From Flood to Fenians: A poem takes us for a ride

Bella reads from The Harp and Laurel Wreath

A little Tuesday evening dinner-time rabbit trail. (One of the boys asked how often we end up looking things up during dinner, the answer: quite often. We can’t abide by the no phones at the table rule because things must be googled and read and dissected and discussed.)

Today while I was out with Lucia, Bella was reading to Dom from her latest favorite, The Harp and Laurel Wreath. One of the poems she read was called The Ride of Collins Graves. She was telling me about it as we sat down to eat. Dom and Bella weren’t sure what it was about and surmised, since it was among many poems about wars and battles, that maybe it was about the Civil War. The date was 1874, so that seemed plausible. My curiosity was piqued and so I grabbed the book off the nearby shelf and read the poem out loud, competing with requests for the bread and tuna fish and fruit plate to be passed. And as I read it became clear that, no, this isn’t about a battle; it’s about a flood. Collins Graves was riding to warn people about a dam breaking.

Whence come they? Listen! And now they hear
The sound of the galloping horsehoofs near;
They watch the trend of the vale, and see
The rider who thunders so menacingly,
With waving arms and warning scream
To the home-filled banks of the valley stream.
He draws no rein, but he shakes the street
With a shout and the ring of the galloping feet;
And this the cry he flings to the wind:
‘To the hills for your lives! The flood is behind!’

He cries and is gone; but they know the worst—
The breast of the Williamsburg dam has burst!
The basin that nourished their happy homes
Is changed to a demon—It comes! it comes!

So then I had to pull out my phone and find out about this flood and Collins Graves. Where did this happen and what was it exactly? Well, it was a terrible disaster that happened here in Massachusetts. According to one account that I found, it was “the first major dam disaster in the United States and one of the greatest calamities of the nineteenth century.” At the time the dam was built there was no regulation and so it was made cheaply, because the original engineer’s plan was too expensive. And then it burst.

Collins Graves was a milkman, one of four men who rode with news of the bursting dam, warning factory workers and residents. Sadly, 139 people still died and villages and factories were washed away. (Image of the medal awarded to Graves for his heroism.)

Having learned something about the disaster, I was curious about the author of the poem and poking around I discovered that he was editor of The Boston Pilot, a Catholic newspaper which was later bought by the Archdoicese of Boston, and which they still own. Dom worked for Pilot Media Group for several years and recognized the name of John Boyle O’Reilly as an editor of the Pilot— Dom knows a bit about local Catholic history—and was amazed because his name had come up recently in conversation.

O’Reilly was an interesting character. Born in Ireland, he was transported to Australia because of his association with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or Fenians, who conspired to revolt against British rule in Ireland. Interestingly, the ship that carried O’Reilly and the other Fenians, the Hougoumont, was the last convict ship to sail to Australia.

O’Reilly managed to escape Australia on an American whaling ship and made his way to the United States where he settled in Charlestown and went to work for the Pilot, America’s oldest Catholic newspaper started by the second bishop of Boston.

O’Reilly also later helped to arrange for the escape of more Fenians from the Western Australia penal colony, the plot became known as The Catalpa Rescue, it’s a fascinating story. And when I was in graduate school at Boston College I saw a one-man play, called Catalpa, by the Irish actor/playwright Donal O’Kelly. I loved that play, I’ve been haunted by it, one of the most riveting pieces of theater I’ve seen. How funny to have it ambush me like this over a dinnertime rabbit trail that began with a poem about a bursting dam and a heroic ride.


You can see a little preview, the first four minutes, of Catalpa on Vimeo. Really, it’s just the frame story, about a failed screenwriter trying to sell his pitch to the Hollywood big shots, the play unfolds as he tells us, the audience, what he should have said to them, as he acts out the whole story beginning with the long pan that follows a seagull down to the whaling town of New Bedford. Oh, it’s so very, very good. O’Kelly is a mesmerizing storyteller. But such a tease! It makes me long to see the whole play again. And such is the nature of theater, you can’t watch it again once the show is over.

A short feature about Donal O’Kelly and Catalpa, with a few more snippets from the show (warning some language in this clip that you might not want kids to hear if you’re listening with wee ones around.)

To me these moments feel like the heart of homeschooling, just as late night conversations about Plato in the dorm lounge or wrangling with Homer over a drink in the pub felt like the heart of my college education. All the time in the classroom is merely the foundation, the scaffolding, if you will; but these rambles through history and literature, following connections, making connections, they’re the gorgeous facades, the mosaics, the inlaid floors, all the beautiful embellishments that make the edifice worth dwelling in.

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One Response to From Flood to Fenians: A poem takes us for a ride

  1. Kimberlee January 18, 2017 at 10:09 pm #

    Hooray for homeschooling and rabbit trails and mamas who google and all the rest. I like your concluding words in the last paragraph – the scaffolding is indeed important to hold the whole thing up, but who would want to live on just rails and planks.

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