Posted by: alexhickey | March 26, 2014

“Home is where we start from …” T.S. Eliot ©

Memory is a funny thing. You can be busily doing something and out of the blue springs a memory which causes you to pause and savour the moment, reflect and sometimes smile, then you carry on as before. This happened to me a few weeks ago. I was re-reading a book of one of Newfoundland’s foremost poets, Tom Dawe. In fact it was the title poem of his 1993 collection, In Hardy Country. As I read the first line of the second verse my friend John Burke immediately came to mind. My first reflective thought was, “St. Jacques is John’s Hardy Country.” I hadn’t considered that before despite a long friendship and shared interests among which are the people and events of St. Jacques.
The first two verses of Dawe’s poem In Hardy Country read as below:

For me it is no country overseas,

no Avon, Berkshire, Dorset,
no Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somerset,
no ancient temples, or mounds anymore,
no West Country nappe all manicured now
for a museum trade,
no classical Max Gate drawing-room
where Florence died.

For me, its those drawn outport people

In Bonfire Night,
the nip of a north wind, and mummers’
accordions rising on a moon …
As the fire expires,
the stranger in the kitchen
in spinning a story
about one of the last criminals
to be hanged
out through a courthouse window
For a crowd on Water Street …

A quote which John has used to establish himself to audiences is from T. S. Eliot’s second poem of the The Four Quartets, East Coker, particularly the first line of the last verse which is, “Home is where one starts from.” It is this quote which came to mind and triggered my observation that there is resonance between Tom Dawe’s poem and the works of Thomas Hardy in the life and writings of John Burke as amplified by this explicit sentiment of T. S. Eliot. Below is an excerpt from Eliot’s poem:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

Listen to Eliot read this poem by clicking here.

In an interview with Tom Dawe in 1994 after his collection was published, the MUN Gazette carried a review of the work and posed a question about the title, In Hardy Country, to which he said, “I used the allusion to Thomas Hardy because in his novels and poetry I recognized a lot of the people. He talked about things that were so familiar while growing up in the outport, like Bonfire Night, and Mummering.” These things were part of John’s growing up as well and shaped him as much as they did Hardy and Dawe. Hardy’s sixth novel, The Return of the Native, opens at the scene of a bonfire not unlike many John witnessed and contributed to during his years in St. Jacques.

This all begs the question of “Who is Thomas Hardy?” Hardy was an English poet and novelist who lived in the late 1800’s and set his works in a western part of England he referred to as Wessex. Today Wessex is commonly known as Hardy Country. The connection between Wessex and Newfoundland is one of migration and settlement from that part of England known as The West Country to the new world of Newfoundland. The Wessex Society of Newfoundland, founded by Memorial University Professor Otto Tucker, has this to say about that relationship:

Beginning in the early 17th century, immigrants from the West of England (mainly from Wessex) began to settle in Newfoundland. By the early 1800s they had founded numerous fishing villages and towns and comprised about 60 percent of the resident population. The Wessex component was the largest ethno-European group to settle Newfoundland and Labrador. Most of these immigrants (80-85%) originated in the counties of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset, with notable additions from the adjacent counties of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, and Cornwall. The main embarkation ports were Bristol (whence John Cabot sailed in 1497 to discover the ‘new founde land’ and its prolific cod stocks; and whence John Guy founded the first English colony in Canada at Cupids in 1610), and later Poole, Dartmouth, Teignmouth, Plymouth, and Topsham. By far the largest numbers sailed out of Poole … These place-origins were all part of the recruiting hinterlands of ports involved in the transatlantic migratory fishery and Newfoundland trade carried on from West of England ports for over three centuries.

This video will give you a sense of the countryside where Thomas Hardy lived in Wessex:

Another friend who has read most of Hardy’s works echoes Dawe’s comments, saying that reading Hardy is as though you are listening to people of your own heritage along the south coast of Newfoundland. Anyone who wishes to delve further into settlement patterns in Newfoundland should consult the work of Gordon Hancock in his book So longe as there comes noe women: Origins of English Settlement in Newfoundland.

John Burke was born in St. Jacques on September 21, 1937, the tenth of eleven children of Rita and Tony Burke. At age 13, he left the harbour when the family moved to St. John’s. While John has lived in many harbours since he left St. Jacques all those years ago, as he will tell you without hesitation, there really is only one home for him – St. Jacques.

