On March 17, we are all Irish (or at least most of us) even if we are not. In that spirit, I thought I would write about one of Youngstown’s most illustrious Irish residents, Michael J. McGovern, also known as “The Puddler Poet.” Puddlers had a special function in the mills, They stirred pig iron that was heated in the presence of oxidizing elements in a furnace, converting it into wrought iron. He worked in the old “Siberia Mill” of the Cartwright-McCurdy company. When not working, he wrote poems about work in the mills and other subjects. Many of them were hard-edge social critique of the times, for example “A Rythm Upon Our Trusts”:
This country is o’erran by trusts And each within its sphere adjusts Production and the price of that Which it controls, not caring what The people it plucks may say For trusts possess the right of way On all our great commercial trails To crush the slow industrial snails The trusts economy is seen In big combines which seal the doom Of those who live half way between.
Michael McGovern was born in Ireland in October of 1847 in the townland of Castlefield, near Williamstown, County Galway, to John Govern and Bridget Flynn. McGovern was educated in one of the secret “Hedge Schools” learning the basics including Latin. He sailed to England in 1866, finding work in Sheffield City, Yorkshire, as a steel mill laborer. He married Anne Murphy in 1872, around the same time he began secret efforts with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. By 1880, he had to flee England, with Anne following soon after.
He found work as a puddler at Catasauqua Steel and Iron Company in Fullerton, Pennsylvania around 1882. He brought his family to Youngtown around 1890, living there for the rest of his life. It was here that he began writing poetry, another way to express his advocacy for labor beside his membership in the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers. Here is another of his poems, “The Puddler’s View of Present Systems”:
The plutocrats, the goldbugs, and the tariff lords who rule us all; The press and the politicians that will tell us lies to fool us all; The ministers and bishops who e'er preach on Christ and pray for all; The warriors who kill the foes that would invade and slay us all; The hoboes and the millionaires who never work at all, at all; Would one and all be starving did the workingman not toil for all.
In 1899 The Vindicator published a book of his poems, Labor Lyrics and Other Poems. He contributed poetry regularly to The Vindicator and The Youngstown Telegram. He was also an accomplished landscape artist, even though he had no formal training.
He never forgot Ireland, returning in 1904 for a three month visit, and a number of poems celebrated his Irish heritage, including “Welcome A.O.H. Men” (A.O.H. stands for the Ancient Order of Hibernians):
Welcome men of Irish blood, With open arms we meet you In the name of Irish Nationhood And faith we hospitably greet you. We welcome you with all the love And friendship men shroud owe each other, And hope each grasp we give may prove The honest pressure of a Brother. For Ireland’s triumphs and her woes: For virtues that enhance her glory; For wrongs inflicted by her foes That go to make the blackest story. For love of Freedom, –always her’s; Which love, may yet its crown accord her Ceud Mile failte –Visitors – True members of her 'Ancient Order'
Michael and Anne celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1930. McGovern wrote poetry up to the time of his death on April 2, 1933 of a heart attack at age 85. His funeral service was held at the old St. Columba Cathedral and he is buried in Calvary Cemetery. Anne followed him in death in 1935.
I’ll close with one more Michael McGovern poem, “St. Patrick’s Day”:
Again arrives that holy day,
As Earth its yearly circuits makes;
That much revered St Patrick’s Day
That day of days which e'er awakes
Within each heart of Irish race.
A Christian thought- a loving thrill:
When kindled memories kindly trace
Some verdant vale; some shamrocked hill,
From which the thinker had to roam
Upon this rugged earth's highway
That day of days for Irishmen
With blessed traditions comes again
All hail! St Patrick’s Day.
Michael McGovern is the likeliest candidate for Youngstown’s greatest poet. Fittingly, much of his poetry celebrated the workingman and his labor.
[If you are interested, Jim Fahy, an Irish journalist has been researching his life and has compiled a 138 page online biography of McGovern.]
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!