A Bardic Miscellany, ed Damian McManus and Eoghan Ó Raghallaigh, Department of Irish, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Trinity College, Dublin, 710 pp, €100 to institutions, €50 to individuals, ISBN: 978-0954688219
This is the richest collection of Irish poetry that has appeared in a very long time. A Bardic Miscellany contains no fewer than five hundred poems, most of them by accomplished poets. “The sheep of the woman who doesn’t have cows” do occur, but rarely (I borrow the phrase from the author of poem No 146).
The editors deserve the highest praise, and not least because they have taken a step towards ending the neglect of the work of Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa. About half the extant poems of this fascinating and brilliant poet had never been published until now. Even Beag mhaireas do mhacraidh Ghaoidheal, “The warrior Gaels are near-extinct” (an extraordinary poem that describes the living dead), had not yet appeared in print, apart from extracts. McManus and Ó Raghallaigh have ended this particular scandal, and that in itself is an achievement. All told, they include twenty-two previously unpublished poems attributed to Eochaidh, who is, I suppose, the star of the collection.
How accessible will this Miscellany be? In principle, much of it can be picked up clearly on those wavelengths where poetry is now mostly found: individual personal thoughts and experience, moods, relationships, crises. Of the love poems, the two outstanding examples are by an archbishop of Tuam, Maol Mhuire Ó hUigín. One is addressed to a young man called Eoghan, but the point is to warn this youth not to fall in love with a woman, as the poet has done. Eoghan, presumably a clerical student, needs to safeguard his peace of mind. “Don’t look,” is the message, “and if you find yourself looking, look away!” But as the poet goes on to describe the eye, the cheek, the lip that Eoghan may see if he looks, the calf, the instep, the foot, it is obvious that he cannot take his own advice. The misanthropy or misogyny which often comes into poems like this is absent.
There are several pieces which address in various ways the theme of poetic jealousy, where the poet has a constant patron who is meeting and rewarding other poets. The Connachtman Muiris Ó Maolchonaire remains imperturbably cheerful: roinnfead cách le cléir Banbha, “I will share everyone with the poets of Ireland!” It turns out that he means everyone minus one, because there’s a lord named Feilim Mac Dubhghaill whom he wishes to keep for himself. But Feilim is a magnet, and after “the departure of the Gaels” (presumably the Flight of the Earls in 1607) the poets of Ireland were bound to come “encroaching on this one man of mine”. I’ll be like everyone else, he says … So as to make himself stand out in the midst of everyone he launches into a striking praise-poem, a performance he feels is good enough to permit the conclusion:
teas a ghráidh mar ghrís am cheann I will not share with the poets again
ré dáimh a-rís ní roinnfeam. the warmth of his love, like a fire in my head!
Another poet begins with the high-flown sentiment ceilt na hoirbhire an annsa, “love means suppressing reproach”. But this dubious generalisation, so sharply contradicting the world’s experience, is only the start of a chain of reflections. Actually, the poet has by no means forgiven the patron do thréig mé ar ollamh eachtrann, “who left me for a poet from elsewhere”. He resents this “illicit love” with a “one-time man”. The final verses seethe with jealousy, and the poet even admits:
éadmhar a-tám na thimchol. I am jealous round him.
More humorous, but also more drastic, is the attitude of Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa. For three half-years together he has been separated from his patron Hugh Maguire, who has continued as ever to be “a Rome” for poets. Eochaidh compares him to a certain knight’s wife with whom all the soldiers of an invading army have had their pleasure, one after the other; finally the knight’s page returned to the woman’s house and said to her, “Since everyone else has had you, I’m going to have you too!” A mheirdreach, a Mhég Uidhir, Eochaidh says, “you slut, Maguire”: you are that woman and I am that page! – It would seem that within the terms of this relationship (sustained till his death in battle near Cork in 1600) Hugh Maguire must have been remarkably tolerant.
There are some old-fashioned human situations described in the Miscellany. For example, hearing a report that one’s patron has died in the distant city of Dublin; not knowing whether it is true or false; wondering when one will know for certain. A number of poems are addressed to men going overseas (which could never be assumed to be safe) to England or France on important political business, wishing them bon voyage, urging them to come home, welcoming them back: there are three each to Donough MacCarthy and Lucas Dillon, both of whom were important Catholic Royalist politicians during the 1640s. Some of these express strong political commitment. In one case, however, the poet is so caught up in his own troubles that he shows not the slightest interest in Lucas Dillon’s doings in London. What concerns him is that in Dillon’s absence some people are taking the opportunity to persecute and oppress him (creditors possibly, but these matters are purposely left vague). The poet would gladly go to meet Dillon in Dublin, but how should he know the date of his return? The misery, fear and expectancy in these self-centred verses are entirely convincing.
Very impressive too is Fear Feasa Ón Cháinte describing, or rather actively resolving, his not uncommon problem: an important person in his life has accused him of making friends with that person’s family enemies. On this account the person (his patron) had broken off all relations. Fear Feasa, who lived near Bandon, was a combative fellow, and in arguments with other poets he could be shrill and boastful (inviting the reminder, which the northerner Gofraidh Mac an Bhaird once gave him, that self-praise is no praise). But in his poetic letter addressed to his patron he keeps himself well in rein. It’s a superb example of the art of explaining oneself. The language throughout is direct and fairly simple, and yet it is framed in a complex metre where every line has a standard seven syllables with alliteration of non-particle words, each couplet has end-rhyme, and each closing couplet has double internal rhyme. For the sake of example:
I mbruigh ná i mbaile a mbíd sin In mansion or village where they are
slán mo chlos ann ná m’fhaicsin, no chance that I’ll be heard or seen,
i ló ná i n-oidhche, a ghruadh ghlan, by day or night (you clear-skinned cheek!),
choidhche am shuan ná am sheasamh. never, not sleeping and not walking round!
Occasionally too a powerful blast of sarcasm crosses the gap of centuries. Brian na Múrtha Ó Ruairc (executed in London in 1591) addressed the following to the chief of some cowardly Scots mercenaries:
A Mheic Dhubhghaill ghéirreannaigh MacDowell of the sharp lances,
ar nach frith baoghal basgaidh who ran no risk of ruin!
an bhuannacht do bheirmís-ne We were hiring you
do chionn tréigion an ghaisgidh to desert from the battle,
is go bhfuighmís Éireannaigh though we could have found Irishmen
do theithfeadh dhúinn i n-aisgidh. who’d flee for us for nothing.
The editors point out that many of the poems contain “delightful apologues”, that is stories to illustrate a moral or make a striking parallel. In the harder-edged poems too, where “delightful” might not be quite the right word, there are bold and ingenious comparisons which are breathtaking. An O’Neill is asked if he knows the fate of the bees: how multi-coloured cloth is spread out on a patch of flowery ground and sweet music played to entice them from their hives, so that men and women may plunder their honey; in just this way the Gaels are deceived by the English with feather quilts, golden goblets and silken cloaks, and in return they surrender the true wealth of their land. Or, they fall for the English lures as the salmon falls for the baited fish-hook.
In the tremendous agitational poem Cóir súil re seasamh Gaoidheal, “We may rightly expect the Gaels to make a stand!”, which I think was composed at the outbreak of the rebellion in 1641, Seán Mac Aodha Ó Domhnaill is told how the opening blow was struck in the crucial battle of the Roman Civil War (between the armies of Caesar and Pompey at Pharsalia in 48 BC):
Caesar and great Pompey, though confederates, were filled with hardness towards each other, openly wishing war.
The men of the world in general closed ranks under those two high kings full of hate (for who could stand aside from their ambition?)
Those two kings, intent on violence, came aggressively to the centre of a plain; their troops were in no mood to be lenient to any warrior, despite being men of the one city.
Reaching the battlefield, though, when each champion saw his counterpart, their personal ties overcame their courage, making it likely this would be a day of shame.
Taking up their battle gear, they waited a long time, forgiving no injuries and committing none: no arrow was shot or spear thrown.
