#46: IRELAND REPOSSESSED. The end point of the Elizabethan and Cromwellian clearances in Ireland was not just the subjection of its native people and the appropriation of its land and natural wealth; it was a nearly total erasure of its language and culture, its mythology, and its centuries-old systems of aristocracy, education and poetic patronage. But in the southwest of Ireland tatters of this culture stayed stubbornly alive, just long enough to be recorded by an emerging movement of folklorists, historians, nationalists and poets in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1925 Daniel Corkery published The Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century (current edition, Gill and Macmillan), which helped restore the old culture to sight by telling the story of its demise, and conferred on the declassed scholar-poets a new mythic presence. Reading the book even now, the story has a lost-continent feel to it: a complete and functioning culture, lingering in the overlooked rural corners of a conquered land. And even in Corkery’s bald and literal cribs, we recognize in these poems the heroic currents of sorrow, intimacy and rage unique to Irish verse.
The work of cultural recovery still goes on, and one of its milestones was the publication in 1981 of An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (Foras na Gaeilge), edited and translated by Sean O Tuama and Thomas Kinsella. This is a treasure-book of the poems and songs of the period, with its tragedy leavened by a wonderful variety of love songs, humorous pieces, epigrams, lullabies and prayers. The emphasis in the renderings is on fidelity, as it should be, but Kinsella is a poet throughout. One might in a fussy moment have wished for complete texts of “The Lament for Art O’Leary” and “The Midnight Court,” two of the great long showpieces of Irish verse, but that’s all the complaining I’m going to do. Here are riches, newly uncovered. For a sung version of the unearthly beautiful “Ur-Chill an Chreagain,” go to the eponymous first album by the folk group Relativity (Green Linnet). And for a terrific play on these themes, read Brian Friel’s “Translations” (Faber)—one of the very best works of a contemporary master.
For more of the seventeenth-century Irish-language poets, Frank O’Connor’s
Kings, Lords and Commons (Books for Libraries Press, 1959) is a collection of O’Connor’s translations from Irish poetry and has several renderings of O Rathaille and complete versions (though no texts) of “The Lament for Art O’Leary” and “The Midnight Court”. And search out the three book-length selections done by Michael Hartnett for the Gallery Press: OBruadair (1985), of the Newcastle poet Daibhi O Bruadair; Haicead (1993), of the Cashel poet Paidrigin Haicead; and O Rathaille (1998), of the Cashel poet Aoghan O Rathaille, usually reckoned as one of the greatest masters of Irish poetry. Be prepared: they are very full of the dranntail, what Michael Macliammoir called the “whining snarl” that is one of the more fanged accomplishments of the Irish language. All three poets were dispossessed, pissed off, and no respecter of persons. “He would not have liked our Ireland,” Hartnett says of O Bruadair. Hang on to your hats.
As the penal laws strangled the native culture and the English language became the enforced vernacular, there grew in Ireland, alongside the political frustrations, a real effort towards a national literature. Some of the poetry in English tried to carry over the tones and elaborate accentual meters of the Irish; there was much versified propaganda, a lot of it simply doggerel. Everyone was awaiting a Great Irish Poet, and William Butler Yeats’s arriving to fill the post has a massive irony about it. The assumptions were lurking that the Great Poet would be an ironclad Gael, that he would write in Irish, that he would write works of nationalist sentiment and that he would, of course, be Catholic. Yeats was proudly, even haughtily Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, and spent great chunks of time in England. He never got the hang of Irish. He started up a national theatre and brought in British help. He wrote a nationalist play, “Cathleen ni Houlihan,” that managed to piss off both the nationalists and the Catholic Church. After the 1890s Yeats’s verse shows hardly any impress of Christianity of any kind, Protestant, Catholic, crackpot or otherwise. He dabbled in everything from Theosophy and Hinduism to automatic writing. And he was the irreducible contrarian in a country long practiced in every form of orneriness and invective. Just for our modern tastes, he was a male chauvinist with a streak of the fascist in him. And Ireland was stuck with him, as we are, because he was a great poet—some say the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language. For all his classical shape and tough Jonsonian line, no one could beat Yeats at prying open the cavern of himself and letting forth the great torrent. Anger, politics, betrayal, love, age, violence, the unassailable finality and mystery of death—Yeats looked long and hard at these and made poems of what he felt. Behind even Yeats’s mockery is the “cold eye” of his final lines: he spoke of writing a poem “cold and passionate as the dawn,” and he often did. And if you don’t want cold and tough there’s the lovely early lyric verse, as sweet as Keats, that sings and dances but never drips or embarrasses. He worked seriously and hard at verse all of his long life; no one wrote better, or more passionately, about aging. The plays, the stories, the visionary writings, the essays and introductions, the autobiographies—like Blake, Yeats is a poet to do as a block, to go all the way in and come back out. But he was a poet above all and, in our time, none better.
Two great works of modern Irish history: Ireland Since the Famine, by F.S.L. Lyons (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1971), and Robert Kee’s history of Irish nationalism, The GreenFlag (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1972), scholarly, readable and fascinating.