Jenny Farrell presents the second of the four poems written by leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, the first anti-imperialist uprising in Europe. Here is Thomas MacDonagh’s “The Man Upright”, written in 1911/12, which reveals MacDonagh’s view of the crippling effect of colonialism.
The Man Upright
by Thomas MacDonagh
I once spent an evening in a village
Where the people are all taken up with tillage,
Or do some business in a small way
Among themselves, and all the day
Go crooked, doubled to half their size,
Both working and loafing, with their eyes
Stuck in the ground or in a board, -
For some of them tailor, and some of them hoard
Pence in a till in their little shops,
And some of them shoe-soles - they get the tops
Ready-made from England, and they die cobblers -
All bent up double, a village of hobblers
And slouchers and squatters, whether they straggle
Up and down, or bend to haggle
Over a counter, or bend at a plough,
Or to dig with a spade, or to milk a cow,
Or to shove the goose-iron stiffly along
The stuff on the sleeve-board, or lace the fong
In the boot on the last, or to draw the wax-end
Tight cross-ways - and so to make or to mend
What will soon be worn out by the crooked people.
The only thing straight in the place was the steeple,
I thought at first. I was wrong in that;
For there past the window at which I sat
Watching the crooked little men
Go slouching, and with the gait of a hen
An odd little woman go pattering past,
And the cobbler crouching over his last
In the window opposite, and next door
The tailor squatting inside on the floor -
While I watched them, as I have said before,
And thought that only the steeple was straight,
There came a man of a different gait -
A man who neither slouched nor pattered,
But planted his steps as if each step mattered;
Yet walked down the middle of the street
Not like a policeman on his beat,
But like a man with nothing to do
Except walk straight upright like me and you.
This is a very easy, entertaining poem with a serious point. It begins almost like a limerick, sets jocular tone, rhymes aabb etc. It is an observation by an outsider: “I once spent an evening in a village”. The people in this village work in farming or small business. All day long, they walk crooked, doubled over “to half their size”. Increasingly we get the impression of colonial subjects in Ireland, who do not have the confidence to stand upright, nor, it seems, have they a vision of where their lives are going: “with their eyes/ Stuck in the ground”. Those who work in small trades receive their materials from England, rather than Ireland, increasing their economic dependence. Cobblers, for example, “get the tops / Ready-made from England”. MacDonagh’s description of the villagers is uncomplimentary to say the least: “a village of hobblers / And slouchers and squatters, whether they straggle / Up and down, or bend to haggle / Over a counter, or bend at a plough,” … He depicts them as people who are utterly crippled in their humanity. No matter what they do for work, they are obliged to bend down. Rather than work expressing their humanity, it acts as their master.
Midway through the poem, we hear that there is something visibly straight in this village of the damned: “The only thing straight in the place was the steeple”. This may well refer to the additional control by the Church over these people. The contrast is very striking to the humbleness and lack of confidence described up to this point. The next line extends this initial surprise into something more significant. It contains the poem’s only caesura and turns the whole flow of the poem around: “I thought at first. I was wrong in that”. The reader’s expectation is heightened as the speaker for the sake of emphasis returns for a moment to the crooked villagers and then exclaims: “There came a man of a different gait - / A man who neither slouched nor pattered”. In fact, this man is said to be “like a man with nothing to do / Except walk straight upright like me and you.” Walking upright is the main purpose of this man’s life - like struggling for an independent socialist republic, it's the obvious and straightforward thing to do.
Following the defeat of the Rising, Thomas MacDonagh was court martialed and executed by firing squad on 3 May 1916, aged just thirty-eight.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.