A hero outstanding among both forces, who paid no heed to love or friendship, took it on himself to inflict a battle-wound, launching fury into their midst.
The warrior who flung the first spear was called Traisdínéis. He should be remembered eternally, the poet says, because by his manly act of aggression he brought the Civil War to its crisis. And you, he tells Ó Domhnaill,
you (no lover of the English!), you are another Traisdínéis who will throw the poisoned spear, through whose force the aliens will be expelled!
(The spear-thrower, one of Caesar’s officers, is called Crastinus in Roman sources and in the Irish translation of Lucan’s Civil War. Here his name is made more suggestive: for example Treis-di-(n)éis, “victory in his wake”, etc. No notice is taken of the anti-war attitudes expressed by Lucan, for whom Crastinus certainly deserved to be remembered, but only as the infamous wretch who precipitated a mutual slaughter of neighbours and kinsmen. The Irish poet presents him as a positive hero, as indeed other Roman sources do also.)
There’s a witty testament attributed to Thomas Dease, a mid-seventeenth century Bishop of Meath. He genuinely was a poet of sorts and the Miscellany includes two other pieces of his which I think are authentic, but this testament is the work of a political enemy. In the late 1640s Dease was the strongest Catholic supporter in the Irish Catholic hierarchy of James Butler, the Protestant Earl of Ormond, who was King Charles’s viceroy in Ireland. Equally, he was the strongest opponent of Archbishop Rinuccini, who opposed making any peace with Ormond which did not guarantee Catholic rights.
I believe the testament must have been written in July-August 1648, after the rumour had gone round that Dease was dead and before it turned out to be untrue (to Rinuccini’s great disappointment). At that time Charles was still king of England, though in dire straits. In Europe the Thirty Years’ War was not yet quite over; most recently the French and their Swedish Protestant allies had defeated the forces of the Emperor at the Battle of Zusmarshausen. Since the Empire was the leading anti-Protestant military force in Europe, the French were seen by many as false Catholics, traitors to the cause – quite like Thomas Dease. This explains the opening verse, which is addressed to James, that is Ormond:
Roinneas mo thiomna, a Shéamais, James, I have sorted out my will:
d’fhágbhas ag Séarlas Saxa, I’ve left England to Charles,
d’fhágbhas ag rígh na Fraince and to the King of France I’ve left
cead an t-Eimpir do bhasca. permission to crush the Emperor.
“Dease” goes on in this vein to bequeath misery and dispossession to the Gaels, their lands to the smart lawyers who write good English, famine to the monks, expulsion from all hospitable homes to the poets, and so on.
A short propaganda poem against the abuse of alcohol may be interesting for comparative purposes. On the whole, though, the didactic poems in this collection will not suit modern tastes. But perhaps some indulgence may be shown to Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa, advising a sick man on how to be healthy. The problem, he says, is your lifestyle. At first you were a herdsman and you ate crude basic food, but for some time now you’ve been a butler; you’ve had wine, beer and whiskey to drink, spiced birds to eat, and so on. However, the philosophers say that fine food doesn’t help to give people strong constitutions. Go back to what you changed from: drink only curds and whey; eat porridge for breakfast and porridge before going to bed; dress in rags and ignore the cold; don’t wear shoes. Expose yourself to the wet. Be prepared to walk through soaking grass and marshes the way herdsmen do. Give up your flock bed and sleep with the cows. For further exposure to the bracing cold you ought to go bare-bottomed: when you bend your knees the wind should go up the crack of your arse …
As the poem goes on and the “doctor’s” advice becomes more extreme and coarser, the sufferer will presumably gather that this “pupil of Galen” is pulling his leg and that what is really being said is somehow … lateral. But who were this poem’s intended audience? And how did they understand it – or not understand it as the case may be?
The Miscellany exists on many planes, and for some of them one doesn’t really need context. Which is to say, these poems can be taken on the level of “pure literature”. As regards some of the more elusive pieces of writing, for example Brian Mac Griallusa’s homage to a poet Dá mbeith m’énfháinne i nÉirinn, “If my one ring in Ireland be …”, that level is the most accessible. But there’s also a historical level, and it ought to be of interest to Irish historians.
These so-called bards (who were not bards and ought to be given their proper name of filidh, or simply referred to as poets) cannot be confined to “pure literature”. Their sphere of engagement was much too wide for that. They involved themselves in history, genealogy, war/politics, law, some areas of practical philosophy (including ethics and what would later be called psychology), religion, and more besides. Ranging through the length and breadth of the high Gaelic culture, they spoke to and for a civilisation which remains, so far, the most long-lasting, distinguished and successful of the known civilisations of Ireland.
Tuig a mhéd thuiges tusa, Brian Mac Griallusa says: understand all that (or: however much) you understand. – It’s like that with the filidh; they can’t really be forced upon anyone. If the editors’ tentative suggestion is right, that his poem is addressed to Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa, then Mac Griallusa was a contemporary of Francis Bacon. What would he have made of Bacon’s idea of forcing – actually, literally, torturing – the mind into sound thinking? For my own part, I would not press this filíocht upon anyone who can’t stand it. But I do not think much sense will be made of Irish history without taking its testimony into account.
Of the total of five hundred poems in the Miscellany, I estimate that there are over one hundred addressed to Irish lords in their capacity as lords, which were written in the first half of the seventeenth century. That period is crucial, because then the most ambitious attempts were being made to conduct a cultural revolution. (It was not only cultural, of course, far from it; but culture mattered, and it is what I propose to concentrate on here.)
An official project of making the Irish “civil”, that is English, was announced in Henry VIII’s time (“uniformity, concordance and familiarity in language, tongue, in manners, order and apparel, with those that be civil people”). However, it was not until seventy years later, in the time of King James, that the work showed promise. Sir John Davies, the Irish attorney general and the main organiser of the Ulster Plantation, boasted in 1612 that more had been done towards the complete subduing of Ireland in the nine years of James’s reign than in the four hundred years preceding. He predicted that within a generation the Irish would be in every way English, and there would no longer be any difference between England and Ireland except the Irish Sea.
Much still remained to be done. Even at the carefully composed Irish Parliament of 1613 there were noblemen who could not speak English, which was annoying. One of them was O’Molloy, lord of Fircall in Offaly. Relations were rather better with an offshoot of the O’Molloys of Fircall which had migrated to the region around the River Boyle in Roscommon. During the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603) the lord of this territory co-operated with the English, who knew him as “Captain Green” (English for Uaithne, his first name). He died when his son William was not old enough to succeed him, and the boy was apparently made a ward of court and taken to England. He received, we are told, a thorough English education. In due course he returned to Roscommon, bringing with him an English wife, Margery Clifford.
William was a sociable fellow who liked to give wine-feasts. And how could he have excluded such sociable men as the poets? One of his guests was Gofraidh Mac Briain Mac an Bhaird, resident in Ballymote, Co Sligo, but known over a wide area of Connacht-Ulster. He provides us with an answer to the question: how would one frame an “uncivil” poem for a man such as William? Like this:
Críoch gach ní dul re nádúir, Ultimately everything goes with nature
gnáthchúis ar a bhfuil finné, (the case is normal and attested to):
gach oige mar a hadhbhar, everything made is like its material,
gach adhmad mar a fírfhréimh. every wood like its true root.
Eóin an tsáile nó an uisge, Birds of the salt water,
i réidh mhaighe an uair ginter, when born on the level plain,
is éigin dóibh go dtairngid are in distress till they acquire
d’fhios na fairrge fa dheiredh. a knowledge of the sea at last.
Gach dúil allta da múintir In all wild creatures that are trained
i gcúirtibh le lucht aoibhnis, by pleasure-loving courtiers,
nadúir an aignidh fhíata the nature of the wild mind
brégaid iad-san ó dhaoinibh. will lure them away from people.
