The Tailor and Artists

The Tailor and Ansty is a classic book by Eric Cross (below) – beautifully written, hilarious, and capturing the couple in all their humorous (Tailor), crotchety (Ansty) and big-hearted glory. The story didn’t have a happy ending (see Robert’s post) and Ireland will forever be ashamed of that episode in our priest-ridden history, but this post will concentrate on happier times.

People flocked to visit the Tailor and no matter who you were – neighbour, stranger or famous person – you were sure of a welcome, a cup of tea, and a taste of the Tailor’s way with stories and earthy humour. Among those who came were prominent artists of the day, including Nano Reid and Seamus Murphy. Nano, it is thought, would cycle all the way from Ardnagashel, where she was staying with her lifelong friend Patricia Hutchins (yes – the same family as our beloved Ellen Hutchins). This is her painting, only recently identified as depicting the Tailor – my sincere appreciation to David Britton for the image and all the information. David runs one of those pages that convince you that Facebook still has the power to be a force for good in the world.

As David pointed out to me, if there are any doubt as to who this is, Eric Cross’s description of the Tailor in his usual place by the fire should clinch it (look closely).

At one side of the fire is an upturned butter-box.  This is the Tailor’s fireside seat. It is placed so that its opening is between his legs, and here he sits, never upon a chair.

Like everything else in the house it has a name. The Tailor refers to it always as ‘Cornucopia’ and explains that a long time ago a Greek king gave such a box to a ‘jolly cupper’, who gave him a drink when he was thirsty, telling her that whenever she was in the want of anything she had but to look inside and she would find it there. . . . 

Whatever Amalthea’s horn held, the Tailor’s ‘Cornucopia’ almost rivals it for contents. Beneath the axe with the insecure ahead, with which he chops wood upon the hearthstone, and the goose-wing with which he sweeps up the ashes, there is a collection of bits of cloth, cords, tins, bits of tools and such like things, out of which he can always find a makeshift for almost anything. . .

Behind ‘Cornucopia’, against the wall, is the settle. In the corner of this, directly behind the Tailor, is the office. This is his accumulation of correspondence over the years. There are letters, photos, postcards from all over the world, stacked up into a pile. Here, too, is his box of cuttings from papers. There are paragraphs cut from newspapers relating to people he knows mixed up with accounts of freak calves and suchlike wonders. Between the arms of the settle and the wall or his pipes. Each pipe, each letter and each photo recalls a friend.

Seamus Murphy was counted as a special friend and came often to visit. At this time (1936) Seamus was making a name for himself as one of Ireland’s foremost sculptors. Here he is in 1934, courtesy of his family who maintain the site https://seamusmurphysculptor.com/wp/

Seamus proposed to do a bust (or busht, as Ansty called it) of the Tailor’s head and the Tailor was immediately agreeable. Chapter fourteen of The Tailor and Ansty relates what fun he had with this project. 

Dammit, man, it was ever said that two heads are better than one, and the one I have now I have had for 75 years and it is getting the worse for wear. Of course I’ll have a new one’.

All the apparatus and materials were assembled, and the Tailor inspected them with the interest of a fellow craftsman. Ansty ignored the business in the beginning. Her only interest in it was her resentment of the invasion of the Room – ‘with all the old clay and mortar to make a new devil’ – and making fresh disorder of her disorder.

The Room at last justified the Tailor’s name for it, and did become for a while ‘The Studio.’ For an hour or so each day he posed and talked and commented. The measurements interested him and he linked this part of the business with his own craft.

‘Many’s the time that I have measured a man’s body for a new suit of clothes, but I never thought that the day would come when I would be measured myself for a new head.’

‘I think that we will have a rest for a while,’ suggested Seamus during one session.

‘The devil a rest do I need. Do you know that I feel it less than I did the time the whole of my body was making before I was born. There is a considerable improvement in this method. A man can smoke and take it easy and chat away for himself.’

