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Home Uncategorized The Impossibility of Memory

The Impossibility of Memory

Theo Dorgan

All lamentation is spurred by grief, its occasion immediate, the impulse imperative, not to be denied or choked back. Lamentation in its untrammeled form is spontaneous, sanctioned, a voicing shared between the grieving community and the heart-struck solitary keener. In time, of course, certain formal conventions arise, and there is an unspoken assumption, shared by all, that these conventions will be observed. In cultures where grief is feared or frowned upon, lamentation is choked off and strangled into socially acceptable reductions of the emotion. In freer communities, a negotiation will long since have evolved between what is socially accepted, even expected, and what is fresh, unanticipated and of the unique moment. Lamentation recognises the double face of death ‑ that it is at once unique to the person who has died, and a subtraction at the same time from the community in which he or she participated.

Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire comes out of a sanctioned tradition for which there are documentary sources going back to the twelfth century. There is a sense in which her lament was no more than was expected of her, a sense also that her community would have approved both of her eulogising of her dead husband and of her giving voice to her own personal pain.

The version we have now passed, as Julie K. Marren observes,

… through a remarkable number of filters before it reached [Seán ] Ó Tuama. According to Ó Tuama’s history of the versions, the keener Norrie Singleton (Nóra Ní Shindile) performed ‘The lament for Art O Leary’ for Éamon de Bhál to transcribe in approximately 1800. In 1860 Donnchadh Ó Súilleabháin made a copy of De Bhál’s arrangement which was then published in ‘The Last Colonel of The Irish Brigade’, a book describing Art O’Leary’s life. Peadar Ó Laoghaire translated this version into English, and in 1896, Osborn Bergin copied and edited Ó Laoghaire’s text. Finally in 1923 Shan Ó Cuív made a copy of Bergin’s edition …

Allowing for the fallible memory of Ní Shindile, it is fairly likely, I think, that the text we have now, the standard text as it were, is a more or less faithful rendering of Eibhlín Dubh’s original.

Angela Bourke tells us that keening in Ireland was largely if not exclusively carried out by women. She tells, us too that the keen or lament for the dead allowed for more than the expression of grief; it also offered a sanctioned occasion for woman to express social or political criticism. Eibhlín Dubh makes full use of these permissions in the first lament of whose authorship we can be fairly confident.

Now if there are records of keening or lamentation in Ireland since the twelfth century, and the first acknowledged author of a lament is the widow of a man murdered in 1773, we have to ask why this should be so, why no name before Eibhlín Dubh’s has entered the record.

Part of the answer may well be the reluctance to view lamentation as a legitimate high art form, its instances ascribed to a known author; and there may very well be a cultural gender bias at work here. I am not a scholar in this area, so I can but raise the question. What we can say, however, is that the absence of authorial attribution most likely stems from the fact that lamentation was a phenomenon anciently lodged in a complex oral tradition. A lament, you might say, was not composed with a view to its outlasting its occasion.

Lamentation is an ancient phenomenon; there are lamentations in the Old Testament, the scholar Batya Weinbaum has made a case for the spontaneous lament of women chanters being involved in the creation of the oral tradition that gave us The Iliad; there are records of lamentations from ancient Mesopotamia, in the Hindu Vedas, in the Old Testament and of course in the Greek tradition. The essence of lamentation, it seems, is that it is conceived as, or conceives itself in its moment as, the voice of a community speaking through a woman or women, bewailing death.

The important thing here is to grasp that while an individual keener might have a key role to play in a given lament, she was grieving not so much as herself, more as the voice of her community. The identity of the individual keener was of no interest. There is something very ancient here, as ancient as the idea that the Great Goddess spoke through her priestesses at Delphi and Eleusis and that their individual identities were of no consequence whatever.

That we have Eibhlín Dubh’s name, therefore, is a signal bearing a number of different charges: we have her name because she came from a powerful family at a time when formal histories, backed up by documentation, were beginning to be systematically kept; we have her name because there was a relatively short gap in time between the inscribing of her Caoineadh in the folk memory and the arrival of a scholar to transcribe that folk memory; we have her name, in a strange way, because she was the last of her kind, and the precursor of a new kind. Spontaneous oral poetry and song would continue to be composed after Eibhlín Dubh, but we had in any case arrived at the climax of a decisive cultural shift that began when Pericles caused the words of Homer’s Odyssey to be written down.