Duine da n-oiltí ar fásach, A human being raised in a wilderness,
athaidh i n-arus fhaolchon, or who spends time in a wolf’s den,
urusa a chur i gcaidreamh can easily be made sociable
tre nert an aignidh dhaonda. through the power of the human mind.
Mar théid gach ní re dúthchas, As everything goes with dúchas
a érla dluthchas druimfhiar, (soft curling hair of yours!),
a-tá nadúir mac Mileadh the nature of the Milesians
ar toighiocht thribh-si, a Uilliam. is coming through you, William!
Ar h’oileamhuin ghrinn Ghallda, With your thorough English training
a phlanda d’fhuil Cuinn cnisréidh, (plant from the stock of Cas!)
do nertuigh nadúir Ghaoidhiol, the Gaelic nature has gained strength,
léir da gach aoinfher eiséin. as every man may see.
This calm, reflective opening, this leisurely play of mind, would scarcely give anyone an impression of battle. And yet the poet is indeed joining battle with those waging the cultural revolution. William O’Molloy is a site of contention, a contested zone! A claim is being laid to him, or reaffirmed rather, and the Miscellany shows it being sustained and developed in a total of ten poems, seven of them by Gofraidh Mac an Bhaird.
The poets are calm, though their poems very often have disturbing suggestions, strange and deliberate dissonances; they praise O’Molloy’s lordship in Roscommon, though they often invite him to dream, to consider possible ambitions and nurture germs of discontent; they praise O’Molloy himself, though now and again there are warning signals or actual biting criticism conveyed through ironic praise. Communication is sustained, nothing is taken for granted, due attention is always given to the distinctive person, the distinctive situation. Some poems are quite short, for example that quoted above has just twelve verses plus trimmings. One should not overstrain the audience at the beginning. (Actually, William had insisted that he didn’t want poetry at all, but Gofraidh laughed this off: his host was playing “the fox in the habit”.)
There are two poems which are formally addressed to William’s young son Calvagh, but really they are directed at William. Nor did the poets forget the political wife: Margery Clifford seems to have entered into the spirirt of things, and always without exception in poems to William she is allotted her few verses. We also find Gofraidh wading into a local political controversy, uncompromisingly taking William’s side.
Do bheir do Dhia a dúlgas bunaidh, To God he does his basic duties,
do-bheir dá rígh conndas cert to his king he gives a just account…
and the poet has no sympathy for anyone who feels differently! William was a commissioner levying money for King Charles in Roscommon in 1626 and 1627. Not uncontroversially, one gathers: “If they come to William O’Molloy with a correct account, they all see for themselves that he has not kept even a fruit-tree branch on his own noble whim!” The poet sweeps aside such insinuations, making William a paragon of veracity: “Even if an enemy were spreading rumours, William would shun deceit in what he said: a champion of truth who could not say what he knew was a brazen lie.” Without knowing the details, it is clear that on issues such as this a poet would support his lord unflinchingly in public utterance. The English were watching out for disputes in Gaelic Ireland, ready to exploit them for their own ends. Chichester’s 1605 legislation, abolishing the legal subordination of traditional subjects to their lords, made it clear that dissensions were welcomed.
A somewhat more demanding poem, but still presented in a simplified style with nothing taken for granted, gives an introduction to O’Molloy genealogy: Crobhaing ochtair aicme Néill, “the race of Niall is an eight-fold cluster”. Gofraidh explains that the O’Molloys belong to the Uí Néill, that is descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages (d 405 AD, according to the Annals of the Four Masters). The Uí Néill are traced in eight lines of descent from eight particular heroes. All these lines can be grouped into two branches, the southern Uí Néill and the northern Uí Néill. Hitherto the southern branch has been more successful in terms of gaining the high kingship of Ireland, but both branches ought to be celebrated.
Now the nature of the Uí Néill was to be ascendant over all others. If they were merely like all others, for them that equalled decline, degeneration, decay! The southern Uí Néill, “to whom all used to bow”, have indeed faded, but a spark of renewal is stirring in them now. Not too suddenly, in the sixteenth verse, we learn that the spark is … William O’Molloy!
Four verses of rhapsodic praise bring the poet to the point where he can daringly call William righbhile, “royal tree” (or “prince”) of Cruacha. But isn’t Cruacha in Roscommon a long way from the pivotal parts of Ireland, where a hero of the Uí Néill should properly be?
Síodhaidhe Búille braise, Charmer of the rapid Boyle,
meanmarc Bóinne braonghlaise darling of the bluegrey Boyne …
Currently William might call himself lord of the one, but something is calling him to be lord of the other. (Does he have the courage? – Through his courage, the next verse says, “darkness lifts from his forebears’ fortune”.)
Da mestaoi a ráinic roimhe If we think how many before him
go réimhes na ríoghraidhe attained to royal authority
dáibh a-nunnana go Niall, all the way back to Niall,
ní náir urrama Uilliam. homage to William is no shame!
But how does he happen to be in Roscommon after all? Gofraidh explains that “the wings of Fircall”, that is of the main body of the O’Molloys currently in Offaly, stretch to Connacht “for the present time”:
A-dertaoi go ndeachaidh dhó Fiacha’s descendant, one would say,
ua Fiacha is fál re h-iarghnó, inherited a hedge against misery,
a chuid do mhín Muighe h-Aoi, his part of the smooth plain of Connacht,
mín an moighe dá mesdaoi. if the smoothness of the plain were considered
… on which final line some glosses might be made by those who have lived in that boggy country. But there’s something else we mustn’t forget, which is that the word fál means “hedge” and the word Fál means “Ireland”: even disregarding the backhandedness of the compliment fál re h-iarghnó, “a hedge against misery/grief”, how was the mind to be quite secured against the more than subliminal suggestion of Fáil re h-iarghnó, “with Ireland’s grief”, that is, that it was anything but good for Ireland that her best Molloy should be out in the back of beyond?
Such as it was, though, what was William doing in his territory?
Súaithnidh um gach slios don Bhúill Plainly, on each flank of the Boyle, one hears
torann fhorba an duinn dreachúir… the sound of the fresh-faced hero cutting …
So then, William had caught the improving bug from the New English and was busy with cutting and slashing, or “clearance”? … Something still had to be said for Connacht. However, the lovely line saor an learg lér léig a ucht, “noble is the plain where he laid his breast”, is closely followed by the metaphor frostalach ba faighin gráidh, “it was a vagina at service for love” – which really does seem distinctly to suggest, with its echoes of bean freastail, “servingwoman”, that the pleasant plain of Cruacha was something less than a bride!
But here the poem shifts again, and sharply. There are examples, Gofraidh says, of heroes who originally only had power in peripheral territories. Fiacha, son of Niall, had begun in Uisneach. Only later did he seize Meath, “his heart’s first desire”. Going swiftly over some of the beautiful, magical place-names associated with that conquest, Gofraidh declares that William, son of Uaithne, is the heir of the ancient race, just as Fiacha was in his time. And one supposes that (but it’s just supposing) … supposing that Ireland today were as Ireland was in the past … then his neighbours would not dare to attack William, because he would have the spirit and ability to chastise them!
Whatever did Gofraidh Mac an Bhaird mean by that? Was something illegal being suggested? The first line at least of the final verse might have given reassurance on that score:
Coimédach ar chert ndlighidh, Conservative of legal right,
cennairgthech re coillígibh… who leads the attack on malefactors …
The poem carries intimate echoes, charged allusions. One feels them hovering, somewhere beyond one’s grasp. It is possible that displaced people or wandering bands of one-time warriors were still moving about in Connacht when William returned there, and that he had clashed with them and driven them off. Or it may be that someone among the O’Molloys had attempted a leadership challenge and had done enough to be called a “malefactor”.
However, the idea of “conserving legal right” evoked quite different associations. If one asks who was most likely to challenge the legal right of a Connacht landowner in the times of Kings James and Charles, there can be no doubt about the answer. The most likely source of a threat to the lord’s title was the state. Even before the arrival in 1633 of the Earl of Strafford, who would make a determined move to confiscate about half the land of Connacht from its Papist owners and plant it, there was talk of a Connacht plantation. (From a State Paper writer in Connacht: “There is talk of a plantation here, which I regret. It causes more fear than the Spaniards.” Dated February 1st, 1626. William O’Molloy, mentioned in the same despatch, was by then an established landowner.)
