Michael Quigley emigrated from Inishowen after the Great Famine and worked as a labourer in America. He had a sound elementary education thanks to his attendance at national school before he left but he attended night classes in America and developed an interest in poetry. His poetry fuses a mixture of classical Celtic heroism and local mythology and he appears to have an extensive knowledge of both. Likewise, Druidism and Christianity are close allies. His topographical references are those of the exile, writing alone, unrecognised and exiled in a rented room amid the hustle and bustle of a foreign urban landscape – Foyle, Pollan, Drung, Trabreagy, Malin, Ballagh, Keenagh, Lagg graveyard, etc. Some of the tales were handed down by his mother before he emigrated. In 1870, he put pen to paper, working by candlelight “after the exhaustive labours of the day”, as he put it. He wrote an epic poem of almost 300 pages broken into cantos which rhymed abab. His rhyme is consistent and reflects his pronunciation. Writing three years after Michael Harkin produced his “Inishowen”, Quigley may have been influenced by the imagery and folklore of Harkin. For example, he refers to Dan Doherty, the Keenagh harpist, who was insulted when offered payment for playing the harp at a house party. He smashed his instrument on the floor and never played again. The poem also refers to John Harvey.
The epic has a modern appeal as it mentions many families still living in the Malin area, and he was related to some of them: Billy Boggs, Cresswell, MacLaughlin, Duncan, Campbell, Red Rory of Slieve Bawn, MacColgan of the Isle of Doagh, MacCallion of the Strand, Art-a-Friel, and Donald Roe McGonigle.
In one of his first cantos called “The Matron’s Story”, he describes a battle fought on the shores of Pollan Strand and Trabreagy. The focus of the battle is an attempt to lure a ship onto Pollan Strand:
For thro’ the country round spread horrid tales
Of this dread captain and his secret land;
How, when the vessel tossed, mid tempest gales,
With signal guns, alarmed the sleeping land.
False beacons blazed on Pollan’s beach of sand,
And Torches waved from Carrick’s castles old;
Inhuman hearts, foul midnight murder planned,
That stranded ship, the corpses grim and cold,
And the fierce wreckers near, the damning tale unfold.
The wreckers are attempting to lure the ship ashore in order to capture its cargo. They built beacons of fire as decoys and stood on top of Carrickabraghy Castle waving torches as if in welcome. In the battle that followed the captain was killed and the leader of the wreckers blew a whistle to bring the battle to an end. As a measure of penance, the chieftain at Carrickabraghy seeks repentance from a wandering friar:
Go, cried the aged chieftain, bring to me
The holy friar, who by Strabeggy’s shore,
Within his cell of stone, in sanctity
And solitude has passed seven years or more.
The friar issues a series of orders to the multitude but declines to name the new chief. This is the Friar’s curse – the obligations imposed on a community in reparation for their deeds. (The Friar’s Curse: a legend of Inishowen, Milwaukee, Evening Wisconsin Printing House, 1870).
I am unaware of Michael Quigley’s burial place but it may be in Milwaukee, USA and he deserves to be remembered for his memorable epic work. A plaque in Malin would also do him justice. He came from humble origins in Inishowen, worked hard but never returned home. Fortunately, a single copy of his poem was discovered in a Canadian library. Otherwise his poetry would have been lost. His achievement in writing this poetic work and having it published is something that required great personal commitment and sacrifice. Relatives still live in the Malin area. This short article is written to mark the official visit by President Higgins to Carrickabraghy Castle, Isle of Doagh in September 2014 and to acknowledge the work of a voluntary group in its restoration.
Sean Beattie- Please forward and share.