In the days leading up to Easter 1907, Toronto police fined poet John McDonagh $5 for selling his poem “The Prodigal’s Return (Written from Real Life)” to passers-by on downtown streets , saying he needed a permit.
McDonagh – recognized among citizens as the prison poet – was a literary figure of some renown in his day. During an appearance before a magistrate, he despised the idea of requiring a license to sell poetry to the public, paid the fine, and quickly returned to the streets and continued selling his wares.
On Easter Sunday, McDonagh used the proceeds from the sales to buy hot meals for 70 men seeking refuge at the King Street Mission. Police described McDonagh as a “fake” and queried his motive with a reporter. In McDonagh’s view, his life mirrored that of the prodigal son of the New Testament parable; McDonagh squandered his wealth on alcohol and as a result, like the men of the King Street Mission, experienced periodic homelessness. McDonagh replied, “I was the real thing in the prodigal line.”
A century before Dennis Lee was named Toronto’s first Poet Laureate in 2001, John McDonagh was the city’s self-proclaimed bard, composing poetry on local themes. The Milton Acorn of his time, he was known for his many rhyming poems, songs and obituaries. His poems on the sinking of the Titanic and the Empress of Ireland appeared in newspapers. McDonagh’s poetry was regularly featured in broadsheets across the province and in publications in the United States. Sales of his voluminous output generated enough revenue to sustain him as an active poet, but he remains unknown today.
John McDonagh was a complex character. Friends praised him for his caring disposition as he battled addiction and mental health issues. Life experiences shed light on his subject. At a time when temperance societies vigorously campaigned for strict control of alcohol consumption or outright abstinence, McDonagh’s poems warning of the dangers of alcohol were popular with the movement. One of McDonagh’s many verses in appear in temperance publications, “Who is man’s best friend, the rum seller or the dog?” laid bare McDonagh’s struggle with alcohol abuse.
The nickname “Jail Poet” originated after McDonagh wrote “The Man Behind the Wheelbarrow”, which was popular with the general public and the local convict population. Many repeat offenders could have recited stanzas from memory.
McDonagh was sentenced several times to the Langstaff Jail Farm north of the city, where convicts served short sentences doing farm work. Inspired by American songwriter Thomas Westendorf’s popular 1882 folk tune, “The Man Behind the Plow”, McDonagh described his incarceration for an alcohol-related offense and the appalling conditions he encountered. in Toronto detention centers and the prison farm.
There are no known photographs of McDonagh. His verses remain uncollected in book form. A Google search turns up empty. Individual poems are hard to find. Little is known of McDonagh’s life except for sporadic newspaper accounts.
Born into a large farming family in Everett, Ontario, north of Toronto, in 1861, he was the fourth of 10 children. Both parents were from County Silago, Ireland. Records indicate he was a painter and married Rose Manning in 1890 in Toronto.
The marriage does not seem to have lasted. No documents indicate that the couple had children. McDonagh appears to have occasionally lived in the home of his married sister, Annie Jenkisson, and her family on Crawford Avenue. He would have composed a poem every year on the occasion of Annie’s birthday.
McDonagh appears to have traveled frequently between Belleville, Peterborough, Toronto, and Hamilton, promoting his writings. Most popular among his poems – and according to newspapers his bestseller – was “Faithful Unto Death,” a verse praising the bravery of five firefighters who perished in the 1902 fire at the McIntosh Grain Warehouse. and Storage on Front Street in George St. Framed copies of “Faithful Unto Death” were reportedly displayed at fire stations across the city for decades after the tragedy.
A troubled life brought him into conflict with the law on numerous occasions. In April 1914, he faced a disorderly conduct charge after breaking into a hotel on Queen Street. He had been released on parole from his last visit to the Langstaff Jail Farm, interned in the establishment for public drunkenness. Considered mentally ill, he was sentenced by a judge to committal to the asylum at 999 Queen St. W.
Current Toronto Poet Laureate Al Moritz says he is unaware of John McDonagh or his work. Not surprising, given that McDonagh’s published works are hard to come by. The local library in the community where McDonagh grew up has no records of his writings. McDonagh does not appear in the Toronto Public Library catalog or in municipal or provincial archives.
From small samples of poems available, Moritz says of McDonagh: “He is good…in the vein of popular poetry and sentimental song of the day. »
Toronto’s sixth Poet Laureate, in office since 2020, wonders, “Perhaps the Poets Laureate program should do something to commemorate him and bring his memory to life?
John McDonagh spent the last days of his life as an asylum inmate at Queen West Institution. His death at age 57 was attributed to paresis. A May 10, 1917 Toronto Star tribute described McDonagh’s poetry thus; “The verses had a particular interest in Toronto and became popular”; it included excerpts from his work.
About his own death, McDonagh wrote the poem titled “Forgive me while I’m still alive”, including the lines, “A simple little word of praise / By lips we love now said / Worth ten a thousand praises / On a tombstone when we’re dead.
The forgotten Toronto prison poet is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery alongside his mother Christiana, brother Otto, sister Annie and family.
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