The Miscellany’s editor Damian McManus has pointed out elsewhere that the praise of lords “had more to do with legitimacy than flattery”. We must also remember that legitimacy did not mean divine right. In Ireland legitimacy could be competed for; it might have to be proved, it might need to be earned. In fact, the lord was expected to earn it in some measure. Praise was given, as it were, on credit, but on some level the lord should live up to these stirring descriptions. And since lords didn’t always do so, much else comes into the poetry that is ambiguous, jolting, disturbing, or openly mocking and biting.
In general, since the days of Eugene O’Curry no one has taken these poets seriously enough. Nowadays it is sometimes even suggested that their poetry had nothing to do with life and did not affect life, an odd idea which may owe something to analogy with our own times. Famously, we live after “the disenchantment of the world”. But in his time Francis Bacon, England’s pioneering disenchanter, was forced to acknowledge that poetry had a strong position in culture, though he rather despised it. Poetry was pleasant and presented things as they should be rather than as they were, and so “it hath had access and estimation in rude times and barbarous regions, where other learning stood excluded”. Bacon wanted to separate it sharply from scientific reason, and he warned his followers that “it is not good to stay too long in the theatre”. Nonetheless, poetry was a powerful spontaneous force in thought (“being as a plant that cometh of the lust of the earth, without a formal seed, it hath sprung up and spread abroad more than any kind”) and there was enough and to spare of it (“I can report no deficience”). In Bacon’s England the state did not consider poetry irrelevant to policy, and poets who said the wrong thing might spend time in prison or have their ears cropped. And that was only England; in Ireland the force of poetry was of a higher magnitude.
The filidh had a primary role in the cultural and moral formation of the lords. Calculating the odds on the high ambitions they encouraged is beside the point. Where Tara and the Boyne were concerned, a lord such as William O’Molloy might not fulfil his dreams; in all probability he would not (though as proved, say, by Brian Boru, there was never certainty). In concrete cases a particular lord, for example David Roche of Fermoy in a Miscellany poem, might be praised for fixing all his attention on his own lordship and not bothering with the territories round him. Nor do the poets pretend that ruling Ireland means endless pleasure, when in fact it would bring unlimited trouble and care: Díol fuatha flaitheas Éireann, “the sovereignty of Ireland is detestable,” a poem by Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa begins. In general, though, a lord ought to dream, and he ought to be changed by his dreaming.
Gofraidh Mac an Bhaird, when composing for William O’Molloy, is civil, sociable, spirited, mainly sanguine, often warm, as a poet should be. But the warmth stays within limits. He never adopts the tone of close intimacy that we find, say, in a poem of his to Tadhg Mac Diarmada of Sligo. There are limits too on the level of poetic difficulty. Where William O’Molloy was concerned, it may be that the old poetic families of Connacht thought the advanced work should be theirs. Anyhow, it was they who performed it.
Muiris Mac Briain Óig Uí Mhaoilchonaire provided a full-dress genealogical poem where William’s ancestry was traced back, step by step, in thirty stages to Fiacha, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Tomás Ó hUigín made one of those concentrated, strenuous philosophical poems aimed at impressing upon the lord that mere passive drifting or fatalism was impermissible for him, nor could he put too much reliance upon his inherited good name. Nobility must be lived. The nobleman must prove himself. Ní taidhbhse gan toirt an rath, “prosperity is not a shade without substance”: that first line presents the key theme. One’s efforts do matter: “Steering true fortune, ruling each territory wisely, suppressing weakness irreproachably – that is the way to attain prosperity.”
To have a good name is not enough, one must “bathe it in noble blood”. William, we are told, has done that, overcoming all difficulties:
d’uaim chríoch a fhréimhe reimhe, welding his ancestral land
d’fhéile, d’fhíoch, is d’fhoisdine. with liberality, fierceness and gravity.
Finally, Maol Mhuire Ó hUigín (not the archbishop, but a younger namesake) gave William the accolade of a poem in the horrendously difficult form called droighneach, “thorny metre”. Here also the main idea is that nobility is a challenge and the nobleman must prove himself by his noble conduct (oirbheart). So exacting is nobility, “it is almost death to endure the wounds that she gives / by her customary right to the perils of keenest fire”. She is like a wild and unruly horse: “The first part of his policy for protecting his good name / is to battle her with the reins: this every lord must do first, / so that in time he may shift her from stubborn strength to submission; / the day noble conduct is with him, he will be capable.”
The leaping, plunging, extravagant metre of droighneach, with three internal rhymes in each distich, one of them trisyllabic, and trisyllabic end-rhyme, exemplifies a difficult control. As the fully-trained poet can stay mounted on this fearsome Pegasus, so the mentally fit and equipped lord can cope with the strenuous challenge of noble life. Not everyone passes the test: this point is sufficiently made in the first five verses, and thereafter William can be praised as nobility incarnate.
Besides the ten poems to William O’Molloy, the Miscellany has eight poems to his near neighbour Lucas Dillon (member of the Irish Parliament for Roscommon in 1634 and 1640, and as mentioned already, an important Ormondite politician in the crisis of the 1640s), with several others to his father, uncles, brothers and wife. There are also some poems to Feilim Mac Dubhghaill, another nobleman of the county. Roscommon, no doubt, was one of the more auspicious places for poetry. But the Miscellany gives us a picture of poetry still, in the first half of the seventeenth century, being produced all over Ireland: for the Butlers of Ormond, the East Cork Barrys, the mid-Cork Roches, the West Cork, mid-Cork and Kerry MacCarthys, the O’Sullivans of West Cork, some surviving FitzGeralds, the O’Briens and MacNamaras of Clare, the O’Farrells of Longford, then all through Connacht and South Ulster from Fermanagh to South Down, the O’Neills of Tyrone, the O’Neills of the Fews in Armagh, the MacDonnells of Antrim, the MacSwineys, O’Dohertys and O’Donnells of Donegal.
Leinster and North Munster are thinly represented in the Miscellany, but from other sources (the poems of Pádraigín Haicéad, Seathrún Céitinn and Brian Mac Giollapádraig; the Book of the O’Byrnes) we know that poetry existed in these regions too. For good measure we can throw in the area of North Down and South Antrim held by the O’Neills of Clandeboye, whose leading man from 1617 onwards, Sir Henry, was targeted by some of the finest poets in Ireland.
What this means is that all over Ireland noblemen were being encouraged to think of themselves as their forbears had thought of themselves for many centuries: as princes, from an immensely long royal bloodline; as descendants of heroes, who might yet become heroes themselves. These poems are documents of a spiritual resistance.
I do not mean that the poets explicitly preached rebellion. Until 1641 they did not. From about the time of the Ulster Plantation there was a thirty-year period when the advocacy of rebellion would have been suicidal for oneself and futile politically. Even to speak more guardedly might expose a poet to danger. There are moments when poets such as Muiris Mac Dáibhí Dhuibh Mac Gearailt and Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh tell us: I would say more if I wasn’t afraid to. Hugh Ward, architect of the Louvain Franciscan project for the preservation of Irish history and antiquities, writing about 1630, says that Ó Gnímh’s poem Mo thruaighe mar táid Gaoidhil might have cost him his life. We should not doubt his words.
In his long poem Mór idir na haimsearaibh (“How different are the ages!”) and in his masterpiece Pairliment Chloinne Tomáis, Mac Gearailt takes on the grim task of describing the new order at length. And there are a few others one could mention, such as Flann Mac Craith, author of Iomdha éagnach ar Éirinn (“Ireland has many woes”) where we find the breathtaking lines:
síorchumhdhach reacht gan riaghail, ever maintaining lawless power,
nós nuaidhe gach aoinbhliadhain new values every year …
a lightning flash: the poets’ deepest insight into the principles of the new order! – It was very hard to see. After all, it is only in the last few decades that people have begun to find positive ways of saying nós nuaidhe gach aoinbhliadhain. (The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, writing his Eurotaoismus in the 1980s, declared that “kinetics is the ethics of modernity”; for a very long time, he said, modern culture had concealed from itself the fact that movement had got into the heart of ethics, but the secret was out now.)
Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh also has insights of great depth. His concern is not so much what the new order is doing as what may be happening to the old. Ó Gnímh understands that the attempt to make Ireland British could succeed; “a new England called Ireland” is a possibility. He composed a series of matchless poems on the state of his country, including Mo thruaighe mar táid Gaoidhil, one of the greatest poems ever written in Ireland (and Beannacht ar anmain Éireann might compete for a further place). We might call them laments, but they also have that other element which Hugh Ward was thinking of when he said that Ó Gnímh had risked being killed by the English. “Mournful but majestic” was TF O’Rahilly’s description of Mo thruaighe mar táid Gaoidhil. I would say “mournful, majestic, wrathful”. It is the classic poem of spiritual resistance.
It can be shown that in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this much was understood: Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh is a great poet of spiritual resistance. Only in the late twentieth century was he made out to be a “pragmatist”, a voice of resignation and passivity, a man making his terms, by some writers of the then current trend. A writer of higher calibre, Breandán Ó Buachalla, unfortunately adopted these judgements, since he wished to discover the birth of Gaelic modernity, or some such pleasant thing, in the reigns of Kings James and Charles.
Atá brat ciach ós a gcionn There’s a shroud of mist overhead
mhúchas glóir Ghaoidheal Éireann that quenches the glory of the Gaels …
Ó Buachalla wanted to sweep all that aside. When it was said that Ó Gnímh, in poems for the highly conformist Sir Henry O’Neill, had expressed his own personal conformism, Ó Buachalla was happy to agree, and he added on his own account that these poems were suairc, “cheerful”. I cannot imagine how anyone who had actually read the poems (as opposed to reading the hasty brief summaries which their editor Tadhg Ó Donnchadha attached to them) could think so. They are not cheerful: they are full of sombre reflection and recollection, shadows and dissonances in language and thought, and more or less subtle, more or less open disturbance. They are “high disturbance poems”. Ó Gnímh wishes if at all possible to unsettle this rich and rather timid lawyer, to stir the blood of the O’Neills in him. In one of these poems, written when the patron was young and might have been impressionable, he barely stops short of saying outright that the soft and cosseted Sir Henry who currently exists is a scandal to the O’Neills, that if ever he compares himself to his manly, soldierly ancestors he should burn with shame.
Many other poems express sorrow and anger at the state of the country, but even in this black period the typical poem, as exemplified by the Miscellany, remains focused on positive things. But this also is poetry of spiritual resistance. Promoting, maintaining, a culture of nobility that was independent of England: this was not preaching rebellion in so many words, but it was sowing seeds for a new rebellion, seeds that would bear fruit.
That much was understood by a German adventurer, Matthew de Renzi. Having bankrupted himself in England, he came to Ireland in the early 1600s and settled in Laois. He set about learning Irish and in due course, wanting to make acquaintance with the most advanced materials, he became a student with the Mac Bruaideadha poets of Thomond. This was a natural choice, because no poet could have been more pro-English or pro-colonist than Tadhg Mac Bruaideadha. In a poem calling on Donough O’Brien, Fourth Earl of Thomond, to put down the rebellion by Hugh O’Neill’s local allies in 1598 and giving advice on how to do it (some should be hanged, others imprisoned, and still others driven into exile, but the majority, once they showed humility and contrition, should be received back into favour) Tadhg is unambiguously a friend of the English in Ireland and an enemy of their enemies.
We can assume that Tadhg was gracious and took pains to make de Renzi feel at ease. However, the impression made on the German by the culture of filíocht was quite different. He offered the fruits of his studies to high officials of the Dublin administration in a series of letters written in 1613-1620. The culture of Milesian lordship, he said, and the chroniclers who maintained it, were a cancer that had to be cut out, because otherwise the lords “will ever be plotting to come again which their antecessors had, and to disturb and subvert the conquest. Therefore fit it were that the [books? – JM] were drowned as near as it were possible, whereby they might not know in time from whence they came.” The landholders should be reduced to tenants, assuming they could not simply be expelled; their poets and chroniclers should be forced to leave their profession and deliver up their books; and everyone should be forced to learn English. Until then the English governments had all been too soft and too careless, “which undid ever all the conquests what they made”.
Again, writing to the viceroy Sir Oliver St John in 1617, de Renzi warned that the Irish were dangerously clever. “To take their venom and shrewdness away there must be great heed taken to their chroniclers and poets, that they may not exercise their profession or teach the language to write or read it. For as long as that is current among them they will ever be shrewder and more subtler than the English that comes out of England; and especially such as can English, for their own mother’s tongue brings them to be naturally witty and crafty, which ours does not.”
De Renzi’s proposals for destroying Irish intelligence (the planners of parallel twentieth century projects scarcely put things more plainly) need not concern us here. The point is this: his sense of the dangers of filíocht was not unfounded. In Irish society, in Irish culture, there were still the materials of a great rebellion. We would do well to question the prejudice which sees John Davies (whose gifts I do not wish to deny) as the voice of irresistible force, and Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh as the voice of mere impotent defeat. – I think no great poet has ever been so misrepresented. One cannot help feeling that a country where Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh is not respected and admired is somehow … well, challenged. De Renzi would be delighted, if only he could make the journey forwards in time!
As for John Davies, personally he was some sort of a Christian, and he has a long poem, much admired by King James, about the fall of mankind and the fallenness that is constantly present in knowledge, education and science. But where Ireland is concerned he’s a pure Baconian, a maximiser of fruits. A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued is the great manifesto of English-Ireland, unflaggingly enthusiastic and not at all out of touch with the prime concerns of our present-day journalism. The Irish need to get involved in urban development (“The natives of Ireland never performed so good a work as to build a city”), acquire the ambition of leaving their children better off than they are themselves, expand production, extend trade, increase wealth, and raise the value of land (“The greatest part of the possessions [as well of the Irish as of the English] in Leinster, Conaght and Munster, are settled and secured since his majestie came to the crowne: whereby the hearts of the people are also settled, not only to live in peace, but raised and encouraged to build, to plant, to give better education to their children, and to improve the commodities of their lands; whereby the yearly value thereof is already encreased, double of that it was within these few years, and is like daily to rise higher, till it amount to the price of our land in England”).
In Pairliment Chloinne Tomáis (the story of a strange race of upstarts called Clan Thomas, whose history and genealogy are traced all the way back to Hell; they are busy, productive and enterprising, with ever-growing wealth and ambition, and the better to further their social aims they even hold parliaments; but essentially they are nasty and brutish, with a tendency to become incoherent and absurd) we get something like a micro-summary of the Discovery, when Cairbre Crom Ó Céirín urges his son-in-law:
A Chathail Chróin, gabh mo theagasg, Swarthy Cathal, receive my teaching:
cuir na meacain, cuir an eorna, plant the parsnips, plant the barley,
cuir as t’aigne do chuid fiabhruis, plant out of your mind the fever,
cuir líon, biatuis agus pónra. plant flax, beet and beans.
As an economist, Cairbre Crom has a lot to learn. He is not yet capable of saying: plant the parsnips, harvest them, sell them, and as part-payment on your loans give the money to the bank, which will give you a new loan to buy parsnips. But give him time, he’ll get there! He’s on the way.
