John Armstrong – Poems of Mayo


A Review of Word from the Mountain: Poems of Mayo by John Armstrong (2016)

Word from the Mountain: Poems of Mayo is a new collection of poetry by John Armstrong that takes the spoken word to new performance heights. Armstrong’s conception of Western Ireland offers a moving and distinctive portrayal of the lives, histories, and characters of the common man set amidst the gruelling yet striking landscape of County Mayo. The region has a particularly dogged history and for anyone familiar with the political implications of British rule on Irish culture during the mid-nineteenth century to early twentieth centuries, the poems are an eerie reminder of a catastrophe that left Ireland deeply scarred.  In The Hunger Armstrong describes Mayo children, women and men barely alive with ‘nought but poisoned rot’ to eat. It’s a harrowing scene where:

At the window the infants with eyes like dark ringed moons/stare endlessly towards the open gate/awaiting the benevolence of some passer-by or priest to place a morsel or husk on the plate/The lanes and byways are deserted say for the crossroads/ the odd wretched bag of bones, young yesterday’s women swindled of their prime/now possessed by stooping shuffling crones/men wearied, barely able foray far-a-field, scavenging the emptiness of bite or crust to earn/while the offspring like fledglings lie hapless in their drafty dwellings unsure of their return.

The great famine saw the demise of over 60,000 of Mayo’s inhabitants (1845-1852) and was almost stripped of its Gaelic identity. In the decades that followed, W B Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Synge were just a number of writers that reacted to the horrors Ireland endured at the hands of the British. By forging an individual Irish Identity through arts and culture these writers gave birth to the Irish Literary Revival. Scratch the surface and it is not hard to see the influence of these writers within this collection.  

However, we would be underestimating the full range of Armstrong’s accomplishments if we see them as merely revisiting or saluting writers of the Irish Literary Revival. Yeats and his contemporaries were rebuilding an Irish culture separate to an English one and as a means of stimulating new interest in Irish heritage. In Words from the Mountain Armstrong observes this period of Irish history with great intelligence and with feet firmly placed in both Irish and British cultural camps. He draws on the spirit, mood and mysticism of the Celtic Twilight movement yet incorporates age old customs of the English folk tradition etched into many childhood memories. His songs free us to wander about in nature rather than trap us in a staged Romance or Idealistic world view. Instead, he invites us to join him on his journey of Mayo and examine the contours of his descriptions. It is clear he loves the story telling, the folk-tale, the sounds, smells and qualities of nature and its character within.  In The Ghillie of Lough Conn, for example, Armstrong writes:

Across the wide water a twilight silence was trespassed by the rattle of the rollick and the dipping of the oar/As the lonely rowing boat turned about/ and with the measured strokes of the metronome made headway for the shore/Out there stepped an old angler, a master of rod and line/Sporting the tweed of Donegal and waste-high waders on

There is more an echo of Thomas Hardy or John Clare here in how Armstrong engages with the natural landscape and sketches provincial characters in sound. Old country customs also feature heavily in his work. The beautiful image of the ‘tickle dozing trout’ in The Ghillie of Lough Conn cannot fail but to raise a smile on the face of any one listening and who remembers hours spent as a child trying to perfect this art much to their parents amusement and gratitude for a few hours of peace.

It should be noted that the collection is greatly enhanced by Armstrong’s strength as a performance poet and natural County Durham brogue. His delivery is powerful and the recitals made more believable by their closeness to a Celtic or Gaelic upbeat rhythm and style. In Once More with Catalin for example he delivers a stirring, sensual and sinister recital loaded with dramatic meaning and imaginings.

Finally it must be noted that it is the passion and pleasure with which Armstrong delivers his verse which make this collection stand out. ‘I love reading poetry aloud’ Dylan Thomas once confessed in 1937, and it is clear Armstrong shares the same sentiment with equally compelling effect.