Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháin: Aspects of his Life and Work (Part 1)

Click here to purchaseEoghan 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. CliffordEoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin: Collected Writings, Vol. 1. 216pp. Index. ISBN 1 903497 07 8. AHS, 2002, €20, £15.

[Read Part 2 here]


by Séamas Ó Domhnaill,
Church and State, Fourth Quarter, 2010.

This is a story about Irish literature in the 18th Century. In particular it concerns the famous Munster poet Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabhán (Owen Roe O’ Sullivan).

It is my intention to write a full biography of Eoghan Ruadh so I would be obliged if you would read through the points I make with a critical eye and let me know of any corrections I would need to make, anything I may have overlooked, any further sources of information I could use or any other avenues I could explore in relation to Irish literature in general or Eoghan Ruadh in particular. Please contact me at jimaricel ‘AT’ eircom.net.

As The Crow Flies

Munster is the most southern of the four provinces of Ireland. If you were to travel to Munster from the Philippines you would fly north from Manila, over Hong Kong, China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and land in Amsterdam Airport. Then you would take another flight across the North Sea, southern England, the Celtic Sea and you would arrive at Cork Airport in southern Munster.

Cork Airport is located in the townland of Baile Garbháin (Ballygarvan) in the civil parish of Carraig Uí Leighin (Carrigaline) in the barony of Ciarraí Cuirche (Kerrycurrihy) in the county of Corcaigh (Cork). Up until around the year 1600 the little kingdom of Kerrycurrihy belonged to a branch of the Fitzgerald family and was an integral part of the larger kingdom of the great Fitzgerald Earls of Desmond (Deas Mhumhain, South Munster).

If you want to reach Munster from America you should fly east across the Atlantic and land at Shannon Airport in the north of the province. Shannon Airport is located in the townland of Rinn Eanaigh (Rineanna), in the civil parish of Cill Chomhraí (Kilconry) in the barony of Bun Raite (Bunratty) in the county of An Chlár (Clare). Bunratty was once the capital of the O’Brien kings of Thomond (Tuath Mhumhain, North Munster).

The action of Eoghan’s life takes place mainly in the counties Kerry, Limerick and Cork. He also spent some time in the West Country in England and in the West Indies, but more of that anon.

History In Song

Eoghan’s songs and his life story, light up for us the history of the “Hidden Ireland” of the eighteenth century. This is the history of our fields and our rivers, of our roads and our towns, of our streets and of our housing estates.

You will find here examples of songs written in the Irish language. If you are a fluent Irish speaker you will recognise the beauty and the high art of Eoghan Ruadh’s compositions:

Do b’eaglach mési im aonar roimpi
Ar théacht na hoidhche tráth ar neóin
Is falaing den aer bog bhaoth ‘na timcheall
Is éadach uimpi i ndeallramh sróill

If you are a learner, like me, you will find in Eoghan’s poetry a rich store of language and a beautiful blending of words and music. This is at once a credit to the education of the outlaw Hedge Schools and Courts of Poetry of the penal days and a homage to the language spoken by the people of Munster in his day.

Eoghan Ruadh was a fine poet. His songs are magnificent and he is recognised as the writer of the finest lyric poetry that Ireland ever produced. Fr. Patrick Dinneen compared the way Eoghan wrote his songs to the way a builder would build a house:

“Eoghan did not go far from home to seek the stones with which he built his house. He used everything that lay about whether it was rough or smooth. He understood that the fault was not with the stones but with the way they were compiled, and explained and put in order. A good stone mason did not mind whether the stones around him were rough; it is well he understood how to break and to mortar them; how to put this stone end-on and that stone edge-wise and to pack and trim the whole and to make every part of the house elegant.

“Eoghan was a word mason. He used the words which were in the mouths of the people and in the common poetry of that time. But he knew well how to weld and beat them together and to organise them wonderfully. He understood that his audience were simple people without education and that it would be no good to him to compose things that would not be understood. There is little interest in what is not understood.” (1)

If you do not speak Irish, if you come from another country or if the Irish you learned in school is a little rusty, ná bí buartha, don’t worry {Be happy}. A very nice man by the name of Pat Muldowney has done all the hard work of translating all of Eoghan Ruadh’s songs and other compositions into Her Majesty’s English and these translations are used throughout this essay along with the original verses as Gaeilge. Sometimes I have tweeked the translation a little to suit my own figaries (Gabh mo leithscéal faoi sin a Phádraig).

