John B Keane: Thade Gowran, the Bard of Beecher’s

THIS IS the third and final instalment of the Thade Gowran saga. I think most readers will agree that it just isn’t possible to do justice to the Bard of Beecher’s Land and Knocknacrohy in one or two instalments. Whenever I go to the city of Cork I pass through that peaceful hamlet known as Beecher’s Lane.

THIS IS the third and final instalment of the Thade Gowran saga. I think most readers will agree that it just isn’t possible to do justice to the Bard of Beecher’s Land and Knocknacrohy in one or two instalments. Whenever I go to the city of Cork I pass through that peaceful hamlet known as Beecher’s Lane.

There is little to remind one of Thade Gowran although it is a pleasant countryside which has produced more than its fair share of poets. The river Feale flows happily nearby and a number of smaller fishful streams are to be heard in the district especially after the rains have renewed their feeling for music. It would be nice to see a roadside sign which might simply say: “Thade Gowran the poet rambled in this resort.” It is essentially a land of numerous small waters, all converging on the Feale river. It is a countryside where a poet might easily find his muse. George Fitzmaurice wrote a play called “The Enchanted Land.” This, I feel sure, is the type of countryside he had in mind.

The townland where Thade was born is known as Meenscovane. It is part of the parish of Duagh. It is apparent that he left the house where he was born for the simple reason that an elder brother succeeded to it and to the small farm attached. Thade, as we have seen, was a part-time labourer, water-diviner, ballad-maker, composer and holder of Raffles at his cottage home in Knocknacrohy. He died at the youthful age of fifty seven probably from acute ulcers. He is remembered as a pale-faced, rather lanky man, the kind of man country people would describe as rawny.


The only job which he ever held full-time was that of water keeper on the Feale river which flowed past his home. Unlike Paddy Drury, Gowran could write legibly and consequently most of his poems have survived. He had one trait in common with Drury. Gowran almost always wrote in bed while Drury memorised his compositions there. Gowran would spend the morning composing and according to Paddy Lysaght of Thomondgate “write down his verses and relate them to any neighbour who was willing to listen. Though he hadn’t a good voice he would hum the tune to which he wished his ballads sung.” This is not a unique way of composing. It was a method calculated to bring internal rhyme into verses and to provide a musical, rhyming, jingling type of ballad, easy to memorise.

When Thade was at his best there was a wide and sympathetic audience for the ballads he was fond of composing. It was their humour which was and is their main attraction. At that time there were no radio sets in the countryside, certainly not up until the time of Thade’s death which was nineteen twenty seven. There was no television or talk of television and the man who was capable of amusing the people by works of his own creation was held in high esteem. Thade wrote about everything and anything, even about his neighbours. One of these was a bachelor by the name of James O’Connor. Over to Thade:

“I’ll sing a song about a man, O’Connor James is he,

A man who led the airy life to the age of sixty three.

One day as he sat in his lonely cot the sun was shining grand,

His temperature was rising high and the heat he couldn’t stand.

The day passed on and night came on the ramblers they showed up,

The brothers Keefe, Tom Danagher, Jeff Morrissey and Buck.

‘Cheer up’

Says Tom to Jim, ‘Cheer up again and aise your troubled mind,

The first of May’s not far away and a wife for you I’ll find.’

They tackled up Tom Frank’s grey steed as the bells did loudly ring,

And heading out beyond Knockmaol the arrived that night in Glin.

They got a great reception, they got porter by the tierce,

And then and there poor James did swear he’d marry Minnie Pierce.

But now that he is married his troubles are not o’er,

For when he’s out he wants no man to stand inside his door.”

There are people still alive in Abbeyfeale who remember crotchety James O’Connor and his late marriage to Minnie Pierce. There are men, not all that old, living in Duagh who drank with Thade Gowran and heard him compose on-the-spot verses in public houses during horse and cattle fairs.

Thade Gowran never had a poem published in his lifetime. The intellectuals or so-called intellectuals of the time were trying to move away from the folksy rhymes which were so popular in the countryside. It was the dawn of modern verse, most of which was without rhyme or reason. The more nebulous and meaningless the poem the more praise was heaped on the head of the composer. Anything which was easily understood was frowned upon. There were some honourable exceptions but by and large there was little room for Thade Gowran’s ballads in the papers or magazines of the time. In fact, Thade would be looked upon by his urban contemporaries as a bit of a hick. His work failed to confuse and was, therefore, of little importance to those who might have encouraged its publication.

It is a shame indeed that he was not taken seriously beyond the countryside. Whatever it about the urban Celt there is a destructive drop in him which has little tolerance for his rustic brother or for his own beginnings.

Thade Gowran is now dead for fifty one years. His songs were never more popular. They are being sung all the time. Time has vindicated his prophetic four lines about the future of his compositions:

“Through the green hills of Kerry my ballads are ringing,

Sinn Fein was my motto, my land Granuaile.

Brave youths and fair maidens my songs will be singing

When I’m sleeping at rest on the banks of the Feale.


So much for Thade Gowran and Con Carey. I have before me a letter from Arthur Lysaght of Athlunkard Street, Limerick, who used to spend his summer holidays at a place called The Hill, Duagh. He forwards the following simple little reminiscence of those distant childhood days in a short piece entitled “Sunday Mass at Duagh”:

“Pony and horsetrap trotted past,

Two grey-shawled women in donkey cart.

On the white hill road that ran into

The lovely village of Duagh.

Gathered neighbours along the mall

Heard the homely chapel bell

And adown the tidy street

Little knots of old friends meet.

There at the gable by the cross

A group of men in Sunday best

Farmers out of Derindaffe,

The Hill, Kilmorna, Lyreacrompane,

Making their way to the old world church

For their Sunday morning Mass.

In boyhood days I knew this scene

But many years have passed between.

Sometimes I think of it and sigh

And a tear wells to the inner eye.

I also remember that scene so simply painted by Arthur Lysaght. I was stationed in the heart of Lyreacrompane as a gorsoon and used to go to Lyre church with my relations on Sunday mornings. The present church of Lyre is probably the best situated of any in Ireland. Around it is a green grove where the birds never cease their singing and directly under it runs the silver Smearla which never stops singing either.

More News

Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.

Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.