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Clare’s Gaelic Bardic Tradition by Michael Mac Mahon

Andrias Mac Crúitín (Mac Curtin)

When the old patrons were dispossessed or reduced in circumstances in the aftermath of the Cromwellian and Williamite wars, the bards of necessity had to fend for themselves as best they could. By the middle of the eighteenth century the old system of patronage was dying out almost everywhere though in Clare it managed to hold out, for some time longer. The Mac Curtins – Andrias and Aodh Buí - who served as bards and ollavs to the earl of Thomond, were still dedicating poems to some of the old families, O’Lochlainns, Mac Donnells and, to a lesser extent, members of certain O’Brien houses until well into the eighteenth century. Nevertheless they were beginning to feel the pinch. Andrias, a member of one of the old hereditary bardic families, and one of the last of the true bardic poets in Clare, was eventually obliged to sell part of his ancestral lands at Moyglass.[44] A short biographical note written a century after his death by his kinsman, Séamas Mac Curtin, a hedge-schoolmaster and poet, gives the following details:

He was born at Moyglass in the parish of Kilmurry-Ibricane where his parents enjoyed a considerable private patrimony which enabled them to give him a tolerable education tinctured with the country classics of the day……after the demise of his parents, having sold the chief part of his property to enable him to prosecute his studies…the narrow limits of his fortune compelled him afterwards to become a regular teachers in his native locality where he continued till death.[45]

Andrias could be described as the Chaucer of Clare poetry. He was one of the last poets who wrote in the old syllabic bardic metre. Eugene O’Curry, a fellow Clareman, described him as “one of the best, if not the very best, Irish scholars of his day”.[46] Between the years 1703 and 1736 some fifteen manuscripts can definitely be attributed to him.[47] In 1727 he published a long genealogical tract on the O’Loughlins, chieftains of Burren. Known as Leabhar Uí Lochlainn, it has been described as an invaluable exemplar of the Gaelic literature of Clare in the beginning of the eighteenth century.[48] As well as having knowledge of the classics Andrias was also a noted genealogist. His “regular teaching”- to use Seamas Mac Curtin’s expression- was carried on at Moyglass where he managed to eke out a living as a ‘hedge’ schoolmaster. But often he would travel round the country collecting whatever manuscripts he could lay hands on pertaining to the heritage of Ireland. To the end he continued to enjoy some measure of patronage from one or two of the older stock, notably Edward O’Brien of Ennistymon and Sorley Mc Donnell of Kilkee.

Andrias’s best known poem Donn Na Dúiche, which runs to over a hundred and twenty lines, is one of disillusionment caused by the sad state of Ireland and his own reduced circumstances.[49] Composed around 1735, it is addressed to Donn na Dúiche (Don of the Sandhills), one of the legendary Tuatha Dé Danann princes whose sidh, or palace, was located in a kind of mystical, liminal space between sea and shore at Dúch, now Doughmore, near Doonbeg. Dispirited by the changes taking place all around him (“are even the gods themselves losing their power?”), Andrias pleads with Don to admit him to his fairy mansion. The mood of the poem may be sampled in the following lines, which are accompanied here by a rather free translation made a century later by his kinsman, Séamus Mac Cruitín (1814-1874).[50]

Beannú doimhin duit a Dhuinn na Dúiche
‘S ní beannú Guill do chladhaire Gaelaigh,
Ach beannú duill i gcoim na hoíche
Le fadú fuinn gan deadhailt ó dhíogras…..

Beneath those sandy cliffs of old repute,
O Mighty Don! Accept my deep salute;
No stranger’s greeting to a wretched Gael,
To thee I bring but the devout All Hail
Of a pilgrim caught by night’s cold shade,
Whose zeal long-suffering has not yet decayed…

Do bhéarfair cabhair is freagra fúinn dom…
Ós ag gearán mo cháis leat atáim-se,
Gur fágadh me mar árthach gan dídean
Cois trá amuigh ag bána’s ag críona,
No mar tháiplis gan tál fir ná dísle,
Nó mar Óisín ag osnaí’s ag caoine
D’ éis na Féine go léir dhul fé líoga

