This essay begins with a short personal reminiscence of time spent in the West Kerry Gaeltacht in the early 1960s. This is followed by reflections which are an expanded version of excerpts from the entry on Ó Rathaille in the forthcoming Royal Irish Academy publication The Dictionary of Irish Biography.
As a schoolboy, nearly fifty years ago, I spent a magical month in Dún Chaoin in the portentously (if somewhat ungrammatically) named Teach a’ Phrinceiss. The Princess’s father had been Padraig O Catháin, the last King of the Great Blasket Island. His daughter Cáit, when I knew her in 1962, was an elderly widow living alone with her cat in a two-room house fifty yards from the local church. I was her only paying guest that summer. She quietly radiated kindness and (for a seventeen-year-old Dubliner) the enthralling dignity of her acknowledged princely status. She was a fund of lore, and not only about the Blaskets; she knew the folktales, poetry and song of all West Kerry. The locals revered her but feared her a little: she had the gentle clarity of penetration into the motivation of both young and old of a Miss Marple of Uíbh Rathach. She was believed to have supernatural powers; the sunlit morning I left her house to walk the mountain path, Mám Clasach, to catch a bus from Dingle to Dublin, she told me, with sadness but without a hint of ostentation, that she had sensed that a particular woman who lived on the other side of the peninsula had died unexpectedly during the night. I learned when I arrived in Ventry that she was right. When you were a schoolboy and when by chance you encountered a much older woman or man who glowed with that intelligence, geniality and authentic goodness, you half-consciously expected that life would, as you were only then beginning to explore its richness, throw up many similar people of great or even greater worth. In fact I never met anyone like her.
She it was who made me the gift of one of the most valuable resources of my life when she introduced me to the genius of Aogán Ó Rathaille and to his masterpiece “Gile na Gile”. I was only beginning to drink: at about midnight most nights I would come in from Kruger Kavanagh’s (not an admirable milieu in the unspoken but unmistakable estimation of my hostess) in the slightly tipsy state induced by the two pints of stout my modest means at most permitted. She would be sitting in her wooden armchair by her turf fire with hot cocoa and thick slices of buttered griddle cake ready for her ravenous student. I would pull up a three-legged stool and we would begin. Songs, stories, riddles, all the lore of the Island (never Na h-Oileáin) and how and through whom it had become famous around the learned world. She was not at all embarrassed by my furious note-taking; as I dimly recall she would occasionally pause to help my efforts. One night she took down Canon Dineen’s incomparable Irish Texts Society edition of Ó Rathaille and began to read. This for her was book-learning, unlike the more accessible poems of Eoghan Rua O Súilleabhain or the wonderful songs I have not yet forgotten like “’Sé Fáth mo Bhuartha“ or “Casadh a’tSúgain”, which she recited or sang inexhaustibly, leaning back with her eyes tightly closed. Like thousands of Leaving Certificate students I had been subjected cursorily to Ó Rathaille’s relatively pedestrian “Mac an Cheannaí”. But I had never experienced, and have not since experienced, anything like that slow, repeated incantation in the silence and darkness that surrounded that open-half-door Dūn Chaoin kitchen of the first line of his greatest poem:
It is difficult to find such tempests of political and cultural desolation elsewhere in literature. It has been said that he “out-Leared Lear”. Quevedo of “Miré los muros de la patria mía” strikes similar notes in his disgust at the loss of Spain’s Golden Age. Pope in the IVth Book of the Dunciad and Swift at his most indignant convey something of Ó Rathaille’s fury, but the calamities they confronted were not apocalyptic in the sense of the ruin of Ó Rathaille’s total universe. Dineen points to the Book of Lamentations and cites the Prophet Jeremiah’s lament for Jerusalem: “My eyes have failed with weeping, my bowels are troubled; my liver is poured out upon the earth” (Lamentations ii, 11).
The reader who wishes to communicate his enthusiasm for Ó Rathaille’s genius is confronted by a barrier. The fact is that the greatest poems are resistant to translation at the surface and at several levels below the surface. In the late Seán Ó Tuama, Ó Rathaille found his most devoted exegete since Dineen, and a distinguished Irish language poet and scholar in his own right, and in Thomas Kinsella a first-class Irish language scholar and translator and one of the principal English language poets of the day with a world reputation. Their joint bilingual Duanaire: 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed can bring to the reader who knows little or no Irish a satisfactory feel for the finest poetry of the three centuries, including by far the best rendition of Ó Rathaille. Nevertheless I imagine they would have been among the first to acknowledge that the greatest poems of Ó Rathaille present particularly difficult challenges to the best translator, none more so than “Gile na Gile”.
Oral tradition and scholarly reconstruction from references in the poems concur that Aogán Ó Rathaille was born in Scrahanaveel, ten miles east of Killarney, around 1670, and there is corroborated evidence that he died in poverty in the region in 1728 or 1729. He clearly saw himself as a professional poet of the ebbing phase of the post-bardic tradition and he passionately asserted his family’s immemorial connection as men of learning to the great families of West Munster; this may indeed reflect the role of his mother’s family the Egans (hence Aogán) as lawyers to the family of Clancarty (an Cárrthach Mór). The formal role of the traditional professional bards – Ó Rathaille’s predecessors, as he would have seen them – who had trained strenuously for years in the windowless rooms of the bardic schools, had been during the previous five centuries to celebrate in the dense syllabic verse forms of the Dán Díreach the genealogies, exploits and great events – principally the births, marriages and deaths of their patrons, the old ruling families, and otherwise to entertain them with pithy, cerebral comment on less exalted matters. Ó Rathaille composed in the assonantal metric of the Amhrán, which in his lifetime was a fresh and accessible idiom, more expressive of emotion than the arcane Dán Díreach.
The rhythms of most of his poems come close to those of vernacular speech and in many cases even to those of popular song. His lively and detailed descriptions of the courts of the McCarthys and other Munster families, including some of those of the “Old English” Jacobites who had replaced them, such as Warner (“An File I gCaisleán an Tóchair” Poem X), show that he frequented those circles in his youth and throughout much of his life. His “professional” themes remained however for the most part those of the bardic canon. These elegies, epithalamia and eulogies are always highly competent but often somewhat standardised performances, reciting litanies of genealogical, mythological, literary and historical references. Regularly the standard imagery is interrupted by brilliant shafts (for example in the elegy “Ar Bhás an Fhir Chéanna” Poem XVI, l.4 – “do saigheadagh le hinntleacht an bháis” “who was mown down by the arrow-intellect of death”). Occasionally, even in his great lyrics, Ó Rathaille employed a word or a phrase which would have sounded archaic to his contemporaries, such as the extraordinarily effective Early Irish preterite form “lodamar” in “Ar mhullach chnoic aird aoibhinn do lodamar suas” in the mystical “An Aisling” (Poem V, l.2).
His easy familiarity with the vocabulary and content of later mediaeval and bardic Irish literature and history; his acquaintance with Irish, Greek and Roman mythology; his own work in copying earlier manuscripts and his evident mastery of English and Latin, all bespeak a privileged education, perhaps by the clergy and other men of learning at one or several of the surviving great houses of the locality, such as the homes of the many septs of the McCarthys or of Ó Donnchú of Glenflesk.
Ó Rathaille’s lament for the three children of Tadhg Ó Cróinín of Rathmore (“Ar Bhás Trír Cloinne Thaidhg Uí Chróinín” –Poem XII), who apparently died in a drowning accident, is a unique and somewhat neglected early work (possibly from 1700): exquisitely gentle and intimate in tone, rhythm and language, it is free of the mythological padding of his more “official” elegies and should be counted among his enduring productions and among the most moving laments of the Irish language:
Iabhlín I griaidh chille Diarmuid is Tadhg…
A dtrí mbéal, a dtrí gcroí, a dtrí saor-chorp fa líg,
A dtrí n-éadan ba ghlé-gheal ag daolibh, is díth!
A longing to weep, a joylessness, a heart-weariness, a sudden fit –
That Eileen is in churchyard clay, and Diarmuid and Tadhg …
Their three mouths, their three hearts, their three innocent bodies beneath a flagstone,
Their three fair, bright foreheads now food for insects – calamity!
