A Dying Art.

Neil Patrick Doherty wrote on Facebook, “I have just heard that Derek Mahon has died. A sad loss to Irish poetry.” I wasn’t familiar with Mahon, but I liked the whimsical little poem Doherty posted:

“That day would skin a fairy —
A dying art,” she said.
Not many left of the old trade.
Redundant and remote, they age
Gracefully in dark corners
With lamplighters, sailmakers
And native Manx speakers.

And the bone-handled knives with which
They earned their bread? My granny grinds
Her plug tobacco with one to this day.

Apparently “it would skin a fairy” is a rural Ulster colloquialism meaning “it’s bitterly cold.”

Addendum. Just a quick recommendation for Ann Patchett’s “My Three Fathers” in the latest New Yorker; it’s a splendid piece of writing and makes me want to read more by her.


  1. I wasn’t familiar with the expression, but I immediately understood, “That day would skin a fairy,” to refer to cold. I’m not sure if I recognized its similarity to some other idiom, or if I just made a well-educated guess.

  2. PlasticPaddy says

    re skin a fairy
    Related expressions in Irish refer to taking the skin off the livestock:

    ghearr an fuacht an craiceann den seanbhó. (cow)
    bainfeadh an fuacht an craiceann de ghabhair. (goat)

  3. The NY Times has a good obit by Neil Genzlinger that quotes more of his poetry, e.g.:

    But, Dr. Enniss said, renewal was a frequent theme, as in his best-known poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” which used mushrooms bending toward the light as a symbol. It was written in 1973, with the 1972 clash known as Bloody Sunday still fresh in memory. The poem ends this way:

    They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
    To do something, to speak on their behalf
    Or at least not to close the door again.
    Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
    “Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
    “Let the god not abandon us
    Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
    We too had our lives to live.
    You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
    Let not our naïve labours have been in vain!”

    And this helps explain why I immediately liked him:

    Another leading Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, compared Mr. Mahon to a renowned American writer.

    “A technician to rival Richard Wilbur, by whom he was deeply influenced both as a poet and translator,” Mr. Muldoon said by email, “Derek Mahon was the unlikely laureate of the Protestant working class of North Belfast, whose lives he got down with the warmth and precision of a Dutch master.”

    Wilbur is a long-time favorite of mine.

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