The Tailor is visited by his friend the Sheep, a man given to worry, who wonders if it is an unlucky thing for a man to have his image made and asks how it is to be done. The Tailor explains the process:

‘Yerra, manalive. It’s easy enough. You stick your head into a pot of stirabout, and when it is cold you pull out your head and melt the metal and pour it into the hold your head made. Then you eat up the stirabout and you find your new head inside the pot.’

The exchange with his friend, Dan Bedam, captures all the wit and divilment of the Tailor. Having assured Dan Bedam that there’s a new method of making people because the young people are failing at the job, and the population of the country is going down he responds to Dan’s wonderment.

Dam, I was thinking, Tailor, will you be able to use it? Will you be able to talk and smoke and see with it?’

‘Thon amon dieul! What the hell do you think that I am having it made for? Do you think that I want to become a dummy? I tell you that when I have this head I will be a different man. You have often heard tell that you cannot put a young head on old shoulders. Well, this is what it is. I was thinking of having it done the other way at first. Of having a new body fitted to my old head, but the expense for the bronze was too much, so I am starting with the head first. Then I thought that the new brains would not be so good as the old ones. Then I thought that the old ones had done a power of thinking in their time and it would be better after all to make a start with the head.’

Dan was lost in wonderment for awhile.

‘Bedam, but Seamus Murphy must be a clever man.’

‘Clever! I should think he is. He is as good as Daniel O’Connell and Owen Roe put together. They were good enough in the old-fashioned way, but before he’s finished he’ll have the whole of Ireland populated again. It’s a much quicker way than the way you had of going about the business, Dan.’

Eric Cross gives an account of the unveiling, with the whole valley there to see it and The Saint (Fr Traynor) giving a speech. The image, of the busht, above, is from the marvellous Catalogue of Seamus’s work published by the Crawford Gallery.

It was a great night. The drink flowed and the tongues were loosened. The Tailor sang and everyone sang and soon the busht was forgotten. But the Tailor keeps in touch with it still. He has cuttings from the papers relating to it, and he follows it round from exhibition to exhibition in the newspapers.

Nor has Ansty forgotten. Now and again she contemplates the Tailor for a moment or two and wonders, and then expresses her thoughts, ‘and to think that Seamus made a busht of that old devil as though he was a saint in a church. The man must be half cracked. As cracked as himself. Glory be! and to think that he wouldn’t settle the leak in the chimney for me, and he with the good mortar and plaster, making a busht’.

Seamus was a friend to the end – he made the marvellous tombstone that can be seen in the graveyard at Gougane Barra. On it he carved the words A Star Danced and Under That Was I Born.

By the way, if you want to see how one of the casts looks in situ, here is a marvellous post by Don Ross, a Guide at Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park. Thank you Don – you were one of the inspirations for this post, along with a recent conversations with Seamus’s daughter Orla and her husband, Ted.

H V Morton’s Ireland – Part 2

Morton’s book – dating from December 1930 – deserves a further look as a view of Ireland from an English perspective back in the early part of the last century (here’s the first part of this review). What was going on, historically, in the young Free State at that time? Firstly, I was surprised to learn that there was a Governor-General (Seanascal Shaorstát Éireann) whose role was to be ‘the British monarch’s representative in Ireland’. While this was largely a ceremonial role (and was paralleled in Canada and Australia at the time), this continuing official link with a King was understandably unpopular. The first holder of the post was former Irish Parliamentary Party MP Timothy Healy, a Bantry man. Healy held the role between 1922 and 1928, and it was taken over by James McNeill, who retained it until 1932 – there’s a British Pathé newsreel on McNeill’s inauguration (below). The last holder of the office was Domhnall Ua Buachalla: In December 1936, when King Edward VIII abdicated, the Irish cabinet took the decision to abolish the governorship-general and emphasise the separation of the country from any sense of British heritage.