Among the local Irish upstarts, Ó Rathaille reserved his fiercest invective for Tadhg Cronin (not the father of the three children whose death he had so movingly lamented) and Murtagh O’Griffin, a sometime employee of Sir Valentine Browne’s wife, the new Lady Kenmare. Both had deserted the Catholic faith and sworn oaths abjuring the Pretender King James. His one prose work “Eachtra Thaidhg Dhuibh” owes a good deal to the earlier “Eachtra Chloinne Thomáis” (which he may also have composed) and is an unrestrained scabrous satire in the mock-heroic style of Tadhg Cronin and his sycophantic pretentions to social and cultural consequence. In savage vein he satirised Murtagh O’Griffin in death and Tadhg Cronin while still alive (Poem XVII):
ro-dhéineach an uain do chách;
fuadaigh go fras Tadhg don chill,
a dheighilt leis ni cuibhe go bráth..
Ni leor Ifreann da phianadh,
Muircheartach iall-mhear Ua Gríobhtha.
(Ls. 1-4 and 11-12)
far too late in everyone’s opinion;
snatch Tadhg quickly also to the graveyard,
those two should never be separated …
Hell is not punishment enough for him,
Muircheartach O’Griffin of the wily leaping.
Gan ceathra gan maoin, caoire, na buaibh na mbeann;
Anfhaith ar toinn taoibh liom do bhuair mo cheann,
Is níor chleachtas im naoin fíogaigh na ruacain abhann.
Da maireadh an rí díonmhar o bhruach na Leamhan
’S an gasra bhi ag roinn leis ler thruagh mo chall,
I gceannas na gcríoch gcaoin gcluthar gcuanach gcam,
Go dealbh I dtír Dhuibhneach nior bhuan mo chlann
The drenching night drags on: no sleep or snore,
no stock, no wealth of sheep, no horned cows.
This storm on the waves nearby has harrowed my head
– I who ate no winkles or dogfish in my youth.
If that guardian King from the banks of the Leamhan lived on,
with all who shared his fate (and would pity my plight)
to rule that soft snug region, bayed and harboured,
my people would not stay poor in Duibhne country.
The poem concludes with one of his most stirring Envois, shifting in rhythm to a raw peremptory snarl:
meabhair mo chinnse cloite od bhéiceach tá;
cabhair da dtíodh aris go hÉirinn bhán,
do ghlam nach binn do dhingfinn fein id bhráid.
You wave down there, lifting your loudest roar,
the wits in my head are worsted by your wails.
If help ever came to lovely Ireland again
I’d wedge your ugly howling down your throat!
In his definitive study of the eighteenth century Aisling – in which Ireland typically appears in a dream to the poet as a beautiful, distressed young woman awaiting rescue by her Jacobite hero – Ó Buachalla says of Ó Rathaille, the most famous (if by no means the most orthodox) practitioner of the form: “Ó Rathaille’s importance as a poet is that he, more than any other, succeeded in creating his own poetic universe. Jacobitism is the ideology of that universe, it gives a framework of reference to his entire work, it gives it an unusual unity, it holds together the many themes he handles (religion, royalism, aristocracy) and the different modes of composition he practiced (prophecy, satire, aisling, testament, elegy, ode). It is the aristocratic ethic that guides his whole work and it is the values of that ethic (generosity, religion, nobility, genealogical integrity, respect) that are celebrated throughout.” (Ó Buachalla, Aisling Ghéar)
None of Ó Rathaille’s Aislingi, unlike his more overtly military or political verse, fulfils the conventional role of its day of encouraging Jacobite hopes of inevitable military victory. While his versions of the formula begin with a visitation by Ireland in the image of a young beauty, and while they all rehearse the Jacobite dream of restoration, the poet’s conclusion is invariably despairing. In the contrast between the Jacobites’ surging tribal hope and the poet’s barren despair, Ó Rathaille’s personal pessimism is searingly grounded.
