Week 538: The Planter’s Daughter, by Austin Clarke

This is another of Austin Clarke’s beautifully musical short lyrics (see also week 278) that appears at first sight to be a simple enough poem about a woman loved and admired for her beauty, but which also carries certain overtones, to appreciate which requires a little knowledge of Irish history. The woman is the daughter of a ‘planter’: that is to say, a landowner brought in by the British and settled on land confiscated from the native Irish. The Plantation of Ulster, for example, began in 1606, after the defeat of the last Irish chieftains and acceptance of English rule, when vast tracts of land were given to immigrants, mainly from England and Scotland, who were required to be Protestant and English-speaking.

This practice naturally inspired envy and resentment among the dispossessed, as hinted at in the line ‘The house of the planter is known by the trees’ – that is to say, the wealthy immigrant could afford to screen his ‘big house’ with trees while the native Irish were left to farm the barren hillside. So the feelings of the local populace about the planter’s daughter are understandably ambivalent: they expect her to be standoffish, but it appears that she is not, and the men at least are awed by her beauty; the women gossip about her; but neither really know her in her remote and privileged life. In the fine closing image she is likened to Sunday, the day of the week reserved for worship, and thus seen as a being separate from their normal life of toil, and haloed as it were in her apartness.

So, I could be reading too much into a slight if melodious lyric, but I like to see this poem as a celebration of the way in which an appreciation of beauty, and a respect for innate goodness, can transcend even the chasm-wide class and political divisions of Irish society.

The Planter’s Daughter

When night stirred at sea
And the fire brought a crowd in,
They say that her beauty
Was music in mouth
And few in the candlelight
Thought her too proud,
For the house of the planter
Is known by the trees.
Men that had seen her
Drank deep and were silent,
The women were speaking
Wherever she went – 
As a bell that is rung
Or a wonder told shyly,
And O she was the Sunday
In every week.

Austin Clarke


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