The most positive thing about Cairbre Crom is that he has grasped the importance of motivation and focus: Clann Tomáis must get the fever out of their heads. But the Bardic Miscellany is full of fevered heads, and they scarcely seem to be curable. Praise is showered upon lords gan grádh do chrodh, “who did not love wealth” or nár char cumhgha, “who did not love parsimony”. There’s Tomás Óg Mág Uidhir ar a chradh nach caigealtach, “who has not saved his wealth”. And there’s Theobald Dillon: Ní h-é atá don mhuinnter-se / choigleas go críonna a mbeatha, “he’s not one of this crowd / who prudently save their income”. Of one MacSwiney it is said that he was not content to refuse even an illegitimate request. Of another the poet declares that it is no wonder the MacSwineys have no wealth, considering all he has spent (and here perhaps there might just possibly be a tinge of malice or mischief, this could even conceivably amount to a call for more restraint).
A typical term of praise was duaisréidh: Tadhg mac duaisréig Diamada, “Tadhg son of Diarmaid ready with rewards”. The benefits went to others too besides poets; some patrons are praised for supporting the poor and infirm. That hero of romance from Kerry, Piaras Feiritéir, was another fear caithmhe, “a spending man”. The less tight-fisted, the better. A poet might mischievously disturb his patron by beginning a line lámh dhúnta … “closed hand” … but then saving the situation, … dhoras ndeacra, “hand closing the doors of difficulty”. Of the prudent parsnip-sower there is no sign anywhere.
There were things more important than material wealth. The poets expounded the values at leisurely length, with as many variant repetitions as anyone could desire and plenty of illustration: parables, proverbs, metaphors and similes both brief and extended, historical and legendary likenesses, and so on. Sometimes they put the essentials in a quatrain. Muiris Ó Maolchonaire succinctly listed the virtues of Feilim Mac Dubhghaill: truth, generosity and steadfastness, honour, wisdom and shrewdness. And again, another quatrain from the same poem:
Cuid do thiodhlaigthibh Dé dho Among God’s gifts to him
búaidh ndealbha céille is crotha, are solid sense and handsome form,
búaidh ngaisgidh gan dermud damh, and I’m not forgetting courage:
nemhlag n-aistir an t-ughdar. a scholar strong enough for expeditions.
An Irish lord was expected to have courage, to be a military man. Clú a síth is céim a gcogadh, “good name in peace, success in war”: that was the ideal. Of course, circumstances varied and the poets’ commentaries were sensitive to context. In the 1570s Cormac Mac Finghín Mac Carthaigh, lord of the small territory of Glenachroim near Dunmanway, was killed and supplanted by his first cousin Cormac Donn. The English decided to take a hand here, and the killer was tried for murder, convicted, and executed. His territory was then declared forfeit to the queen. However, the lordship of Glenachroim was quietly taken over by Tadhg-an-Fhórsa, the killer’s younger brother. According to the MacCarthys’ historian he was not challenged, because at that point in time there was no alternative candidate.
Maith ráinig i dtreisi Tadhg, “Tadhg came to power well”, a poem to him begins. The poet then explains and tirelessly reiterates just how it was that Tadhg came to power: not with violence or fighting fury, not with a host of spearmen, not with the venom of sharp weapons, arbitrary excess or harsh answers, hot-headedness, ruin of his friends or betrayal of his word pledged in treaties. No, rather he achieved his lordship with an open heart free of malice, a prudent will, a desire for peace, and pleasant, smooth, fluent words. And actually that was the only way, because
Ní thiucfadh Tadhg an Fhórsa Tadhg an Fhórsa could not have come
i dtreisi na talmhan-so to power in this land
as a neart, cé tarrla teann, by his strength, though he was strong,
gan labhra ceart is cuingheall. without speaking of rights and obligations.
The good sense, the soundness of mind, moderation, circumspection, the approachable reasonableness that characterises Tadhg is further described and lauded, and the poet finds from somewhere the tale of the three sons of Cian Ó Cearbhaill: the two elder sons preferred to fight rather than discuss their father’s inheritance and each wounded the other fatally in battle, leaving the inheritance to their sensible younger brother who had vainly urged them to desist. After forty verses Domhnall Mac Taidhg Í Dhálaigh is still going: “It was by his pleasant cheerful spirit, or his laudable generosity, or not violating law, that he wisely attained his right.” Is he protesting too much? Or simply hammering home a point that does need to be hammered?
In a poem to Conchubhar Mac Diarmada (the Miscellany editors date it to the early seventeenth century, but I think it is pre-1600) Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa mentions his ability to endure hardship as a soldier:
Minic do síntí an taobh tais That smooth flank was often stretched
deireadh laoi láimh re Seaghais, at the end of day near the Boyle,
gan suanleaptha, gan craoibh gceoil, without bed for repose, or music of harps,
re taoibh fhuairsneachta an aitheoir. alongside the cold snow of the air.
The Gaelic Irish were famed for simple tastes and spartan hardness. Paolo Giovio, the Italian historian and polymath, praised them for it highly (Description of Britain, Scotland, Ireland and the Orcades, Venice 1548), while the comparatively ungenerous Francis Bacon told the Earl of Essex they were opponents to be taken very seriously. In his well-directed though wasted warning to Essex, Bacon suggested that God had arranged “this great defection”, that is O’Neill’s rebellion, so as to enable the complete subjection of Ireland. Within a few years that was indeed being undertaken. Particular care was taken to ensure that the strenuous disciplines practised by the Irish nobility were made impossible.
Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh has poignant descriptions of how young noblemen could no longer race their horses, go deer-hunting or hunt with hawk and hounds, practise athletics, shoot – and how in the depression resulting from all of this not a few of them fell into alcoholism. And here one begins to appreciate a further maxim of Cairbre Crom Ó Céirín, the strategist of Clann Tomáis: ná bí gan ionga i gcúl do chomharsan, “don’t be without a claw in your neighbour’s back!” On one level, of course, he is merely pointing to the need for competitive aggression. But actually, one of the best ways to get the claw in deeply was this: legally hamstrung as he was, watched, harassed, unable to live his traditional life, in his demoralised condition you could offer your neighbour money, enough to drown his sorrows with company and in style. The creative use of credit and mortgaging to ruin one’s neighbours was one of the brilliant successes of the new order. (Muiris Mac Gearailt was one of the victims.) “Mortgage in early 17th century Ireland”: this title of a book that no one, as far as I know, has yet written might seem less than inviting, yet it could be an interesting read …
Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa, who gives the most vivid description of all (Beag mhaireas do mhacraidh Ghaoidheal), portraying the Gaels as beings who have ceased to be themselves, as living death, but who never once in his forty verses mentions the cause of all this, the Gallsmacht or English rule, so that (in sharp contrast to Ó Gnímh’s poems) one may say that Eochaidh’s poem itself has death in it – Eochaidh has this memorable line among many:
Ní ceanglann reodh fáinne fuilt. A ring of frost no longer binds the hair.
We must, however, note de Renzi’s opinion (in a 1617 letter to the viceroy) that the Irish had not yet been softened enough. “To turn their minds also more from mischief and rebellion it shall be good to bring them all to the English habit and make them have chimneys and bedding in their houses, which will make their bodies tender and unapt to endure hardness, whereunto as yet they do frame themselves very much.”
Between the piercing laments of Ó Gnímh, which are at the same time ringing challenges, and the fierce denunciation by Donnchadh Mac An Chaoilfhiaclaigh of the reigns of Kings James and Charles, which sounds like one of the rumbles of the approaching rebellion – between these there is a body of poetry which necessarily touches in many and various ways on military affairs. We find much of it in the Miscellany. How that frustrated military potential was alluded to, expressed, glorified, recalled, provoked, might be the topic of an entire book in itself.
Topics not unrelated were addressed in a book which appeared last year: Endangered Masculinities in Irish Poetry 1540-1780 by Sarah MacKibben. Here we see how much may be found in these poets by a person who has an open enquiring mind. Indeed, a whole library of significant books could be written based mainly on the contents of the Miscellany, this handsome volume with its 701 pages of poetry, where there may be anything up to ninety-six lines on the page.