His most dream-like and hopeful vision, painted in enchanting lines, is that of Aoibheall and her hood-cloaked troop of fairy women lighting in the dark three candles in every harbour in Ireland to welcome the Pretender in Aisling (Poem V), that begins with the resurgent tribe marching to a hilltop in Limerick in the pre-dawn and ends with the poet awakening alone in despair to what might be described as the Jacobite hangover:
Ar mhullach chnoic aoird aoibhinn do lodamar suas,
tarraster linn scaoth bhruinneal soilbhir suairc-
gasra bhí i Sídh Seanadh, solasbhrugh thuaidh…
D’fhreagair an bhríd Aoibhill, nar dhorcha snuadh;
“fachain na dtrí gcoinnle do lasadh ar gach cuan,
In ainm an rí dhíograis bheas again go luath
I gceannas na dtri ríochta, ’s da gcosnamh go buan.”
As m’aisling do shlímbhíogas go hachomair suas
Is do mheasas gurbh fhíor d’Aoibhill gach sonas dar luaidh;
Is amhlaigh bhios tímchreathach doilbhir duairc,
Maidean sul smaoin Titan a chosa do luaill.
(ls. 1-4 and 13-20)
(Note: the following reading translates literally the intention of the poet to report a tribal observation of the vision [as the plural number of the verbs suggests] but reverts to the voice of a single speaker in the final pessimistic quatrain. It is in this point only that it differs from the Ó Tuama/Kinsella rendition.)
on top of a fine high hill we laboured up,
we chanced on a pleasant flock of joyous girls,
a troop from Sidh Seanadh’s bright mansions to the North …
Then answered the lady Aoibhill, of aspect bright,
“they had cause to light three candles above the harbours
in the name of the faithful king who is soon to come
to rule and defend the triple realm for ever”.
I started up – soft sudden out of my dream
believing the good news Aoibhill had told me was true,
but found that I was nerve-shaken, downcast and morose
that morning ere Titan had thought to stir his feet.
“Mac an Cheannaí” (Poem III – The Merchant’s Son), perhaps the best known of the Ó Rathaille’s Aislingí because of its recurrence in the school curriculum, is probably the latest and most despairing of all, although imaginatively the least original. The poet listens to the girlish hopes for rescue of the young maiden and confounds her with news from Spain of the death of a critical leader (scholarship is divided between the King of Spain and the Duke of Berwick).
chorraigh a cruth ’s do scread sí
is d’éalaigh an t-anam d’aonphrib aisti –
mo léansa an bhean go lagbhríoch.
She heard my voice beside her;
her body shook; she shrieked;
her soul departed in a leap.
Alas, that woman lifeless.
“Gile na Gile” (Poem IV – Brightness of Brightness) appears from the manuscript record to have been composed before the Jacobite invasions of Scotland of 1715. It was widely transcribed within a few years. Its unique and intricate metrical structure is so perfectly sustained and its word-play so elaborate that it has sometimes been described as an exercise in the “baroque” and read primarily as an extraordinary tour de force of versecraft. It fully merits such a description, but that is to miss the core substance of the poem which is its most fascinating level and which is artistically reinforced by the complex artistry. It belongs to the Aisling genre but is utterly sui generis by almost any standard of literature. It is a mistake to read it merely “within” the conventions of the Aisling.
Ó Rathaille begins with two stanzas which describe his vision with concentrated deliberation:
Brightness of brightness I saw on the way in loneliness.
Each of the two phrases “Gile na Gile” and “ar slí in uaigneas” immediately present, especially in juxtaposition, connotations of the unfathomable. The impressionable and confused young reader of Juan de la Cruz (whose “En una Noche Oscura” and rendering of the Canticle of Canticles could be read as the Aisling version of religious experience), as I then was when listening to these phrases in West Kerry in 1962, heard echoes of profound mysticism. I still hear them. Years later I found that Yeats’s magnificent trope “riddled with light” came closest to conveying Ó Rathaille’s intent in English. It is distilled by the startling image reinforced by dazzling word play in the final lines of the second stanza:
Do ginneadh ar ghineamhain di-se san tír uachtraigh.
A jewel more glittering than glass on her high bosom
created, when she was conceived, in a higher world.