Thou wouldst return some solacing reply,
As in my deep distress to thee alone I cry.
Out by the shore, forlorn I wear away,
Left like a stranded vessal to decay;
Or like a gammon table set aside,
Where neither man nor sporting dice abide,
Or like poor Oisín grieving sore and sighing
When all his bands beneath the stones were lying…

The poem was composed in the author’s old age. His friends were few, and as destitute as himself. The native aristocracy was disappearing, and being replaced in many cases by ‘upstarts’ who were unsympathetic, if not sometimes openly hostile to the native culture:

…Is ní maireann aon d’réir mar sílim
D’fhialfhuil Ghall ná ó sheandfhuil Mhíle
Ó Léim na Con go portaibh Chlíona
Ó bhfuínn fód dá ló go n-oíche;
Ach dúnadh a súile nuair chíd me…
Dá bhrí sin osgail gach doras do’d ríobhrog
Is lig id phioláid shíorlán shí mé.

…And nowadays my paths can’t trace
A true Milesians or [one] of the Old Saxon race[51]
From east to west of all my native land
On whom for shade or shelter I could stand….;
Hence, generous Don, thy palace doors unloose,
And let the poor, forsaken bard repose.

Tomás Ó Rathaile who edited this poem in 1925 says of it: “that such a poem composed nearly two hundred years ago, should have remained unprinted until today, is a sadly eloquent testimony to our denationalization”.[52]

At the time when Donn Na Dúiche was written English was fast becoming the language of polite society and Irish that of the ‘lower orders’. Poets, according to Andrias, were no longer getting the respect due to men of learning. Worse still, some of the poets themselves were not living up to the noble traditions of their profession. They were forsaking the classical metres for the new popular lyrics written in a variety of styles. Due to economic pressure they were pandering to popular demand and compromising their craft for their next meal. In this way the art of ‘true poetry’ was becoming trivialised and debased. From the deathbed of bardic Ireland an unrelenting Andrias reminds his fellow poets of their duty to maintain the integrity of the poet’s profession in good times and bad:

Dlítear d’fhile ann gan tráth
Cia chaill an daille díon bhláth
Is go bhfuil san uair-se dá bhun
Preimh na huaisle da leanmhain
Cia tearc diobh lenu gcuirtear suim
A bhfile fir ná a bhfoghlam

It is the duty of the poet at all times-
Even when the tree has lost its foliage
And, as now, is bare to the ground-
To nurture the noble root;
Though few are those who now esteem
The true poet or his craft.

One is reminded here of the more-or-less similar plea made almost two hundred years later by W.B.Yeats in Under Ben Bulben:

Irish poets, learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
…Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.[53]

Andrias had little time for the ‘base-born products of base beds’, the ‘sráideigse’ (“street-corner bards”), as Dáibhídh Ó Bruadair called those ‘rhymesters’ who were churning out second-rate poetry in the new metres that were fast becoming popular. Andrias himself referred to the new literary forms as 'aiste tuata' i.e. uncouth rustic compositions. Greatly disillusioned, he died in 1749 and was buried in the old churchyard at Kilfarboy near Miltown-Malbay. His grave is unmarked.

Opening lines of “The Training of Cúchulainn” by Andrias Mac Crúitín in R.I.A. Ms. E iv 3. Courtesy of the Royal Irish Academy
Opening lines of “The Training of Cúchulainn” by Andrias Mac Crúitín
in R.I.A. Ms. E iv 3. Courtesy of the Royal Irish Academy

“An tan do bhí Cuchulainn ’na mhacaoimh óg go mbuaidh crotha agus dealbha agus deagh-dhéanamh, insgne, eagna agus urlabhra, maise agus meanmna, tháinig meanman chuige duldo dhéanamh foglamtha fán domhain mór Gidh ’s í an áit a ndearna tús a foghlamtha .i. i Gleann na hUthaidhe…”

“When Cuchulainn was a young man of shapely form with intellect and wisdom and eloquence, his spirit was filled with a longing to set out into the wide world for his education… Now, this is where his training began, in Glen na hUathaidhe…”

'A Poisonous Fairy Cloak'
The disenchantment with the radically changing social and cultural landscape that pervades Andrias Mac Curtin's poem Donn na Dúiche is found also in the poetry of many of his contemporaries. Indeed, ever since the Flight of the Earls a keening for the loss of the old order is a recurring theme in Gaelic Poetry. As one writer has observed, the image of the boat taking to the waters of Lough Swilly with the northern chiefs 'entered Irish iconography as an emblem of desolation'.[54] The emotion evoked by this image infused much of Gaelic poetry throughout the century that followed; and it became even more intense after the departure of the Wild Geese and the introduction of penal laws aimed at the destruction of what remained of the catholic nobility.

