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"In Dogged Loyalty"
The Poetry of Religion the Religion of Poetry
Columba Press 2006
Many poets, down through the long and rich tradition of poetry in
English, have devoted their imaginative energy to questions of God,
belief and service. Many of these poems are perhaps the most
achieved in the English language and the tradition weaves its way,
altering, developing, questioning over the centuries. This book blends
a series of essays on the major poets who devoted their work to this
tradition, with an invaluable anthology of the poems themselves, thus
exploring that golden seam of religious poetry from medieval times to
the present. Here is The Dream of the Rood, George Herbert, John
Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson … and many more, up
to R. S. Thomas and our own times.

This book is a treasury of such poetry, and more - it adds studies of the
importance of poetry to our and every age, showing how it is an art
form we will lose at our peril, and outlining how poetry itself can,
through its depth and breadth and honesty, be an impetus back
towards faith in our common humanity. Essays, poems, written by one
who has devoted his own life to poetry, and to the poetry of religion.
Essay Titles in this book:

You
God’s Grandeur : a Foreword
Journey from Achill : The Atlantic God
And Christ was on the Rood
Seafarer
Woefully Array’d : John Skelton
The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage : Walter Ralegh
Who Lord? Me? : The Fletcher Brothers
The Burning Babe : Robert Southwell
East or West?  : A Good Friday Meditation
Preaching a Sermon to Myself : John Donne
To Keep a True Lent : Robert Herrick
Guilty of Dust : George Herbert in the Light of Simone Weil
Two Sonnets : John Milton
Dressed, and on My Way : Henry Vaughan
Bermudas : Andrew Marvell
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me. . . Eucharist
How Weary a Pilgrim : Anne Bradstreet
Let Sorrow Find a Way: William Cowper and John Clare
The Human Form Divine : William Blake
A Heart Breaking : Christina Rossetti
The Mysterious Chaste Bride: Emily Dickinson
The Expectation of the Creature : Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Hoard of the Imagination : Donne, Kinsella, Thomas
Full of Broken Things : Charlotte Mew
The Mountainy Singer : Joseph Campbell
The Hands of God : D.H.Lawrence
In Dogged Loyalty: Pádraig J. Daly
The Censorship of Indifference : An Afterword
You
Prayer


Bring me ashore where you are
that I may still be with you, and at rest.

Your name on my lips, with thankfulness,
my name on yours, with love.

That I may live in light and know no terror of the
dark;
but that I live in light.

When I achieve quiet, when I am in attendance,
be present to me, as I will be to you.

That I may hear you, like a lover, whisper yes —
but that you whisper yes.

Be close to my life, my loves, as lost son to mother,
as lost mother to son.
But be close.

Come to me on days of heat with the cool breathing
of white wine, on cold
with the graced inebriation of red.
   But that you come.

That you hold me in a kindly hand
but that you hold me.

Do not resent me when I fail
and I fail, and I fail, and I fail.

That I may find the words.

That the words I find to name you
may approach the condition of song.

That I may always love with the intensity of flowers
but that I love,
but that I always love.
The following Essay appeared in the July issue of The Furrow: with thanks to Fr Ronan Drury:

Dream of a Fair Field



Ireland, in the early part of this the twenty-first century, has become an island of greed and sorrow; we have become a
nation where the gathering of wealth, no matter what is damaged or who is downtrodden along the way, takes
precedence over traditional generosity and Christian belief. We are a county where violence, the thrust for power,
collaboration with the US weaponry of war, torture and untruth, the sufferings of the poor, the ill and infirm, oh all of the
conditions associated with a ‘third world’ country. . . dominate; and all of this has thrown a distress into the soul that is
not easy to deal with. As an aspiring poet, I have found that it has become more and more difficult to write. There is
needed a tranquillity of spirit to allow the circumstances of our living to acquire resonance, depth and understanding,
but the immediacy and speed of developments are inimical to that tranquillity of spirit. Furthermore, it has become (and
there is no other way of saying this) fashionable to deny the validity of religion and religious practices.