The rhythm of the third stanza starts to speed up and sets out the Jacobite vision, but with several twists: why is the maiden Ireland go fíor-uaigneach (most forlorn) as she shares this great news and what are the tidings the poet dare not mention? The word fios (tidings, knowledge), repeated here five times, also connotes magical knowledge:
fios filleadh don duine don ionad ba rí-dhualgas,
fios milleadh na druinge chuir eisean ar rinnruagairt,
’s fios eile na cuirfead im laoithibh le fíor-uamhan.
Mysterious tidings she revealed to me, and she most forlorn,
tidings of one returning by royal right,
tidings of the crew ruined who drove him out,
and tidings I keep from my poem from sheer fear.
The word speed increases as the speaker confesses that he became the erotic prisoner of the vision and that she disappeared when, St Anthony-like, he called on Mary’s Son to protect him (against sexual evil):
im chime ag an gcime do snaidhmeadh go fíorchrua me;
ar ghoirm Mhic Muire dom fhortacht, do bhíog uaimse,
is d’imigh an bhruinneal ’na luisne go bruín Luachra.
Foolish past folly, I came to her very presence
bound tightly, her prisoner (she likewise a prisoner).
I invoked Mary’s Son for succour; she started from me
and vanished like light to the fairy dwelling of Luachair.
Ó Rathaille achieves the pinnacle of pyrotechnics in Irish verse in the following stanza when, without varying the metrical structure, he takes the rhythm to a vertiginous gallop as the speaker rushed after the visionary maiden and, with a series of stunning word-games (tinne-bhrugh … tigim – ni thuigim … ionad na n-ionad do cumadh ), the poet captures the grotesqueness of the druidic palace where he found her:
trí imeallaibh corraigh, trí mhongaibh, trí shlímruaitigh;
don tinne-bhrugh tigim – ni thuigim cen tslí fuaras-
go hionad na n-ionad do cumadh le draiocht dhruaga.
Heart pounding, I ran, with a frantic haste in my race,
by the margins of marshes, through swamps, over bare moors.
To a powerful fire-palace I came, by paths most strange,
to that place of all places, erected by druid magic.
There the poet encounters his maiden being groped by a lumbering brute in a brothel-like den surrounded by goblins and sluts. They take him prisoner but he confronts the girl:
nar chuibhe di snaidhmaedh le slibire slímbhuartha
’s an duine ba ghile ar shliocht chine Scoit trí huaire
ag feitheamh ar ise bheith aige mar chaoin-nuachar.
Ar gcloistin mo ghutha di goileann go fíor-uaibhreach
is sileadh ag an bhfliche go life as a gríosghruannaibh;
cuireann liom giolla dom choimirc on mbruín uaithi –
’s í gile na gile do chonnarc as slí in uaigneas.
how improper it was to join with that drawn gaunt creature
when a man the most fine, thrice over, of Scottish blood
was waiting to take her for his tender bride.
On hearing my voice she wept in high misery
and flowing tears fell down from her flushed cheeks.
She sent me a guard to guide me out of the palace
that brightness of brightness I saw on the way in loneliness.
Some texts of the poem conclude with a chorus or, as Ó Tuama and Kinsella more accurately render An Ceangal “The Knot”, but this quatrain, as Dineen observes, is not found in several manuscript versions. Moreover it lacks the unique artistic quality of the rest of the poem. It registers the poet’s dismay that the girl is enslaved by a “horned” (referring to the supposed cuckold King George) foreign despot and his low-born crew.
“Gile na Gile” is an extraordinary vision of mysterious delight and knowledge which, once the Jacobite content is declared, descends into a squalid, erotic nightmare of despair. Its pace, imagery and verbal brilliance have not been equalled in Irish and, while obviously inspired by political passion, the poem remains difficult to interpret.
For Dineen, Ó Rathaille’s sublime production was his “Deathbed” poem (Poem XXI), now more commonly known by its first words “Cabhair ni Ghoirfead” (I’ll Not Ask for Help). Yeats introduced its famous last line to the world in “The Curse of Cromwell” as: “His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified”. While Ó Buachalla has argued that “the death-bed was a common trope in eighteenth century poetry” (The Poems p 40) and that it is not necessary to read it as written literally during the poet’s last days, many readers find the tone and content powerfully redolent of final days. Ó Rathaille launches his theme with typical defiance:
dar an leabhar da ngairinn nior ghaire-de an ní dhomh-sa.
