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: