McGonagall suppers: from the stripper to the soup course

At the end of January, Scots celebrate their finest poetic son with a sheep’s stomach busting meal of haggis, neeps, nips and a dose of verse.

However, in the aftermath of the Burns supper season, there is another stalwart of the Celtic calendar that promises a good time. Only for this evening’s entertainment the focus is more on good food with dodgy poetry. This is the McGonagall Supper, which is to entertainment what Poundstretchers is to quality bespoke gifts.

Sir William Topaz McGongall is fondly remembered as “The World’s Best Bad Poet”, with some justification.

Born in Edinburgh in 1825 – a scant 29 years after Robert Burns’s death – he spent his childhood in Orkney, then Dundee where his father travelled to find work with his hand-loom. It was in Dundee at the age of 52 that he claims her heard a voice imploring him to “write, write”. Sadly for us, he did, writing such excruciating works as An Address to Shakespeare, which begins thus:

“Immortal! William Shakespeare, there’s none can you excel

You have drawn out your characters remarkably well.”

It’s a longish poem, but I’ll spare you the rest. Instead wonder at the talent behind another of his poems The Christmas Goose:

“Mr Smiggs was a gentleman

And he lived in London town:

His wife she was a good kind soul

And seldom known to frown.”

That’s quite enough of that. But it is for another poem that McGonagall is best remembered. On 28 December 1879 the Tay Bridge, heralded as an example of the excellence of Scottish engineering, collapsed. The train that was on the bridge at the time plunged into the Tay with a significant loss of life. This was a tragedy that rocked the nation. Today McGonagall’s commemorative poem still reminds of the event, but for all the wrong reasons:

“Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay

Alas! I am very sorry to say

That ninety-lives have been taken away

On the last Sabbath day of 1879

Which shall be remembered for a very long time.”

McGonagall was mocked even in his lifetime – often being pelted by rotten fruit during poetry readings – but his eccentricity has ensured he is remembered fondly by many. His poetry has been translated into many languages and is still read today.

And where Robert Burns has a serious evening of speeches and Scottish fayre, a McGonagall Supper is more light-hearted. These are, like the poet himself, eccentric, beginning at the end and ending at the start.

The main idea is to begin with the whisky, speeches and pudding, then move onto the main course before finishing up with the soup. Alex Gouick, chairman of the McGonagall Appreciation Society remembers one evening in particular where the night began with: “a stripper who put her clothes on”.

A strange evening, but, I’m sure you’ll agree, a fitting tribute to the World’s Worst Bad Poet.
And on that note, may I leave you with a verse and chorus from The Rattling Boy From Dublin? It’s a classic of the genre and you’re best reading it lying down with a wet towel round your head and a large dram in your hand:

“I’m a rattling boy from Dublin town

I courted a girl called biddy Brown

Her eyes they were as black as sloes

She had black hair and an aquiline nose

Whack fal de da, fal de darelido

Whack fal de da, fal de darelido

Whack fal de da, fal de darelido

Whack fal de da, fal de darelido”