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The Village Schoolmaster

From The Deserted Village

By Oliver Goldsmith

Beside yon straggling fence, that skirts the way
With blossom'd furze unprofitably gay,
There, in his noisy mansion, skill'd to rule,
The village master taught his little school:
A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learnt to trace
The day’s disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laugh'd with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he;
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Convey'd the dismal tidings, when he frown'd:
Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault;
The village all declared how much he knew;
'Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e'en the story ran that he could gauge:
In arguing too, the parson own'd his skill,
For e'en though vanquish'd he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rusticks ranged around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.
But past is all his fame. The very spot
Where many a time he triumph'd is forgot.

The Deserted Village is one of the great epic poems in the English language.  Athlone is on the edge of the Goldsmith Country which takes in part of County Westmeath and part of County Longford.  While there has been much speculation as to whether the Deserted Village was written about an Irish village or an English village it is generally agreed that this wonderful sketch of “The Village Schoolmaster” was inspired by Thomas Byrne the man who taught Goldsmith in a small school-house in Lissoy when he was six years of age.  For two years Oliver Goldsmith listened with rapt attention to Tom Byrne’s stories of distant lands, raparees and fairies – Byrne we are told waxed lyrical in prose and poetry and it seems that Oliver inherited from him a love of stories, lore and verse which stood him in great stead as a writer.  Thomas Byrne was well educated and a former quartermaster in an Irish regiment, when he retired from active service he changed career and became a teacher.
The Deserted Village has appeared in many editions since it first appeared in print in 1770.  A most attractive recent edition was published by The Gallery Press carries in a introduction by Vona Groarke and illustrations by Blaise Drummond.  See for details.
Gearoid O’Brien.