From Tommy's Song

Freedom’s Sons are singing;
singing sad songs,
to their love, songs.
Pretty Maggie O’, Sally O’,
Pretty Saro and Rosie.

for some,
a Song For The Children.

In The Time Of Scented Roses,
let they be not black,
The Long Woman’s Grave.
Rather Sing Me The Old Songs;
of Rambling Rivers
in The Rambles of Spring,
Clear Blue Hills
or Grey October Clouds,
among Long Winter Nights.

If I should return,
If You Should Ask Me,
I’m Going Home To Mary,
Smiling Mary
I can see her, as she holds
our Gentle Annie in her arms,
listening to
The Listowel Blackbird sing;
Music In The Twilight,
In Newry Town

I will return again.

              ~ John O'Brien, Jr.

First Poem / 1st Generation

I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. 1st Generation. So my roots go much deeper in Ireland than they do in the U.S. I never thought much about it, until I went to Ireland. I remember the air, and the peace I felt, sitting on a stone wall, waiting for the train to Dublin and singing Kenny Roger’s songs with my sister Cathy. A whole new valley of thought opened up. The missing connection, the only time in my life I have not felt deep-core restlessness, of not belonging, was when I was in Ireland. That feeling was not repeated until seventeen years later - when I went back.

In an abandoned and disappearing churchyard I saw wind-rubbed tombstones that carried the same names as I know well today; George, Hubert, Desmond (died in 1698), O’Brien’s all. Phillip O’Brien, my cousin, is the 11th generation to mind the hills and cows, milk the milk and sheer the sheep at Atteagh Mills. I have never “walked the land” with my father, as so many memoirs deem essential. Yet, I look out and see our ghosts, hear their music, and that peace settles once again, down through my toes. I am rooted. Yet, only in my memory does the taste of belonging remain.

The feeling of Ireland, nursed by dances at the club, bands, Sunday morning 78’s, then 8-tracks, before mass, and then Gaelic Football games and gatherings; Immersion at 3,000 miles. My father left Ireland soon after playing for the 1951 All-Ireland winning Roscommon U-21 team. He was not the oldest son. The first time he returned was for his mother’s funeral. Through the roots of my past, I sometimes feel that I never left.



You are welcome in my home
Wait for no invitation,
for it was given the day we met.
Pull up a chair, warm your hands
as the sweet tastes of the turf and the tea, linger

My door is always open,
the kettle always boiling.
Scones warm vapors awaken.
I am so happy you dropped by,
there is a place for you here.

We’ll sing. Bards and sean nos.
Friends of friends come freely
and stay, and go, leaving memories
passing on songs, sharing history
adding to the fabric of my life
barely lived, generations old

I want no rules here
yet invite you to join with my ways
around the hearth.
Only you have seen,
what you have seen,
the places you’ve been,
stories you’ve breathed,
friends and foes of the past
and how they walked their path.

Their ripples, and jokes,
their memorable moments in time
and so will live on
as we pass on.
There are no strangers here
only friends who have not yet met.

The Vacant Chair

I asked her if she could go home or did she have to stay out all night
She looked at me kind of funny, then her laughter peeled with delight
My heart it broke in two, and today I can still freeze the moment
But a terrible devil had been born, it’s destruction bent to foment
We saw no sign. We were young, without a care
Now I sit alone at the table, across from the vacant chair

We struck up a friendship; there was nothing more at first
Yet every time we separated, I felt an unquenchable thirst.
Friends grew to lovers, in body and the spirit.
We finally faced our fate, time to precious to mourn or hear it.
We found each others joys, she loved the teddy bear
Her soul hugged her heart, when I built the vacant chair

She was beautiful, she was gorgeous. The kindness that I saw
How she left me after the night, and always in constant awe
I was never so happy, we traveled and we laughed
We danced and we sang, she was a master at her craft
I wrote while she painted, her skill extraordinaire
Poems and fond memories, engraved deep in the vacant chair

