Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháin: Aspects of his Life and Work (Part 2)

Click here to purchase: Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin: Danta / Poems – With translations by Pat Muldowney. Supplementary Material by Seámus O’Donnell and others. Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin: Collected Writings, Vol. 2. 230pp. Index. ISBN 1 903497 57 9.AHS, 2009, €20, £15.
Click here to purchase: Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin: Aislingí / Vision PoemsWith translations by Pat Muldowney, Introductory material by P. Dinneen. Note On Script by N. Cusack. Also: Conflicting Views Of Ireland In The 18th Century: Revisionist History Under The Spotlight by B. Clifford. Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin: Collected Writings, Vol. 1. 216pp. Index. ISBN 1 903497 07 8. AHS, 2002, €20, £15.


[Read Part 1 here]


by Séamas Ó Domhnaill,
Church and State, First Quarter, 2011.

The next time you go to visit Killarney I would recommend hiring a bike and cycling south along the N71 towards Muckross in the National Park. After a couple of miles the road bends to the right at the old Muckross Post Office (I think it is now an art gallery). If you stop your bike there to take a break you will see on your left the old Parish Church (which is now a youth centre). Up on the hill behind you will see a large Celtic Cross which marks a graveyard. Two people are buried there who are involved with the story of Eoghan Ruadh. These are Henry Arthur Herbert and Maurice Hussey. I’ll talk to you about these some other time. For now however, I want you to hop back up onto your rothar and cycle for a few minutes until you reach the entrance to the National Park at Muckross Abbey. As you are cycling in the gate you will see the fine herd of cattle in the fields, the magnificent trees and, beyond that, the lake. Carry on up to the ruins of the Franciscan Friary to your right. Say hello to the cows and lock up your bike.

You have arrived at Mainister Oirbheallaigh, the Monestery of the Eastern Way, which was founded by Domhnall McCárthaigh Mór, King of Desmond, in 1448. The sons of St. Francis ministered here until they were driven out by the Penal Laws in 1698. (1) In the nave of the Friary you will see a plaque erected in honour of the four great poets who are buried in the Friary: Piaras Feiritéar who was hung by the English in 1653, Séafraidh Ó Donnchadh an Ghleanna (1620—1678), Aodhagán Ó Rathaille (1670—1729), and our very own Eoghan Ruadh. Whereas, the first three had received formal education in Bardic Schools, Eoghan was a ragamuffin of the outlaw Hedge School and the Court of Poetry.

To the left of the chapel you will come to the Cloister with an old Yew tree in the middle. Pass on into a dark room at the back of the Cloister. If you are not a scaredy cat, walk into the room and you will see that it is long with a row of tall windows facing East. This is the Scriptorium where the young Friars copied the sacred scriptures in the days before the printing press. Eoghan Ruadh would have had a lot in common with those scholars who lived their lives centuries before he was born.

Daniel Corkery gives us this description of Eoghan:

“One pictures him as good-looking, with hair as golden as red—not, indeed, far different fron the colour if his sun tanned brow and cheeks—as narrow-headed, high crowned, lithe, tall, sinewy; as full of life, witty, and given to laughing; yet one must also recollect that he could be very still over a book and very patient in copying a manuscript…” (2)

Here we have two images. The first is the outward appearance of the man which would be seen by anyone who happened to bump into him without knowing anything else about him. The second is the image of the inner man. To strangers, Eoghan was simply a peasant farm worker who was perhaps more interested in drinking and singing than in cutting hay. To his impoverished neighbours, to his fellow poets, to the priest who prayed over his grave he was the incarnation of the Irish Literary Tradition, the very essence of Ireland.

The Irish nation has a long history. The Goidelic speaking Celts began to settle in the country around 500 BC. Their language is the ancient form of our modern Gaeilge. No other people in Western Europe has been settled in one place, speaking the same language and sharing a common culture for such a long time. History and knowledge of the land (dinnshenchas & stair) are wrapped up in language and literature. (3)

The ordinary Irish person today has only a vague idea of Gaelic Civilisation. It’s a bit like the beautiful Killarney National Park. We see it as if through fog and drizzle in November. Eoghan Ruadh however was fully conscious of every aspect of it. The tradition breathed in him. He saw it clearly like a bright sunny morning in June.

