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.