No help I’ll call till I’m put in the narrow coffin.
By the Book it would bring it no nearer if I did!
poll im ionathar, biorra nimhe trim dhrólainn.
Wave-shaken is my brain, my chief hope gone.
There’s a hole in my gut, there are foul spikes through my bowels.
In a brilliant image from chess he castigates King William for cheating James out of his rightful throne:
o lom an cuireata cluiche ar an ri coróineach.
Reddened are Loch Dearg’s narrows and the Wave of Tóim
since the Knave has skinned the crowned King in the game.
He hears the onset of death in the grunts of the mythological Pig or, according to some, the noise of the Torc waterfall – or, possibly in Ó Rathaille’s intention, both:
ach foghar na Muice nach gontar le saigheadóireacht.
No music is nigh as I wail about the roads
except the noise of the Pig no arrows wound.
He reverts to his protest against his former patrons, the Kenmare family, accusing Sir Valentine Browne and his family of usurping the ancient rights of the McCarthys:
fabhar ni thugann don duine , ce gaol dó-san.
A hawk now holds those places, and takes their rent,
who favours none, though near to him in blood.
The last stanza is stark and imperishable:
o treascradh dragain Leamhan , Léin is Laoi;
rachad ’na bhfasc le searc na laoch don chill,
na flatha fá raibh mo shean roimh éag do Chriost.
(ls. 25 – 28)
I will stop now – my death is hurrying near
now the dragons of the Leamhan, Loch Lein and the Laoi are destroyed.
In the grave with this cherished chief I’ll join those kings
my people served before the death of Christ.
For more than forty years I have travelled the world as a diplomat or businessman. Ó Rathaille’s greater poems recited aloud inside my head, and quite often “outside”, have more than any other literary resource, however cherished – even more than Joyce or Shakespeare – helped sustain my days and nights. Poetry recited in one language is notoriously opaque even as an oral experience to those who do not understand it; to my surprise I have found that the unique phonetic intricacies of “Gile na Gile” recited slowly aloud have fascinated Brazilians, Colombian, French or even American listeners. How much richer that experience is when enhanced by the poem’s complex and profound intelligibilities! How sad it is, how deplorable, that our educational system does not make the endless variety and the thrilling power of this feat of native genius more accessible to today’s seventeen-year-olds.
Dánta Aodhagáin Uí Rathaille, The Poems of Egan O Rahilly, Edited by Rev Patrick S Dineen and Tadhg O’Donoghue, Second Edition Revised and Enlarged by Breandán Ó Buachalla, London 1911/2004. Poems are referred to by roman numeral from this text. Ó Buachalla’s later introduction is referred to as “The Poems Ó Buachalla”.
Aisling Ghéar, Na Stiobhartaigh agus an tAos Léinn, 1603-1788, Breandán Ó Buachalla, Dublin 1996.
Filí Faoi Sceimhle, Seán Ó Tuama, Dublin, 1978.
The Kenmare Manuscripts, ed E Mc Lysaght, Dublin, 1970.
Ireland and the Jacobite Cause, 1685-1766, A Fatal Attachment, Eamonn Ó Chiardha, Dublin 2001.
Irish Bardic Poetry, Osborn Bergin, Dublin, 1970.
An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900, Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella, Dublin 1981.
Note: Except where slight deviations are indicated, the versions and translations of those of Ó Rathaille’s poems which are included in An Duanaire are used in the above article. Otherwise the originals are from The Poems of Egan O’Rahilly (Dineen etc) and the translations are by the author.
Michael Lillis was diplomatic adviser to the Taoiseach (1981), head of the Anglo-Irish Relations division of the Department of Foreign Affairs (1982-85), Irish head of the Anglo-Irish Agreement Secretariat, Maryfield, Belfast (1985-86), Ambassador to the UN in Geneva (1986-88), managing director for Latin America for GPA (1988-90) and for GE Capital Aviation (1990-96), board member VivaAeobus Airlines Mexico 2007 to date. His Scandal and Courage: the Lives of Eliza Lynch, co-authored with Ronan Fanning, will be published this autumn, as will Spanish and Portuguese editions.