Ireland and back again: A good story and a good poem


Here’s your Poet Laureate in front of the City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on January 2nd, the night before our return to the US and just two days before political riots broke out again in this beautiful but embattled city. At this moment, all was calm and well, Irish. My husband Frank and I went from here to a bookstore, to a pub for a pint, and then to a wonderful seafood restaurant. After a memorable meal we walked to a small dinner theater to hear an Irish country singer, Maria Doyle Kennedy, accompanied by her amazing guitarist husband, Kieran. Why did she look so familiar? She looks sooo familiar, I said to Frank. When we got home, a little google research revealed why: Maria Doyle Kennedy, the most evil character(to date) on Downton Abbey!

It wasn’t all pubs and famous actresses. We went to  Northern Ireland to the city of Coleraine to join  the Irish in-laws’ celebration of our daughter’s summertime California wedding. Yes, to meet the rest of the family. At the reception, I met my new son-in-law Shane’s Uncle Pat, a scholar and a great friend of poetry. We had a bit of a visit, got on the subject of the movie “Lincoln,” and then the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Pat mentioned that Daniel is the son of the late Poet Laureate of England, Cecil Day-Lewis. Pat then recommended a poem of Day-Lewis to me; I have a feeling this was his point all along. The poem, “Walking Away,” is about a father’s recollection of a son’s first day at school, of the bitter-sweet partings and the “worse partings.”

How fitting it was to read this after our daughter’s wedding celebration, a time of so much joy and yet such a large leave-taking. How grateful I am to read and re-read “Walking Away.” As I emailed Pat, how much subtle work this poem is doing to get the reader ready to hear what might otherwise be an abstract aphorism at the end if simply stated alone. This is the success of a memorable poem. Anyway, I think it is so fitting for the many partings we each face in our lifetimes, both the joyous and the “worse.”

Well, read the poem yourself and let me know what you think.

Walking Away

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

Cecil Day-Lewis

(thank you, Pat)

Sally Ashton
Santa Clara County Poet Laureate



Filed under Laureate's News, On Poetry

12 responses to “Ireland and back again: A good story and a good poem

  1. What a surprise to find both the evil and the grand in Northern Ireland.
    A beautiful poem. The last two lines tug at our hearts.

  2. Richard Burns

    Wow! Love the poem (and the picture). But then, I‘m half Irish. Also half Scotts—somewhere along the way–and half Brit. Oops, three halves, hmm, my math has gone to hell. When my kids went to Kindergarten for the first day, I don’t remember such inner turmoil, but then, my wife took them and held their hands. And both wanted badly to go, anyway. This poem is inspirational in the digging in deeply. Great punch line, here, and apt, for people of all time. I would never think up “selfhood” in a million years. Thanks for sharing. –Richard Burns

    • Thanks, Richard. I found out that lots of Scots(including myself) are Scots Irish meaning the British drove the Irish out of the farms and some went to Scotland, so that’s half of half and half more! But Burns sounds pretty unshakably Scottish.

  3. Roohi Vora

    Thank you for sharing your adventure and the beautiful poem, Sally. It simply made me cry. My kids just left for school (18 and 19 years old), and I don’t know about “worse partings,” but it is a fresh parting, and it hurts.

  4. Joanne Gallagher

    I really loved this. Thank you for sharing.
    The poem especially touched me. Happy New Year

  5. Thanks for commenting, Joanne. Happy New Year. Hope to see you in it.

  6. Mary Ann Cook

    This is a lovely anecdote I’d like to use. (as usual) Is Uncle Pat a professor of some sort? Also I’m assuming that your daughter and son-in-law now live in Ireland…is that right? And would you send me their names, and Uncle Pat’s last name if you know it? Also, is the most evil character in Downton Abby the first Mrs. Bates? Do you remember her name? I love that connection! Yrs, mary ann

    I need to turn this in tomorrow, so i hope you check your PLblog often….

  7. Larry White

    … and you loved Maria Doyle Kennedy in The Committments.


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