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 passersby on downtown streets, contending he required a licence.
McDonagh — recognized among citizens as the Jail Poet — was a literary figure of some renown in his day. In a court appearance before a magistrate, he scorned the idea of requiring a licence to sell poetry to the public, paid the fine, and promptly returned to the streets and continued hawking his wares.
On Easter Sunday, McDonagh used profits from sales to purchase hot meals for 70 men seeking refuge at the King Street Mission. Police described McDonagh as a “fake” and questioned his motive to a newspaper reporter. In McDonagh’s view, his life reflected that of the Prodigal Son from the New Testament parable; McDonagh squandered his wealth on alcohol and as a result, like the men at the King Street Mission, experienced periodic homelessness. McDonagh replied, “I was the real thing in the prodigal line.”
A century before Dennis Lee was appointed Toronto’s first Poet Laureate in 2001, John McDonagh served as the city’s self-appointed bard, composing verses on local themes. The Milton Acorn of his day, he was known for numerous poems, songs and rhymed obituaries. His poems about the sinking of the Titanic and Empress of Ireland appeared in newspapers. McDonagh’s poetry was regularly featured in broadsheets throughout the province and in publications in the United States. Sales from his voluminous output generated enough income to support him as a working poet, yet he remains unknown today.
John McDonagh was a complex character. Friends lauded him for his caring disposition while he struggled with addiction and mental health issues. Life experiences informed his subject matter. At a time when temperance societies vigorously campaigned for strict control of alcohol consumption or outright abstinence, McDonagh’s poems warning of the perils of drink were popular with the movement. One of many McDonagh verses to 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 moniker “Jail Poet” came about after McDonagh penned “The Man Behind the Wheelbarrow,” popular with the general public and local convict population. Many repeat offenders could reportedly recite stanzas from memory.
McDonagh was sentenced repeatedly to the Langstaff Jail Farm north of the city, where convicts served brief sentences performing agricultural work. Inspired by American songwriter Thomas Westendorf’s popular 1882 folksy tune, “The Man Behind the Plow,” McDonagh described being incarcerated on an alcohol-related offence and the appalling conditions he encountered in Toronto detention facilities and the jail farm.
There are no known photographs of McDonagh. His verse remains uncollected in book form. A Google search turns up empty. Individual poems are hard to come by. Little is known of McDonagh’s life except for sporadic newspaper accounts.
Born into a large farming family in Everett, Ont., north of Toronto, in 1861, he was the fourth of 10 children. Both parents hailed from County Silago, Ireland. Records indicate he was a painter and married Rose Manning in 1890 in Toronto.
The marriage appears not to have lasted. No records indicate the couple had children. It appears McDonagh lived on and off in the home of his married sister, Annie Jenkisson, and her family on Crawford Avenue. He is said to have composed a poem every year on the occasion of Annie’s birthday.
McDonagh seems to have travelled frequently between Belleville, Peterborough, Toronto and Hamilton, promoting his writing. Most popular among his poems — and according to newspapers his bestseller — was “Faithful Unto Death,” a verse eulogizing the bravery of five firefighters who perished in the 1902 blaze at the McIntosh Grain and Storage Warehouse on Front Street at George St. Framed copies of “Faithful Unto Death” were reportedly displayed in firehouses citywide for decades following the tragedy.
A troubled life brought him into conflict with the legal system on numerous occasions. In April 1914, he faced a charge of disorderly conduct after forcing his way into a Queen Street hotel. He had been paroled from his latest stint at the Langstaff Jail Farm, committed to the facility for public drunkenness. Concluded to be mentally ill, he was sentenced by a judge to confinement in the asylum at 999 Queen St. W.
Toronto’s current poet laureate, Al Moritz, says he is not aware of John McDonagh or his work. Not surprising, considering McDonagh’s published works are challenging to find. The local library in the community where McDonagh grew up has no record of his writings. McDonagh does not appear in the Toronto Public Library catalogue or city or provincial archives.
From small samplings of poems available, Moritz says of McDonagh, “He’s good … in the popular poetry and sentimental song vein of the time.”
Toronto’s sixth Poet Laureate, in office since 2020, muses, “Maybe the poet laureate program ought to do something to memorialize him and bring his memory back alive?”
John McDonagh lived out the final days of his life as an asylum inmate at the Queen West facility. His death at 57 was attributed to paresis. A Toronto Star tribute from May 10, 1917, described McDonagh’s poetry this way; “Verses had special interest to Toronto and became popular”; it included snippets of his work.
On the topic of his own death McDonagh penned the poem titled “Forgive Me While I’m Yet Alive,” including the lines, “One simple little word of praise / By lips we love now said / Are worth ten thousand praises / On a tombstone when we’re dead.”
Toronto’s forgotten Jail Poet is interred at Mount Pleasant Cemetery beside his mother Christiana, brother Otto, sister Annie and her family.
Edward Brown is a Toronto-based writer. Visit his website at edbrownwriter.com