We never had such happiness, each was wide with wonder
That kindred souls found each other, amidst the din and the thunder
No children had we, tho’ in the thought we’d often revel
For the sickness had already started, the bastard of the devil
Waiting, throwing up, more chemo left to bear
And when the pain got too bad, I widened out her chair

Time slipped away, but the devil wouldn’t let go
The drugs and the treatments – rained blow upon blow
She fought it so valiantly; she cried that we might part
Then I learned that it was winning and a knife ripped apart my heart
I did all that I could, she loved when I washed her hair
Damn you devil, Damn the empty vacant chair

Day after day, yet her smile was still bright,
When I’d walk in the room, see her body there so white
She was home now, in her own home, peaceful here at last
We planned out her funeral, and remembered about the past
The pain and the fashion, were more than I could bear
For one last night I held her close, as we dreamed together in the vacant chair

I asked her if she must go home or could she stay out all night
She looked at me kind of funny, then laughed with remembered delight
My heart it broke in two and I can still freeze the moment
But the terrible devil had won, death’s taking it did foment
We were frozen in time, lost, without a care
Now I sit alone at the table, across from the vacant chair

The time it goes so slowly, the moment’s hard to wait
This that brought such delight, now how I’ve started to hate
How can it sit empty, when I am still sitting here
How can the crying stop, when every single thing brings a tear?
I miss you love, we were a once-in-a-lifetime pair
So I search out the polish. Lovingly, I caress the vacant chair

  • The Vacant Chair was awarded 1st Prize in the 2010 Irish Books Arts and Music (iBAM) Showcase


 The Years in Her Eyes

I see the years in her eyes
A miasma that can only be caused by the pain of a life well lived
It may be the years, it may be the mileage
It may be all she has seen or lost - that took bits of her heart

A far off look, of things remembered, regrets
Then she smiles and those thoughts are supplanted, eradicated
The stories come forth, Almost unwittingly, shyness overcome
Good memories flood and wash away the momentary darkness
and the present recedes, to become overloaded with recollections
Now so much to tell, an urgency, to beat the recorder and the march of time
Wouldn’t do to have the stories lost.
It wouldn’t do to have the teller not feel this cherished, all of the time.
at least while we can. Until the next injects its own urgency.
The kettle is always boiling, and the stories taste so sweet.

Hours give way. New memories are born in crying the old.
for both the teller and the awed.
Perhaps, in a different way,
even more treasured than the stories that brought me here in the first place
The recorder shuts off but my mind keeps turning, reliving. The images so vividly reborn
giving context to the foggy images of history
that until now, only slipped in, and out of my consciousness.
A way that was only legend, has now become a history –
living and breathing – reborn, again.
For a few more generations to breathe, taste
Captured briefly, before it could disappear completely.
to what was, today, I know the light in her eyes has illuminated.
yet another window to what was, how it was.
The stories in her eyes, light, explain.
how I see, the years in her eyes.

I Knew You Once

I knew you once, long ago
Back when we were young
and fireflies lit the sky at dusk
before the stars came home.
In children’s gasps, of children’s delight
4th of July, every night
before the teardrops of angels kissed
each blade of grass alone

Shimmering woman, crackling essence
softly singing our dreams in my ear.
In the feel of your hips, the colt remains
in the flash of your eyes when you peal.
And the tilt of your lips grooves worn in my fingers
impressions left in the bed;
Your eyes still glitter, among crinkles burned from sorrow
Laugh lines are much more fun.

Stages sunrises, rainbows and gold
Grains of sand in our toes
Flip the hourglass march like pride
Panorama of circles unbroken stone

I knew you once, when you were young
It wasn’t so long ago.
Dusk comes again, lit by memories

Sunshine Too

I see the sunshine
in the mist of driving rain
lite my world
no trace
I see the sun shine
in the midst of driving pain
and I feel nothing
but peace and warmth
I see the sunshine
it is all I ever needed
for I know it well.
It is your smile.


