The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage by Paul Durcan

Within ‘The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage’ Durcan crafts a simple story of love lost, using Patrick Pearse’s cottage as the setting, and a variety of images associated with darkness and light. The poem speaks on themes of love, separation and memory. 


Summary of The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage

‘The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage’ by Paul Durcan reflects on a speaker’s memories of the cottage and the girl who had the keys, Cáit Killann. 

In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by describing Cáit and telling the reader he met her when he was sixteen. She used to sit in the window of Pearse’s cottage, while he sat below in the field writing love poems to her. Their “world” was a “strange” one as it had no future. She departed for America and he was left with his poignant memories of her. 

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage

The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage’ by Paul Durcan is a six stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are examples of half-rhyme within the text. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “hills” and “walls” in lines one and three of the second stanza. Or, “smile” and “bright” in line two of the first stanza. 


Poetic Techniques in The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage

Within ‘The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage’ Durcan makes use of several poetic techniques that help to unify the lines and give the poem an increased sense of rhyme and rhythm. These include alliteration, enjambment, apostrophe and repetition. 

The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For example, Durcan reuses a variation of the title in lines three of the first stanza, and line four of the fifth. Another example can be seen through the repetition of the word “dark” and imagery associated with night/darkness. The first two lines of the poem speak on her aura and hair, then later on in the poem the speaker discusses her clothes in the same terms. Darkness emerges for the last line in the final stanza as an adjective used to describe the place the speaker is in: “Yet here in this dark…”

Another technique, one that is a kind of repetition all its own, is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “bare brown” in line three of the first stanza and the fourth line of the same stanza “Photographs of the passionate and pale Pearse”. 


Apostrophe and Enjambment

Apostrophe is an arrangement of words addressing someone who does not exist or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. The exclamation, which often utilized “Oh, is addressed as though that person can hear and understand the speaker’s words. This can be seen in the first line of the last stanza: “O Cáit Killann, O Cáit Killann”. She has long since gone, but the speaker is directing his words to her.

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines two and three of the second stanza and lines three and four of the sixth stanza. 


Analysis of The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage

Stanza One 

In the first stanza of ‘The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage’ the speaker starts a story of a girl he knew when he was “sixteen”. She was “dark,” a feature that’s contrasted with her bright smile. The word “dark,” and imagery associated with it, appears throughout the text. In this instance, it’s used to refer to her hair, perhaps her complexion, but certainly the atmosphere around her. 

With simple syntax and diction, the speaker explains that she was “the girl with the keys to Pearse’s Cottage” and that her name was Cáit Killann. The details are important to the speaker and provide the reader with the background information they need to understand the rest of the text. 


Stanza Two 

The “cottage” that Cáit has the keys to was “built into the side of a hill”. It was a simple place, but one of “cosmic peace”. When there, the speaker felt at ease with the world, despite the “bare brown rooms” and “whitewashed walls”. These lines make more sense, as does the last line of this stanza, when one understands the historical details around the cottage and who once lived there. 

It was owned by Patrick Pearse, an Irish teacher, poet and political activist. He was a leader of the Easter Rising in 1916. When the speaker visited there he could see photos of this man that had been placed on the wall. It was becoming a museum of sorts, as it is today. 


Stanza Three 

In the third stanza of ‘The Girl with the Keys to Pearse’s Cottage,’ the speaker recalls what it was like to be there in the past. He can remember the building material, “thatch,” and the “peeling jambs” or area around a doorway/window/fireplace. If one wanted to get the best view of the cottage, they should see it from “below in the field”. 

He looks back on this time and remembers how he used to “sit in the rushes” with his book and pencil and write love poems for Cáit Killann. His creation of poetry mirrors that of Patrick Pearse’s, who is considered to have written some of his works in the cottage. 


Stanza Four

The fourth stanza brings the reader back to Cáit and her interactions with the cottage. She used to sit on the window sill, lingering, looking outside. Her “brown legs” were “akimbo,” or haphazardly arranged. The speaker recalls how she used to wear a “red skirt” that reminded him of the sun and a “black blazer” that spoke of night and the moon. Here again is a reference to the dark, this time juxtaposed with one to light and daytime. As if amazed by the outside world, she looked out “wide-eyed”. 


Stanza Five 

The use of the word “strange” is explained in the first line of the fifth stanza. The speaker says that “Our world was strange because it had no future”. He is speaking about any world/relationship that might exist between Cáit and himself. She was leaving at the end of the summer, without choice, for America. 


Stanza Six 

The sixth stanza moves forward in time and is directed at Cáit. He mourns the fact that she had to go but is able to remember her to this day. When he thinks of the cottage and his past, he can see/feel her “dark” eyes “blaz[ing]” back at him. 

He speaks of her eyes as “El Greco”. This is a reference to a 14th/15th century Spanish painter who is known today for his dark, moody compositions. His compositions were mainly based around Christian religious imagery. In contrast to this, he refers to Cáit as having a “proudly mortal face”. It was defined by her background as the daughter of a postman from Connemara (a region in County Galway, Ireland). 

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