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Clare’s Gaelic Bardic Tradition by Michael Mac Mahon

Aodh Buí Mac Crúitín (c.1680-1755)

Aodh Buí was born in the parish of Kilmacreehy (Liscannor) sometime around 1680.[63] He was a cousin and, for some period it is claimed, a pupil of his namesake Andrias of Moyglass.[64] Like Andrias, Aodh Buí belonged to the twilight of the classical bardic tradition when the rigid conventions of the bardic school were yielding to more modern metrical forms, and literary language. He was, however, exposed to wider literary influences than his older cousin, and consequently much of his poetry is the poetry of the high street rather than that of the bardic school.[65] It should be remembered too that Aodh Buí was proficient also in English, and in 1717 he published a book in English called A brief discourse in vindication of the Antiquity of Ireland.[66] Moreover, he travelled a good deal and spent considerable periods of his life away from his native county; approximately ten years in Dublin and another ten years on the Continent, mostly at Louvain and Paris.

Moving to Dublin sometime around 1713, Aodh Buí soon joined a coterie of Gaelic scholars and writers that met regularly in the neighbourhood of Christ Church. At the centre of the group were Tadhg O'Neachtain, a schoolmaster in the Liberties, whose family had come originally from Co.Roscommon, and his son Seán. Aodh Buí himself is said to have taught in the city and among his papers is a short grammar that he appears to have prepared for use in schools.[67] During this time also he collaborated with Jonathan Swift who was then compiling material for a history of Ireland.[68] Members of the Ó Neachtain Group were employed to assist in translating and transcribing the Irish texts for this project. It is clear that Aodh Buí quickly made his mark among the twenty or so writers and poets who made up the Liberties group. In a poem in which he has something to say about each of them in turn, Ó Neachtain reserves his highest accolade for Mac Curtin, describing him memorably as 'an crann os coill' i.e 'the tree above the forest':[69]

Aodh Mhac Curtán, an crann os coill,
Ailgmheasach Mumhan 'nois chanaim,
An file faobhrach [i] bhfriotal Fáil,
Feas a bhreath [i] measc na mórdhail.

([Of] Hugh Mac Curtin, the tree above the forest/most regarded in Munster, I sing/a poet accomplished in the culture of Ireland/ his judgement [the most] informed of all the gathering).

In fact the metaphor crann os gach coill is taken from one of Aodh Buí's own poems: Crann os gach coill, sliocht Eamhna, written in praise of Turlough Loughlin of Burren.[70]

It was during his time in Dublin that Aodh Buí published his Discourse in Vindication of the antiquity of Ireland, already referred to. It was based to a large extent on the Leabhar Ghabhála and on Keating's Foras Feasa ar Eirinn.[71] As MacCarvill has observed, this was the first work of 'vindication' published in English by a member of one of the hereditary learned families educated in Irish Schools of filíocht, féineachas and seanchas.[72] The book was dedicated to William Brien, 3rd Earl of Inchiquin (1666-1719), and printed at the Sign of the Printing Press, Copper Alley, Dublin. The first part deals with the early history of Ireland down to the coming of St. Patrick. The second part covers important events down to the year 1171. As one might expect from a poet who enjoyed the patronage of his lineal descendants, the heroic deeds of Brian Ború are lavishly extolled. The book had a wide circulation and many of the foremost families in the country are represented in the list of subscribers.