An Bhéal Bhinn

Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháín was born in the townland of Na Mínteóga (Meentogues) in the barony of Maigh gCoinchinn (Magunihy) in County Kerry. He died in Cnoc na Graí (Knocknagree) in the barony of Dúiche Ealla (Duhallow) in County Cork, which is only a few miles as the crow flies from his place of birth. (2)

Eoghan’s whole adult life was spent travelling. From the time he was old enough to leave home he joined the hoards of other men from the upland areas of Kerry who for economic reasons migrated each year to work in the rich agricultural lands in North and East Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and Galway. Eoghan worked as a Spealadóir (a mower) which meant that he would travel to take part in the harvest in the autumn. For the rest of the year he would generally run a hedge school either at home in Sliabh Luachra (a district of rich culture on the borders of Counties Kerry and Cork) or other places in Cork or Limerick. He constantly sought the company of people who shared his joy of literature and who appreciated his poetic gift. It was this that caused him to wander far from home as much as his need to earn a living by hard labour.

Daniel Corkery wrote about Eoghan Ruadh that “his wanderings have not yet been traced on a map; perhaps they never will…” (3) Folklore can provide us with some clues as to the places where Eoghan travelled. Indeed a lot of the biographical details written down by Fr. Patrick Dinneen were gathered as he himself was growing up in the Rathmore area. Eoghan’s songs, however provide us with another very rich and perhaps a more accurate guide to his life of wandering.

The settings and subject matter of Eoghan’s songs provide us with vivid geographic detail and allow us to fix him in time and place. Let’s have a look, for example, at the song known as An t-Arrachtach Sean (the Old Monster) (4), which is a satire on married men. The song was written on the occasion of a hurling match and a poetic contest in Faiche (Faha) near Gníomh go Leith (Gneevegullia) in the barony of Magunihy, Co. Kerry. The married men had won the hurling match and were well ahead in the poetry competition. All of this probably took place during the winter months when there was little farm work to be done. In any case it was Christmas time when Eoghan returned home to Sliabh Luachra from his travels. He wrote his song as a last ditch effort to defeat the old men. The event took place around 1769 when Eoghan was about 21 years old. In the second verse he gives us an insight into the feelings of a young man forced to travel far away from home:

Ciodh singil le sealad óm charaid i gcéin mé,
Ag caitheamh mo rae gan réimeas ná reacht,
Gan chiste, gan cheannas, gan racht- mas ná saoghaltacht,
D’abaidh im thaobh-sa créim agus cnead…

Though lonesome for a while away far away from my relatives / spending my time authority or power / without wealth, without command, without abundance, without livelihood / an ache and a sigh grew in my heart…

The song is full of abuse for “old“, married, men and exalted praise for the young:

An uair amharcann ainnir do snaidhmeadh le h-ársach
Faraire bláthmhar álainn ar each,
Go meanmnach acfuinneach abidh glan ceárfrach
Lannmhar láidir lán-chumais mear,
Bíodhganna croidhe-sin is líonann le taitneamh dhó,
Tígeann dortadh dílis is caoi guil ‘na haigneadh,
Adeir, galar gan bráth gan chasadh go leagaidh mo chaired
Cheangail go bráth mé le harrachtach sean.