Through the 1930s, Ireland projected its image as a newly created modern state, but also consciously presented itself romantically as a pastorally idyllic country with a rich history and esoteric folk culture. This, of course, cast an eye on the potential for attracting tourism, and Morton’s book concentrates on this heritage, particularly in the choice of photographs. He writes on this relationship:

. . . It is one of Ireland’s many misfortunes that the common people of England have never been taught anything about her, have never shown any interest in her and, apart from a small section of well-to-do people, have never travelled in this beautiful island. I would like to hope that this book of mine may help, in no matter how small a way, to encourage English people to spend their holidays in Ireland and make friends with its irresistible inhabitants. Friendship and sympathy between two such warm-hearted and kindly people would be a fitting end to centuries of political misunderstanding . . .

H V Morton – In search of Ireland 1930

From ‘In Search of Ireland’ – above: Two Connemara Girls. Below: Glendalough.

Today, the British obsession with its nationalist roots – which we are calling ‘Brexit’ – threatens all the compromise and hard work which has been expended on positively and peacefully resolving the ‘Irish Question’ over the past few decades. Interestingly, in 1930, H V Morton had something to say about Northern Ireland, which has some uncanny resonances with today’s imminent problems:

. . . It happens that when you are in Donegal you can look south into Northern Ireland, and when you are in either Londonderry, Tyrone or Fermanagh you can look north into Southern Ireland! This is no doubt an excellent joke except to those who have to live in it! It must be exasperating to find yourself barred by a customs barrier from the country town in which you have always enjoyed free trading. But as long as it profits the Free State to build up her enterprise behind a tariff wall, or as long as Northern Ireland remains outside the Free State (which, I am told, will be for ever), this inconvenient and costly boundary with its double line of officials will remain, the only frontier in the British Isles . . .

H V Morton – In search of Ireland 1930

From ‘In Search of Ireland’ – above: Plain of Tipperary. Below: Middle Lake, Killarney.

Having read my way through Morton’s book on Ireland (which I picked up on a stall in Skibbereen market), I am left with very mixed feelings about its author. I am partly influenced, I think, by what I have noted elsewhere about the man and his life. In particular, picking up on his apparent sympathy with the Nazis during the Hitler years, but also becoming aware that he and his second wife, Violet Mary (they married in 1934) emigrated to South Africa after the Second World War, became citizens, and apparently endorsed Apartheid.

Above: the cloth cover of the sixth edition of Morton’s Ireland book, dating to 1934. Below: H V Morton is still a much collected writer.

Ultimately, I feel that Morton doesn’t have the depth I’m looking for in any respected scribe on Irish matters. He is, foremost, a journalist – and crafts his words for maximum effect. Perhaps this is unkind, but his views seem to me almost theatrical: taking a romantic stance that will appeal to tourists, he sets a tone that is slightly imbued with a sense of superiority, although he does not hesitate to be critical of the British position as he saw it at the time of writing. I am quoting his last paragraph – ‘saying good-bye to Ireland’ to try to defend my stance, which I fully accept is just a personal viewpoint.

. . . When my feet first trod Irish soil I felt that I had come to a magic country and now, as I said good-bye, I knew it truly as an enchanted island. That minor note which is like a vibration in the air, something that lives in the light and in the water and in the soil, runs through every Irish thing, but, like the cry of a bat, it is too high to be heard. But a man is conscious of it everywhere. Ireland of the Sorrows is no more. The sun sets, and the hill grows dark. I know that in the West at this moment men are raking the ashes of the turf fires. In thousands of little white cabins they are kneeling before the wide hearth, piling up the ashes around the red glow, and in the morning there will be new light. The shadows have fallen over the fields of Meath. The air is grey with night. St Patrick rises up over the mounds of Tara, his hands uplifted. And in the silence and the darkness I listen again for that hidden music. It is not for my ears. I hear nothing but the night wind in the grass; and I say good-bye to Ireland . . .

