Category Archives: Mohill

The Forgotten Poet



William Portrait

William Henry Drummond was born on Holy Thursday April 13, 1854 in the townland of Curraun(1854-04-13), in the northern end of the parish of Mohill.  At that time William’s family used the surname Drumm but changed it to Drummond in 1875.

The world that William grew into was one where the British Empire was entering its zenith with Victorian ingenuity, innovation and industrial might allowing the Empire to spread its power and influence around the globe. Just a fortnight prior to William’s birth, Britain and France had declared war on Russia and the Crimean War officially began. A few miles away at Lough Rynn, William Sydney Clements had acquired the title the Third Earl of Leitrim and begun his infamous lordship.

In the Leitrim that the young Drummond was born into An Gorta Mor, the Great Famine had not long ended and this seismic event had changed the demographics and landscape of the County forever. In Dublin, Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wilde was born, a talent whose popularity and fame endures to the present. How ironic it is then that in the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century, William Henry Drummond’s name was as well known and in some countries his writings more popular than that of his compatriot. Today though is very different and Drummond’s work has fallen into disuse and obscurity. We should not forget however this Leitrim man, born in relatively humble beginnings in Mohill who would go on to become the First National poet of Canada.

Early Life

William was the oldest of the four sons born to George Drumm and Elizabeth Morris Soden. George was an officer of the Irish Constabulary (not yet Royal until 1867). Elizabeth’s family were native to Mohill and lived on a comfortable holding at Creenagh. In 1856 The Drumm Family moved to North Leitrim and lived at Tawley, Tullaghan. The Archives of the University of Toronto record that the young Drummond was tutored by a Paddy McNulty whilst at Tawley. J. B Lyons records that

While in Tawley, William attended an Irish National school where he fell under the spell of a gifted and charismatic teacher by the name of Patrick McNulty. At this time, William began to “scribble” his first verses and was exposed to the tradition of Celtic legends expressed in the popular poetry of the day.

The family returned briefly to Mohill in 1863-64 before emigrating permanently to Canada in 1865.

According to Williams wife May, George Drumm was dismissed from the Police Force because of a quarrel he had with Lord Leitrim. It appears his health also broke at this time. Despairing with conditions in Ireland and worried about the family’s future, George and his Elizabeth decided to emigrate with their children to Lower Canada. The family arrived in Montreal in the summer of 1864. Sadly the new beginning very quickly turned into a false dawn because in February 1866 George died suddenly and his family, left without even his small pension, faced financial ruin and hardship.

Elizabeth Drumm opened a shop in the front room of their house in Montreal. The boys all sold newspapers, and, when he was 14, William Henry left school and became an apprentice telegraph operator. He worked for several years for a logging firm spending his summers at L’abord-à-Plouffe, an isolated lumber town in Quebec.  It was here that Drummond had his first encounters with the speech and customs of the French-Canadian backwoodsmen. Many of these men were miners, prospectors or fur trappers and they were known colloquially as Habitants and Voyageurs. These characters, many of whom shunned the bright lights and comforts of city life, would be the primary inspiration for the future writings of William Henry Drummond.

Williams’s earnings with his telegraph work helped to keep the family and provide his three younger brothers with an education.

In 1875, having been convinced by a cousin that “the name Drumm was but a Corruption of the name Drummond our ancient family name,” William officially changed his surname and that of his mother and brothers to Drummond.

Drummond Family Portrait

     After six summers working in the remote logging camps Drummond set his sights on pursuing a career in Medicine.  In 1876–77 Drummond attended the High School of Montreal. He began studying medicine at McGill University the following year but subsequently failed his second year. Sir William Osler, of McGill University fame remembered Drummond as “a brilliant and loveable personality, but at the same time one of the least studious in my class.”