Aodh Buí’s dedication to A brief discourse in vindication of the Antiquity of Ireland
Aodh Buí’s dedication to A brief discourse
in vindication of the Antiquity of Ireland

The publication of the Discourse was not without its own particular drama. The hyperbole used in the pre-publication notices had the effect of raising the hackles of certain establishment figures, among them Sir Richard Cox, Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench and an official censor. But the chief justice, as events would show, had his own personal reason for taking umbrage at the forthcoming publication: it had come to his notice that the Discourse contained a trenchant attack on himself, and its author was not mincing his words. The reason for Aodh Buí's animosity towards Cox can be simply stated: some years earlier the chief justice, a Corkman by birth, had published a book which was seen in some quarters as disparaging of the Irish as a race. Among other things, the author had stated the great advantage it was to Ireland to be under the civilising influence of the Crown of England; and he had even gone so far as to express his concurrence with Campion's nefarious remark that 'the Irish were beholding to God for being conquered'.[73] Now, to his annoyance, he was about to be given a history lesson in public by one Hugh Mac Curtin; nor did it lessen his ire to discover, as no doubt he did, that his critic was a popish schoolmaster – an occupation that did not sit easily with the anti-popery laws of eighteenth-century Ireland! Precisely what happened next is unclear, but it appears that Aodh Buí was committed to Newgate prison for a year in the hope, as his biographer seems to think, that his incarceration would prevent the publication of his Discourse.[74] Significantly, however, no charge was preferred against him, and in the end he appears to have been quietly released, a circumstance which it is thought may have been due to the intervention of an old patron, Sir Edward O'Brien of Dromoland.[75]

A New Gentry
Like his fellow poets of the eighteenth century many of Aodh Buí's themes have to do with the passing of the old order and the downfall and oppression of his countrymen. The old aristocratic families who cherished the native learning and patronised its exponents are displaced, and an entirely new culture and a new language are now in fashion:

Gur éirigh Gallda agus ceannuithe caola an chruas
Is tréimhse eatorra ag teagasc a mbéas don tslua;
Do réir mar mealladh a mbailte do b'aolda snua,
Tá Béarla i bhfaisin go tairis is an Gaeilge fuar.

[The foreigners and their cunning and hard-nosed merchants are now in the ascendant, their manners and culture taking over; and, as the old white-washed villages are being levelled, the English language is flourishing and Irish is fading.][77]

Not surprisingly the poets showed a particular disdain for the new landowning stock that replaced the old proprietors, often referring to them pejoratively as - céardaibh (tradesmen), bodaigh na heorna (churls of the corn), másaigh (big-bottomed) etc. In fact several landed Mac Curtins of Kilmacreehy, among them probably some of Aodh Buí's own relatives, had been reduced in the 1660s from proprietors to tenants of new Protestant landlords.[78] Not all of the new proprietors were foreign planters; many native, upwardly mobile middlemen and sub-tenants benefited from the new dispensation, becoming agents for the new landlords, or in some instances outbidding the fallen noblemen for rents and leases. What the poets found particularly galling was the fact that these jumped-up 'aristocrats', many of them turned protestant and given to aping English ways, liked to appear at every fair and pattern in fashionable dress, often claiming kinship with old Gaelic aristocratic families and sometimes even adopting their names. These people were the targets of Aodh Buí's sharpest diatribes:

Má eiríonn ballach go beacht ina édaigh nua
'S go bhfeadfadh hata do cheannach má daor a luach;
'S Béarla a labhairt is gairid go ndéarfadh an fuad
Dar faith! Má mhairim beidh gairm Uí Néill dom uaidh.

[If one of those windbags, dolled-up in his flashy attire, can lay his hands on an expensive hat and manage a few words of English he'll delude himself that he's one of the gentry. Before long you'll hear the wretch proclaim: "By faith! As sure as I live I come from the same stock as the O’Neills".]

To crown it all these churls were invariably let go unchallenged for those who could argue the toss with them about their spurious lineages were getting fewer now that the poets were neglected and native lore and genealogy were no longer cherished:

Tá an éigse balbh ós acu tá scéal gach slua,
Is ní feid siad camadh na dteangain chun Béarla lua,
Tá an méid seo mhaireas de mhaithibh na Gaeil, monuar
Gan dréachta snasta le haithris na néacht do chuaidh.

[The learned are silent – [even though] they have the genealogies of all/but they cannot twist their tongues to the foreign speech/and those of the old gentry that now remain, my shame!/They have no interest in the records of past glories.]