The ground of all my living and writing has been an attempt to fashion a language and imagery suitable to the
translation of Christian faith in these modern times, and for this I have suffered ridicule and rejection, as a matter of
course. How can a poem stand against the United Sates/Israel military machine? How can it bring a sense of integrity
and morality to a political system in our own country that works by subterfuge, aiming at perpetuation of power rather
than the good of the citizens when political life has become shameful and overtly dismissive of the deeper values by
which Christianity ought to flourish. A poet may be noisily praised and lauded in public but is ignored and dismissed as
having nothing ‘real’ to offer to the ‘real’ world. I speak of this as the censorship of indifference and this country is rife
with it.













I have re-read Isaiah, that great prophet and poet and, (even if ‘he’ is a gathering of several writers), find the work
challenging and uplifting. He spoke out, against his own will, to emphasise the truth of his vision of God to a people
suffering their own ills. In the book there is a series of pieces, “Songs of the Suffering Servant”, where the author
complains of the indifference of the people to his message. If my faith in the beauty and worth of the Christian heritage
to which I owe all hope, urges me to write in order to do what I can to redeem that heritage, then I feel an obligation so
to do. I do not compare myself to Isaiah, but one is allowed to echo the work, to recapture its spirit for one’s own times:

    On scatter-days my words are anger, sometimes
    resentful silence; I complain the inadequacy
    of words as instruments of peace –
    as it has been, and now, and may
    all a life-time, be.

    The words shift before me, blown sand, blown ash –
    chill April days, rooks squabbling in the naked trees –
    and I sieve words, to piece together what the Lord God lays
    cruelly on my tongue. I have seen morning upon morning weariness
    on an island without meaning. And I am weak, rebellious,

    weak again; I wait, listening. I have hid for shame,
    have ducked my head before the dryly critical.  
    Here, at the roots of trees, the lost twigs of the rookery.
    Invisibly the God helps, I will not be confounded;
    He who justifies is near me, touches me, the way

    the first warm breeze of spring
    touches. I, too, grow old
    like a much-used overcoat, ripped
    raw like a gardener’s
    glove.


I was brought up to believe in a Christ who is the spoken name (the Word) and nature of the Creator, our Source and
Sustenance. That name and nature have always signified, for me, love and service. It is a love that works its way
through the very flesh and bones of the earth, through all things, all creatures. From the wild and wonderful beauty of
Achill Island, I learned to associate rock and ocean, tree and insect, to the destiny of humanity and find that reading
justified in St Paul, in the overwhelming beauty of Romans chapter eight. And it is the blood of the Christ that suffuses
this earth, as it suffuses our beings in Communion. The Christ bleeds still: and I find it my great need to try and speak
out, in the only way I know how:

    Unclean Lips

    A slow mist fistles across the alder leaves;
    rushes stand, still as rust-haired soldiers
    waiting; sheep, trailing wool and brambles, shift
    lethargically in the fields; morning, and I know –
    because I have not spoken – I have unclean lips
    and the roof of my mouth is turf-grit dry. Fuchsia
    blossoms hang in their scarlet miracles
    and rhododendron woods swell in their extravagance;
    burn my tongue, I pray, with a live coal
    that words on fire and unexpected might yet
    flame across the darkening spaces. Too soon
    evening sunlight on the mountain slopes will cast
    shadow-clouds – spirit-thunderers, truth-falls –
    its maps of the difficult boroughs of the sky.


It is a question, too, of language. Of course I miss the great poetry of the psalms, the Song of Songs, the Book of
Revelation. I find the dreary forced ‘modernity’ of music at Mass now wholly wearying, after the glories of Bach and
Palestrina. I find that the Christian message is being couched today in a language that is lowered in intensity and
seriousness to accommodate a lethargic faith. I know that the use of words like “immaculate conception”,
“transubstantiation”, “pyx”, even commoner words like “sacrament” and “mercy”, are almost meaningless to a younger
generation. Christmas has become a time (now months long) for spending and buying, for overeating and over
drinking; Easter has become a time for Chocolate eggs and bunnies and the notion of Lent has become an opportunity
to try, once again, to ease back (for the sake of one’s health) on smoking or alcohol. I know I exaggerate a little, but
only, I think, a little. And all of the ills to which our society is subject, relate back to a lack of structure in life, to a failure
of purpose. If motivation gives energy to act, then lack of motivation leads to lethargy, depression and even suicide.
Christ back, then, upon Irish souls!

