1 June 2020 Susannah

Padraic Colum & An Old Woman of the Roads

An Old Woman Preparing Tea

This year in Australia many people lost their homes because of bush fires. Now there could be more people losing their homes because Covid-19 has meant they can no longer pay rent or mortgages. So, it seems timely to have a poem about the desire for a place of one’s own, a shelter, and a haven. This poem is by the Irish poet Padraic Colum (1881 – 1972).

An Old Woman of the Roads by Padraic Colum

O, to have a little house!
To own the hearth and stool and all!
The heaped up sods against the fire,
The pile of turf against the wall!

To have a clock with weights and chains
And pendulum swinging up and down!
A dresser filled with shining delph,
Speckled and white and blue and brown!

I could be busy all the day
Clearing and sweeping hearth and floor,
And fixing on their shelf again
My white and blue and speckled store!

I could be quiet there at night
Beside the fire and by myself,
Sure of a bed and loth to leave
The ticking clock and the shining delph!

Och! but I’m weary of mist and dark,
And roads where there’s never a house nor bush,
And tired I am of bog and road,
And the crying wind and the lonesome hush!

And I am praying to God on high,
And I am praying Him night and day,
For a little house – a house of my own
Out of the wind’s and the rain’s way.

The poem is filled with longing. It is the outpouring of an elderly woman, who dreams of a simple cottage and a few pieces of china and a clock. She is too used to turf outside – a pile of neatly stacked turf sods ready for the fire would be a beautiful sight to her. Clearly the owning of a clock is something to which she has given much thought. She describes its component parts, while the dishes made from Delftware are to be speckled and in certain colours. She fantasizes about the cleaning she’d do, the time she would spend in this comfortable home, and her pride in owning such a place.

The fifth verse of the poem returns her to the present, her bones weary from constant travelling, the facing of the “crying wind” and the loneliness of her itinerant life. In the last verse, she laments her lack of shelter and it is clear that she seeks shelter not only for her body, but for her soul too.

The poem was published in his 1907 volume Wild Earth. Until the end of the 19th century Catholics could not own land in Ireland and Irish peasants often led rootless lives while longing for stability. Most were deeply religious – only their faith gave any meaning to the misery of their lives.

Colum (pronounced Column) was a poet, novelist, playwright, collector of folklore and an important figure in the Irish Literary revival. He was himself Catholic, so knew firsthand about the discrimination faced by those of his religion in Ireland.

It’s great to listen to this poem read by someone with a lilting Irish accent. Here are some nice versions:

Have you enjoyed this poem? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- A Cottage Interior: An Old Woman Preparing Tea, by William Redmore Bigg, 1793. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O16543/a-cottage-interior-an-old-oil-painting-bigg-william-redmore/
Body image credit- Portrait drawing of Colum by John B. Yeats, 1900s, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71497632

Comments (12)

  1. My Mam recited this poem when I was very young. I was born and lived in Limerick until I was ten. It seems that this poem was loved and taught by many teachers in Ireland. I still shed a tear when I recall my mother reciting and explaining what it meant.

    I would like to include this poem in my latest novel but realise that I will have to obtain copyright to do so. I am now about to try to discover the necessary process!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is a moving poem, isn’t it. It was published in 1907, so should not be out of copyright, so I should think you can safely use it.

  2. Joan Mc Guigan

    We learned this poem at convent school in Bessbrook village. Our drama teacher was Miss Keilty. It always moves me especially now when so many are homeless.

  3. Kenneth Lynn

    It’s a great poem to recite, inwardly or aloud, when faced with the regular chores of housework. Tedious tasks are transformed into a cause for gratitude!

  4. david

    Good morning! At least that’s what it is in England. Morning, I mean; hardly good.
    I’m commenting on this poem because I had never heard of it till your Page alerted me to it. Working down your list of recent Posts, after I had started from Auden, Four Weddings and a Funeral; which took me back to 2007.
    Anyway, your Site is far more interesting than this comment [!]
    Stay safe! Best wishes!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      How nice of you to send your good wishes, and of course I am delighted that you enjoyed the poems I’ve posted. If you wish, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter, ‘Notes from a Book Addict’. It is free and you will receive it on the first day of each month. You can do it here: https://susannahfullerton.com.au/newsletter/ I should be in England now leading a literary tour there and feel so sad that it could not happen because of Covid. I adore England! Stay safe and well, and let’s hope normal life resumes soon.

  5. Such a beautiful, sensitive poem. Sitting inside my cosy home on a cold, wet and windy day, I’m trying to imagine the life of those women who lived without a roof over their heads. Thank you Susannah for your news letters. They are very special.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It’s a wet, cold day out there, and that really makes you appreciate how lucky we are to have nice homes to live in. I think this poem is a very moving one and it seems to be getting a great response. Thanks also for your order and support, Pat.

  6. David Castle

    a simple poem – probably deceptively so. Transformed by both readings together with the pictures and of course your notes. Thank you again.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, deceptively simple, and very moving. So glad you enjoyed it.

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