H V Morton – In search of Ireland 1930

From ‘In Search of Ireland’ – above: Cork South Bridge. Endpiece: Ardmore Round Tower, County Waterford – 12th century.

Don’t be put off by my own standpoint. This book is an important Irish travelogue and sets a scene of a particular time in Irish history (ninety years ago) viewed from a close neighbour’s perspective.

H V Morton’s Ireland – Part 1

In Search of Ireland was first published in 1930. It’s always interesting to read the accounts of an English traveller in Ireland. I used to be one once, but I’m now – happily – permanently here. And a citizen! I really don’t want to be anywhere else in this turbulent world.

I recently happened upon this book – and was immediately attracted by the cover, and the many photographs it contains, which date mainly from the 1920s. But let’s start off finding out who the author is.

Henry Canova Vollam Morton was born in Lancashire, England, in 1892. He was the son of Joseph Morton, editor of the Birmingham Mail, and followed his father into journalism. Morton served in the First World War and then worked in London, for the Evening Standard and the Daily Express. While with the latter he ‘scooped’ the story of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb at Luxor in 1923 and reaped celebrity from that event. After this he started writing books, mainly about travel. Between 1925 and his death in 1979 some 55 books were published. His work appealed to a popular audience. The book about him, above – written after his death – suggests another side to this man: he had secretly been a Nazi sympathiser and another writer, Max Hastings, gleaned this entry from Morton’s private diaries of 1941 – “I am appalled to discover how many of Hitler’s theories appeal to me”.

Morton travelled in Ireland during the 1920s and wrote many articles about his journeys, which became the substance of this book. The book’s endpapers (top) present a map showing the route he followed in his car: he appears to have foolishly omitted the best part of Ireland – our own West Cork! The lower photograph (above) is simply captioned ‘Fair Day’ and is credited to a Dublin photographer (Thomas Mason). I cannot identify the location, although it seems a little familiar. In the book it is juxtaposed close to an account of Kenmare.

The upper photograph is titled ‘Market Day in Connemara’, and the lower one is ‘The Claddagh, Galway’. Most of the photographs are accredited to publishers or newspapers: H V Morton only provided a brace of pictures himself. They are below – ‘Cormac’s Chapel, Cashel’ and ‘An Archway in Killarney’:

From the dust-jacket of my nineteenth edition (which was published in 1945):

. . . In this book H V Morton describes a first visit to Ireland – not the tragi-comic Ireland of 19th century fiction, but the new Ireland. His charming book is the record of a motor-car tour right round the island, and in the course of his delightfully haphazard wanderings, he discourses on the Irish landscape, Irish people, Irish history, falls in love with Kerry and Connemara, attends a wake in Mayo, and crosses the hills of Donegal into Northern Ireland . . .

Frontispiece – In Search of Ireland by H V Morton

This is the first of two posts about H V Morton’s book. Next time around I will quote further from his text to try and give you an insight into this complex man, but also show you more of the illustrations from the book. None of us can resist looking so directly into the past!

From ‘In Search of Ireland’ – above: Connemara Girl

Blasket through the Lens

Great Blasket, one of the islands in the parish of Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) off the west coast of Kerry, was the home and life-blood of a tenacious population of Irish families for many hundred years. One of these families – the Ferriters – claim that they controlled the islands as far back as the 13th century and had established a castle there. Whoever lived there had to be tough: the terrain is wild and there is little shelter. Nevertheless, the islanders clung to their territory, and their numbers expanded in the early 19th century when Lord Ventry of Dingle evicted many of his tenants from their holdings and those who left found island life – hard though it was – preferable to persecution.