Rarely does one get an opportunity to confront the politicians, those to whom we once looked for leadership and now
look on with wholly jaundiced eyes. But when an election comes upon us, so do the politicians, creeping from door to
door, begging. I have taken this moment as the urgency of a poem that attempts an overview of our time. It begins with
a calling to my door one Sunday morning; I was, in fact, about to head out to Mass, after a walk in the local park;
smitten, as I so often am, by the beauty and variety of the physical universe as well as by its violence and indifference,
I was in no mood to stand quietly and receptively before the blandishments and hollow promises of a politician.

    Sunday Morning

    I

    I have been walking amongst weeds and wilderness
    over by ponds in the suburban park; eye
    of the goldeneye, claw of the water rail, a rat
    gone dunking down the hollowed heart
    of a tree; a heron, rakish-thin, stands above me
    as Donne the preacher might have stood
    admonishing. The rowan tree by the front door
    has loosed its berries and the cowering earth
    is rich with knowledge of the ways of God. Soon
    he who is beggar, who would be governor,
    will stand at the door, and knock; suave and discrete
    in his light blue shirt, pink tie, his golfer cufflinks,
    he will be braced with promises, with gorgeous lies
    bristling like nostril-hairs, like down-tufts in his ears.
    The ministerial car parked around the corner, its engine running.


I find it my task to point out, in so far as I am able, through poetry just such a contradiction, that this “cowering” earth is
exemplar to how humankind should stand in relation to unquestioning obedience to the will of God. The man at my
door, I was well aware, was typical politician, and the words above are an attempt to convey my feelings without
actually ‘preaching’. If poetry is to work, then it needs that distance that takes it away from rhetoric and controversy
and it is precisely that distance that is difficult to find when emotions are actually running high. I had been reading
Isaiah’s terrifying prophecies:

    II

    I had been taken by the last things, end-days
    when the mountains would come keeling over, burying
    the villages that had forgotten God; I saw
    nations flow like torrents into a broiling sea,
    who had turned their metals into gold, their minerals
    into smart bombs. Is it a small thing, I will ask him,
    that on your watch the bones of children
    lie bleaching in the sun? He'll say: there will be
    lavender and roses, the hair-fluff on his manly wrists
    shivering. I will be nervous but will say, you
    are government, the spoils of the poor are in your home;
    they sit on plastic seats in supermarket doors while you
    slip by in your Mercedes-Benz S-Class, not knowing God
    will be standing out at the street crossing, waiting.
    You will want to run him down and grind his bones into the tar.

Oh dear, these, of course, are the words I wanted to speak to him, but would they come out in the fervour of moments
standing at the door? Of course not; how many of us remember exactly what we wanted to say, and how to say it, long
after the opportunity has passed us by! We look to our politicians to bring order and harmony to our society, or at least
we used to; nowadays, as it has always been, poetry looks more to the order and harmony of the physical world about
us.

    III

    That we – even in the labyrinthine dustways
    of the suburbs – are formed of, and are one with
    ocean, that our names are written on the hill slopes
    in white sea-stones, that the cries we hear at night
    are the cries of the drowned that go drifting by
    in clean bone-constructs or in the guts of shoals –
    a high uninterrupted crying that must be part
    of the loud hosanna, biddable, like the chough
    in acrobatic flight where scream echoes to blood
    against the cliffs, or like the cock-eyed sparrow
    bathing himself in dust by the back door, eyed
    by the tomcat arrogantly spraying car-wheel
    and shrub in manicured pathway – does all this
    make you say there is no order to the winds? Nor
    therefore, order in the labyrinthine dustways of our lives.

The deepest order and harmony that we can be aware of, is that which Christ, the breathed-out nature of our God, has
shown us and it is that same Christ that we have put to death, and put to death again, over and over. In Ireland, our
awareness too that the Mother of Christ suffered along with her son and touches our hearts most closely, has also
seemed to be hidden away in embarrassed confusion. To a poet attempting to touch on these subjects once again,
there arises an awareness of personal unworthiness, of one’s own ongoing need for forgiveness. And yet the urge to
cry out, in the face of the overwhelming violence of our times, takes precedence over such diffidence.

