The Earls Didn’t Return

by Terry McDonagh

Commissioned by Denis J Buckley – Irish in Europe Association.

Nine years and more they’d fought
till there was little left apart from
skyline blurbs pointing to the coast,
crows flapping and scavenging dogs
snarling at trespassers in uniform.


There’s a border in Ireland now
that began – some would say –
when O’Neill and O’Donnell
of Tyrone and Tyrconnell,
took flight from where the
blue horizon is swallowed up
by the feral Atlantic in Donegal.

In that September of 1607 – with
hope under lock and key – the
path to Rathmullan pier might 
have been charged and fraught
but following it to a continental sun
from a remote Ulster hilltop
was like a door to a dungeon
 and one-way ticket at full sail.

Kinsale lost and Mellifont signed
they’d have closed their eyes,
vowed to rise, ride the tide
and return triumphant with
a regiment of Spanish support.
And when the line was restored
and they were chieftains in the
cadence of their countryside,
it would be the Gaelic way again,
and no other – there’d be
bareback riders by the score,
a full moon for every castle window
and doors that opened to the heart.

Defiant yells can soften and words
are useful but when not needed
they haunt until man becomes dream
and dream festers into everything lost.

And, now, on board in darkness
the chieftains would be quiet
thinking of horses – of Spain,
dripping trees and blue hills.
They’d be thinking of wives
and children left behind because
household was hearthstone,
habit, landscape and family.

The canker grew at home. Wind
tore at trees and sun did its best
to keep wilting Ulster warm.
Cattle were grateful for grass.
There were new battle cries
and drumbeats to other shades
of a Christian god. Land danced
to the tune and politics of Plantation
while ancient flowers and plants
opened to strange, austere masters.

The O’Neill and O’Donnell clans
sailed away – maybe a bit afraid –
taking Gaelic rituals with them.
There was little left to hold them.
They’d done what they could,
often in darkness – trying to
make up rules as they went along.

In Flanders, France, Spain and Italy
they’d have lain awake dreaming
– in a bleary-eyed sort of way – of
smiling, shambled, green cottages
and resurgence on river banks.
Their hearts might have wondered
if this pounding would ever stop.
They’d have pleaded with Popes –
with legates and Spanish princes but
other agendas and the wounds of Kinsale
kept Ireland and the Earls at arm’s length.

Yes, they were well cared for and died
with little fuss here, there or anywhere.
That’s why we have songs of sorrow,
love, pain and loss. What else is there?

Terry McDonagh, Irish poet has worked in Europe, Asia and Australia. He’s taught creative writing at Hamburg University and was Drama Director at Hamburg International School. He has published eleven poetry collections, letters, drama, prose and poetry for young people. In March 2022, he was poet in residence and Grand Marshal as part of the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in Brussels. His work has been translated into German and Indonesian. His poem, ‘UCG by Degrees’ is included in the Galway Poetry Trail on Galway University campus. In 2020, Two Notes for Home – a two-part radio documentary, compiled and presented by Werner Lewon, on The Life and Work of Terry McDonagh, The Modern Bard of Cill Aodáin. His latest poetry collection, ‘Two Notes for Home’ – published by Arlen House – launched in September 2022. He returned to live in County Mayo in 2019.