“Nó mar a bhfuairis bás mar chách, a Dhúinn ghil
Do bhéarfair cabhair 's freagra fuinn dom”

(Oh, Donn, if you, too, have not died like all the others/ will you help me and answer my pleading..")

With these words Andrias Mac Cruitín prefaced his appeal to Donn, the otherworldly De Danann prince, such was his dejection and confusion at the anarchy he perceived to have been loosed upon the world.[55] Not once, but twice in his lifetime Andrias had seen the great Catholic branch of the O’Briens, the Lords Clare of Carrigaholt, lose their estate of upwards of 50,000 acres through confiscation and attainder. Forced into exile and military service abroad the Clares never returned, the male line becoming extinct in France in 1774.[56]

As more and more of the great families became victims of colonisation and penal statute the bards suffered a corresponding reduction in income and status. Nor were they slow to equate their predicament with the destruction of Gaelic Ireland itself. Cad é an sí-bhrat nimhe seo ar Fódhla? ("What is this poisonous fairy cloak that has descended on Ireland?") lamented the Kerry poet, Aogán Ó Rathaille, at the loss of one of his patrons, portraying his own loss as a national tragedy.[57] Much of the poetry of the time reflects a yearning for a restoration of a landed upper class now in exile or in reduced in circumstances. Taken at face value, much of eighteenth-century poetry leaves us with the impression of widespread economic and social oppression, what Daniel Corkery has described as a hidden Ireland 'harried and poverty-stricken with the cottier's smoky cabin for stronghold'.[58] More recent writers, however, have cautioned against such assumptions pointing out that many of the doomsday predictions of the poets should be seen as purely conventional and formulaic.[59] As a caste, they had traditionally enjoyed a privileged position as poets to the Gaelic upper class. In status they ranged next to the chieftains themselves and were rewarded for their services with grants of land and cattle free of all rents and taxes. Now as the net of English conquest and colonisation widened, and patronage dried up, the poets found themselves at the mercy of new market forces. And, as Kiberd has observed, when they wrung their hands over what they liked to portray as the death of Gaelic Ireland, it was often their own loss of aura and patronage rather than Ireland that was being lamented.[60]

This yearning for lost aura can be seen in a poem addressed in his old age by Aodh Buí Mac Curtin of Liscannor to Isabel Brien, daughter of Sir Christopher Brien of Ennistymon and wife of Charles Mac Donnell of Kilkee. The poem is in fact a begging letter in which the poet expresses his nostalgia for the demise of the old order and his frustration at the lack of reward for his efforts at preserving native learning and culture:

An fhuireann do shíolra ó Mhíle anall
Dob' urra liom dhíon, táid claoite ó Ghleó-gail Gall;
Ó d'imig na saoithe táim gan ghlór gan ghreann,
'S is truime mo chroí ná an liag is mó san ngleann.

Táid m'fhiacha ar chuil Fhiachra's ar dhearbh-shliucht Táil,
Ós fianach gur rianas a seanchas dóibh,
Is deachair mo thriall-sa go hainnis mar táim,
Gan diallait, gan srian maith, gan chapall im láimh.

Full Text of Poem

(The noble sons of Milesius of old/who would most readily give me sustenance are beaten into the clay by foreigners/since the noble ones departed my spirits have fallen/ my heart is heavier than the largest stone in the vale.

[Though] the sons of Fiachra and of Táil are indebted to me/ for having traced their history from Fenian times/difficult now my course wretched as I am/ without saddle, bridle or horse to my name).[62]

At the time this poem was written patronage as it had once existed between poet and chieftain had all but dried up, though remnants of the old aristocratic families might still extend charity to a Mac Brody, a Mac Clancy or a Mac Curtin if only for old times sake.

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