The School Bag

from The Midnight Court

Brian Merriman

I used to wade through heavy dews
On the riverbank, in the grassy meadows,
Beside the woods, in a glen apart
As the morning light lit sky and heart
And sky and heart kept growing lighter
At the sight of Graney’s clean lough water.
The lift of the mountains there! Their brows
Shining and stern in serried rows!
My withered heart would start to quicken.
Everything small in me, hardbitten,
Everything hurt and needy and shrewd
Lifted its eyes to the top of the wood
Past flocks of ducks on a glassy bay
And a swan there too in all her glory;
Jumping fish in the heady light
And the perch’s belly flashing white.
The sheen of the lough, the grumble and roar
Of the blue-black waves as they rolled ashore.
There’d be chirruping birds from tree to tree
And leaping dear in the woods nearby,
Sounding of horns, the dashing crowd
As the hounds gave tongue and Reynard fled.

Yesterday morning the sky was clear,
The sun flamed up in the house of Cancer
With the nigh behind it, fit to take on
The work of the day that had to be done.
Leafy branches were all around me,
Shooting grasses and growths abounded;
There were green plants climbing and worts and
That would gladden your mind and clear your head.
I was tired out, dead sleepy and slack.
So I lay at my length on the flat of my back
With my head well propped, my limbs at ease
In a nest in a ditch beside the trees.
The minute I closed my eyes, I drowsed.
My lids were locked, I couldn’t be roused.
I was hidden from flies, felt safe and sound
When a nightmare swarmed and gathered around,
Battered me, flattened me, dragged me down
Through weltering sleep and left me stunned.
But my rest was short for next there comes
A sound from the ground like the roll of drums,
A wind from the north, a furious rout
And the lough in a sulfurous thunder light.
And then comes looming into view
And steering towards me along the bay
This hefty menacing dangerwoman,
Bony and huge, a terrible hellion.
Her height, I’d say, to the nearest measure,
Was six or seven yards or more,
With a swatch of her shawl all clabber and japs
Streeling behind in the muck and slaps.
It was awe-inspiring just to see her,
So hatchet-faced and scarred and sour —
With her ganting gums and her mouth in a twist
She’d have put the wind up man or beast.
And Lord of Fates! Her hand was a vise
Clamped on a towering staff or mace
With a spike on top and a flange of brass
That indicated her bailiff’s powers.

Her words were grim when she got started.
‘Get up,’ she said, ‘and on your feet!
What do you think gives you the right
To shun the crowds and the sitting court?
A court of justice, truly founded,
And not the usual rigged charade,
But a fair and clement court of women
Of the gentlest stock and regimen.
The Irish race should be grateful always
For such a bench, agreed and wise,
That’s been sitting now two days and a night
In the spacious fort on Graney Height.

Their king, moreover, has taken to heart
The state of the country; he feels its hurt
As if were his own, and all
His entourage are aghast as well.
It’s goodbye to freedom and ancient right,
To honest dealing and leadership:
The ground ripped off and nothing put back,
Weeds in the field once crop is stacked.
With the best of the people leaving the land,
Graft has the under - and upper hand.
Just line your pockets, a wink and a nod,
And to hell with the poor! Their backs are broad.
Alas for the plight of the underclass
And the system’s victims who seek redress:
Their one recourse is the licensed robber
With his legalese and his fancy slabber,
Lawyers corrupt, their standards gone,
Favoritism the way it’s done,
The bar disgraced, truth compromised,
Nothing but kick-backs, bribes and lies.

To add to which, the whole assembly
Decreed on the bible this very day:
The youth has failed, declined, gone fallow —
A censure, sir, that pertains to you.
In living memory, with birth rates fallen
And marriage in Ireland on the wane,
The country’s life has been dissipated,
Pillage and death have left it wasted.
Blame arrogant kings, blame emigration,
But it’s you and your spunkless generation.
You’re a source blocked off that won’t refill.
You have failed your women, one and all.

Think of the way they’re made and moulded,
The flush and zest in their flesh and blood —
Those easy ladies half an offer
And the big strait-laced ones, all ignored.
Why aren’t they all consoled and gravid,
In full proud sail with their breasts in bud?
Say but the word and the clustered fruit
Will be piled like windfalls round your feet.