It is of course fanciful to say that Pericles was the father of modern Western civilisation; it is not fanciful, however, to say that he presided over and encouraged the shift in values that must necessarily accompany the transition from an oral to a written culture. Father of Classical Greece he may have been, but Pericles, like us all, was a man of his moment, and that particular moment was the moment of the written record. When Homer’s great poem, the great oral epic of Western culture, was written down, something changed forever. There is a sense in which Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire marks the last ripple outward from that momentous event.

Our tribes are built upon our stories; you might say that we keep the tribe going as long as we keep the stories going. When the stories begin to falter, when a happy tribal myth is challenged by an uncomfortable piece of evidence, the story falters, and so does the tribe.

We have no sure way of knowing whether or not the Odyssey of Homer as we have it now is the same thing as the oral verse epic that blind singer composed, nor indeed have we any way of being sure of the relationship between the ur-poem and the version that would eventually be written down. We have, so to speak, an Odyssey, but we cannot with safety say we have Homer’s Odyssey.

The Odyssey is still, of course, one of the crowning glories of Greek culture but, crucially, not in the same way as it would be had it been passed down to the present moment in an unbroken chain of oral transmission. I do not propose here to rehearse the many complex arguments about the nature, provenance and “rightness” of the Odyssey as we now have it, I merely want to point out that we have a more or less agreed written version of what was in its origin and in its life for hundreds of years a mutable masterpiece of the oral tradition. Before it was written down, the poem was subject to all the vagaries of the collective memory; no further alterations will now be permitted, barring some utterly unforeseen discovery.

The American poet Gary Snyder makes the point that poetry is essentially an oral art form, stretching back in his view as much as 40,000 years. To those of us raised in the culture of the book, the written-down text, this seems perhaps unlikely ‑ until we remember that the writing down of poems and songs is a relatively recent phenomenon. We have poems scribed on clay tablets from 1400 BCE, from Ugarit in what is now Syria. We have inscriptions on stone from Greece, c 1600 BCE, we have papyri from the Nile kingdom, Babylon, Assyria, all inside a time-horizon of no more than four thousand years, but we have scarcely had a written culture in any true sense for more than two hundred  years. The educated and literate classes were few in number until the industrial revolution, and although reading and writing, or rudimentary versions of these skills, have been taught sporadically in different cultures across the globe for perhaps four millennia, the vast majority of people possessed their own cultures in the oral dimension only. The unwarranted assumption that what is written down must be more sophisticated, more artful, more culturally important than what is composed in the head and passed on by word of mouth seems to me to fly in the face of this important truth.

Some of this primacy granted to the written is no doubt an expression or consequence of what has come to be called the commodification of the work of art: it’s difficult to establish copyright, for instance, in a poem that isn’t written down, and who controls the copyright controls the economic value of the work of art. Some of it is also, no doubt, due to our foolish habit of assuming that what comes later in history is automatically superior to what has preceded it in the unfolding of time. Whatever the reason, we should be very careful when we ascribe, as we largely do, a higher status to what is written down.

It is true that the oral tradition is eminently corruptible, and the establishment of an agreed text committed to writing can act as a kind of fixative or guarantor. Once a master text is established and agreed, subsequent corruptions can be spotted, traced and corrected. Material evidence can be traced and pointed to in order to resolve any arguments that may arise. On the other hand, one can argue that once a mistake enters into the written authoritative text it can take a long time for it to be corrected. Whoever controls the master text controls also its subsequent iterations.

The communal editorship and ownership of a poem or song in the oral tradition can be as strict in its preservation of the original as any scholar, or scholarly community of the written word. A singer may bend a line in a song to suit her own vocal style, but be sure there will be someone out there to remind us all of the original and “correct” version. I have been witness to this process at work, and can vouch for its severity.

All of which being said, we have to face the fact that we live now in a culture where the primacy has long since, perhaps decisively, shifted to the written culture. I do not say the oral culture has died out or been supersede; indeed in a paradoxical way it may be having a wholly unexpected revival in the digital age, but the process by which a community was gathered, nourished and maintained in a vibrant oral culture is, I think, facing extinction.