In 1879 he transferred to the medical faculty of Bishop’s College, Montreal and he completed his studies there. One source records,  “Bill Drummond was better known as an athlete than as a student, excelling in snowshoeing, hammer throwing, putting the shot, and fast walking and for a time was Canadian Amateur Champion of the last named exercise and one of the most popular men in College”.

Drummond spent his internship and early years of practice in numerous locations throughout rural Quebec. In 1888 he returned to Montreal, and set up a General medical practice in the family home. In 1893 he was appointed as Professor of Hygiene at his alma Mater, Bishops College. In 1894 he was made assistant Registrar and Professor of Medical Jurisprudence. In 1895 he became associate editor of the Canada Medical Record.

Drummond was also well known as a breeder and exhibitor of Irish terriers. He was a member of the Montreal Kennel Club and the Irish Terrier Club of Canada.

Drummond’s brothers George Edward, John James, and Thomas Joseph, all became successful businessmen and the Drummonds were one of the most influential families in both Montreal and Canadian society. William also invested successfully in various ventures with his brothers ranging from Ironworks to silver mines.

When Drummond was 40, he married May Isobel Harvey, a native of Jamaica in the West Indies. The couple was reputed to have met in September 1892 at the Laurentian Club, a well known social club in Montreal. Drummond later travelled to Jamaica where the couple were engaged before marrying at Savanna la Mar, Jamaica. After their marriage they made frequent trips between Montreal and Jamaica. Drummond became interested in the French Creole and Patois language patterns and dialects found in the West Indies.


In his work Drummond embraced the folklore and way of life of rural Québec. His style of narrative verse was written in the English idiom but totally inspired by the French Canadian farmers and woodsmen.

Drummond’s best-known poem, “The wreck of the ‘Julie Plante’” was written in the late 1870s. The poems origins were later recounted by Mrs. Drummond; Drummond had been warned by an old French Canadian man to come in off the Lac des Deux Montagnes in a windstorm. The old man had said “An’ de win’ she blow, blow, blow lak a hurrican!” According to  Mrs. Drummond these words spoken in dialect “rang so persistently in his ears that, at the dead of night, unable to stand any longer the haunting refrain, he (Drummond) sprang from his bed and penned” the lines that were “to be the herald of his future fame.” With its clever mixture of English and French words, strong rhythms, and witty lines, the poem was an immediate success when eventually published.

“De win’ can blow lak hurricane
An’ s’pose she blow some more,
You can’t get drown on Lac St. Pierre
So long you stay on shore”

Drummond had composed occasional poems for circulation amongst friends and for informal recitation throughout the 1880’s. In the early 1890s his verses began appearing in Periodicals and he made his début reciting his own poetry.

Drummond does not appear to have deliberately courted literary fame and preferred to compose his verse for private readings and intimate gatherings. By 1895-96 however he was planning a published volume with much encouragement from his family and friends. He was also greatly encouraged by the well known French-Canadian poet Louis Fréchette, whom he had met in 1896. The eagerly awaited publication “The Habitant and other FrenchCanadian poems” was a runaway success and transformed Drummond into one of the most popular authors in the English-speaking world. The Volume contained 23 poems and several illustrations by Frederick Simpson Coburn.

In the Introduction Drummond said that having lived beside French Canadians most of his life, he had “grown to admire and love them.” Although the English-speaking public might be familiar with the urban French Canadian, it “had little opportunity of becoming acquainted with the habitant”.

      “The Habitant” as well as being a popular work was also a critical success. The volume was favorably reviewed in the literary press of Great Britain and North America. The poems themselves became subjects of detailed critical comment. It is unclear how much money Drummond made from sales, but the attention that he received both enabled and forced him to change his life to cope with these new demands      Three more volumes were published “Philorums canoe and Madeleine Vercheres; two poems” (1898); “Johnnie Courteau and other poems” (1901); and “The Voyageur and other poems” (1905). All three publications were successful and were reprinted many times.   Drummond was besieged with requests for speaking engagements, recitations, tours, and more books.

