This week a poem by the Irish poet and playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909) about vigilante justice in rural Ireland. I admire it for the way it captures the techniques and spirit of the old ballads, suppressing any authorial comment and leaving the story to speak for itself. And that story is, as so often with the traditional ballad, a grim one. Apparently the poem is based on a real historical incident, the murder of an unpopular rate-collector near the village of Glencastle in County Mayo, and the ‘flat stone’ mentioned in the poem can still be seen today. In the absence of any overt direction from the author, what are we to take as the poem’s message? Well, the eponymous Danny was clearly a social problem that needed addressing, but the trouble is that from a vigilanteism which might be seen as marginally justified it is only a small step to a community ganging up on an old woman suspected of witchcraft and dragging her off to be ducked and drowned in the local pond, as happened near my childhood home as late as 1751 (google Osborn + Tring), or a mob taking it upon themselves to chastise members of a minority group for nothing more than the crime of being different, which of course continues to the present day in many parts of the world.
I think it is fairly clear that despite Synge’s careful avoidance of any explicit moral judgment he in fact considers the episode disturbing and shameful. The clues are in the account of the spirited fight that Danny puts up against the overwhelming odds, the savagery of the assault described in the penultimate verse, the detail of the petty theft that accompanies the murder, and the laconic ‘And some washed off his blood’. So I would say that if the poem has a message it is that much as we may become impatient with the processes of official justice and perturbed at the abuses and failures it is susceptible to, it remains better than the anarchic alternative. To quote the eponymous hero of the old Icelandic saga of Burnt Njal, speaking after the period of anarchy and blood-feuds that followed his country’s settlement in the ninth century, ‘með lögum skal land byggja, en með ólögum eyða’ (‘with laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste’).
One night a score of Erris men,
A score I’m told and nine,
Said, ‘We’ll get shut of Danny’s noise
Of girls and widows dyin’.
‘There’s not his like from Binghamstown
To Boyle and Ballycroy,
At playing hell on decent girls,
At beating man and boy.
He’s left two pairs of female twins
Beyond in Killacreest,
And twice in Crossmolina fair
He’s struck the parish priest.
‘But we’ll come round him in the night
A mile beyond the Mullet;
Ten will quench his bloody eyes,
And ten will choke his gullet.’
It wasn’t long till Danny came,
From Bangor making way,
And he was damning moon and stars
And whistling grand and gay.
Till in a gap of hazel glen –
And not a hare in sight –
Out lepped the nine-and-twenty lads
Along his left and right.
Then Danny smashed the nose on Byrne,
He split the lips on three,
And bit across the right-hand thumb
Of one Red Shawn Magee.
But seven tripped him up behind,
And seven kicked before,
And seven squeezed around his throat
Till Danny kicked no more.
Then some destroyed him with their heels,
Some tramped him in the mud,
Some stole his purse and timber pipe ,
And some washed off his blood.
And when you’re walking out the way
From Banger to Belmullet,
You’ll see a flat cross on a stone
Where men choked Danny’s gullet.