We are fortunate that, during the early twentieth century, Great Blasket was visited by curious tourists and anthropologists. Among them was Robin Flower, who became Deputy-Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum from 1929 to 1944. He had many credits to his name, including Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Doctor of Literature of the National University of Ireland and also of Dublin University. Flower became the historian of the Blaskets, which he ‘immortalised’ through his lectures and writings – and many visits. To the people of the Great Blasket he was playfully known as ‘Bláithin’ – Little Flower – which he considered a great honour. I will write more on Robin Flower in a future post, but concentrate here on some of the photographs of island life which were recorded by likeminded researchers in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1954 there was nothing to record: life on the island, three miles from the mainland and involving an often treacherous crossing, became untenable. The whole remaining population was evacuated in that year, leaving their cottages and settlements to the ruinous ravages of the wild Atlantic gales.

The header picture is a wonderful statement of youth and vigour: island children photographed outside their school in 1932 by Thomas Waddicor. I can’t find anything about this man, but a lot of his work appears in the Dúchas Photographic Collection which was established in the 1930s, so I am assuming he was an active collector and researcher himself. The second picture is by our old friend Tomás Ó Muircheartach, who also spent time on the Blaskets in the 1930s. You will find more about him here. It shows the Blasket men in their fishing curraughs below the craggy rocks of the island. The pic above is also by Muircheartach, and shows Cáit Ruiséal and Máire Ruiséal being interviewed by a follklore collector at their fireside in 1942. I am not sure where this interview took place.

This photograph is also by Thomas Waddicor and dates from 1932. The caption given in the Dúchas Photographic Collection is interesting, if not entirely enlightening: Man, Great Blasket Island: Buffer, note stuffed peaked cap – an island custom.

Another from Waddicor, also 1932: Cáit at the Well. I think what strikes me most of all is how real and alive these people are – they certainly don’t seem in any way downtrodden or in danger of extinction: perhaps it’s just because they are ‘posing’ for the camera. But it’s salutary to think that they were only on the island for another generation or so.

These two photographs (above) are also by Thomas Waddicor and also from 1932. The top one is the ‘Wife and child of Séan the King’, and the lower is ‘Children of Séan the King’. We have a bit of a conundrum here as the last ‘King’ of the Blasket Islands passed away in 1929 (according to this Irish Times article). As Waddicor left behind no photograph of the ‘King’ himself, we have to assume that the lady in the upper photograph was a widow.

More ‘family’ photographs: the upper of the three is titled ‘Eilis and Brighid’; the centre is just given as ‘Family’, while the lower is ‘Fiddler and Woman’. All are by Waddicor from 1932.

This wonderful lady is also anonymous: sadly we can only know her by the title – ‘Great Blasket Woman’. Again, Waddicor 1932 – and, once more, she seems so full of life!

This is a picture of the Great Blasket Island School. We have some further information: while the folklorists and recorders were visiting the island in 1932, the older schoolchildren decided to interview each other about local customs and lore to mimic the visitors!

Further unnamed portraits: upper ‘Two Women Great Blasket’ and lower ‘Two Women gathering Heather’. From the Waddicor collection, 1932.

We’ll finish off with a few classics. This is Tomas O Criomhthain and it’s a photo from Muircheartach. Better known to us as Tomas O’Crohan, author of the classic book about the Blaskets:

. . . Tomas O’Crohan was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1865 and died there in 1937, a great master of his native Irish. He shared to the full the perilous life of a primitive community, yet possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment that enabled him to observe and describe the world. His book is a valuable description of a new vanished way of life; his sole purpose in writing it was in his own words, ‘to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again’ . . .

The Islandman Book Review

We can’t discuss the Blaskets without mentioning Peig. That’s her, above, with folklorist Kenneth Jackson, taken by Thomas Waddicor in 1932. Peig Sayers was by all accounts a formidable lady but was also described by folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, as ‘one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times’. Peig was born in 1873 and died in 1958. She therefore experienced the abandonment of the island, although she had moved away from it in 1942. She was also not born on the island, but in Dunquin, Kerry, She married Pádraig Ó Guithín, a native islander, in 1892 and had eleven children, six of whom survived into adulthood. Sayers is most famous for her autobiography Peig, but also for folklore and stories which have been collected from her.