The Last Portage Image dated 1908

Later Life

As his fame grew Drummond undertook various lecture tours in the United States and Canada. In 1902 he spent part of the summer in Britain and Ireland. It is not recorded whether he had the opportunity to revisit his birth place. All of these activities brought even more fame as he brought his work to a wider audience. He also received other honors. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom in 1898 and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1899. In 1902 he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Toronto and in 1905 another would be conferred on him by Bishop’s College.

In August 1904 Moira, Drummond’s only daughter, was born. The following September his third son William Harvey, died aged three. One of his most famous poems, “The last portage,” which appeared in “The Voyageur and other poems”, came to him as a result of a dream that he had on Christmas Eve 1904 while he was still mourning the boy’s death.  In 1905 he closed his medical practice in Montreal. His mother, Elizabeth died in April 1906 and the weight of personal grief seems to have greatly affected Drummond at this time.

Increasingly Drummond was spending more and more time in the mining town of Cobalt where he and his brothers had acquired an interest in silver mines. He spent most of the winter of 1906–7 in Cobalt fighting a smallpox epidemic in the settlement. Drummond’s own health suffered in this period.  He returned to Montreal in early March, and was the guest speaker at the annual dinner of the St Patrick’s Society in Montreal on 18 March 1907. He returned to Cobalt shortly after and died suddenly on the 6th April 1907 from a cerebral hemorrhage. William Henry Drummond, Canada’s first national poet was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal. He was widely mourned.

A year after his passing “The Great Fight: poems and sketches”, a collection of 20 poems and two sketches, with a short biography by his widow and illustrations by Coburn, was published. “The poetical works of William Henry Drummond” was also published posthumously in 1912.


For decades Drummond and his poetry remained important elements within the canon of English Canadian literature. Gradually though his poetry became to be seen as old-fashioned and unrepresentative. Commentators such as Lee Briscoe Thompson lamented that Drummond was a “victim of an attack of modernists on late-19th-century poetry”. Other critics believe that Drummond’s poetry was sidelined because it lacked political correctness and might offend the Quebecois people. Thompson believes the “shelving” of this “people’s poet” was unfortunate, for Drummond represents a very sincere attempt to articulate a sympathetic portrayal of rural French Canadians.  Thompson also believed Drummond’s work was a valid portrayal of a uniquely Canadian language and dialect which was borne of the fusion of two distinct ancient cultures in the New World. In his most recent biography, J.B Lyons seeks to redress the fate of  Drummond by placing him in the context of dialect poets, the best known being Robert Bums of course. It remains to be seen what the future holds for the poetry of William Henry Drummond. What cannot be denied is that for a few short decades this son of Leitrim was one of the most popular, and celebrated authors of the day and was considered Canada’s National Poet.

J. F. Macdonald, William Henry Drummond (Toronto, [1923?]), is the sole book-length study of the poet.

L. J. Burpee, “W. H. Drummond: interpreter of the habitant,” Educational Record of the Prov. of Quebec (Quebec), 61 (1945): 208–12, reissued as “W. H. Drummond [1854–1907],” Leading Canadian poets, ed. W. P. Percival (Toronto, 1948), 71–78. R. H. Craig, “Reminiscences of W. H. Drummond,” Dalhousie Rev., 5 (1925–26): 161–69. M. J. Edwards, “William Henry Drummond,” The evolution of Canadian literature in English. . ., ed. M. J. Edwards et al. (4v., Toronto and Montreal, 1973), 2: 94–97. R. G. Moyles, EnglishCanadian literature to 1900: a guide to information sources (Detroit, 1976), 129–31. Gerald Noonan, “Drummond – the legend & the legacy,” Canadian Lit. (Vancouver), no.90 (autumn 1981): 179–87. Thomas O’Hagan, “A Canadian dialect poet,” Catholic World (New York), 77 (April–September 1903): 522–31; Intimacies in Canadian life and letters (Ottawa, 1927). R. E. Rashley, “W. H. Drummond and the dilemma of style,” Dalhousie Rev., 28 (1948 49): 387–96. L. B. Thompson, “The shelving of a people’s poet: the case of William Henry Drummond,” Journal of American Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), 2 (1980): 682–89.