It is the word, Manuscript—Láimhscríbhinn—that ties Eoghan Ruadh Ó Suilleabháin to the Irish tradition. It is likely that he never came across a printed book in the Irish language. He lived in a literary culture in which the tradition was handed on from one generation to the next by scribes writing and copying poetry and prose compositions by hand. Down the centuries Irish literature was written down and copied in manuscript by monks, professional (state) poets and scholars.

Éigse Inis Éilge

Our modern knowledge of the Irish tradition is founded on the 5,000 manusctipts which have managed to survive to to our day. These are a monument to the civilisation of the Gael.

The oldest manuscripts were written in monasteries and date from around the year 800 A.D. They include however material from the sixth century and even earlier. From the time of the High King Brian Ború (c. 1000 A.D.) the tradition was passed on to the schools of the lay Bardic Order. (4) The bardic schools flourished until Ireland was finally defeated in the 17th century.

In epic sagas we find the stories of Cú Chulainn, Queen Medbh, Ferdia, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Oisín and the Fianna, Diarmad & Gráinne. Other genres or types of Gaelic writing included history, legal texts, bible commetaries, lyrics and devotional poetry, genealogical books, clan histories and semihistorical romances. The Arthurian legend, Queste del Sant Graal was translated into Irish: Lorgaireacht an tSoidhigh Naomhtha. (5)

Volumes of bardic poetry were composed by professional poets who served the great Gaelic families and provincial kings. The Brehon laws were written down and commented on. There were Irish and Latin grammar books, as well as books on astromomy, geography and music. Eulogies were written on the death of great chiefs.

Prior to the reign of King Henry VIII in England all efforts to conquer Ireland had failed. The Vikings, the Normans, and even the continental Religious Orders such as Franciscans and Dominicans, all succumbed to the to the lure of the rich and enticing Irish culture.

“…just as the Anglo Norman lords, ruling over Irish subjects and marrying Irish wives, became in the proverbial phrase, Hibernis ipsis Hiberniores (6), so the new monastic houses, at first stocked with foreign monks, gradually became assimilated to their surroundings, were filled with Irish inmates and adopted Irish speech.(7)

The Tudor monarchs however planned the subjugation of Ireland on a cultural as well as a territorial basis. (8) They knew that it was only by robbing the people of their intellectual and spiritual heritage, as well as taking the clan lands, that Ireland could be conquered. Eoghan Ruadh lived the whole of his life as part of that conqured nation. In his day the learned culture was wilting under alien rule. He felt keenly what was being lost.

Eoghan indentified himself completely with poetry. He belonged to the Éigse, the academy of learned ones, the assembly of poets. The whole of his artistic effort was dedicated to giving expression to the beauty and majesty of the Irish language and to the heritage which that language had nourished over thousands of years.

The Irish Tradition

I thought you might like to have a look at some examples of Irish writing from across the centuries which shine a light on the Gaelic civilisation in which Eoghan Ruadh delighted. What follows is a selection of devotional verse, state poetry, biography and fable which comes from different centuries and indeed from different parts of Europe. Eoghan would have had access to all of these genres through the manuscripts which continued to be copied and circulated even in the darkest of the Penal days. I have added in little details to show that far from being isolated in the far west of the known world, Ireland was central to the existence of Europe.

To start us off we have a hymn to the Blessed Virgin composed by Blathmac, son of Cú Brettan, from Co. Monaghan who lived around the year 760 A.D. It is written in syllabic verse:

Tair cucum, a Maire boíd
Do choíniuth frit do rochoím
Dirsan dul fri crioch dot mac
Ba mind már, ba masgérat…

Come to me, loving Mary / that I may keen with you your very dear one / Alas, the going to the cross of your son / That great jewel, that beautiful champion. (9)

A thousand years later Tadhg Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin from Tuar na Fola in the barony of Conello, Co. Limerick, gives us another hymn to Our Lady, this time in an amhrán song metre:

A Mháthair Chríost, im chroí istigh glaoimse
Do bhláth ghlan shoilseach naofa, a réiltean,
Dom ghárda ar shaighidibh nimhe na péiste
Atá de shíor ar tí mo thraochta… (10)

O Mother of Christ, in my inmost heart I call on you clean shining holy blossom, O fair lady, to guard me from the poisonous arrows of the beast who is perpetually wearing me down.