Famously, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire comes down to us from the oral tradition. Let us remember its provenance as given by Seán Ó Tuama:

An oíche sin i gCarraig an Ime, ni foláir, dhein Eibhlín Dubh roinnt dá caoineadh ar an gcorp, agus roinnt eile an oíche ina dhiadh sin ar an tórramh i Rath Laoich. Dhein deirfiúir Airt ó Chorcaigh a dreas caointe féin agus, chomh maith leis sin, dhein athair Airt rann no dhó.
(That night in Carraig an Ime Eibhlín Dubh did some of her lamenting over the body, and more again on the following night at the funeral in Rath Laoich. Art’s sister from Cork did her own bit of lamenting and, as well as this, Art’s father contributed a few verses of his own.)

From the outset, the Lament is a personal, family and community affair. The lamentations are uttered, spoken or chanted among Art’s own people. It is reasonable to assume that the primary, the only intended, audience was racked by its own grief at the death of one of their own. The Lament, in a very particular sense, is its own singular and unique occasion.

Ó Laoghaire was first interred in Cill na Martra, and subsequently re-interred in Cill Chré. On that occasion Eibhlín Dubh lamented him again, and as the years went by she would add further versions to her lament. As time rolled on, given the close-knit nature of the community, the power and beauty of her grief and the words in which she expressed that grief became, in a sense, the patrimony of her community. Ó Tuama tells us, writing in 1961:

Na ranna seo a cumadh ar Art Ó Laoghaire, bhíodh cuid mhaith acu á n-aithris coitianta fós ag daoine ós cionn leathchéad bliain ó shin i nGaeltachtaí Chorcaí agus Chiarraí. Cuireadh leo, ar ndóigh, is baineadh uathu; agus ar an tranglam caointeoireachta ar fad tugtar Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire.
(The verses that were composed on Art Ó Laoghaire were still being recited regularly over fifty years ago by people in the Cork and Kerry Gaeltachts; they would have been added to, of course, and taken from; to this entire clutter and tangle of verses we give the title The Lament for Art Ó Laoghaire.)

Michael Schmidt, in his excellent book The First Poets, has this to say about oral culture and community:

People who share an oral culture feel close to their stories because they carry them inside themselves; the narratives have not been downloaded. Performers recite them, but their recital is checked against memory. There is a sense of common or shared possession; the poem is a crucial constituent of community.

In the most obvious, the simplest sense possible, I want to say that we do not have Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire in the same way as did the community that took possession of it, the community that subsequent to his murder would incorporate his cruel death, and the lamenting of that death, as elements in their own identity. Truly, for its first hearers and for all those who kept the Lament alive until it was written down, an injury to one was an injury to all. In one of those paradoxes in which oral culture glories, Ó Laoghaire continued to live through his death as long as the lament was being uttered. I might go further, and suggest that Ó Laoghaire only truly died when the Lament was written down, that is to say when it passed from being part of the identity that particular community kept in being through telling, when it passed into the amber of the canonical text, the mausoleum of the library.

It is impossible for us to own the memory of Ó Laoghaire’s death in the same way as did those who possessed the Lament as part of a shared patrimony. When we read the text now we are reading something that had its life in a common story, and has since passed on into the half-life of the text.

Let us pause for a moment and imagine what it would be if we had to travel to Uibh Rath if we wished to hear the Lament. What would that be like? And for those of us whose roots are not in that tribal area, who have no family stories of or connection to Ó Laoghaire, no handed-down recollections of him, of his family, of the wake, of the funeral, what would the experience be like? Would we not be like anthropologists, observing but not participating in a living act of memory, a sacred act? Let me drive the point further home: imagine, in those circumstances, sitting there in the half-dark as some woman of Inse Geimhleach recites the great Lament ‑ and your mother beside you is whispering of her great-great-great-grandmother who helped wash the corpse, is whispering of your great-great-great-uncle the priest who sang at the funeral? What would that be like?

Connected or not, being present at such a recital would be charged with some very powerful emotions, would it not? I can imagine too a sense of privilege, of being permitted, admitted, as if one were a favoured witness to the Eleusinian Mysteries.

It should be possible, should it not, to preserve some of this charge of mystery and at the same time have access to the written text? There are, after all, poems from the written tradition that carry a freight of meaning and feeling capable of overwhelming us, of drawing us inside the precincts of what is being told, just as there are poems with that power in the oral tradition?