Whenever a girl who is married to an old fellow sees / a fine, handsome fellow on a steed / lively, powerful, sprightly, pure, active / brave, strong, in full ability, swift / her heart leaps and fills with love for him / a sweet effusion and weeping comes to her mind / she says, may sickness without recovery afflict my relatives / who tied me forever to an old monster

In the final verse Eoghan slags off his opponents from Glenflesk and from Baile Bhúirne and encourages the team of young men in their match with the oldies:

Cois Fleasca, mar thuigim, níl file ná fáidh
Do b’ursa chum prás do tháthadh le ceart,
Níl taitheach ‘na bhfriotail ‘s níl fuin- neamh ‘na ndán,
Tá cuisle na dáimhe tráighthe aca, is feas,
An tráth d’iomchraid gan cunntas gach chúil-ghearradh tarcuisneach
Thug trú Bhaile Bhúirne dá ndúthaigh go masluightheach,
Is mar phearsan den fhuirinn do chluichfeadh an búr
Le cumann do b’umhal mo laugh-sa ‘na measc.

By the Flesk, as I understand it, there is no poet or wise man / who is a stalwart able to weld brass (slang for correctly making a poem) / There’s no substance in their words and no force in their poems / The flow of poetry has ebbed among them, it is clear / when they tolerate without reckoning every offensive slander / that the wretch of Ballyvourney insultingly spread in their district / And as a man of the team, that would take on the foreigners, / with humble friendship my shout amongst them.

There is a song in English which Eoghan wrote towards the end of his life:

Give ear ye British Hearts of Gold
That e’er distain to be controlled
Good news to you I will unfold
‘Tis of brave Rodney’s glory…

For some reason, Eoghan ended up in the British Navy at the Battle of the Saintes in the West Indies on 12th April 1782. Admiral George Rodney won a surprise victory against the French who were under the command of Admiral de Grasse. Eoghan was a marine or a soldier serving on Rodney’s own flagship and wrote the song in honour of the Admiral in the first flush of victory. (5)

In the years around 1770 Eoghan’s journeys would take him to the border region of the three counties Kerry, Cork and Limerick. He spent time in such places as Ceann Toirc (Kanturk) in the barony of Duhallow, Móin Ruaidh (Moanroe) and Áth an Mhuilinn (Mil- ford) both in the barony of Coill Mhór (Kilmore), Co. Cork. It was in Millford that he come across Muiris and Donnachadh Ó Núnáin. Eoghan wrote wrote a Barántas for Donnachadh. (6)

While much of Eoghan Ruadh’s life was spent travelling the roads (and the sea as well) he did not pass blindly through places. He was always reading the landscape through which he passed. He was an expert practitioner of the science of places which in Irish is called Dinnsheanchas. This word is rich in meaning. It is a compound of two words:

a. Dionn: A fortress, a royal palace. Dionnán: a hillock

b. Seanchas: History, lore, ancient law, a record or register, a minute description, a pedigree, an ancient tale; act of story telling, gossiping, inquiring about one’s condition or health…

Dinnseanchas is “the history of famous places, topography”. (7)

A tourist might view the countryside of Ireland as a series of lovely landscapes. A colonist might see it in terms of productivity and profit. To the native Irish however, the countryside was a living history of the people from time immemorial. It was a school book and a register, an entertainment and a lesson. “Dinnsheanchas reflects a mentality in which the land is percieved as being completely translated into story: each place has a history which is continuously retold.” (8)

In his aisling-vision which is sung to the air of the “Spealadóir“, Eoghan refers to the practitioners of Seanchas. Fr. Dinneen uses the first line of the following verse in his Dictionary as an example of the meaning of Seanchas: Poets and
learned men versed in matters of history or genealogy.

Acht éigse ‘s suadh an tseanchuis
I ngéibhinn chruaidh ‘s i n-anacra
Go tréith i dtuathaibh leathan Luirc
Gan reim mar ba ghnáth

But the poets and bards of ancient learning / in dire bondage and in hardship / weak, in the broad lands of Lorc / without the authority that was their traditional right. (9)


You will probably have noticed by now a lot of reference to the type of land division known as a Barony. There are four provinces in Ireland. Each province is divided up into various Counties, each County is divided up into Baronies, each Barony is divided up into Civil Parishes and each Parish is divided up into Townlands. Whereever you are in Ireland you will always be in one of these. For example Eoghan Ruadh was born in the townland of Meentogues in the parish of Kilcummin in the barony of Magunihy in the county of Kerry in the province of Munster in Ireland.

