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“The Sharp Beak”, is written from the perspective
of a female mill worker in the late nineteenth century.
She hopes to leave Belfast and the north to raise her two daughters
She is working late into the night, getting ready for the morning
when she hopes to finally leave Belfast, her mother and the grave
of her first child in the bog meadows, not far from the mill, where
she has worked since a child.
“The Sharp Beak” is a reference to the harder sounds of the Belfast accent
contributed to by mill workers speaking above the sounds of machinery and
the industrial age. This poem is showing respect to that bright sound.
My sharp, sharp, beak
Goes stitching, stitching, stitching.
With all my friends beside me.
And her, she’s always bitchin’
All my speckled family
And all my speckled friends.
We all do much the same
We work on what they send.
Conditions seem so hard here
All coughs and damp disease.
I clean all of our floors, Lord.
I rest down on my knees.
I might not have too much you know
But I have my mother’s pride.
I won’t sleep in this sheep dip.
And see him?
He got off-side!
They say that brave America
Wants people just like me.
Have you seen them big, big posters
For the land of the bloody free?
So I’ll keep on stitching, stitching
I’ll peck with my sharp beak.
I’ll clock the factory hours
Until my hands can barely speak.
I’ll stitch and scrimp and save.
Collect my bright new shiny pins.
A Jay, a Crow, a Magpie.
Magician, Mother, thin.
I’ve got to get the fare now.
Or I know I’ll just go mad.
My girls deserve a new life.
Not like this one, I’ve just had.
Wee mammie, och, wee mammie
She’s getting awful old.
She’ll live with all our cousins.
Hard by the mill house wall.
I told her all my plans you know
But the guilt, it holds me still.
My life’s been held, and tethered.
Rollin’ cloth on down this hill.
So I’ll stitch, stretch every sinew
To better my wee girls.
They’ll not peck cloth like me now.
Buried deep within this mill.
A farmer’s wife, a teacher
Placing seeds within the land.
They too will all have children
I so want to see them stand.
It’s the dreamin’ keeps me goin’
Golden hope, a floating leaf.
I just want to leave the factory.
Paid in full, a bright receipt.
We came in from the country
With our slower ways for folk.
The road began to narrow
As we settled in the smoke.
Och, am I just dreamin’ Francis
With the doves upon that wall?
Will I ever save the fare now
To escape and leave it all.
Jesus, help me, Francis hear me.
Send a sign amongst this din.
Let me rest upon your shoulders
Let me fly to kiss your chin.
I named the baby saint-like
But he didn’t stand, nor race
I bundled him in cloth
I had to steal from out this place.
But he’s safe amongst the meadows.
Where he plays and visits me.
The willow’s always weeping.
The mill race always pulling,
Always pulling, to be free.
God help me, yes, we’ll do it
Or I’ll be damned upon the fire.
I promised you and Francis
And I’ll not be called a liar.
Tomorrow, we’re up and leavin’
We’ll be headin’ for the docks.
I’m sittin’ workin’ late now
Just to darn these last few socks.
The ship, I’ve seen her resting
Made of wood and cloth and nails.
I’ve bundled up my heart for them.
My sleeping little sails.
Their hearts they beat like mine you know
They yearn to beat real loud.
They long to stand up shouting
To be heard amongst this crowd.
My sharp tongued way of speaking
Singing louder than machines.
Our rattle, clatter, chatter.
Full of hope and idle dreams.
Starling sharp they made me.
Starling sharp and berry bright.
As I peck for my wee darlings.
As I peck for them this night.
God, I long for their tomorrows
On the cart we’ll swing our chest
Then Lough Lea will be unfolding
When our ship sails for the west.