After the fall of Rome, when Europe was overrun by barbarians, it was Ireland alone which kept Christian civilisation alive in the West. Missionaries such as Columba, Cillian, Columbanus and Gall joined the Peregrinatio pro Christo and went into exile to spread the Gospel in pagan Europe. (11)

Here is a little poem written, in the 9th century, on the margins of a book on Latin grammar in the monastery on St. Gallen (Naomh Gall) in Switzerland:

Dom-farcaí fidbaidae fál
Fom-chain loíd luin—lúad nad cél;
Huas mo lebrán, ind línech,
Fom-chain trírech inna n-én.

Fomm-chain coí menn—medair mass—
Hi mbrot glass de dindgnaibhdoss.
Débrad! Nom-choimmdiu coíma,
Caín-scríbaimm fo foída ross.

A wall of forest looms above / and sweetly the blackbird sings / All the birds make melody / over me and my books and things.
There sings to me the cuckoo / from bush-citadels in grey hood / God’s doom! May the Lord protect me / writing well, under the great wood. (12)

The original grammar book was written by a Latin scholar named Priscian. He came from Roman North Africa and lived around the time of Saint Patrick. Irish monks using a copy of the book later used the spaces in the Latin text to scribble notes and to record their own thoughts and compositions. Some of these scholars of 1,200 years ago kindly wrote down their names for us: Maelpátricc, Coirbbre, Finguine & Donngus. (13) We can thank one of these for the above verse.

The Fiannaíocht is a cycle of stories which centre on the character of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his band of wandering warriors. They were known as the Fianna (Fenians) and spent their lives outdoors hunting, having adventures and sometimes fighting on behalf of the High King of Ireland.14 One of the best loved stories of the Fianna was that of Oisín, the son of Fionn mac Cumhaill who went with the lovely Niamh to Tír na nÓg. Micheál Coimín (1688—1760) from Cill Chorcráin in the barony of Uí Bhreacáin (Ibrickan), Co. Clare gives us the conversation between Niamh and Oisín. She entices him to leave Fionn and the Fianna forever and to follow her. Oisín replies in the affirmative:

Gheobhair gach ní dá n-dubhras leat
As aoibhneas eile gan chás, gan chaoi,
Gheobhair maise, neart, agus réim,
As biad-sa féin agad mar mhnaoi!

Diúltadh ar bith ní bhéarfad uaim
A ríoghan t-suairc na g-cuacha n-óir—
Is tú mo roghain tar mhnáibh an domhain
As rachadh le fonn go Tír na nÓg

You shall have everything that I have said to you, and other delight without sorrow, without weeping, you shall have beauty, strength and power, and myself you shall have for wife!
Refusal at all I shall not give, O pleasant queen of the tresses of gold, you are my choice beyond the women of the world, and I will go with delight to the Land of the Young. (15)

In March 1716 the scribe Seán Mha Gabhran mac Cobthaigh copied down the record of the Maguire Lords of Fermanagh. It includes a sample of a formal elegy composed by an official bardic poet on the death of one of the Maguire chiefs. The original was written in the 13th century:

Bládh do ghabháltas agus do bheatha chloinne Dhuinn Mhóir mic Raghnall Mhic Guidhir .i. Maghnus agus Giolla Íosa annso síos ar na thionscanamh aniodh an seismheadh lá fithchead do mhí Márta 1716 agus ar na scríobhadh as an seanleabhar Seanchais do Sheán Mha Gabhran, mac Cobhthaigh 7c.