While the baronies of Ireland have little administrative function nowadays, they have great historical value. In the Baronies we see the fossilised remains of the little native kingdoms as they were in the 1500s immediately prior to the English conquest.

Up until the reign of King Henry VIII (1491–1547) English government in Ireland was confined to the area around Dublin known as the Pale. Outside of the Pale, Ireland was a patchwork of independent lordships. Each lordship was known in Irish as a Pobal or Oidhreacht and was largely independent of the other lordships and certainly of the English Government. (10)

According to Irish Law the land in each lordship, both Gaelic and Anglo Norman, did not belong to one man but to the family group which occupied it. The people considered themselves to be the Clann (children) of the Taoiseach (lord or chief). They identified themselves completely with him and were firecely loyal no matter how tyrannical or otherwise he may be. (11)

The roots of these lordships stretched back hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. People rarely travelled far from home. To move from one lordship to another, even if it was only a journey of a couple of miles, would be like to going to a foreign country. (12)

Slán Chois Mháighe

The poet Aindrias Mac Craith was born around the year 1708 in the townland of Baile an Fhantaigh (Fanstown) in the parish of Cill Bríde (Kilbreedy) in the Barony of Cois Máighe (Coshma) (13) in the county of Limerick. He lived until 1795.

Andrias was famous and was well known by his nickname: An Mangaire Súgach—The Merry Peddlar. He was one of the leading lights of the Court of Poetry which assembled in the village of Cromadh (Croom) on the banks of the river Máigh (Maigue). (14) One of his best known songs begins with the line: “Slán is céad ón taobh so uaim”. The song is usually referred to by the title: “Slán Chois Mháighe”. It is a greeting or a farewell from Aindrias from his place of exile in the village of Baile an Fhaoitigh (Ballyneety) to his friends in Croom. It is addressed to his great friend Seán Ó Tuama who was the head of the Croom Court of Poetry. You can sing it to the air of “The Bells of Shandon“.

Only ten miles separate Croom from Ballyneety, (15) yet an important boundary line lies between them. Croom is located in the barony of Cois Máighe (Coshma), (16) whereas Ballyneety is located in the barony of Uí Chonaill Gabhra (Connello). So the journey from one village to the other involved moving to a different country. The title of the song (and its associated tune) is usually given in English as “Farewell to the Maigue“, as if the poet were saying good bye to the river itself or at least to a specific place on the banks of the river. A more accurate translation would be “Farewell to Coshma”, that is to say, the Barony of Coshma. The sense of strangeness between one barony and another can be felt in the following verse from of “Slán Chois Mhaighe“:

Don tsráid nuair théim mar aon ar cuaird
Ní háil leo mé is ní réidhid lem chluain;
Bíd mná le chéile ag plé dá lua—
“Cé háit, cé hé, cá taobh ór ghluais?”

When I visit the village as others do / in hostile mood my ways they view / the gossips for gab have something new / “what place? who is he? from where removed?” (17)

If you look at the map of County Limerick (18) you will see that there are two baronies which intertwine with each other. One is known as Déise Beag (Small County) and the other is Coshma. Coshma developed as a separated part of the great lordship of Gearaltaigh Chill Dara—the Fitzgeralds of Kildare. (19) Small County was part of the lordship of Gearaltaigh Dheasmhumhain—the Fitzgeralds of Desmond. Coshma could be looked upon therefore as a part of a foreign though allied country which separated two parts of the Desmond lands, i.e. Small County and Connello. (20) The Kildare branch of the Fitzgeralds originated in Co. Limerick and only moved to Cill Dara around the year 1316. In Limerick their capital was Croom and in Kildare it was Maynooth. For hundreds of years, until their suppression by the English, the battle cry of the men of Kildare was Crom Abú!, whereas the battle cry of the Fitzgeralds of Desmond was Shanid Abú! To this day the motto of Maynooth GAA Club is Crom Abú!