Finally, this an image of the Loganim Achive entry for Great Blasket Island, written in 1954.

I am grateful to the National Folklore Collection UCD for the use of the Thomas Waddicor images. It’s an incredible resource: this is just a small selection of the hundreds of images which have been archived

The Táin, by Hutton and Campbell

The Táin Bó Cúailnge (pronounced approximately tawn bow coolna), known in English as The Cattle Raid of Cooley, is one of the great Irish Sagas. There are many translations and illustrated versions, perhaps the most famous being that of Thomas Kinsella, illustrated by Louis LeBrocquy, published by the Dolmen Press in 1969. Almost forgotten now is the version by Mary Ann Hutton, illustrated by John Campbell – but it deserves to be remembered as one of the masterpieces of the Irish literary and artistic revival.

First of all, what is The Táin? It’s an epic tale, first written in the 7th century but preserved in various versions from the 11th to the 14th centuries with many modifications, additions and changes along the way. It tells the story of Queen Maeve, jealous of her husband’s white-horned bull, who determines to acquire the even more prestigious Brown Bull of Cooley from Ulster, ignoring the foretelling of a dreadful outcome should she proceed. The Ulstermen are rendered unable to fight by a curse, leaving the great warrior, Cuchulain, to fight alone – which, by the way, is no bother to him, especially once his warp-spasm, or battle-rage, comes on him. However, in the end he fights and kills his old friend and foster-brother, Ferdia. There’s a lot more to it, of course, and much of the tale is told by Fergus, who relates the whole story of Cuchulain as a youth and his many heroic deeds.

And what about the author and illustrator, neither of them now a household name, although justly acclaimed in their day? Mary Ann Hutton was born in England but had strong Irish connections and moved to Belfast when she married. She was highly educated, with an academic knowledge of Old and Middle Irish and became a fluent Irish speaker. She was an ardent supporter of Patrick Pearse and the Gaelic League and became a central figure in the Gaelic revival. Her version of The Táin was the result of ten years of intense scholarship. It is not a translation, but rather a rendition in blank verse of the story informed by her research into its various versions and iterations. She uses her own spellings as well – Maev and Cucullin, for example. I couldn’t find a photograph of Mary Ann, but here is the illustrator, below.

The illustrator was John Patrick Campbell, although in the spirit of the Gaelic Revival, he styled himself as Seaghan McCathmhaoil. There’s a wonderful biographical and appreciative sketch in the Irish Arts Review of 1998 by Paul Larmour* and that’s where I learned that he was also based in Belfast, that he produced illustrations for the first edition of Hutton’s Táin in 1907, but they were not used until the second edition, in 1924, and then only a selection of his illustrations were included. That’s a pity, because according to Larmour, Campbell’s illustrations for the Táin were ‘among his most impressive.’ They certainly capture the romantic spirit of the Celtic Revival period, and show his mastery of line drawing and strong black and white palette. Larmour says, This Irish epic poem conjuring up the ring of battle and the revelry of kings gave full scope to Campbell’s by now increasingly powerful expression and individuality, the drawings showing great strength of composition, dramatic power, and richness of decoration. 

I couldn’t agree more, so here are a few selections from the text (it’s available online at good old archive.org) along with Campbell/MacCathmhaoil’s illustrations. The illustration above, captioned Maev’s Second Meeting with Fergus, is from Larmour’s article and is one of those that was, inexplicably, not eventually used in the book.

And Fergus

Came from the grave where five times five score years

He had been hidden. And a beautiful

And rich appearance was upon that warrior.

Brown hair was on him ; and a hooded layna

With red inweaving of red gold. A bratt

Of bright grass-green was round him ; and he wore

A golden-hilted sword, and round-toed shoes

Wrought all of bronze. And when that warrior, Fergus,

Perceived the holy men of Erin nigh him,

It was his wish to stand, and standing, tell

The Táin he had to tell.

