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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. He was a cousin and, for some period it is claimed, a pupil of his namesake Andrias of Moyglass. 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. 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. 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. During this time also he collaborated with Jonathan Swift who was then compiling material for a history of Ireland. 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':
Aodh Mhac Curtán, an crann os coill,
([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.
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. 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. 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.
A New Gentry
Gur éirigh Gallda agus ceannuithe caola an
[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.]
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. 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
[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,
[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. 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" 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.
Téid siad le chéile an scuaine ag ól
Déarfaidh an braobaire is buartha den chóip,
Béarfar an t-éiteach gan fuaradh dhó,
At fair and market they strut and pose
When they go drinking - all in a flock!
Some hair-brained yob will be heard to swear:
He’ll be given the lie, and without delay,
O Swan of bright plumage! O maiden who bearest
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. 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
Tonight the walls are lonely
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
Ciúin cothrom ceart do chrothas gal na gaoithe
Na deóig 's marbh na maranna is bríomhar
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". 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
"…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."
The Later Years
Trom an taom do thárla daoibh
[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
(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'.
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. 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. 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…"
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.
Táim bliadhain is trí fichid um inid
tá chughainn a’triail
(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!)