When I find the words to explain
how I feel about you,
how I feel
when I am with you,
or thinking of you;
When I find the words to say
how your smile lights your eyes
and your eyes fire my smile;
When I find the words to describe
the urgency and demands of your kiss
and the curve of your hip, your calf,
your lips
in the very corner, upward,
to remind me of all the possibilities
inherent in an upward curve;
When I find a way,
to paint all that I see,
Then, will I write you a poem.

A Window in a Memoir

Time stops for no man, woman or child
But the stories in “My Grandfather’s Emigrant Eyes”
“The Old Man”
slip away when they do.
Of lives lived, things that were that are no more
First fading in memories,
then just fading

History that I want to raise from the dead,
before they are dead.
History from before I ever lived.
For, when I am gone,
and they are gone,
the history will be gone too.
Too precious to lose without remembering, recording, preserving,
to be studied,
understood – history whose presence shaped
and reshaped,
to make the people and the land
what they are today.

Old practices, old beliefs,
rushed past by the trickling, falling sand
And were forgotten, almost.
I do not forget.
I know what I do not know
and seek to know it.
Not only for myself, but for my children,
and theirs.
Preservation of the memories
keep alive what has passed away.
I was raised on songs and stories,
a stored up library
given for others to borrow,
read, see,
relive and mostly,
as a window within a memoir -
to understand.



Born in the Burren;
joy, laughter, song and story.
A rich heritage steeped in lore:
hedge schools and seanchie,
centuries old, rediscovered, relived, passed on.
stone tables barren
resounding echoes of barren acts of the stranger.
Burying, endless burying
children, hunger, hatred, hope
before finally
being waked in the shadow of a ship.

Up the plank
off to America,
down the plank
and into the Civil War.
Trading the aching silence of famine
for the cannon roar and cacophony of freedom
Fair trade?

The want of spuds,
or the want of bullets?
Mainly just the want of a chance to live.
Hundred thousands Union,
ten thousands Confederate.
Different beliefs.
Yet the song and the sorrow,
the laughter and the lacerations
are the same,
no matter the race, no matter the language
and they burst forth with equal finality.
Wait! I have but yet begun to live.


Gray’s Armory

Alone in a room, buzzing with people I can’t quite see.
My mind has gone into the past,
that is present in the room now.
Flittering shadows, shades of white, blurred so distinctly.
Ghosts, Spirits, Echoes of what was, who was.

I turn off my ears, and listen to the long unheard neverending
chatter all around me. I sneeze.
Earthbound, my soles points of contact
for a time elapsed, whose time has come
– only peering through a filmy window.

An open mind is a fresh breeze airing out long dormant
green hills, epic loves, Civil Wars and American Wakes.
I walked into the past with my senses seeking,
and reeled, lost for hours in the book of what was.


When all feels lost
amongst the din and the thunder
the rock we cling to, the hope of tomorrow
sits well as he sits next to us
with a young smile, tempered vision
and an M16 semi-automatic repeating rifle with night-scope vision, sniper site, 200 rounds, armor, belief in God & Country and his band of brothers,
and he simply defends the wall.

The first time I met you,
then saw the metal brace encasing your chest;
the metal in your eyes
Snap you smiled, so young
in mind, body
old eyes reflect.

Later, the Purple Heart on your dress blue
and rows of ribbons.
The Theatres
and the sweat-earned, stubborn, never give up, never give in strength-earned awards; Medals of metal
My America: strong, Proud

The first time I met you,
then saw the metal brace encasing your chest;
the metal in your eyes
Snap you smiled, so young
in mind, body
old eyes reflect
Proudly, I shook the hand of America.

SSgt. Brian Constantino, United States Army

The Craic at the Sessiún

Ah the crack at the sessiún,
The words and the roof, rang out together
Reilly sang of athenry
And Makem of the four green fields
DeGabriele of patriot games
And Doyle of how the west’s awake
Sweeney sang show tunes
and everyone joined in.

