Richard Valentine Williams
Sarah Leech (1809 - 1830):
Sarah Leech was one of the so-called “Weaver Poets” writing in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; she was one of the few women among them and widely held as the most significant of these latter. She wrote in both standard English, and Ulster Scots.
She was born in Ballylennan in the parish of Taughboyne, near Raphoe in County Donegal. Her father Thomas was a linen weaver who died when Sarah was three years old, leaving Sarah her and her five siblings in straitened circumstances financially, so that the poet had only a rudimentary education, partly from her eldest sister; when she was six the unwilling girl she was sent, sometimes rather physically, to a local school, which she did not enjoy, and was apparently not at all unhappy when the establishment ceased trading, though in the three months she was in attendance she was noted to have made good progress, for example being able to read and understand chapters from the Bible. She became a keen reader, especially of “story books” and would keep her family distracted during long winter nights with relations from her reading. A neighbour, appreciating her talent, provided her with additional reading matter. At age 12, Sarah received some tutelage in writing, but this was discontinued due to the financial needs of the family which required her to spend her best hours at her skilfully operated spinning wheel, “an employment at which she is able to vie with any of her compeers” as the editor of her collection put it.
In the 1820s Leech suffered increasingly bad health, particularly a serious ocular affliction, then rheumatism which prevented her from continuing to supervise and teach children and restricted her mobility. For financial reasons she was obliged to return to spinning. An admirer arranged to have her work published as a revnue-raising project. Entitled “Poems On Various Subjects” it was published in 1828 just two years before her death.
The “various subjects” included range widely. There are reflections on nature: woodlarks, crickets, and a mouse killed during harvest time, this latter quite clearly echoing Robert “Rabbie” Burns’s “To A Mouse”. She describes her acceptance of (apparent) fate in the face of her own eye disease in “Resignation under Affliction”. She makes plain her political views on one of the great questions of the day in “The Brunswick Clubs”, a sort of rallying call to “British Protestants” against the politics of “Dan, MP” ( that is, Daniel O’Connell) – in fact the volume in its entirety carries this dedication: “To the President, Vice Presidents, and Committee, of the Brunswick Constitutional Club of Ireland, the following pages are most respectfully inscribed, by their devoted and very humble servant, the author.” The Brunswick Clubs, which were located throughout Ireland, were formed in 1828 to oppose Catholic Emancipation, that is, Catholics would no longer have to swear the Oath of Supremacy (of the Monarch as Head of the Church) in order to take seats in the Houses of Parliament. Brunswick was a reference to the then British ruling dynasty, usually referred to as the House of Hanover; their monarchs were in parallel German Dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneburg (English Brunswick).
There are some religious reflections – “Prepare To Meet Thy God”; “A Prayer”; “Lines On The Gospel”; but also one piece which deals with religion in a more immediate, worldly sense: in “Progress Of The Reformation” she eschews her usual four- or six-line stanzas in an attack on what she sees as the anti-Bible approach of the Catholic Church. In the area of history-and-politics, her “Epistle to the Editor of the Londonderry Journal” invokes the 1689 Siege of Derry; as an example, a stanza on Rev George Walker, a leader of the Protestant citizens who closed the city gates to Catholic King James II, reads:
Long may his noble statue stand,
And should the enemy demand
Submission, let his great command
Guide each defender,
And still the watch-word through the land
Be, “NO SURRENDER”
But she treats also with more universal human concerns, as in “The Parting Lovers”, “Evening Reflections” or even “On the Death of an Infant”. Nor does she ignore darker sides of the supernatural: “Willie Wabster and the Fairies” abounds with goblins, witches, banshees and “Nick’s “infernal crew” in the moonlight.
Sarah Leech of Raphoe, County Donegal, is one of the few female voices that contributed to the corpus of poetic work of the late 18th and 19th centuries, which is now referred to as the ‘Weaver Poet” tradition.
As a nineteen year old girl, she wrote poetry - much of it in Ulster-Scots - and her work is characterised by her enthusiasm for the events of the day and for the people and places that she encountered. Throughout her short life, she retained a passion for observing and recording the human condition - and her poetry contains personal reflections of the society that enclosed her.
Her work examines the torments of love, the world of the fairies, personal reflections and religious musings.
The ‘Leech’ style is recorded in a pen that generates a rhythm and pace that easily carries the reader from verse to verse and is remarkably accessible for those who are less familiar with the form of Scots traditionally spoken in Ulster.
Sarah Leech: Poems on Various Subjects (www. arts.ulster.ac.uk/ulsterscotspoetry); Stephen C. Behrendt: British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), p 256ff; Celine McGlynn & Dr Pauline Holland: Sarah Leech: The Ulster-Scots Poetess of Raphoe, County Donegal (Ulster Scots Agency, Northern Ireland, 2010)
© 2019 Ulster History Circle