Aodh Buí continues his tirade on the new proprietors in another memorable poem of some twenty lines entitled Do Chlann Tomáis. The title is obviously inspired by Páirlimint Chlainne Tomáis (The parliament of Clan Thomas), a stinging prose satire on the rural labourers of south-west Munster in the early seventeenth century.[80] At one point in the narrative these rustics – the Clan Thomáis – take to aping the aristocracy by dyeing their clothes blue and red, and by seeking by every means they can think of to acquire land. In similar vein Aodh Buí directs his sarcasm at the current "buaileam sciaths"[81] who make spurious claims to aristocratic lineages. The poem describes the vulgarity and raucous behaviour of these 'cardboard aristocrats' at the drinks stall on fair days. Each gombeen with a few shillings in his pocket boasts about his ancestry until, flushed with drink and arrogance, he lets his mask slip and his true nature is revealed. More often than not the day ends in brawling and fisticuffs.

Ar aonach má théid siad uair de ló.[82]
Bíon béabhar ar bhaothluig i mbuaic a shrón
A' déanamh na scléipe nár dhualgas dóibh
Á chaolsporaibh gléasta is a mbhuatais chrón,

Téid siad le chéile an scuaine ag ól
Is ní féidir a n-éisteacht le fuaim a ngeóin;
An uair théifid a mbéalaibh le cuacha teo
Bíonn gaol ag gach naon díobh leis an uaisle is mó.

Déarfaidh an braobaire is buartha den chóip,
Is mé féin is mo chéile is uaisle ar bórd,
Is ó Éibhear Mac Éibhir do ghluais mo phór
Is tá gaol ag Ó Néill thoir, dar Duach le Mór.

Béarfar an t-éiteach gan fuaradh dhó,
Is beidh spéice ag gach naon acu thuas 'na dhóid,
Pléascfaid a chéile le tuargainti tréan
'S is bog réabtha beidh béil acu, cluasa is srón

Extract from Ms. 23 0 27 courtesy of the Royal Irish Academy
Extract from Ms. 23 0 27 courtesy of the Royal Irish Academy

At fair and market they strut and pose
Each clod with a beaver on top of his nose,
Aping nobility that none of them knew,
In tan coloured boots and riding spurs too.

When they go drinking - all in a flock!
They fill the bar with their raucous craic,
And after one sip from the whiskey glass
They’ll talk of naught but “Upper Class”.

Some hair-brained yob will be heard to swear:
“Myself and my wife are the best in the bar -
From Lord Mac Éibhir came all her stock,
And O’Neill and myself are chips of one block”.

He’ll be given the lie, and without delay,
Fists are flying and there’s hell to pay,
The kicks and blows fly left and right
As the yellow-pack gentry revert to type.

Other Themes
Aodh Buí's poetry is journalistic in its range and the various themes add up to a wide repertoire. The marriage of Isabel, daughter of Christopher O’Brien of Ennistymon, to Charles (Sorley) Mc Donnell of Kilkee in 1718 is the subject of a much-copied poem. Beginning with the line A ghéis ghartha gléigeal, a bheith mhaiseach bheasach, the poem is better known in English to day from James Clarence Mangan's moving translation under the title O Swan of bright Plumage:

O Swan of bright plumage! O maiden who bearest
The stamp on thy brow of Dalcassia’s high race
With mouth of rich pearl-teeth, and features the fairest,
And speech of a sweetness for music to trace….[83]

Among Aodh Buí's most faithful patrons were the O’Loughlins of Burren and some of his best poems are about members of that family. We have already mentioned Crann os gach coill craobh Eamhna written in praise of Turlough O’Loughlin. Another is Tuar guil, a cholaim, do cheol ("Ó, Dove, your song is cause for tears"). Like Clann Tomáis, this poem too is published with a translation in An Duanaire.[84] The poem is a lament for the demise of the O’Loughlins of Seanmuicinis castle on the shores of Galway Bay. It has all the enchantment and pathos of Cill Chais particularly the lines that recall the sights and sounds that once delighted the visitor at that place:

An múr 'na aonar anocht
Ina gcluininn gáir chrot is chliar,
Gáir na bhfleadh bhfairsing fó fhion
Gáir bhrughadh ag díol a bhfiach,
Gáir laoch ag liomadh a n-arm
Gáir na stoic in am na gcean,
Gáir fhithcheall dá gcur i luas
Gáir na suadh as leabhraibh sean,
Gáir bionnfhochlach na mban séimh,
Dream do thuigeadh céill ar gceast…

Tonight the walls are lonely
Where we once heard harps and poets
Ample feasting round the wine,
Guestmasters about their duties
Sounds of cattle in times of plunder
The sound of gulls in the sea-cave.
The sound of chess fought hard,
Wise men's voices over old books
Sweet word-murmur of gentle women
They would understand our grief.

It is the O’Loughlins again that provide the inspiration for one of Aodh Bui’s most celebrated poems. It is called An Bhreach Bhóirne, after a ship of that name owned by the O’Loughlin princes of Burren :

Beannaigh an bharc bláthshnuite béal-chumtha
Beannaigh an áirc arrachtach éis-iumdha,
Beannaigh an sál shnáimhfeas a Dhé dhúilim
Le gach calaithe, an tráth tráchtas i bhféiciúine.

Ciúin cothrom ceart do chrothas gal na gaoithe a seol,
'S is dlúth torainn-mhear do sgoilteas sreabh na taoide i gcóir
An bhrú bholg-bhreac gan doichte ar dteacht na síne i dtreóir
'S ní fiú borb-bharc, ar sonna slat, a maíomh 'na deóig.

Na deóig 's marbh na maranna is bríomhar béad,
'S ní bródach bagar a hanaithe ag sníomh a dtéad,
An bhocna ar lasa mar ghearras a cíle créacht,
'S i meón a hanaithe a fearaibh ag maíomh a héacht.

In this poem of just twelve lines the Breach Bóirne is a counterpoise between man and the elemental forces of the sea. All the tumult of the waves, and the elegance and indestructibility of the ship are portrayed in a construct that is shot through with imagery and a felicity of expression that could never be recaptured in translation. Indeed, no less a scholar than the late Fr. Pádraic Ó Fiannachta once remarked that An Bhreach Bóirne was "beyond translation".[86] Here a glossary is offered instead to assist the reader to get a sense of the imagery employed.

[Éis-iumdha = Leaving many tracks; an sál= salt-water, the ocean; An tráth thráchtfas = nuair a ghluaisfí….; féchiúine = ciúnas, calm; brú=breast, arthach; ar dteacht na síne… when boisterous weather gains the ascendant; L.9 Marana= pl. of muir; béad= calamity…i.e. The most calamitous seas lie dead in its wake; cile= keel; Slat sonna. Slat=a strip near the gunwale (called the Plimsoll line) when loading boats e.g. lán go slait= full to the gunwale. Ar sonaslat, a mhaíomh…. the finest hooker, however shapely its gunnel, is not worth speaking of in comparison; An bhocna etc [l.11]…the ocean aflame from the wounding of her keel. Bródach =, proud; Téad= rope, rigging.]

On the Continent
Aodh Buí had reached middle age when he went abroad, going first to Louvain sometime before 1728. There, with the assistance of the Franciscans in St. Anthony's College he published an Irish Grammar, the first of its kind in English, one which it seems he had begun many years before while he was in jail in Newgate.[87] In the introduction he refers once again to the neglect of the Irish language by those who should know better:

"…if they would reflect on this matter they might see through the glass of their own reason, how strange it seems to the world, that any people should scorn the language wherein the whole treasure of their own antiquity and profound sciences lie in obscurity."[88]