Kilfenora played pool, tired from a century old
But the Brothers were outstanding in a field, singing bold
Big Sexy was heavenly and the bulbs flew,
now they’ve been mounted and the stories proven true
Paulie B played the fiddle and Peggy manned the bar
Then she turned upside down – didn’t need no silly jar
Someone burn the negatives.
The Ramblers sing of Dublin and of leaving Liverpool
The Descendants sing of fools, going back to school
Shine sings of lobbys and McEvoy of home
Henry sings of sammy & devlin and tells a funny poem
McCann sings of country and of Ireland so fair
Foster & Allen sing of the blacksmith, a festival so rare
The Rovers sing of the party, And the Prodigals of the ball
Moloney’s green fields and the galway shawl
People all over and the Seven Nations,
Wilson tells of hardship and the poor relations
Doyle’s O’Carolan and how to master the harp
Ennis Sisters played hot and of catching the carp

Ah the crack at the sessiún,
The words and the roof, rang out together
Reilly sang of athenry
And Makem of the four green fields
DeGabriele of patriot games
And Doyle of how the west’s awake
Sweeney sang show tunes
And everyone joined in


The baritone guidance among the whispers of creativity,
history walks, hammering with pillows, with verse and with song
- and laughter;
bubbling forth in a man, a bard, The Godfather.
In passionate action is a legacy delivered to a new generation;
an heirloom, made more precious, more prolific, with each passing day,
with each new inspired poet, songwriter, singer and musician.
This is Tommy Makem, This is Ireland.

“I was born in Keady, the Hub of the Universe,” says The Godfather
No, Tommy, you were born in the soul of Ireland itself.
A giving tree of immortal life; to tradition, to the rich heritage
and the powerful ballads that will never die.
You altered history, instilled a pride.
The Giving Tree Makem has spread its roots.
And flourishes, in the songs and stories of The Bard.

*Tommy Makem passed away on August 1st, 2007. His presence, and his legacy, cannot be quantified, nor extinguished. I wrote this poem when writing Tommy’s chapter in my book, “Festival Legends: Songs & Stories: the people who made the music that defined a people”.

Tommy's Song

Awaken Mary Ann, for
The Liar,
The Man of No Conscience, cries,
That No Irish Need Apply
Peace and Justice disappear
in the Rape of the Gael
In That Land I Loved So Well,
True Love and Time.
have stopped.

There Was An Old Woman.
among the Four Green Fields,
She entreated me,
Brendan, The Darkley Weaver,
Don’t Go Down To The Big Green Sea.
from Clean Air, Clean Water,
to the Ships of War ready,
even The Water Sings out -
to the march of
The Enniskillen Dragoons
Where Ever The Winds?
The Winds of Morning?

The Winds Are Singing Freedom!
And call for Better Times.
I went anyway.
And so,
Farewell My Friends.
Farewell to Carlingford,
Fare Thee Well Enniskillen
Let there be none
of The Morning After Blues.
Fear, but hope again to walk
This Dusty Road.
when next again, in victory
we are Rolling Home.

But now, as we enjoin
The Boys of Killybegs
Toasting farewells,
sipping Paddy Kelly’s Brew.
Freedom’s Sons are singing;
singing sad songs,
to their love, songs.
Pretty Maggie O’, Sally O’,
Pretty Saro and Rosie.
for some,
a Song For The Children.

In The Time Of Scented Roses,
let they be not black,
The Long Woman’s Grave.
Rather Sing Me The Old Songs;
of Rambling Rivers
in The Rambles of Spring,
Clear Blue Hills
or Grey October Clouds,
among Long Winter Nights.

If I should return,
If You Should Ask Me,
I’m Going Home To Mary,
Smiling Mary
I can see her, as she holds
our Gentle Annie in her arms,
listening to
The Listowel Blackbird sing;
Music In The Twilight,
In Newry Town

I will return again.

* All words in italics are titles of songs Tommy Makem wrote. There were more than 400.

Cherish the Mystery

Ghosts of Christmas past, go floating through my brain
I remember cold and snow, yet remember not much pain
Joyful childhood, waking up Christmas morn’
Delivering the paper, before the wrapping could be shorn
The house all dark but the tree lights still lit.
Not a sound in the sharp air, as I pull on my mitts
Bag over my shoulder, paper in my hands
Had to be in the door, not today’s “wherever it lands”
Quiet, so quiet, but this one morn I’m not afraid
I think not of dark driveways or who hasn’t paid
The stillness so peaceful, I try not to make a sound
I’m all alone in the world, as six a.m. comes around.