A fragment of the conquest and of the life of the children and Donn Mór son of Raghnall Ma Guidhir, namely Manus and Giolla Íosa is set down, begun this day, the 26th of the month of March, 1716 and written out of the old historical book by John Ma Gabhran son of Cobhthach, etc…

Dursan liomsa fa líg luim
Maghnus mac Duinn adearuim,
Tréinfhear nachar b’fhallsa d’fhios
M’annsa, m’éinshearc is m’aigniodh

Fada bhus easbhadh oirne
A chongnamh ‘s a chomhairle—
Gnúis ógmhálla do b’ur dreach—
Sa rún tógbhála tinnteach.

Faire ar cheathra, comhla ar thigh,
Ní rigthe a leas re a linnsin,
Feadh an mhuighe thiormghluis, té
Sa hoire ionnmhuir uirre…

Lamentable to me that beneath a bare stone / is Manus, I mean the son of Donn / A brave man who was not false to any man / My affection, my only love, and my soul.
Long shall we be in need of / his help and his advice / That young fair face of nable aspect / and his catching and ardent disposition.
A watch over cattle, a door to a house / were not required in his time / Throughout the dry verdant warm plain / charged with its burden of riches… (16)

In the mid-1600s an Ulster poet of the Order of Friars Minor made a translation of the life of St. Francis from Latin into Irish:

A paruit gratia Dei, Salvatoris nostri, omnibus hominibus (ad Titum secundo) .i. “dob fhollus grása Dé do gach duine” do réir Phóil absdal rena dheisgiobal féin .i. Titus, isin dara caibidil dia eipisdil chum Titus. Agus go háiridhe do fhoillsigh é féin i ngrásaibh & ttrócaire isin aimsir dhéighionaidh si ina shearbhóntaigh suthain féin, .i. San Phroinnsias.

“For the grace of God our Saviour hath appeared to all men” said Saint Paul to his own disciple i.e. Titus, in the second chapter of his epistle to Titus. And He has especially shown His grace and mercy in recent times in his own perpetual servant, i.e. Saint Francis.

The O’Dalys were one of the greatest families of hereditary bardic poets. In the year 1213 Muireadhach Ó Dálaigh was forced to flee to Scotland to escape from his Lord, The O’Donnell, whom he had angered. He travelled with a Scottish brigade to join the Fifth Crusade. We still have poems which he wrote on the Adriatic on his journey east. (17)

Another member of that family was Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh who was born in Duhallow around 1320 and died in 1387. Here is an extract from one of his poems concerning the coming of the god Lugh to Tara. This poem forms part of a larger poem written in honour of Maurice Fitzmairuce the second earl of Desmond who died around 1357: (18)

Dúnta an cathair ar cionn Logha
Laoch ro thoghsam
Téid gusan múr sleamhain slioschorr
Beanaidh boschrann.

An an doirseóir ris an deaghlaoch
Fa doirbh ruaigfhearg:
“Cáit asa dtig an fear áith, ógard
Bláith, geal, gruaiddearg.”

Ris an doirseóir
Adubhairt Lugh nár loc iomghuin:
“File meise a hEamhain Abhlaigh
Ealaigh, iobhraigh”

He found the city closed before him / our chosen hero / against its portals smooth and tapering / he striles the hammer.
Said the doorman to the hero / stout in combat / “Whence comes the youth so tall and stalwart / smooth, bright, red-cheeked”.
To the doorman answered Lugh / who feared no combat / “A poet I from Appled Eamhain / of swans and yew-trees”. (19)

Ainnir ba Mhaordha Taithneamh Clódh

Between the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 and the Surrender of Limerick in 1691 the Gaelic order was overthrown. The Irish nobility and the common people were welded together into a single oppressed people who had no civil or religious rights. Where once Gaelic literaure had be nurtured and treasured in monasteries and palaces, it was now in the hovels of the landless poor that the tradition was passed on. The culture and literature inspired a patriotism and national pride which was not found in many other countries. (20)

The Spéirbhean of Eoghan Ruadh’s Aisling songs is indeed Ireland. He is besotted with her. His very language is alive with her. She is his inspiration and his message. With his words he gives her life:

Ba shaor-oilte téacs-snuidhte a géar-fhriotal chaoin,
A séis-bhinneas sidhe ag ceart-chanadh sgeoil,
Is a déid mhiona gléigealla léir-churtha i gcír
‘Na béal mhiochair mhín gan mhadagh gan mhóid;
Mar laom-chuipe fraoch-linne a héadan ‘sa píop,
Is mar ghréin-ghloine tre chroistal léirighthe a gnaoi,
Lér ghéilleadar éigse Inis Éilge dá mb’fhíor
Tar Bhénus i bhfioghair, i maise ‘s i gclódh.