The editors’ achievement is magnificent. Nothing remotely like it has been done in recent times. I have only one significant criticism. Two tremendous poems of agitation composed at the outset of the 1641 rebellion by Gofraidh Óg Mac an Bhaird, plus two elegies which he later wrote for an officer who died at Benburb, have been excluded. The justification seems to be that they can be found in “accessible theses”! This is a deplorable omission, and to expiate their fault the editors need to produce a sequel.
But let’s keep to the positive points. There are two previously unpublished poems by Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh, which must count as a major literary event. One of them, though formally it’s unfinished, I would rank as the most important poem of the entire five hundred – a masterwork of spiritual resistance. It is addressed to Toirdhealbhach Ó Néill, grandson of Toirdhealbhach Luineach, Hugh O’Neill’s great local rival in Tyrone.
The grandson of Toirdhealbhach Luineach was a natural target of English policy. No one needed to explain the merits of “divide and rule” to a man like Arthur Chichester, who was viceroy of Ireland until 1616. He knew that Hugh O’Neill and the other exiled princes were planning to return, and they had the support of dynamic priests, led by Archbishop Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire, who were ever alert for an opportunity to bring Spain in on their side. It made sense to seek a working arrangement with the rival O’Neills on a local basis.
Toirdhealbhach (but here let’s give him his abbreviated State Paper name, Turlough) was underage in 1600, when his father Art died. He nonetheless sought out the English for alliance and was encouraged. When Cahir O’Doherty launched his rebellion in 1608, Turlough did useful service in helping to suppress it. In the Plantation he was given some land near Strabane, though by no means as much as he had hoped for. As one of the principal Gaelic allies he was also put on the pensions list. Unfortunately, it appears there was never enough money for the pension to be paid. Nor were the viceroys able to protect the allied Gaelic areas from bullying and extortion by rogue Protestant ministers: Chichester wrote to the lords of the King’s Council rather pathetically complaining about this, and mentioning that “Captain Turlough O’Neill” had come to him to protest. Up to the mid-1620s we find mentions of Turlough in the State Papers. It is said that he ought to be “cherished” and it would be good if money could be found for his pension.
The poet who addressed him, Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh, had originally served the MacDonnells of North Antrim. But from about 1610 the MacDonnell earl began bringing in dynamic Scottish colonists and settling them on substantial properties. In the early 1620s one of them moved in at Ballygalley, near Larne, the locality where the Ó Gnímh poets were based. Fear Flatha, as he explains in some beautiful verses, found the new atmosphere insupportable. He came southwards and found a stable position with Sir Henry O’Neill in Clandeboye, while also composing poems for other lords.
Turlough O’Neill’s family were renowned patrons of literature, and it is no surprise to find that the Miscellany contains two elegies for a son of his, Art. One of them is by Ó Gnímh. We might expect it to be strictly ceremonial, dutiful and harmless, but we would be wrong. One woman’s weeping, the poet begins, is a deluge that has darkened the bright day. The O’Neills will weep, the Tyronemen will weep, and
Gaoidhil Breagh, dá mbeidís ann The Gaels of Ireland, if they were there
they too would have wept! But tears are guaranteed, at any rate, from the Tyronemen: “For some time now there has been no merriment here in Tyrone; there is not one man who would not weep if a thorn were removed from his foot. Since so many of their people went East they have needed little cause to shed tears; deprived of their native land, thick showers fall from them in their distress. They weep for any little thing …”
This audacious reference to the Flight of the Earls and the devastating effects of plantation comes before he even mentions Art and commences his formal praises. And although when he does so the treatment is masterly, the poem never settles and calms into normal elegy. Disturbances occur, aftershocks. There is a sorrow in this poem which is not the ceremonial, commissioned sorrow; it sweeps through the poem and seizes this occasion of grief as its own. Not the least of the aftershocks comes in the second last verse:
Mór bhfáidhedh do formuid air Many voices stirred Art to resent
a theannchuid do thír Eoghain, his tightly-pressed part of Tyrone;
a-nois ca tarbha an tiomna, but what use now is the legacy?
tarla ar chrois na cinneamhna. He is on the cross of fate.
So much by way of introduction to the second and more important poem, addressed specifically to Turlough, A Thoirdhealbhaigh, túrn h’aigneadh, “Turlough, cast down your spirit”. Its powerfully charged language presents difficulties, and the sense of particular lines will be argued over for centuries to come. But these problems need not deter us; the glowing heart of the poem is plain to see. In the six opening verses the theme is launched. Identifying the keynote of the new order (humiliation), the poet makes a series of mock-recommendations, with devastating effect.
Here as elsewhere, I make no claim for my translations. Others will be better able to render the more explicit sense of these lines in English, but certain things must be lost inevitably. Giolla Brighde Ó hEodhasa (Eochaidh’s cousin), in the treatise he wrote on Irish poetry, defined it as comhrá múisiocdha, “musical speech”; Ó Gnímh’s music is not translatable. There is also the immense power in the Irish language of multiple suggestion (de Renzi had some sense of that, though a person on his mental level could think of it only as “craftiness”): that too must be lost. And the proud and high spirit of the poem cannot be adequately captured.
A Thoirdhealbhaigh, túrn h’aigneadh, Toirdhealbhach, cast down your spirit:
mór neach do-níodh neamhchaidreamh many a one who was unco-operative,
do mínigheadh fá mhúr mBreagh all around Ireland, has been tamed,
tar rún mhílidheadh Maisdean. leaving what Irish warriors hold dear.
Ní hiomdha ar ndul fá dhligheadh After submission to law, there are few
menma ard nár hísligheadh, high spirits not humiliated;
mór bhféinneadh ion nach bhfuil beadhg many’s the fighter without a throb of life,
do sguir dhá ndéinimh díbhearg. who has given up doing acts of outlawry.
Mó d’aithfear ort ná orthaibh To be humble to foreigners
fá bheith umhal d’eachtronnchaibh, is more disgrace to you than those:
a liachd ríoghdhamhna ag réir chniocht so many princes doing the will of knights,
’s a méin fhíorfhaghla ar n-imtheacht. and losing their desire to take just plunder!
Táinic sna tuilibh treamhaibh The wave of pride in ancestry
tonn úabhair ghég ngeinealaigh washed through you in the floods,
fá lár go léige cionta, and so you now give up your passions
lámh ar fhéige h’aigeanta. and blunt the keeness of your mind.
Ré caismert, ré cluithibh nGall, Thinking of battle-sign, pursuit of Englishmen,
ré seinm stoc, ré búain mbúabhall thinking of war-trumpet and bugle’s sound,
ré gáir slúaigh, ré slatadh ngreadh, thinking of army’s roar and horses lashed,
ná h-atadh h’úaill ré h’aigneadh. your spirit must not swell with haughty pride.
Ná léig cairte chláir Banbha, Do not read the charters of Ireland;
tír Eoghain bhur n-atharrdha, do not reflect that you have right
ná smúain gurab duit dleghair, to your native land Tyrone,
ná lúaidh ar chuid gcúigeadhaigh. say nothing of a province as your share!
These ideas are developed in further verses with many memorable lines. When describing the state of affairs Ó Gnímh cannot be accused of ambiguity:
Rug ar chách do choinnimh bárr Britons, Saxons, warriors of the old conquest,
Breatain Saxain slúagh senbhárr, have seized and held the best from all;
bheth an tan-sa nach nár dhuit at this time what a shame for you
ar asna do chlár Cormuic. to be one of the young lords of Ireland!
In particular, the poet fastens on the thought that Turlough has lost more than anyone else: the others lost only secondary territories, but he had the right to aspire to all of Ireland. And what precisely does he possess now? And who can he be compared to?
Fuilngis Poímp lá dona láibh There was a day when Pompey suffered
bhur gcumhgha at dtecht ón Teasáil, your distress, coming from Thessaly;
créd ná budh fúlngach clann Choinn why should Conn’s progeny not be in pain
cúmhghach an t-ann do fhuloing. when he suffered distress?