(1) An t-Athair Pádraig Ua Duinnín, D.Litt.: Eoghan Ruadh Ua Súilleabháin, Nuadh-Eagar, i-na dhá imleabhar, ar a chuid amhrán, maille re cóir mhínighte. Imleabhar I. Na hAmhráin, agus Tráchtas ar Cháilidheacht an Fhileadh. Connradh na Gaeilge, i mBaile Átha Cliath, 1923 {The Title of this book mentions “dhá imleabhar” two volumes. I do not know if the second volume was ever published. If you know whether a manuscript or notes from Imleabhar a Dó—Volume II are available, please let me know as it may contain some very valuable information. Go raibh maith agat, SÓD.}
(2) An t-Athair Pádraig Ua Duinnín: Beath Eoghain Ruaidh Uí Shúilleabháin (1902). The main biographical details of Eoghan Ruadh have come to us from the hand of Fr. Dineen. His date of birth has not been otherwise verified.
(3) Daniel Corkery: The Hidden Ireland, page 202. MH Gill & Son, Dublin 1956.
(4) Air: “O’Sullivans March”.
(5) The spirit of this song appears to be in complete contradiction of the Gaelic Jacobite political views expressed in the main body of Eoghan’s literary work which is of course written in Irish. I will discuss this question at a later occasion.
(6) An t-Athair Pádraig Ua Duinnín: Eoghan Ruadh Ua Súilleabháin, Nuadh-Eagar, i-na dhá imleabhar, ar a chuid amhrán, maille re cóir mhínighte. Imleabhar I. Na hAmhráin, agus Tráchtas ar Cháilidheacht an Fhileadh. Connradh na Gaeilge, i mBaile Átha Cliath, 1923.
(7) Rev. Patrick Dinneen: Foclóir Gaeidhilge agus Béarla. Irish Text Society 1927.
(8) The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, page 150. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996.
(9) Pat Muldowney: Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháín – Na hAilsingí.
(10) Kenneth Nicholls: The Development of Lordship in County Cork, 1300—ß1600. Cork History & Society, page 157, Geography Publications, Dublin, 1993.
(11) M.E. Collins, Ireland 1478 – 1610, page 24. The Educational Company, Dublin, 1980.
(12) The words of a 20th century English writer in relation to an Italian Swiss canton come to mind: “This valley of the Ticino ought to stand apart and be a commonwealth of its own like Andorra or the Gresivaudan: the noble garden of the Isere within the first gates of the Dauphine … it was a place worthy of a special name and of being one lordship and a countryside.” Hillaire Belloc, The Path To Rome, 1902.
(13) Máire Comer Bruen & Daithí Ó hÓgáin: An Mangaire Súgach, p. 5. Coiscéim, Baile Átha Cliath, 1996.
(14) Risteárd Ó Foghluadh: Éigse na Máighe, page 35. Oifig an tSoláthair, Baile Átha Cliath 1952 (athchló 1978).
(15) Criostoir O’Flynn: The Maigue Poets – Filí na Máighe, page 123. Obelisk Books, Dublin 1995.
(16) Literally: “beside the (river) Maigue” cf. Rev. Patrick Dinneen: Foclóir Gaeidhilge & Béarla, p. 253. Irish Text Society 1927.
(17) Criostoir O’Flynn: The Maigue Poets – Filí na Máighe, pages 129 – 130.
(18) Irelands History in Maps: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~irlkik/ihm/
(19) Ath Dara (Adare) is the main town in Coshma and Croom is next in importance. The Fitzgerald Lords of Kildare built and maintained the great castles at Adare and Croom through constables. There is no direct road between Adare and Croom. Instead it seems that the Maigue River itself formed the main transport. The Maigue is navigable up as far as Adare. Perhaps Adare developed as an inland port along the lines of Antwerp. The Fitzgerald lordship of Desmond lay in the rich agricultural lands in Counties Limerick and Tipperary known as the Golden Vale. Maybe the Senior (Kildare) branch of the Fitzgeralds held Coshma for themselves in order to control the Golden Vale trade.
(20) M.E. Collins, Ireland 1478 – 1610, page 25. The Educational Company, Dublin, 1980.


Posted on February 17, 2011, in Irish History, Irish Language, Poetry. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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