Well, yes, but though the powers may be comparable the experience, I think, is very different in each case. A crucial difference is touched on by Michael Schmidt, when he says:

Language itself changes when it is codified and written down. When the ability to read and write spreads … the idea of culture spreads … By the way it is used, language becomes a means of distorting truth, limiting and pointing meaning.

Language itself changes when it is codified and written down … this is as much as to say, memory becomes impossible when it is written down. Or at least, memory weakens.

It is a commonplace of anthropology that active memory, personal and communal, is stronger and more capacious in oral cultures. It is also a trite but nonetheless true observation that faced with an easy way and a hard way to do anything, the vast majority of people will choose the easy way ‑ or at least what seems the easy way. Why remember your multiplication tables when you have a calculator? Why remember your Aunt Mary’s recipe for blackberry jam when you can look it up in a cookery book? Why remember who played in goal for Cork in the 1953 Munster Final when you can look it up on the web?

We have begun to forget that memory can be an active constituting power, that memory can be exercised and strengthened, that memory can have life-force, purpose and direction.

When I read the Lament first as a schoolboy, I had been once or twice in Mid-Cork, I had some rudimentary idea of the geography of the poem, some sense of the history of Ireland in the late eighteenth century, but no idea at all at all of the social geography of Eibhlín Dubh’s world. In other words, no connection to the living context of the poem. Had I been part of the community down through whose ranks, out through whose ramifications, the poem had passed, from mouth to ear, I would have had a radically different experience of the poem, I would have been implicated in its memory, in some sense have assumed a responsibility to ensure the onward passage of the Lament. I would have found myself in some sense morally obliged to an act of memory.

The cold text implies no such sense of duty, issues no such invitation. I can choose to remember it, if I wish, but nobody will care if I let it slide, if I let it pass.

The memory of the tribe imposes or at least offers, duty, like it or not. The free-floating text issues, at best, an invitation. Now, no harm whatever in that. Joyce endeavouring to fly free of the nets of history is refusing to be bound by the rules, shibboleths and superstitions of the tribe that would claim him, and he has my entire sympathy. Equally, though, Antoine O Raifteiri has my sympathy, too, when he writes:

Is dá mbeinnse im sheasamh i gceartlár mo dhaoine
D’imeodh an aois díom is bheinn aris óg.
(I, too, am strengthened from time to time by a sense of being at the heart of my own people.)

If it is, then, impossible for me to possess Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire as an event in collective memory, as a member myself of that collective, that community towards whom in the first instance it was directed, does that mean that coming to the Lament as text is a diminished experience in some sense? I don’t think so. The oral Lament has passed beyond memory for me, for all of us now living, including the present population of Muscraí. That memory is now impossible. If time and attrition had not eroded the poem from the memory bank of its own place, then the superior efficiency and seductive ease of the printed text would have done so in any event, as in fact has proved to be the case. As a text the Lament has passed into a different manifestation, it has entered the patrimony of a wider literature ‑ and indeed, through the medium of translation, it offers itself now to a world audience as one among many texts that a reader may choose from to enrich their understanding of being human. One door closes, another opens. Just as I would not be without the Odyssey as it has petrified into a canonical text, I would not be without the text of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire.

Eibhlín Dubh’s grief, the well-spring of the lament, is anguished, sharp and immediate; if there are literary elements in what we now consider the canonical text, then some may have drifted in later, some indeed she may have incorporated from the very start ‑ after all, she came from a sophisticated and educated family. But, I repeat, the first voice of the poem is a bitter keening in the presence and hearing of immediate neighbours, family and kin. She was, as they say, among her own. Her own would have remembered Art in his finery, in his masculine arrogance and beauty. Her memories are their memories also:

Hata faoi bhanda,
Bróg chaol ghallda,
Is culaith den abhras
A sníomhthaí thall duit.
( … gold-banded beaver,
Boots of Spanish leather
And suits of finest cloth
You had woven abroad.)
(Version: P Bushe)

It is one of the characteristics of the oral tradition that the subjective identity of the author is to a considerable degree suppressed. What, after all, do we know of Homer, of the author of The Song of Solomon?

Michael Schmidt again:

… the individual “voice” is unimportant and what matters is fidelity to the poem.

