The Wild Barnacle

By Billy Collins

Featured Art by Karolina Grabowska

“Do not speak, wild barnacle, passing over this mountain.”
                                                                     — Patrick Pearse

In a lullaby by the Irish poet Patrick Pearse,
a woman of the mountain begins
singing her baby to sleep
by asking Mary to kiss her baby’s mouth
and Christ to touch its cheek,
then she gets busy quieting the world around her.

All the gray mice must be still
as well as the moths fluttering
at the cottage window lit by the child’s golden head.

Then, amazing to me—
one summer night when I first read the poem—
she orders a wild barnacle, of all things,
not to speak as it passes over a mountain.

To me, a barnacle came with a shell,
lived underwater, and stayed put
after silently affixing itself to a rock,
but here in the hands of a poet,
the small creature was miraculously
endowed with the powers of speech and flight.

I could see it now on a mountain top,
its black shell shiny with salt water,
no more than two inches tall,
but dancing and riotous with joy and rage,
shouting the anthem of the barnacle,
loud enough to wake up
every sleeping baby in Connemara and beyond.

But of course, it is the barnacle goose
Pearse had in mind, I later found out,
common in the west of Ireland
and quite capable of flight with a honk
that could possibly wake up a baby.

For a while there, I had my own wild barnacle,
but the barnacle goose is fact,
and so is the fact that Patrick Pearse,
known as the schoolmaster,
was the one who proclaimed the independence of Ireland
from the steps of the General Post Office

and for his troubles was stood up
with the fourteen other insurrectionists—
save Connolly who was seated
due to a recently shattered ankle—

yes, was stood up against the fact of a wall,
in a courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin,
and executed by a British firing squad
in his final April in the terrible, beautiful year of 1916.


Billy Collins’s latest collection is Whale Day (Random House, 2020). He is a member of the American Academy of Academy of Arts and Letters.

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