John, a graduate of Memorial University and the University of Toronto, taught English in several Ontario High Schools between 1963 and 1995. After retirement from teaching, he worked as a Story-Teller and a Motivational Speaker where he drew on the richness of his childhood memories and gave examples of the courage, the steadfastness, resilience and humour of those who influenced him in his early years in St. Jacques. He has led numerous retreats and days of reflection with volunteer and professional groups, all the while drawing upon his “home” in St. Jacques.

john burke performing auts and uncles 1997

John Burke performing Aunts and Uncles, 1997

John returned to St. Jacques in 1997 to attend the South Coast Arts Festival and to present a dramatic presentation, “Aunts and Uncles” – a one-person tribute to those who enriched his life during his childhood years. John’s performance delighted the audience at the Community Centre which was filled near capacity.

John is also a published author whose early life experiences provided him motivation and substance for his writings. He drew upon reminiscences of his childhood for a series which appeared regularly in the Slice of Life column in the St. John’s, NL newspaper, The Telegram. You can get a sense of John Burke’s Hardy Country by reading this excerpt from The Hills of Home, part of a column published in The Telegram on February 11, 2004.

As in every harbour, every hill had a name, as did every path. Some rocks had names too. Three hills defined St. Jacques, the Bottle Hill, the Big Hill and the Winter House Hill. As children, we saw the Bottle Hill as friendly. To this day, from our side of the harbour, it resembles an extinct volcano. In mainland Canada, it would be called a mountain but Newfoundlanders are far more modest. It was simply a hill. The Bottle Hill was a friendly hill. That’s where the good giant lived, we believed. From its shaly peak, on a clear day, one could see straight across Fortune Bay. Because it was a friendly hill, we were allowed to climb up, rock by sedimentary rock, until we reached the summit. There it was customary to flail ones arms and yell, hoping your conquest might be observed by someone across the harbour. Fat chance of that, but try telling that to a 12-year-old boy.

The Big Hill is a mere hillock compared to the Bottle Hill. It is a gently sloping land formation down at the bottom of the harbour, anchored from time immemorial by the Anglican Church. Each autumn, the hill was dotted with berry pickers feasting on its abundance of partridge berries. On the upper reaches of the hill, where it levels off to marshland, pitcher plants and bakeapples grew in abundance.
“Stay clear of the Winter House Hill,” we were warned, “because that’s where the wicked witch lives.” The first snow of winter poured down over that hill. It is the smallest of all the three hills, yet it is the deadliest. I did not venture up the Winter House Hill during the 13 years I lived in St. Jacques. Returning home in the 1980s, fit and in my 40s, I decided I would climb all three hills in one day. In the morning, I scaled the Bottle Hill in jig time. The Big Hill was a piece of cake. But on the Winter House Hill, the wicked witch was awaiting me.

It was a glorious, sunny summer day. The tom-tits were singing in the trees below the hill. Camera in hand, I was about to finish my project, photographing the harbour South, East and West. The lush, marshy ground under my feet gave me the sensation of walking on a deep broadloom. Using the small supple saplings for support, I climbed to the crest, only a narrow rocky ledge. I teetered on the edge, fighting to maintain my balance. Suddenly, the warm, sunny breeze turned frighteningly chilly. I was convinced I heard the wicked witch’s cackle as I fought for my balance.

I could have fallen off the craggy perch, a drop of some 30 feet on the harbour side, or I could have gone tumbling in the mossy undergrowth until I ended up, God knows where, out in the Back Cove. What I was told at age four finally sank in at age 40, “Stay off the Winter House Hill.” I gingerly allowed the trusted saplings to guide me down safely at the side of the rocky ledge. As I cautiously descended to the safety of the moss below, I could still hear that menacing cackle of the wicked witch. I decided that day I would never again venture into her territory. I still do believe in witches and the value of childhood admonitions.

This then is John Burke’s Hardy Country – the hills, people and stories of the community which shaped him as a child and as a man. In turn, his collection of columns, stories and anecdotes centered on childhood experiences in St. Jacques assist the rest of us in knowing life as he knew it enabling us to see in our own lives similarities and nuances which like Thomas Hardy and Tom Dawe help us define for ourselves our own Hardy Country. Today when John reflects on his country, his inspiration and his fondest memories, like many of us Newfoundlanders, his mind takes him to St, Jacques and the hills of his home and like T. S. Eliot, many of us agree, home is where we start from.


  1. Reblogged this on Lavender Turquois.

  2. Hey Alex, thanks for this lovely piece on how we are all shaped by home, how that home is as much a “character” from our childhood as any who stepped forward from their gate and bid you “good-day”. You have inspired me to look further into Thomas Hardy (and Tom Dawe). I really appreciate your tribute to my Uncle John Burke … a True Son of St. Jacques! I climbed Bottle Hill in 1995 … I hope to visit the Wicked Witch of Winter House Hill before too long!
    Michael Coady
    Son of Carmelita Burke of St. Jacques

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