The Context and Development of Irish Literature:
History, Poetry, Landscape

Chapter Three:  Revolution, Emancipation, Starvation, page 3

During this time Irish poetry shifts from a largely oral to a largely written tradition--a poetic transformation that is inextricable from the political and social changes we have just examined.  Two of the greatest Irish poems come from the mid-18th century:  Eibhlin Ni Chonaill’s "Lament for Art O’Leary" and Brian Merriman’s "The Midnight Court"(Irish Verse pp.218-247).  One scholar has said of the "Lament" that "there is no greater love poem in Irish."  The subject, Art O’Leary, was from the southwest of Ireland, the countryside, and was a dashing, heroic figure who had served in the Hungarian military. O’Leary defeated the High Sheriff of Cork in a horse race, and the Sheriff then offered O’Leary 5 pounds for his horse--for under the Penal Laws, a Catholic could not own a horse of greater value than 5 pounds.  O’Leary refused and went on the run, and eventually was shot down. 

According to legend, O’Leary’s horse, drenched in his blood, galloped back to his wife; she rode it back to her husband’s body, where she drank of his blood and began her lament.  The lament is one of the great elements in Irish literature, usually taking the form of the caoineadh, the keen: a song for the dead, usually sung by women, usually at the wake.  Here the keen takes 3 parts: the salutation (the keener calls upon the deceased with affection), the keen (the singer praises the deceased in several verses), and the cry (the entire company joins in a wordless cry of grief). This tradition survives from the funeral rites of the pagan heroic tradition, a largely oral tradition, generally frowned upon by the Church (and here we see again the continued tension between the orthodox and the pagan). 

Note in this poem the language--even in the English translation, we can see that the language is clear, direct, plain, with none of the high formality of the English tradition in the 16th & 17th centuries.  We see here the crucial lack of the influence of the Renaissance in Irish poetry.  This pan-European phenomenon was largely unfelt in native Irish culture, a fact of great importance.  This is therefore not a courtly poetry derived from the models of Petrarch, Spenser, and Sidney; it is a "people’s poetry," concerned with life and death, love and children, the land, and justice. We can also think of this as poetry as "heroic history," a kind of mythography or myth-writing, offering an alternative history to the official history being written by the British conquerors.  This actually goes back to the original tradition of the Irish bards, who were as much historians as they were poets--or rather, they saw no difference between the making of history and the making of poetry.

"The Midnight Court" is a very different kind of poem, an outrageously comic poem, complaining of the frustrations of the Irish women and their inability to find a worthy man in the Ireland of the late 1700's. Though the political critique of "Art O’Leary" is not as plain here, nevertheless the idea that the colonial situation has stripped Ireland of its manhood and harmed the fertility of the land and its people is a powerful complaint against the injustice of the British.  We see in these two poems both the tragic and the comic responses to British rule.  The Irish modernists would take up both strains in their work.

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