The Later Years
After Louvain Aodh Buí served for a short time in Lord Clare's regiment of the Irish Brigade, enlisting at Flanders in October 1728 at the age of 48.[89] He left the service in August of the following year. We next hear of him in Paris where he collaborated with Fr. Conor Begley in the preparation of an English-Irish Dictionary which was printed there in 1732. Included in the publication is a long introductory poem by Aodh Buí himself which begins: A uaisle Éireann Áille.[90] In this poem he exhorts his countrymen and women in language reminiscent of Pearse in later times not to forsake their language and culture:

Trom an taom do thárla daoibh
Idir mhnáibh 's macaoimh
Ag séanadh seanrádh bhur sean
Comhrá soluis bhur sinnsear.

[Great is the malady that has befallen you/men and women of Ireland /forsaking the lore of your elders/the noble heritage of your forbears.]

It ends with the warning:

Má tráightear tiobraid an fhís
Leabhar uama 's iris
Ní scrios gan fios
Bhur gceimeann cothrom.

(When the springs of culture dry up/- the poem books and histories/…that is the greatest annihilation of all i.e. the annihilation of a culture.)

As Tomás O’Rahilly has pointed out, the inclusion of this poem in the printed work earned Aodh Buí the distinction of being 'the only poet during the whole of the eighteenth century whoever saw a line of his own work in print'.[91]

Returning to Ireland around 1738 Aodh Buí lived for a while in Limerick before returning again to Clare where it is said he taught for several years in his native Kilmacreehy. The walls of the school at a place called Cnochán-an-Áird as well as the ruins of the poet's house at Corra an Fhile were still standing when Seamas Mac Curtin wrote his biographical sketch probably around 1847.[92] Aodh Buí's final years were spent with his two daughters at Corofin, where he died in 1755. He is buried in Corofin, in the old churchyard of Kilvoydan beside the village.[93] It is said that after his death the genealogies which he left behind provided a major source of income for his daughters. We get oblique evidence of this from a letter dated 23 September, 1761 from the genealogist, Thomas "Chevalier" O’Gorman in Paris, to Sir Edward O’Brien at Dromoland:

"If Mac Curtin's daughters who live at Corofin don’t choose to part for any time with this book which I look upon to be the chief part of their subsistence it is necessary you would get a notary public to take an authentic copy of page 50 who will take care to set forth in his affidavit that the whole text of the page appears to be wrote by the same hand…"[94]

The background to this correspondence was an attempt by some members of the O’Briens of Lismore, then living in France, to obtain a certificate of nobility by claiming kinship with the Thomond O’Briens. It seems that while in Paris Mac Curtin had furnished the Lismores, "then intriguing for preferences", with a genealogy that lent some colour to their claim.

Writing in the 1970s Liam Ó Luanaigh recalled some folk memories of Aodh Buí that were current in his young days among the older people in Kilmacreehy.[95] One story recalled an occasion when the poet, returning home hungry and exhausted from one of his travels, called to the house of a well-to-do, but tight-fisted couple, a farmer and his wife named O’Donovan. He had come to within a few paces of the door before the couple became aware of his approach. The mid-day meal was cooking over the kitchen fire, but the O’Donovans were never ones to share with a visitor, least of all with a strolling bard. There followed a flurry of activity as Mrs. O’Donovan hustled the pot to another room, while her husband parried the stranger with small talk at the door. But the aroma from the pot lingered to proclaim the existence of the 'take-away', and Mac Curtin instantly realised what was afoot. When asked by the farmer: An bhfuil aon sgéal nua agat? ("Have you any news"?) he is said to have replied:

Táim bliadhain is trí fichid um inid tá chughainn a’triail
Mar comhartha go bhfuilim nil ribe im’ chúl nach liath,
Ach iontas ní fhacas i n-amharc mo shúile riamh
Acht an siubhal a tháinig do’n phota sa t-seomra siar.

(In over sixty years of wandering – which the greyness of my hair doth proclaim - my eyes have never seen a greater marvel than the speed at which that pot walked to the other room!)

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