Themes and Meanings
“A Connachtman” is one of the twenty-five short poems that comprise Colum’s first collection of verse, Wild Earth: A Book of Verse. Critics agree unanimously that it is this collection that provides the groundwork for his future poetic work and achievements. Known for their focus upon Catholic rural Ireland, its oral tradition, and its ancient past, Colum’s ballads sing of the noble spirit of those whose lives and identity are firmly rooted in and depend upon the land. Despite all hardship, these men and women have preserved the vital link with the Irish soil and continue to define themselves through the natural cycles of life and death, sowing and reaping, hope and despair. Because he takes a keen interest in the language, structures of expression, and symbols of the rural west, Colum’s diction and methods of versification remain basically untouched by current developments in modern Irish and Continental poetry.
This does not mean, however, that Colum does not participate actively in the social processes of his time. An ardent supporter of the cause for Irish national independence from Great Britain, Colum takes upon himself the task of becoming Ireland’s peasant poet. Because of his Catholic and rural origins and upbringing, nationalist activists recognize his work and aspirations as authentic, unlike those of Anglo-Irish poets such as Lady Augusta Gregory, William Butler Yeats, or Æ.
Although his ballads lack the militant edge and didacticism of the verse of most nationalistic poets, Colum’s use of mythic symbolism in “A Connachtman” does allow for some, though hardly profound, nationalistic interpretations. Thus, the image of the “Three Women” in stanza 8, in addition to its associations with the Christian Trinity or Mother Ireland, could be also seen to represent the ancient trio of female deities from the Tuatha Dé Danann (“people of the goddess Danu”), the prehistoric Irish race of gods. Significantly, Morrigan, one of these three goddesses, is a goddess of battle, strife, and fertility. There is another trio of Celtic goddesses that has special importance in this context: the Irish sovereignty goddesses Eriu, Banba, and Fotla. Eriu, associated with the land, is a personification of Ireland; Banba represents the spirit of Ireland and is used as a poetic name for the country, and Fotla, having ruled the island before the Gaels arrive, gives Ireland its name.
Again, like the trio from the Tuatha Dé Danann, the sovereignty goddesses are also closely connected with warfare. Such deep and nuanced possibilities of mythic symbolism, which combine natural (rural) and spiritual dimensions, creativity and warfare, national and all-human characteristics of Irish identity, allow Colum’s “A Connachtman” to reach a balance between what is essential in the identity of an Irish person and has been preserved since antiquity and what is gained through individual experience. The result is a vital dialogue between Ireland’s past and present in the language of the past. “He has brought once more the peasant mind into Anglo-Irish poetry,” Ernest Boyd wrote about Colum in Ireland’s Literary Renaissance (1916), “which is thus renewed at the stream from which our national traditions have sprung, for it is the country people who still preserve the Gaelic element in Irish life, the beliefs, the legends, and the usages which give us a national identity.”