So the meeting pondered the country’s crisis
And the best opinions agreed on this:
That one of their own should be deputed
To come back here to adjudicate.
Then Aevill rises, as Munster’s guardian
And Craglee’s peerless fairy queen
And offers to leave the fairy palace
And go to Thomond to hear the case.
And, honest princess, she makes a promise
To come down hard on the law’s abuse.
Might without right to be defeated
And right as right reinstated straight.
So take it from me, you can grease the palm
Of pimp or madam or sycophant
But it won’t avail for its’ not an inch
Now that her Grace is boss of the bench.
Already at Feakle the court’s in session
That you must answer. So move. Shove on!
Move it. Faster! Don’t whinge or blurt.
Move, or I’ll drag your ass in the dirt.’
With that she stuck her crook in my cape
And hooked me behind and heaved me up
And we went like hell over glen and hill
To Moinmoy Church, by the gable wall.
And there (I am sure) lit torches showed
A handsome, grand, well-built abode,
A stately, steadfast, glittering space,
Accessible and commodious.
And I saw a lovely vision women
Ensconced on the bench of law and freedom,
And saw her fierce, fleet guard of honor
Rank upon rank in throngs around her.
I saw then two rooms filling full,
Crowding with women from wall to wall,
And saw this other heavenly beauty
With her lazy eye, on her dignity,
Seductive, pouting, with curling locks,
Biding her time in the witness box.
Her hair spilled down, loosed tress on tress,
And a hurt expression marked her face;
She was full of fight, with a glinting eye,
Hot on the boil, ill-set and angry —
Yet for all her spasms, she couldn’t speak
For her hefts and huffing had made her weak.
She looked like death or a living death wish
She was so cried out; but straight as a rush,
She stood to the fore as a witness stands
Flailing and wailing and wringing hands.
And she kept it up; she raved and screeched
Till sighing restored her powers of speech.
Then her downlook went, her color rose,
She dried her eyes and commenced as follows:

‘A thousand welcomes! And bless your Highness!
Aevill of Crag, our prophetess!
Our daylight’s light, our moon forever,
Our hope of life when the weeping’s over!
O head of all the hosted sisters,
Thomond can thole no more! Assist us!
My cause, my case, the reason why
My plea’s prolonged so endlessly
Until I’m raving and round the twist
Like a maenad whirled in a swirl of mist —
The reason why is the unattached
And unprovided for, unmatched
Women I know, like flowers in a bed
Nobody’s dibbled or mulched or weeded
Or trimmed or watered or ever tended;
So here they are, unhusbanded,
Unasked, untouched, beyond conception —
And, needless to say, I’m no exception..
I’m scorched and tossed, a sorry case
Of nerves and drives and neediness,
Depressed, obsessed, awake at night,
Unused, unsoothed, disconsolate,
A throbbing ache, a dumb discord,
My mind and bed like a kneading board.
O Warden of the Crag, incline!
Observe the plight of Ireland’s women,
For if things go on like this, then look it!
The men will have to be abducted!


Bathed in an aura of mourning light,
Her Grace on the bench got up to her feet;
Beautiful, youthful, full of poise,
She cleared her throat and raised her voice,
Then clenched her fists with definite menace
And ordered the bailiff to call for silence,
The court complied; they sat entranced
As her lovely fluent lips pronounced:
‘To my mind, girl, you’ve stated your case
With point and force. You deserve redress.
So I here enact a law for women:
Men not mated by twenty-one
To be sought, pursued, and hunted down,
Tied to this tree beside the headstone,
Their vests stripped off, their jackets ripped,
Their backs and asses scourged and whipped,
But the long-in-the-tooth and dry-in-marrow,
The ones who harrow-pins won’t harrow,
Who pen the pent and lock away
The ram that’s rampant in their body,
Keeping in hand what should go the rounds
And fencing off the pleasure grounds —
Their nemesis I leave to you
Whose hearths they’d neither fan nor blow.
Dear natural sexual women, think!
Consult your gender, mind and instinct.
Take cognizance. Co-operate.
For I here invest you with the right
(To be exercised to the breaking point)
And powers of violent punishment.’


She stopped, but still her starry gaze
Transfixed me in a kind of daze
I couldn’t shake off. My head went light,
I suffered cramps and a fainting fit.
The whole earth seemed to tilt and swing,
My two ears sang from the tongue-lashing
And then the awful targe who’d brought me,
The plank-armed bailiff, reached and caught me
Up by the ears and scruff of the neck
And dragged me struggling into the dock.
Where next comes skipping, clapping hands,
The lass who had aired her love-demands
And says to my face, ‘You hardened chaw,
I’ve waited long, now I’ll curry you raw!


And you, dear women, you must assist,
So rope him, Una, and all the rest —
Anna, Maura — take hold and bind him.
Double twist his arms behind him.
Remember all the sentence called for
And execute it to the letter.
Maeve and Sive and Sheila! Maureen!
Knot the rope till it tears the skin.
Let Mr Brian take what we give,
Let him have it. Flay him alive
And don’t draw back when you’re drawing blood.
Test all of your whips against his manhood.
Cut deep. No mercy. Make him squeal.
Leave him in strips from head to heel
Until every single mother’s son
In the land Of Ireland learns the lesson.

And it only seems both right and fitting
To note the date of this special sitting
So calm your nerves and start computing:
A thousand minus a hundred and ten —
Take what that gives you, double it, then
Your product’s the year.’ She’d lifted her pen
And her hand was poised to ratify
The fate that was looking me straight in the eye.
She was writing it down, the household guard
Sat at attention, staring hard
As I stared back. Then my dreaming ceased
And I started up, awake, released.

1780 - Irish - translated by Seamus Heaney

spoken = Julian Lopez-Morillas