From Irish Political Review: September 2007

Old Irish And The Market
Part Two

"WHERE is my chief, my master, this bleak night, mavrone?
O cold, cold, miserably cold is this bleak night for Hugh!
Its showery, arrowy, speary sleet pierceth one thro' and thro',
Pierceth one to the very bone.

Rolls real thunder? Or was that red vivid light
Only a meteor? I scarce know; but through the midnight dim
The pitiless ice-wind streams. Except the hate that persecutes him,
Nothing hath crueler venomy might."

I was about fifteen, I think, when I came across that poem. I had read others by Mangan and thought they were good, but this one was awesome. Those long lines with their rushing, galloping, darting, swooping rhythms! And the communication of the sense of cold! I hadn't known that it was possible for a poet to express in words the bone-piercing damp winter cold of Munster. Beyond all that, there was the strange impressiveness of Hugh Maguire, marching through Ireland in the winter of 1601 to support Hugh O'Neill at Kinsale. There was the strangeness of the poet expressing his concern for him: for example, in the last verse the sudden joy of remembering Maguire's most terrible acts. Whatever other poems I forgot, I could never forget O'Hussey's Ode to the Maguire.

Afterwards I read what James Carney had to say about Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa (O'Hussey), and I found he disliked Mangan's version because "Mangan has MacPhersonised Eochaidh". And I have to admit that the criticism is just, even though the MacPhersonised Eochaidh could never lose his magic for me. I could imagine other inspired translations of that poem in a quite different vein.

There's a completely different poem of Eochaidh's, where he declares that he's going to start composing simple unsophisticated artless poems, because that's the trend of the times. Anthony Cronin did a version which included these stanzas that I quote from memory:

"My probing hard-edged statements
I have been forced to abandon
for a sort of free poetics
that is vastly more in fashion.

So from now on, whatever the subject,
I renounce pride, profit, favour,
if a single one of my verses
looks difficult to a day-labourer. "

I read a review of that book of Cronin's in a British newspaper, where the reviewer quoted these verses as an interesting slant from past centuries on a modern and familiar literary issue. They can be interpreted so. Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa is someone who could be seen from many interesting angles.

James Carney took him as an object of study, hoping to gain some insights into the general problem of relationships between poets and lords. But Eochaidh became so interesting that, as he said, the original goal became secondary. The result was The Irish Bardic Poet, a brief but marvellous piece of writing that to my mind is the peak of Irish Celtic scholarship.

Carney mentioned in passing that about 50 poems of Eochaidh's survived; some had been edited, but fully half of them still had to be read in manuscript. That was 40 years ago. Since then, surely, someone has produced a collected edition, so that he can be allowed a fruitful contribution to modern Irish culture and engagement with modern Irish intelligence?

Not so. In fact, there are many important Irish poets whose work has never been collected or in most cases even fully edited, including Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh and Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh from the 13th/14th century period; Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh, Fearghal Óg Mac an Bháird, Uiliam Óg Mac an Bháird, Tadhg Mac Dáire Mac Bruaideadha, Domhnall Mac Dáire Mac Bruaideadha, Fear Feasa Ón Cháinte, from the 16th/17th centuries, as well as Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa; Aodh Buidhe Mac Cruitín, Eoghan Ó Caoimh from the 17th/18th centuries… There is no anthology of poetry from the Nine Years' War (1594-1603) there is no anthology of poetry from the Confederate War period (1641-1653)… Other things too are still undone that would be worth doing.

But one must face facts about the present state of this branch of intellectual activity. In 1990 one of the current leading lights, Michelle O' Riordan, produced a book with the grand title The Gaelic Mind and the Collapse of the Gaelic World. For me, it became an involuntarily written book about The Academic Mind and the Collapse of Celtic Studies. The failure of sympathy and imagination, the naïve assumptions about politics, the relentless finding of stereotypes everywhere and blindness to specificities, the childishness of attempts to deal with the more obvious problems posed for the general theory (e.g. Pádraigín Haicéad): all of this suggested a crisis in that branch of thinking whose greatest ornament was James Carney, who died in the year before this book was published.

In one sense there is no crisis in Celtic Studies: despite recent reverses in UCD, it remains a small industry possibly with slight growth potential, capable of generating employment with good remuneration in the English and German speaking lands. But it seems to have collapsed as an intellectual discipline where people thought and sought with passion and contributed to the general culture of Ireland. One thing that has certainly collapsed is the work of editing and collection, which was so well sustained for much of the 20th century by people like Dinneen, Lambert McKenna, Risteárd Ó Foghludha and James Carney. (Nicholas Williams, with Carney's encouragement, made some praiseworthy contributions around 1980, but he seems to have been deterred from continuing by the destructive criticism of pedants.)

Instead there are long, stale and laboured works of interpretation. One finds nothing that has the inspired flights, the bubbling intellectual energy of Carney's essay on The Irish Bardic Poet. Some of the best things are done by people who come from abroad with open and curious minds. The Reformations in Ireland, by the American Samantha Meigs, is not bad as an antidote to The Gaelic Mind etc. After making a survey of the evidence, Samantha Meigs concluded that the supposedly apolitical and world-historically bankrupt class of professional poets played an indispensable part in securing Catholicism in Ireland in the late 16th and 17th centuries.

In Irish-language work there has been something of a counter-current. By sheer dogmatic will Breandán Ó Buachalla has brought to the surface the more or less buried continent of Irish Jacobite literature, and much else along with it. In Aisling Ghéar he grossly oversimplifies many things, and the literature of the first half of the 17th century worst of all. But he has made himself and his materials hard to overlook, and so, for example, the author of Making Ireland British finds it politic to claim that he is giving the so-called 'bardic poetry' equal status with the State Papers (however poorly this claim may be founded in fact!). Ó Buachalla has made a continent of literature, of enormous historical as well as literary value, visible in outline. But something more is needed than an outline visibility, and the elite of Celtic Studies, instead of helping to provide it, is more likely to declare that this is a field suitable for medievalists or scholars of literary stereotypes, and for anyone else it's not worth the effort.

Editorial Note:
For years the Aubane Historical Society tried to get people with academic credentials to make translations of the poems of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin and Piarais Piaras Feiritéar. But they were disabled and intimidated by their academic training in Irish from doing it. In the end it was left to Pat Muldowney, a mathematician, to embark on the project, with no specialist Irish training, but on the basis of Irish learned in National School. He is continuing this work and a second volume of Ó Súillleabháin's writings is due later this year.

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