Up the long driveways and then back down them again,
Can’t jump the snow high on the grass, stuck like a pig in a pen
Broom hockey shoes kept me from falling, on my ass in the snow
No matter how I hurried, I went much too slow
Frozen and often wet, I’d turn the corner for home
My mind is on presents, and Christmas past poems
The last paper’s delivered, each door tightly closed
My Irish cheeks look like Santa, the weather has rosed
I trudge up the hill and see my dad at the door
My mind sees those less blessed, many reasons for the poor
The houses in the neighborhood with no presents or a tree
My world’s not so cold, I’m starting to see.

Into the house I go, my bag hung on the stairs
One sister wakes up the others, who come down as a pair
Warm clothes, thick socks, and hot chocolate whipped to a foam
Rush through breakfast quickly, eyes to wonder and to roam.
My stocking off the fireplace, filled with fun little gifts
Then under the trees too sharp needles, the attention snaps and shifts
Clothes and cool games, wall holders for my collection
We each had our spot, our haul’s own little section
And when it’s all over, put the wrapping in the bag
Mom always says: “for thank you’s keep the tag”

Tho’ my sister is all tired, as my mother did warn her
I lean back against the wall, in my section in the corner
I think of the morning, from high chaos to early still
Of the food and the company, that this day will fill
The smell of the turkey, reaches me as I stretch out
Such wonderful memories are without a doubt
The reason I still cherish Christmas, and the still of the morn
Jesus works in mysterious ways, since the very night he was born.




Home to an empty house. I hear your voice
in the air, in my mind.
Echoes of the past
over the thunk of dirt hitting your coffin.
The past, was it only yesterday you were tickling me
kicking the ball, taking me swimming?
The drying rose, the dried tears
would that life could restart as easily as these tears
and flow on as endlessly, without interruption.
Much wasn’t said, under the heat of your expectations
Much was done, under the influence of your legacy
Vision of the eyes, from passion of the heart, to lasting action
I hear your voice, never an old friend… but still
I hear your voice

Kiss Me

Kiss me, I beg you, kiss me
Let me feel your heat take my mind
off the ache that resides deep,
to my very joints,
seemingly to my very soul
distract me
with what you make grow, fuel
banish the memories
of winters cold
autumns rain
spring’s lingering nip
you are the sun, kiss me.


cringe bent

three days straight, the rain has come
I raced to cut the lawn before it hit
I knew -unbendable steel fingers
rebar thick ankles - pogo sticks with negative bounce.
only sleep brings sweet, blessed relief
'cept I can't sleep on rebar
"back like an ironwood, bent by the wind"
that's me.

less judgmental, more understanding,
of the marginal
I am not them,
but I know them, in their minds
and mine
we could be brothers,
if we weren't already brothers in Christ

I see the ginger actions of my nieces, nephews
"don't hurt Uncle J.," I cringe
but their hugs and "I Love you's" straighten me out
like a nun's yardstick to the fingers of the misbehaving -
shock therapy.
still sad eyes.  So I throw the ball,
ignore the hot ball searing in my shoulder
for pure love's sake,  and the memories of me I want them to have.

tho' I only walk,
you can't run on pogos,
I see so much more, in the non-blurred passing,
and appreciate it for the kindness He showed,
in quietly showing it to me.
my weight hangs heavy, but my conscience is light, almost clear.
regretful, at what could have, should have been,
but it is beasts, and nature.

I ache for the white cloths of heaven,
the release from the aching chains that bind my body
in concrete, more than twenty-five years.
"all in good time," He says
"your work is not done,
your mission not impossible.
I give you not more than you can bear,
and I bear more, so you can give."