“William Henry Drummond” (1854-1907) by John Garvin, (1872-1934)
Garvin, John William, ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, Canada: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Publishers, 1916. pp. 177-188.


Canon Donohoe Hall, Mohill, Co. LeitrimJitterbug_dancers_NYWTS

The Anti-Jazz Campaign

Mohill and Cloone became the national centre of the infamous Anti – Jazz campaign of the early 1930’s. The leader of the campaign was the parish priest of Cloone, Fr. Peter Conefrey.  Conefrey was an ardent cultural nationalist and was heavily involved in the promotion of Irish music, dancing and the Irish language.  He devoted his life to making parishioners wear home – spun clothes and become self – sufficient in food.

Many people who look at the anti-jazz campaign often do so in isolation of the cultural context and background in which these events played out. The new Irish State faced enormous economic and social problems including high unemployment rates and falling living standards. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church had grown considerably in power and influence after independence and began to pre-occupy itself with perceived threats to the virtue of it flock. In the Lenten pastorals of 1924 the Irish Bishops addressed mass-goers on a number of evils and sources of degradation; these threats included women’s fashions, immodest dress, indecent dancing, theatrical performances and cinema exhibitions, evil literature, drink, strikes and lock-outs. By 1931 Archbishop McRory had taken to attacking the dangers of increased mobility which was bringing people into more and more contact with various evil vices. Now even the humble bicycle was a conduit for moral danger whilst ‘the motor car was seen as an instrument of seduction in the hands of unscrupulous males’.

Of all the perceived threats to the moral health of the nation one rose high above all others, the unlicensed Dance Hall, The clergy were not against dancing in principle. It was a perfectly healthy activity so long as the dances were of Irish Origin and the supervision was close. Cardinal Logue stated

‘They (ceili dances) may not be the fashion in London and Paris. They should be the fashion in Ireland. Irish dances do not make degenerates’.

In 1931 a Government appointed committee investigated the moral condition of the Nation, and its subsequent report, known as the Carrigan Report, concluded that the moral sate of the nation was very poor and legislation would have to be passed to improve the situation.

‘The ‘commercialised’ dance halls, picture houses of sorts, and the opportunities afforded by the misuse of motor cars for luring girls, are the chief causes alleged for the present looseness of morals’.

The Clergy led the way in seeking to have unlicensed dance halls closed and foreign dances banned entirely and pressurised the Government at every juncture for legislative reform. The definition of a ‘Street’ in the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was extended to include the evil motor car leading the liberal Senator Dr. Mahaffy to suggest that a wheelbarrow was a street and therefore could be used for an immoral purpose!

The Gaelic League re-launched its anti-jazz campaign in 1934. Fr. Peter Conefrey, the parish priest of Cloone came to national prominence as one of the leaders of the Anti-Jazz Campaign. Before long the campaign had grown into a national frenzy with Mohill at the epicentre. To have an alternative opinion was to be considered ‘anti-Gaelic’ and ‘un-Irish’.

Leitrim County Council adopted a resolution condemning jazz and all-night dancing. From the benches of local Courts District Justices took up the refrain talking of the dangers of ‘Nxxxxr music’ and the orgy of unrestricted all-night dances’.

