Terry McDonagh – Writing on the Train

Terry McDonagh LE P&W July 2022

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Writing on the Train – Guest editorial by Terry McDonagh.

I’m on a train.
It is April in Ireland.
The countryside unfolds
like a rich green parchment
but everywhere I look
I see the tall masts of Hamburg
sail along the horizon.
Those many storms
have cut my boats adrift.

This short poem, The Full Circle, was included in my very first poetry collection, The Road Out – 1993. So much time has elapsed – so many journeys. Yes, I know I could have looked for a solid home on a remote mountain range or a residence in a fashionable part of town – but, instead I set out, to be at home in my shoes – to stick to rambling about with a fistful of poems – to be on The Road Out, awash with ups and downs. Long may it continue!

The last of the travelling bards in Ireland, Anthony Raftery, left Cill Aodáin and never returned – I left Cill Aodáin and have returned. I still journey, travelling about, selling my soul at a thousand fairs, as the poet, Patrick Kavanagh termed it. Bob Dylan wrote, anything worth thinking about is worth singing about. He’s right, even if singing is confined to the bathroom or to the privacy of your own self. In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats asked sages to be the singing-masters of my soul. When I see that clouds have things to do and sheep are busy with grass, I sing along and I try to write. I wonder if wind, sunshine and grass know that they sing to us – are bees aware that honey makes us hum.

All living matter is in constant motion – walking, running, flying, creeping, crawling – travelling on buses, boats, planes and trains. I’m not talking about holidays. The whole of the universe is a symphony – conducting itself and constantly on the move. Becoming, living and dying. Have we got enough words to capture the Oneness of it all?

Just recently, I began working with a recently established writing group. We call it, Writing on the Train, because it takes place in an old parked-up rail carriage which has been, tastefully, refurbished as part of the Kiltimagh Museum. The unique aspect of this project is that we write in a train that’s going nowhere – but we are all aboard. We are igniting so many memories – journeys we’ve all been on – a school trip to the city or to the big smoke, as it was sometimes termed. I remembered a one class trip to Dublin when I was about ten or eleven. We visited a museum and looked at stately buildings which was boring, but when our lunchtime soup arrived and one or two boys began to throw the hard bread rolls at each other, things began to pick up. Our teacher was not pleased.

Not all journeys were plain sailing on cloud nine. There are those that take on legs and fantasy is out on a spree. Some of us had actually travelled on this train to Dublin on the first leg of a journey to far-off horizons – at least they seemed to be far-off in those pre cheap-flight days. We live on an island and when we got to the coast, there was water to be crossed or a plane to be caught, if we wanted to experience foreign parts. Terms like boat-train were common in those now distant days of mass unemployment when no god cared.

A couple of years ago, I scribbled this poem, Morning Train, on a morning train from Dublin going west. I was trying to address the obvious changes I’d experienced in my lifetime as we sped along in coffee and comfort.

Morning Train

February on an early morning train
from Dublin heading west
sweeping along in coffee and comfort.
We’re on time. Houses are not modest
and tucked away like they used to be.
Some stand like great empty churches
in pomp and circumstance as if
expecting a crowd but they feel hollow
and up for sale. Home’s a commodity.
Hedges are wholesome, meadows greener
as slurry and silage have taken charge.
Turf is no longer cut and dogs don’t freak.
A man with a handbag steps down at
Roscommon station and a woman with
a toolkit on the platform could be Polish,
German, African – Irish even. Fashion is
the leveller that nips and tucks at individuality,
that makes us plainer and almost the same.

But fields were there before wellness or
slatted-houses – even when famine raged
and no god cared. The memory of suffering
is deep in veins and crannies but the land

is slowly returning to its pagan roots
as it sails into light – as children, less sure
of their saints, hear other languages and
have classmates singing to stranger gods.

I, sometimes, wonder if trees, wind, sun and all living things are aware of their seasonal journeys. We seem to talk about change and travel all the time, but do we ask where piano music travels to when it’s curious, tired or had enough? Can busy thoughts and dreams find their way? Our team on the train will leave no stone unturned. Rest assured.

© Terry McDonagh

Terry McDonagh, Irish poet and theatre maker, has worked on writing programmes in Europe, Asia and Australia. He’s taught creative writing at Hamburg University and was Drama Director at Hamburg International School. He’s published eleven poetry collections, letters, drama, prose and poetry for young people. In March of this year, 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 latest poetry collection, Two Notes for Home, is to be published in September by Arlen House. He returned to live in County Mayo in 2019. http://www.terry-mcdonagh.com/

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