    IV

    There was a violent death – exquisite pain –
    foreshadowed, many times rehearsed, the mother’s hands
    raised in a gesture of anguish, questioning
    how can this be, and why? The ocean’s sound
    falling against the beach could be the sound he heard
    birthing on that hill out of that womb, could be
    the sound that is a restless and shifting
    violence in the blood. Times were when I could weep
    for him, weep for myself and for my children,
    weep for betrayal, for forgiveness that I need
    seventy times seven and every day. Childmother sits,
    innocent, hands stretched wide as the bay’s embrace,
    though querulous; the son lies dead between her knees,
    eyes closed and head lolling in heaviness. Violence
    gaining dominion, the bullying human, the hectoring.

Having vented such thoughts, interiorly, and long after the event, and having failed once again to stammer them in
actuality to the ears that would, no doubt, be closed against them, I accepted his piece of publicity, he smiled and went
on his way, unperturbed. But later the poem comes, much later and now it can take years before a collection of poetry
will appear and the rare poetry journals do not like to take on longer pieces of work, so one feels as if the cries are
truly those of one mewling in the wilderness. But one mewls on, dropping the words like individual drops of water into a
salt ocean.

    V

    Because you are ashamed of God, when the cities
    of your hands crumble in unimaginable heat
    you will bow down your heads, your mountains
    will blow in dust before the winds; you have turned
    your face from the facts of war, you have been paid in cash;
    you will thrive, for yet a while, a little while, for yet
    a very little while. It is said Isaiah was a small man
    insignificant and balding – fist knuckled against his head
    to hide embarrassment – but of the people, a fire
    blazed unquenchably in his heart; one lazy eye could see
    down the corridor of centuries, how the child, uncouth
    and cradled in a crib, would start to burn all flesh
    to the purest nib, and blow the ash of all that lived
    into everlasting dust. I will close the door, softly; he
    will turn, walk down the drive and knock, smiling, at the next door.

The prophet Jonah was also unwilling to go and speak God’s word. Religious poetry, though the tradition of such work
in English is truly a magnificent one (Donne, Herbert, Milton, Hopkins, Eliot. . .) is often summarily rejected, not for its
form, language or worth, but because there are many who presume that once the subject touches on religion, then the
poetry does not exist. It is a blindingly foolish approach; one might as well reject out of hand all poetry that touches on
swans, or that deals with shipwrecks, or touches on the dejecta of a city’s alleyways. Yet a Christian holds that the
justice of God is tempered always with love, a fact that annoyed Jonah when his prophecies ultimately were overturned
by such a love. Kill me, the prophet Jonah said to a demanding God, because your steadfast love undermines all
justice. Your gift, God said, has been mine to give, and yours, simply to accept. And so, before the crazy building of
the new and grasping Ireland, where so much of our countryside lies like lopped limbs in a war zone, while men in
daffodil-yellow hard hats move about like robots carrying wooden planks, it is easy to lose heart; I have been figuring,
in a place apart, if this is stitching or unstitching of the world. I would host the bones requiem these days, over ocean
juggernauts, mosquito jets masterful in their economies, their deconstructions; in our economic victories such spiritual
defeat!

Contemporary society is amused, perhaps even a little bemused, by poetry and generally mocking of religious poetry.
And yet I dream on, and attempt to turn my dream of a newly Christian Ireland into some reality, at least a reality in
language.

    The Dream

    And in the dream thousands of young
    women and men were wading slowly out
    into the lake while the oozing bottom-mud sucked them
    further and further until they disappeared with that soundless yowl
    possible only in dreams though audible
    day by day around us, here, in this country, and now, at this time.
    Can a poem touch on the heart of politics? Can it tell
    how the blood-sheen on claw and bill of the chough
    is beautiful beyond their machinations? Do they know
    how good it is to sleep by an uncurtained window
    while the dark side of the mountain looms as guardian
    and a high star shades from gold to turquoise-white?
    Can they tell how the skylark fills its own lake full
    high above the sand-dunes with water-fire music,
    can they bring the scent of cotton, of heather and the warming bog
    into their chambers where they hurl lies and accusations  
    across our hurting space? The Christ, the poem says,
    waltzed across lake water, he is alive, in light, and stone, and bone
    and do you hear Him? You the anointed of the people,
    the disappointed, the disappointing.