In January 1934 a large demonstration took place in Mohill, County Leitrim. It was made up mostly of young people and the press estimated the attendance at 3,000, with five bands and banners inscribed with ‘DOWN WITH JAZZ’ and ‘OUT WITH PAGANISM’. Support came from church and state. A meeting was then held at the Canon Donohoe Hall organised and chaired by Canon Masterson the local Parish Priest. A letter from Cardinal McRory was read out:

‘I heartily wish success to the Co. Leitrim executive of the Gaelic League in its campaign against all night jazz dancing. I know nothing about jazz dancing except that I understand that they are suggestive and demoralising: but jazz apart, all night dances are objectionable on many grounds and in country districts and small towns are a fruitful source of scandal and ruin, spiritual and temporal. To how many poor innocent young girls have they not been an occasion of irreparable disgrace and lifelong sorrow?

The campaign was given official state blessing in a letter from Eamonn de Valera:

‘I sincerely hope that the efforts of Conradh na Gaeilge in your county to restore will be successful, and within the reasonable hours which have always been associated with Irish entertainment’.

Douglas Hyde also sent a message of support to the meeting and he hoped in future that all dances and games should be Irish. The Secretary of the Gaelic League Sean O’Ceallaigh condemned the Minister for Finance, Sean McEntee;

‘Our Minister of Finance has a soul buried in jazz and is selling the musical soul of the nation for the dividends of sponsored jazz programmes. He is jazzing every night of the week’.  A voice from the floor shouted, ‘Put him (MacEntee) out.’ To which Ó Ceallaigh replied, ‘Well I did not help to put him in,’ and added,

As far as nationality is concerned, the Minister for Finance knows nothing about it.  He is a man who will kill nationality, if nationality is to be killed in this country.

This prompted the local Fianna Fáil TD, Ben Maguire, to defend his party colleague.  He agreed that the broadcasting was not as national as it should be but he declared that if the minister was to be attacked personally he would take up the challenge on his behalf.  He added, ‘I hope it will not pass unanswered and that the minister will be given the opportunity of defending himself.’

 Fr. Conefrey then got up to speak. He declared that jazz was a greater danger to the Irish people than drunkenness and landlordism and concerted action by church and state was required. Jazz, Fr. Conefrey advised the gathering, emanated from “the savages of Africa” and had been brought to Ireland by “the anti-God society, with the object of destroying morals and religion.” He called on the government to circularise Garda barracks to forbid the organisation of jazz dances and to compel dance halls to shut at 11 pm.  He also called for the training of young teachers in Irish music and dancing. The meeting in Mohill was the high point of the anti-jazz campaign and it was covered by all the major newspapers and further afield.

Fr. McCormack from Granard, Co. Longford, informed the meeting that GAA clubs were some of the worst offenders for organising jazz dances while Mr. B. Fay of the Ulster Council of the GAA called for legislation regulating the use of dance halls and excluding young people under the age of 16 from entering them.  He also warned that it was a sign of degradation to see young women smoking in public. Not surprisingly the meeting was then followed by a concert and Céilí in the hall.

On the 20th of January, the Leitrim Observer published a letter from ‘Lia Fáil and fellow Gaels.’  The writer advised the ‘Gaels of Breffini’ that,

‘we are with you in the fight against the imported slush. Keep out, we say the so – called music and songs of the Gall; his silly dances and filthy papers, too.  We can never be free until this is done’.

The piece went on to say,

‘Let the pagan Saxon be told that we Irish Catholics do not want and will not have the dances and the music that he has borrowed from the savages of the islands of the Pacific.  Let him keep them for the 30 million pagans he has at home.’

It was eventually decided that Dance Halls should be the subject of separate legislation. The Dance Halls Act of 1935 was passed without any debate in the Dail. The act was draconian and made it practically impossible to hold dances without the sanction of the trinity of clergy, police and judiciary. It marked the end of private dances in private homes which were popular up to that time. It also led to the closing of many privately owned Halls who could not compete with the many new Parish Halls that sprung up around the country. At last the Church and Conradh na Gaelige could rest content that one of its main proposals for legal control of personal morality had become the law of the land.


Leitrim Observer, 6th January 1934,

Leitrim Observer, 13th January 1934.

Leitrim Observer, 20th January 1934.

Leitrim Observer, 10th February 1934.