Songs of an Irish Poet

Keimaneigh scan

Pictured below, from a 1907 postcard, is the Pass of Keimaneigh in County Cork, Ireland. In 1822 this was the site of a fierce battle between British militia troops and a secret society of Catholic tenant farmers known as the Whiteboys. A celebrated Irish folk poet, Mary O’Leary (in Gaelic, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire), wrote an epic poem about the battle that is still sung and recited today. Read all about Mary O’Leary’s remarkable life in my book, Songs of an Irish PoetThe introductory chapter is pasted below:


Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire (literally, Yellow Mary O’Leary) was a true local heroine, a popular Irish folk poet of the nineteenth century whose creative contribution barely registers a blip on the radar screens of Irish literary scholarship.

While she does rate a one-paragraph mention in Robert Welch’s authoritative The Oxford Companion To Irish Literature (Clarendon, 1996), she does not appear at all in such English-language surveys of Irish literature as the magisterial An Duanaire, (Poetry Anthology) 1600-1900: Poems Of The Dispossessed by Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella (Dolmen Press, 1981).

One reason for this may be that Mary O’Leary came from an Irish literary tradition that remains virtually inaccessible to all but the Irish-speaking or Irish-reading minority of the Irish people.

Another likely reason for her obscurity is that Mary O’Leary composed her verses to be sung and never wrote them down. They were passed down orally from generation to generation. This puts her on the far side of the class divide separating the less privileged strata of Irish society — characterized by oral tradition, the Irish language and poverty — from the side representing literacy, English, and all the trappings of patriarchal and colonialist modernity.

The oral tradition, as the critic Angela Bourke has noted in her essay, “Performing not Writing: The Reception of an Irish Woman’s Lament,” needs no endorsement from the world of written literature to ensure its validity or survival.

But the world of writing persists in speaking of and for it, and it is in the spirit of what Ó Tuama and Kinsella might call “repossession” that I have written this book about the life and oral poetry of Mary O’Leary.

Oral poems are often presented in literary anthologies as the work of “Anonymous” who, as Virginia Woolf wryly remarked, was probably a woman. However, happily for Irish literary historians, Mary O’Leary was not one such anonymous female. Her works were eventually collected, written down, and preserved. They survive not only in the folklore of West Cork but also in the archives of such institutions as University College Cork and the Ballingeary Historical Society of West Cork. Additionally, they survive in the curricula of the Irish-speaking schools of Munster, and in such Irish-language anthologies as Filíocht na nGael (Poetry of the Irish) by Padraig Ó’Canainn (An Press Náisiúnta, 1958), though many of these collections are now out of print.

Born in 1774 near Inchigeelagh, Co. Cork, into the Buí (Yellow) branch of the O’Leary clan which once held the local lands under the patronage of the higher-ranking MacCarthy overlords, Mary O’Leary composed poetry of a kind that demands a listening rather than a reading audience. This poses a challenge for a modern outsider endeavouring to assess her artistic contribution. While a spirited and lyrically appropriate translation of her works might serve to give some sense of her literary achievement, there is no way of knowing what kind of artistry she might have brought to the oral performance. One encounters a similar problem when trying to evaluate the artistic merit of rock music lyrics existing in isolation from the music and the performance.

One can never fully appreciate, for example, the power of the laments that Mary O’Leary composed in response to local tragic events. Lamenting the dead was a central component of funeral ritual in Ireland until modern times. The woman who led the “keening” (lamenting) was both poet and performer. She assumed ownership of the community’s grief and expressed it in all its complexity with her words, appearance, behaviour and voice.

Mary O’Leary composed several laments. She also composed love songs, religious meditations and humorous pieces reflecting the life of her community. Sometimes, she ventured beyond the limits of the oral folk genre into the realm of higher literary tradition recalling the distant poetic masters of the 17th and eighteenth centuries. Her use of the aisling or vision-poem form, for example, hearkens back to a style favoured by Egan O’Rahilly (1670-1726) and Owen Roe O’Sullivan (1748-84). In her poem Ar Leacain na Gréine (“On a Sunny Hillside”) she encounters a fairy woman of outstanding beauty who foretells the defeat of the English despite the failure of the French general Lazare Hoche’s invasion of 1796.

Perhaps Mary O’Leary’s best-known poem is Cath Chéim an Fhia (“The Battle of Keimaneigh”) which gives a lively, if somewhat exaggerated account of an 1822 clash between a secret society of tenant farmers known as the Whiteboys or the Rockites, and the local battalion of yeomanry — a volunteer cavalry force raised from the landlord class by Lord Bantry. Mary O’Leary was a witness to some of the battle, which involved several members of her family and took place not far from her home.

The creators of poetry anthologies, and others who confer the approval of the English literary tradition on Irish oral poetry, have paid scant attention to the creative output of Mary O’Leary. This is a shame because Mary O’Leary emerges as one of the very few female Irish-language poets to achieve name recognition during the period from medieval times to the present. The only other female Gaelic poet to achieve similar recognition was Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chomhnaill (Dark-haired Eileen O’Connell) whose sole remembered contribution is the poem Caoine Airt Uí Laoghaire (“Lament for Art O’Leary”), an eighteenth century masterpiece in the lyric “keening” tradition.

Mary O’Leary left her mark during the nineteenth century when the government policies initiated in Tudor times for eliminating the Irish language finally began to bear fruit. By the end of the century, the English language was the common currency of the Irish people. During the last part of this long, three-century gap between the collapse of the old Gaelic tradition of artistic patronage for hereditary bardic poets, and the emergence of English as the dominant vernacular of the Irish people, Mary O’Leary stood tall as the standard-bearer for those communities who used verse instinctively as a vehicle for recording the events of everyday life.

Though they did not mention her specifically by name, I like to believe that Ó Tuama and Kinsella might have had Mary O’Leary in mind when they declared, in their introduction to An Duanaire, that Gaelic verse in the nineteenth century, though of minor artistic interest, had “more vitality on the whole, and more reference to life as lived, than the bulk of nineteenth century Irish verse written in English.”

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2008

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