Frank, Jack and Eibhlín Dubh: The Lament for Art O’Leary

Caoineadh Áirt Úi Laoghaire (The Lament for Art O’Leary) is a classic work of Irish literature. Composed as a keen by his widow, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonail (Dark Eileen O’Connell, pronounced Eileen Duv), in the immediate aftermath of his death in 1773, it survived in oral tradition until it was finally collected from an aged professional keener in Millstreet and written down about 1800. Here are the opening lines in Irish followed by Frank O’Connor’s translation. (For those who would like to read the full text in Irish, you can find it here, with a translation by Thomas Kinsella.)

Mo ghrá go daingean tu!

Lá dá bhfaca thu

ag ceann tí an mhargaidh,

thug mo shúil aire dhuit,

thug mo chroí taitnearnh duit,

d’éalaíos óm charaid leat

i bhfad ó bhaile leat.

Keening was a women’s prerogative and tradition, and this keen is powerful and poetic, with long sonorous vowels, patterns of repetitive phrases, and all the devastated grief of a heartbroken woman. To get a sense of the pronunciation in Irish, the best reading I have come across is this one by Joanne Ryan.

The Lament has been translated many times, including by Thomas Kinsella, Brendan Kennelly, Vona Groarke and Eilís Dillon. In 1940, the Cuala Press brought out a special limited edition of the poem, in a translation by Frank O’Connor and with illustrations by Jack B Yeats. The Cuala Press was run by Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats, sister of Jack B and William B, and was a driving force in the proliferation of printed material, beautifully produced, related to the Irish literary and artistic revival. 

Frank O’Connor (above), although better known for his short stories, was a scholar of the Irish language and translated many poems into English. His version is magnificent, capturing Eibhlín Dubh’s passion and fierceness and the rhythm and cadence of her keen. 

Art O’Leary was a handsome young cavalry officer in the army of Maria Theresa of Austria. He returned to Ireland upon his marriage to Eibhlín and they had two children. She was pregnant with a third (who did not survive) when he was shot dead by Abraham Morris, a local magistrate, when Art refused to sell Morris his horse for £5, as required by the Penal Laws. Art O’Leary is buried at Kilcrea Friary, above. His grave can be seen there (below).

The Lament lauds Art’s many virtues and paints a picture of him as brave and handsome, in the flower of his manhood.

Eibhlín curses Morris, and tells how, when Art’s horse came home alone, she leapt into the saddle to search for him.

She found him lying dead in a pool of blood, which she cupped in her hands and drank.

Jack B Yeats’ illustrations have the same wild quality that we imagine was characteristic of Eibhlín Dubh – an untamed spirit who expressed the extremes of great joy and pride and deep anguish. They are pen and ink drawings, hand coloured at the Cuala Press with light washes in blues, yellows and browns for the limited edition. Very little of Yeats’ illustrative work is included in the current, must-see, exhibition of his paintings in the National Gallery, and I was very pleased indeed to find this book online as part of the Internet Archives digital library.

25 thoughts

  1. What a wonderful post, I became aware of this too from reading Doireanne’s A Ghost in the Throat which then became my outstanding read of 2020.

    I was so struck by it I checked out Tramp Press for more Irish narrative nonfiction and came across Sara Baume’s wonderful book Handiwork, which I also highly recommend.

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  2. Love this post – translation by Frank O’Connor, illustrations by Jack Yeats (simple but dramatic), can’t go far wrong. Eileen Duv’s first verse is spookily like the first two of James Thornton’s song ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’ popularised by the Fureys. Coincidence only I think.

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  3. Dear Finola and Robert
    This is not really a comment but a cri de coeur.
    My previous email address has crashed and although I thought I had entered my new address into the wordpress system nothing has arrived from West Cork into my inbox.
    Can you help to restore one of the highlights of my week?
    Many thanks
    Jeff

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  4. So glad you know about A Ghost in the Throat. Thank you for the lovely blog about Eileen in Chonail’s lament. Until reading Doireann ni Griofa I had not understood that Eileen Dubh was Daniel O’Connell’s aunt.
    Beth.

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    • Another thing about Eibhlín was that she was married off to an old man when she was only 15. He died within six months. She ran away with Art, since marriage with him was opposed by her parents. Imagine having parents like that!

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  5. I suppose I have a different view when I had to learn parts of it off by heart in college. Neverthe4less it is wonderful; I must say I was not as impressed as some of your followers with NÍ Griofas book.

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  6. I find it really shocking that a) the Penal Laws compelled the owner of a horse to sell it for a paltry amount and b) that a magistrate feels justified in shooting him dead for not complying. Yeats illustrates the scenes beautifully.

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  7. Although you gave only a snippet of the original Irish caoineadh it is enough to show how poor the translations are. They fail to capture the directness, the rawness, the sound and the feeling of the lamenting widow. Have you a link to the rest of the original Irish version?

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    • Thanks, Paddy – I have amended the post to include a link to the Ireland Calling page. Re the translations – I agree that some of them are fails on many levels. However, I thought Frank O’Connor captured much of atmosphere and the overall tone, and did an excellent job of the rhythm. Perhaps he was more concerned with a kind of academic reproduction of 18th century Irish poetry than with a replication of the sheer intensity of the anguish. I am not sure any translation could render that rawness, or perhaps the right person just hasn’t done it yet. The same is true of the readings I listened to – many reminded me of school recitations.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Doireann Ni Griofas recently published book about Eileen Dubh is a must read on so many levels. Part hagiography, poetry, biography, and historical detective work. A Ghost in the Throat

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    • Elizabeth and Finola,
      Another remarkable and informative post. I finished a Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa just a month ago, and like you, Elizabeth, was moved by it in many ways. Perhaps the title of the first chapter: “a female text”, and the author’s first sentence: .THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT.”,tell the reason.
      The first I ever knew of The Lament For Art O’Leary was from another woman, Susan Kinsella, in her book For The Love of Ireland: A LiteraryCompanion for Readers and Travelers. In the section on Cork, The Lament and the paragraphs accompanying it captivated me, and when I read it aloud to my husband, he agreed that on our next visit to Ireland, we needed to pay our respects at Kilcrea Friary, which we did. Another in the long list of connection, connection, connection that reading between visits has brought to us.
      Words have a powerful effect, stories make travel a richer experience
      The Jack Yeats illustrations you shared, Finola increase the spell the Lament has cast on me!
      With thanks, , Susan Heiser

      Liked by 1 person

      • As Amanda says in her comment – Art’s grave does seem sadly neglected. But where is Eibhlín’s, I wonder? Do you remember which translation you read?

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  9. This is fascinating. I didn’t realise that the lament was taken from a keener in Millstreet – my home town! Thanks for all of your informative posts. Regards Ann

    On Sat, Nov 6, 2021 at 9:20 PM Roaringwater Journal wrote:

    > Finola posted: ” Caoineadh Áirt Úi Laoghaire (The Lament for Art O’Leary) > is a classic work of Irish literature. Composed as a keen by his widow, > Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonail (Dark Eileen O’Connell, pronounced Eileen Duv), in > the immediate aftermath of his death in 1773, ” >

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