Her pleasing, keen words were nobly educated, in polished phrase / her magical, melodious sweetness, correctly relating facts / and her fine, bright teeth completely set in rows / in her gentle, affable mouth, without mockery or imprecation. / Her face and her throat were as (white as) the sparkling foam of the stormy sea / and her countenance was of the purity of the sun through a displaying crystal / to whom the poets of Ireland granted supremacy / over Venus in outline, in beauty and in form. (21)

As it happened Saint Francis also joined the Fifth Crusade. In 1219 he walked across the battle lines at Damietta and went in to preach the Gospel to Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt. Malik would normally have killed him instantly but he saw that Francis was a Christian unlike any other he had met before. They had a discussion on their beliefs and then Francis was allowed to return to Italy unharmed.

(1) http://homepage.eircom.net/~franciscanprayercentre/1.htm .
(2) Daniel Corkery: The Hidden Ireland, page 198. M.H. Gill & Co. Ltd. Dublin 1956 reprint.
(3) J.E. Caerwyn Williams & Máirín Ní Mhuiríosa, Traidisiún Liteartha na nGael, page xvi. An Clóchomhar Teo, 1979.
(4) Robin Flower, The Irish Tradition, page 88. The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1994 (1947 Oxford University Press).
(5) The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, page 22.
(6) More Irish than the Irish themselves
(7) Robin Flower, page 114.
(8) Seán Ó Tuama: Gaelic Culture in Crisis, in Repossions, page 119. Cork University Press 1995.
(9) James Carney: Medieval Irish Lyrics with The Irish Bardic Poet, page 12.1967(Reprint, Dolmen Press, Mountrath, 1985)
(10) Risteárd Ó Foghludha: Tadgh Gaelach—Duan Muire, Lch. 36, Muinntir C.S Ó Fallamhain, Teo. I gComhar le hOifig an tSoláthair, Baile Atha Cliath, 1929.
(11) Christopher Dawson: The Making of Europe, An Introduction to the History of European Unity, 400—1000 A.D. page 158. Sheed &
Ward, London, 1932.
(12) James Carney, page 22.
(13) Tomás Ó Fiaich Gael Scrínte san Eoraip, lch. 128. Foilseacháin Ábhair Spioradálta, Baile Átha Cliath, 1986.
(14) Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, page 193.
(15) Michéal Ó Coimín: Laoi Oisín ar Thír na nÓg – The Lay of Oisín in the Land of Youth, pages 20 -21. Edited by Tomás Ó Flannghaile, City of London Book Depot, 1896.
(16) An tAthair Pádraig ó Duinnín: Me Guidhir Fhearmanach – The Maguires of Fermanagh, M.H. Gill & Teo, Baile Átha Cliath, 1917.
(17) Robin Flower, page 87. Also: http://www.shrinesf.org/francis07.htm
(18) Jean J. McCarthy The O’Dalys. Seanchas Dúthalla,1997. Eleanor Knott: Irish Syllabic Poetry 1200—1600, page 101. School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 1934 (Reprint 1994).
(19) James Carney, pages 86 – 89.
(20) J.E. Caerwyn Williams & Máirín Ní Mhuiríosa, page xix – xx.
(21) Pat Muldowney: Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháín – Na hAilsingí, Page 28. Aubane Historical Society, Millstreet, 2002.
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Posted on February 25, 2011, in Irish History, Irish Language, Poetry. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. i’m irish-american, but have never been to ireland; i’m writing a post on endangered languages and idiolect, but haven’t finished it… thanks for the inspiration! RT

  2. You’re very welcome Music&Meaning. Thanks for your comment.

  1. Pingback: Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháin: Aspects of his Life and Work (Part 1) | Lux Occulta

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