This was the time wherein Maev called and spake

Unto her charioteer, and bade him catch

Her steeds and yoke her chariot, so that straightway

She might repair to speak with her own Druid

And ask for prophecy and knowledge. “ Wait

One while, O Queen,” the charioteer made answer,

“ That I may three times wheel the chariot round

Sunwise, to win a sign of luck and fortune.”

He wheeled the chariot sunwise, and then Maev

Rode to her Druid. When she reached the Druid,

She asked for prophecy and knowledge.

I see a man youthful and very fair,

Who will perform great deeds, and win his fill

Of hurts and wounds in his smooth fine-fair skin.

Upon his brow, which is a meeting-place

For victories, the hero’s light flames high.

Amidst each eye the seven dragon-gems

Of a pure hero-champion flame and burn.

Plain to perceive, his intellect is keen.

A red hooked layna folds him. His fresh face

Is beautiful and noble. He observes

Towards women courtesy and modesty.

Though a mere stripling, blooming, dainty-cheeked,

He in the battle shows a dragon’s form.

His fairness and his valour now resemble

Cucullin of Mweerhevna ; and though, truly,

Who this Cucullin of green Moy Mweerhevna

May be I know not, yet this thing I know

These hosts by him will all be very red.

Four little swords for feats of special skill

He carries in each hand : he will attain

To plying these upon the hosts : the hosts

Will flee from him on every road and way.

When, in addition to his spear and sword,

He brings his dread Gae Bulg, he plants his feet

On every slope and hill. Two spears project

O’er his bright chariot-wheels : he rides to battle.

Fury distorts him, battle-fury changes

That form which hitherto I have perceived.

He is Cucullin son of Sooaltim,

Hound of the Forge : he wends unto a battle.

Your hosts, now whole, he will hack down and fell.

He will compel your slain thickly to lie.

Strong men will leave their heads with him. This I,

Fedelm the Prophetess, will not conceal.

Red blood shall drip from the white skins of heroes

Lasting and long the memory shall be

Bodies shall there be torn, women shall wail,

Through deeds of that renowned Hound of the Forge,

Whom now, O Queen, I see.

The Prophetess

Ended her prophecy : and Maev rode back

From seeking-out of prophecy and knowledge.

Said Laeg, “ here comes a chariot-rider towards us.”

“ Describe him, then, good Laeg,” Cucullin said;

And Laeg described him thus:

“ Larger,” said he,

Than is some heathy knoll, rising alone

From out a grassy level, seems to me

His noble chariot. Larger than the tree,

Reverenced and old, that stands upon the green

Of some king’s doon, appears to me the hair

That curls and waves in golden bright abundance

About that warrior’s head. A crimson fooan,

Fringed and embroidered, folds him round : a spike

Of graven gold secures it. In his hand

He holds a wide, red-flaming spear. A shield,

Carven, and compassed by a ridge of gold,

He has ; and a long sword-sheath, which for size

Is like the rudder of some kingly vessel,

Reposes on the huge and seated thighs

Of that great, haughty warrior, planted there

’Midst of his chariot.”

Then Cucullin cried :

“ Oh, welcome, ever welcome is the coming

Of that beloved guest ! I know that guest.

It is my guardian and my fosterer,

My gentle, noble Fergus, who comes there.”

Cucullin saw his weapon, red with blood,

Lying beside Faerdeeah ; and he said:

“ O my Faerdeeah, sorrowful the fate !

I, with my merciless weapon still unwashed :

Thou, pale in death upon a couch of gore.

Sad—what has come of our meeting here

I, wounded, sinking, covered with rough gore:

Thou, altogether dead ! Oh, dear to me

The friend to whom I have served a draught of blood!”

*John Campbell (1883-1962) An Artist Of The Irish Revival by Paul Larmour, 1998 Volume: 14, Pages: 62 – 73

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.