The lament is a stylised thing in Gaelic culture, having much the same form throughout this island; it is not particular to Múscraí, though no doubt Múscraí had its own variant on the basic form. Insofar as there are stylised elements in the Lament, Eibhlín in her grief proves true to the conventions of the form and the conventions of her own people. She is, if you like, fidèle. There are elements in the poem, though, that strike what seems to us the modern note. Consider, for instance:

A dhaoine na n-ae istigh,
’Bhfuil aon bean in Éirinn,
Ó luí na gréine,
A shínfeadh a taobh leis,
Do bhéarfadh trí lao dhó,
Ná raghadh le craobhaca
I ndiaidh Airt Uí Laoghaire
Atá anso traochta
Ó mhaidin inné agam?
(You people of my own kind,
Is there a woman in Ireland
Who, night after nightfall,
Would lie down beside him,
Who is carrying his third child,
Who would not lose her mind
When Art Ó Laoghaire is lying
Here, drained and lifeless,
Since yesterday morning?)
(Version: P Bushe)

Here is a woman with a strong sense of her own identity, a woman used to testing the truth of her own life against her own sensibility, her own powers of judgement.

She means in her lamenting to set her dead man out bright and clear to us, a man of flesh and blood, haughty, strong-willed and loving, a fond father, a beloved man to a woman of high temperament. The vivid immediacy of these pen pictures breaks the poem from the matrix of the conventional oral lament, and yet uses the resources of that tradition to reinforce and strengthen its impact on listener and reader. There are all kinds of wonderful tensions in the poem, not least the tension between the very public form of the lament and the passionate, intimate, love poem that pulses from start to finish. Whether or not such was her intention (and how could we possibly know?) Eibhlín Dubh has given life to her dead man, she has placed him in the memory of strangers, in lives and times and places neither he nor she could possibly have imagined. In effect, she has cheated death, insofar as she has slipped past the death of the culture in which she spoke, the culture that gave her warrant and words, form and permissions; the culture and people and place that gave her the love of her life.

By way of contrast, there is nothing like the same immediate eternality in, for instance, Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The Lament, I think, is a strange and haunting hybrid, better perhaps a shadowed text where the shadow stands in clear definition ‑ a poem born on the cusp between two traditions, between the clay of the native matrix and the rock on which imperishable texts can be inscribed.

It might also be true to say, and apt considering her antecedence, that in the text as we now have it, some ghost or other has smuggled through a way of seeing and saying that, strictly speaking, should no longer be possible. Eibhlín Dubh Ni Chonaill is, in fact, a very considerable poet, though it is likely she never set pen to paper to make a verse in her life. She freights the poem with a great deal of circumstantial detail, and it is possible to branch out from any verse into the living present of a reliable past. She is, as far as we can tell, a trustworthy witness in the death of her husband. She manages a language that finds a dignified manner of expression for overwhelming grief, and yet somehow, reaching way down past the reptile brain into our most ancient compact with words, she contrives to let us hear, out from under a weight of clay and rock, a pure human keening howl of unassuageable grief.

I think again of what Michael Schmidt said:

Language itself changes when it is codified and written down. When the ability to read and write spreads … the idea of culture spreads …

If Eibhlín Dubh’s great Lament for her beloved Art has cheated death and the fallibility of memory once, that is when it crossed the bridge from the oral into the written culture, then it has also entered into a number of different possible zones of living memory in the many translations it has undergone. By means of these translations, also, the poem has found a new people, new peoples. We take “translation” from the Latin trans latere, meaning to carry over. If, as I believe, nothing human is alien to us, it is best to think of culture as organic, and of cultural communities as organic communities. If the ancient idea of the tribe has mutated beyond plausibility, then the idea of the tribal has not vanished, but rather suffered something of a sea change. Now in the pan-global culture we have tribes defined by cultural choices, communities defined by elective affinity. Eibhlín Dubh still has a people, but now, in an intriguing way, it is a people called into being by the power and passion of her own voice, however codified in the writing down. In the transcribed original, in the countless translations that flow out from it, she is a living challenge to the impossibility of memory.

It would be fair to say that she defies the grave, shrugs off that weight of clay and rock, has claimed for herself and her beloved Art the only immortality any of us can reasonably expect to enjoy.


Theo Dorgan is a poet and writer. The Abduction, his most recent translations of Syrian poet Maram al-Masri, has just been published by Southword.



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