Rí dhá dtrían an bheatha bí He was king of two-thirds of the world;
cuirthear feacht n-aon an t-áirdrí, and once that high king was despatched
lucht churcháin mar nár chreidthe, – freight of a coracle: incredible! –
a hucht urchláir Afreicthe. right to the plains of Africa.
Fá díáirmhe ríamh reimhe Previously uncountable,
gus an úair-sin d’áiridhe until that very time,
ar slios tonn dá loinges lán was his laden fleet on the waves:
long dá nár choimhdes curchán. those ships were not like coracles!
Sgaoilid puible Phuimp máighe The tents of martial Pompey
úathadh dá aos comhmbáidhe, freed his followers from fear;
deibhlén ré a n-ais dá n-anadh, even an orphan, staying close to him,
neimhlén lais dá laghdachadh. would feel his bitter grief relieved.
Gá dtám dhó, ní dheachaidh leis What more to say? Of his whole fleet
a hinis Leisp dá loingis all that went with him from the isle of Lesbos,
acht curach tar mhóing mara over the maned sea, was a coracle,
ó chóim thulach dtalmhatta. from the bosom of that hilly land.
Dul a-rís aithrister air And again, in some one of his ships
a lúing éigin dá eathraibh it is said that he went to a place
d’áit caithmhe nár chubhaidh rí where his treatment was unfit for a king,
d’aithle an churaigh ad-chluintí. after the coracle of which you have heard.
Tug an cruth ’nar cuiredh Puimp The state that Pompey was reduced to then,
an úair-sin, as é a shubstaint, in substance it has offered an example
do lucht ínnmhe sómpla ó shin to people of prosperity ever since:
síghne dán cortha creidimh. a sign that credence should be given to!
A mhic Airt, ní hionann dáibh, Son of Art, you and he are not alike:
cé d’fhulang ar chlár curcháin, though he suffered on board a coracle,
is tú ar gcumhainge um chró mBreagh in your tight confinement within Ireland
mó ná a bhfulainge a bhfuilngeadh. your suffering comes to more than he suffered.
As é a bhfúarais d’iath Uisnigh But what you received in Ulster
samhuil cédna an churaidh-sin, is the very likeness of that champion,
ar an gcomha gcróinn na cheis on the round globe in his coracle,
go dola a loing an fhlaithis. after he left the ship of sovereignty.
(Perhaps Turlough would not have known what kind of treatment Pompey received in Africa; but the poets knew, having read Lucan. He was murdered.)
Another whiplash verse brings the poem to an end:
Do chóir féin gen go bhfúair sibh Though you have not received your right,
altaighid aicme Ghaoidhil the race of Gaels give thanks,
feadh do dhúalais díot do dhul even while what is yours is lost to you,
an t-íoc fhúarais ’na ionadh. for the payment you received instead of it.
And there the poem rests. There is something very close to the traditional dúnadh or closing, where the last sound in a poem repeated the first sound (A Thoirdealbhaigh … ionadh), close but not quite there. I would call this a suspended poem, of which I think there are many extant. Ó Gnímh was waiting. His poem could remain as it was, or it could be continued for another stage, or it might be concluded in one way or another. That depended on the lord. His response was expected, or anyhow it was being allowed for.
I have no idea how this tremendous moral confrontation was staged. Nor can I say anything about its results: if it drew a reaction, and whether and how the dialogue with Turlough developed. But the stern poem could be called “cherishing”, from the point of view of the old Irish civilisation. Its full claims were presented to the latest in the line of O’Neills, imperiously and without compromise.
If Ireland were to become the new England, then people like Turlough, compliant allies of the new order, had to lose the potential for being something else. And in fact they did not. The dream of John Davies was not destined so easily to come true. Remarkably, in Ó Mealláin’s war diary we encounter this same Toirdhealbhach Mac Airt Mhic Thoirdhealbhaigh Luinigh, unmistakably this man, as a colonel in the rebel forces in 1641.
Much else in the Miscellany merits attention. There are some examples of the combination of elegant verse and amusing chatter which was called crosántacht. For the three leading FitzGeralds involved in the Desmond Rising (two of whose heads were taken to decorate the Tower of London and Dublin Castle, while the third after death had his head cut off by his own followers and hidden to avoid such a fate) there is a striking elegy. There’s a poem which presents the most forceful statement I know in favour of Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill as sovereign of Ireland and identifies Piaras Feiritéir with this stance; there is also a poem which is part of the anti-Eoghan Ruadh campaign, though he isn’t mentioned by name. There are half a dozen successful examples of the impossible metre droighneach. And more besides; the wealth of this collection will not soon be exhausted.
This book is not expensive, although it is unique. Since there are not another five hundred unpublished poems in the manuscripts, but only (by the editors’ reckoning) about a hundred and fifty, it is safe to say that we will not see its like again.
Note on Sources:
This note is intended to help anyone who would like to take a closer look at some of the poems mentioned above. I have frequently quoted first lines, either independently (for example Beag mhaireas do mhacraidh Ghaoidheal) or when quoting the first verse (for example Mac an Bhaird’s poem to O’Molloy beginning Críoch gach ní dul re nádúir). These may be found in the Miscellany’s alphabetically arranged table of contents. For the following I give the number of the poem: Ó hUigín’s love poems, 202 (to Eoghan) and 23; Ó hEodhasa’s tale of the knight’s wife, 140; report of patron’s death, 125; voyage poems to Donough MacCarthy, 112, 168, 444 (the latter highly political) and Lucas Dillon, 165, 169, 221 (the latter highly personal); Ón Cháinte to patron, 350; O’Neill and the bees, 266; against alcohol abuse, 172; Ó hEodhasa as physician, 10; O’Molloy as royal tax-gatherer, 193; non-expansionist Roche, 106; Ó Maolchonaire’s genealogical poem, 186; Ó hUigín’s poem in droighneach, 496. – The “anti-saving” poems: gan grádh do chrodh, 85, 110; nár char cumhgha, 96, 358; ar a chradh nach caigealtach, 497; ní hé atá … , 60; MacSwiney who never refused, 37; MacSwiney who spent all, 250; Tadhg mac duaisréig Diarmada, 317; praised for supporting the poor, 56, 169, 193, 402; fer caithmhe, 66; lámh dhúnta … , 95. – Virtues of Mac Dubhghaill, 402; clú a síth … , 96; Ó hEodhasa to Mac Diarmada, 366; Ó Gnímh’s elegy for Art Ó Néill, 74; crosántacht, 242, 247, 461, 463; elegy for the FitzGeralds, 299; Eoghan Ruadh for king, 11; anti-Eoghan Ruadh, 444; droighneach, 495-500.
Here and there poems are mentioned which are not in the Miscellany. Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh’s two greatest poems are in Measgra Dánta II ed TF O’Rahilly. Ó Gnímh’s poems to Sir Henry O’Neill are in Leabhar Cloinne Aodha Buidhe ed. Tadhg Ó Donnchadha; the poem mentioned above, rebuking Sir Henry almost explicitly, begins Ní haineamh óige i bhflaithibh. Ó Gnímh’s verses on his migration are in Ná maith dhúinn t’fhiach, a Énrí in the same book. Iomdha éagnach ar Éirinn is in Dánta do chum Aonghus Fionn Ó Dálaigh ed Lambert MacKenna. Muiris Mac Dáibhí Dhuibh Mac Gearailt’s poem Mór idir na haimsearaibh (in Dánta Mhuiris Mhic Dháibhí Dhuibh Mhic Gearailt) and his Pairliment Chloinne Tomáis have been edited by Nicholas Williams.
John Minahane’s books include “The Christian Druids: on the filid or philosopher-poets of Ireland “(1993; repr Howth Free Press, Dublin 2008) and “The Poems of Geoffrey O’Donoghue / Dánta Shéafraidh Uí Dhonnchadha an Ghleanna” (ed and transl; Aubane Historical Society, Aubane 2008). Most recently he has translated and introduced “An Argument Defending the Right of the Kingdom of Ireland by Conor O’Mahony” (Aubane Historical Society 2010).