Ghosts in the Attic

Ghosts in the attic, hidden in a box.
I move aside the history, among Broken Clocks
Hidden in the bottom, hoping to be missed.
Lightly yellowed, where the sun had once kissed
Another box , and another, in another box,
experimentally open the door, to the past’s pervasive knocks
Small medals, old letters, as I sit down hard;
I can’t see the time, just glimpse a little shard -
sharp and bleeding, the edges are so blurred.
What had hatred spawned? What had wrath incurred?

Plagued heart, plagued soul, beaten too much?
Were you missing love or maybe a tender touch?
A future so empty, a day of no vision?
Otherworld preferred, no door from your prison?
But to murder a gift? A life’s a virtuoso.
To snuff out animation, to simply crush its’ prose so?
What did you see, that you saw no good,
that you abandoning life – and your parenthood?
Could you feel no sun and weighted by the rain
Did you fight like a wildcat or just accept the pain?

Unbridgeable? Uncrossed? A private chasm?
Premeditated murder or desperate spasm?
Did not someone see, was no one aware?
Were they afraid of him too or could they not dare?
Could no brothers nor priests, nor saviors get through?
Could no one see, what was happening to you?
And in the end, when you gave up the fight,
did you expect to see the devil or pray a heavenly light?
A virtuoso is gone, she sings no more.
I guess the legacy lives, in the hearts it tore.

Tho’ I know not the meaning,
my heart sobs, it cries.
That no one could stop,
your suicide.


 I Had Freedom

I ran so hard
Iron in my eyes.
Bursting thru
I had freedom, for just a second
the world went black.
Later, as I came to
I wondered where I had been and what had I missed
what had happened.
And I will never know.
Fog, blurry thoughts, even though they are my own
I see, I feel, sort of, but I can’t hear a thing.
And the gap unsettles.
With painstaking slowness, from deep within a tunnel
sound comes back, almost in layers.
Blinks, white lights, blinks
Strangers, asking can I hear them
but I can read their lips, so I nod yes,
and shake my head no.
the room is quiet, shaded, dimmed but not dark
my head pounds out a beat unbearable.
I don’t know, how I got here.
Alone, all alone,
in a crowded hall.

Volunteer Angel Brigade

Stand on this stage, look out and see the ghosts
of those now gone; too many, too soon.
Our Guardian Angels
gather under the trees;
a shot and a beer, the smell of a pipe,
tools, resting, just for a moment, beneath folding chairs.
Endless cups of tea, and just a bit of a scone.
Endless living lessons
on how to have a song in our ear
and laughter in our hearts.
Warm handshakes, old stories.
They are pulling up a chair for the new kids;
Owen Quinn, Tom McCaffrey, Mike Hagan, Bruce Michalski
and welcome them with open arms.
Another Guardian Angel, or four
Join, the Volunteer Angel Brigade.

All the volunteers who have left us have left legacies that never leave us
We are blessed, we are grateful. We are better, because we knew them
God hold them, until we meet again

Mike Lackey ~ May 5th, 1985
Frank Carr ~ September 27th, 1991
Patty Oberath ~ September 28th, 1994
Bud May ~ November 19th, 1994
Harry Maguire ~ December 1st, 1994
Patrick Kearney ~ May 2nd, 1999
Sean Boland ~ April 15th, 2000
Nora Carr ~ April 20th, 2000
Lonnie McCauley ~ March 18, 2001
Pat Finnegan ~ March 30th, 2001
Tom Byrne ~ May 31st, 2001
Thomas Staunton ~ November 5th, 2001
Dorothy Lynch ~ March 12th, 2003
Bridget Boland ~ December 6th, 2005
Mike McLaughlin ~ April 29th, 2006
Tom McCaffrey ~ August 2nd, 2006
Owen Quinn ~ December 19th, 2006
Bruce Michalski ~ June 20th, 2007
Mike Hagan ~ February 18th, 2008
Steve Mulloy ~ June 29th, 2008
Mel Falle ~ September 18th, 2009
Owen Lowry ~ October 26th, 2009


John O’Brien, Jr.
14615 Triskett Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44111-3123
P 216.647.1144

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