Playing to Empty Pockets

An Duanaire: An Irish Anthology 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed

presented by Seán Ó Tuama, with verse translations by Thomas Kinsella
University of Pennsylvania Press, 382 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Dispossession, desolation, and disaffection overtook the “native Irish” after their defeat by the English at Kinsale (1601), and literature in Gaelic went underground, as its audience shifted gradually from one end of the social scale to the other. The old noble Irish families, who were exiled or down-graded themselves, were no longer able to act as patrons of the arts as they had done previously. Bardic schools, with their fourteen-year apprenticeships, were soon disestablished; and verse composition was freed—to its great benefit, in fact—from the strict metrical rules which had governed it.

A new type of poetry, livelier and more lyrical in style, known as amhran (song) began to flourish. After a time it flourished secretly, in opposition to the culture imposed from outside—in “bogs and hills, far into the mountains,” all remote and infertile areas. The term coined by Daniel Corkery to denote the culture of the unregenerate Irish (and the title of a book he published in 1925) was the “Hidden Ireland.”

The introduction to An Duanaire points out, in a footnote, that the state of oppression in eighteenth-century Munster was perhaps not quite so dire as Daniel Corkery envisaged it—though rigorous enough to justify his astonishment at the literature produced within it. At best, this was rich, subtle, sophisticated—qualities not often associated with material deprivation. Dispossession itself was a common theme in poetry—indeed, it had been for some time:

From Boyne to the Linn Has the Mandate been given
That the children of Finn From their country be driven,

wrote Fearflatha Ó Gnimh (this translation is by Samuel Ferguson) slightly before the period covered by An Duanaire, the first comprehensive collection of translated Gaelic poetry to appear in this century.

The anthology begins with a section devoted to anonymous seventeenth-century verse in syllabic meters: transitional poems. Among these are a number of Fenian lays, all of them spoken by the mythical hero Oisín, who might be considered the earliest exponent of what Frank O’Connor has labeled “the backward look.” Oisín, as every admirer of W.B. Yeats knows, spent three hundred enchanted years in the Land of Youth and returned to a country sadly diminished in grace and enterprise. Ireland, once plentiful in heroes and high deeds, has been converted to Christianity; insipid clerics have taken the place of Oisín’s beloved warrior band, and the countryside resounds with the noise of pious bells:

When Fionn and the Fianna lived they loved the hills, not hermit- cells.
Blackbird speech is what they loved—not the sound, unlovely, of your bells.

The past always seemed brighter, too, to those poets of the seventeenth century and later who looked back regretfully at the Gaelic ascendancy and the social arrangements it fostered, in particular the system of poetic patronage which ensured a proper degree of respect and remuneration for the bards. Among the eighteenth-century voices raised in outrage or bafflement, the most distinctive is Aogán Ó Rathaille’s:

You wave down there, lifting …

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