Madge: Portrait of Donegal Actress and Poet Madge Herron

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Madge: Portrait of Donegal Actress and Poet Madge Herron


Thu, 17/11/2016 - 11:24


Madge Herron
Madge Herron
17 November, 2016

MADGE Herron was well known on the streets of Kentish Town, a friendly face, a person who was known for keeping scores of dogs and cats, and looked on kindly as a fairly eccentric Irish lady.

But a new biography reveals Madge was a celebrated writer who carried a tradition of Irish literature that stretches back hundreds of years.

Her niece Patricia Herron launched the biography at the Camden Irish Centre this week, and says her aunt’s scruffy appearance meant she could be misunderstood – as was her reluctance to have any of her work published, despite a lifetime of work. 

Madge was born in 1915 and left her home town of Fintown, Donegal, as a teenager to come to London to study as an actress at Rada. She had written poetry as a child, and it became her main occupation, winning critical praise over decades of work.

But while she was feted by critics, her story is little known – prompting her niece to research her aunt’s life and reclaim her legacy.

After Madge’s death in 2002, Patricia was struck by the number of obituaries and memories people shared.

“It was the first time I realised how well-regarded she was as a poet, but I also found a lot of what was written was sensationalist rather than the truth,” she says.

“They would say she was a good poet, eccentric, but then add derogatory things about her appearance, about how she kept dogs and cats. A lot of the stories and anecdotes like this meant that was all she was being remembered for, not the poetry.”

Madge lived for many years in Fortess Road and then Islip Street, though people would assume she was homeless and suffered from ill health, a myth that had been perpetuated.

“I wasn’t sure myself what her poetry was like, so I tried to find out more,” says Patricia.

“Since her death, when I came across one of her poems, I’d discuss it with my late husband, the poet Donal O’Siodhachain. Over the years people would contact us about her. There were some commemorative events where people would say what a great poet she was and we should write a book about her.”

Madge’s early years were pieced together by drawing on Patricia’s father’s life – “his life was her life,” she says.

“I had made a tape of my father talking to my daughter about his early life, so that was a starting point,” she says.

“But I had no idea what I was going to find out while I was researching her background, but I decided I would not use anything I couldn’t verify. That was my starting point to some of the things that were written about her.

“There was, for example, a story that did the rounds of her telling off George Bernard Shaw for eating strawberries wearing gloves – but there was no provenance for a nice anecdote like that. Perhaps Madge embellished it to make it more interesting.”

Looking at Irish newspaper archives, she discovered how successful Madge had been as an actress, and that she had a reputation in Donegal – “she was known as the Hollywood Lady,” says Patricia.

But most importantly, the book champions Madge’s lyrical brilliance, and shows how her work was a direct descendant of a bardic heritage that pre-dates Christianity in Ireland. With the introduction of Christianity, Patricia writes, Druids changed their names to filid, or poets, and continued on with their tradition of writing verse. 

“They frequently sang these verses too,” she adds. “Druids were not just qualified in writing verse, they were lawyers, geneal­ogists, recorders of historical events. 

All in all, they were the all-round intelligentsia of their time, and more. They were trained in spiritual disciplines, they became seers into past and future events.”

Madge continued this tradition from her home in Kentish Town.

“You can paint a picture of her through her work,” says Patricia.

“When you look at the bardic tradition she comes from, and considering her through that lens, her work becomes clear.”

Madge’s work focused on nature, animals, God and love, and she did not want her poetry published. But it wasn’t through a stubbornness or shyness – it was because of how she considered herself to be from a long line of oral poetry. 

“She would say her poems are really thousands of years old and belong to no one. Her poems make sense when you see them this way, and it also explains her behaviour. 

“The oral tradition was favoured over the written word, and her lifestyle was that of a bardic culture. She was very principled. It creates an atmosphere. Like spiritual music, Madge was brilliant at creating a ‘vibe’. 

“People would hear her and not really know why they were so affected by what she said, but they certainly were.”

• Madge: Portrait of Donegal Actress and Poet Madge Herron.  By Patricia Herron, Clo Duanaire/Irish and Celtic Publications, £10.
Email: [email protected]

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