“The Lament for Art O’Leary” Part 4 of my Introduction to the famous Irish poem by his wife, Eileen Dubh O’Connell

(1773) The Irish Wake.

I hope you all are enjoying my introduction to the fascinating story of “The Lament for Art O’Leary” –without doubt, one of the truly great Irish poems in the Irish language.
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We continue where we left off:
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“Abraham Morris was the High-Sheriff in the district. He lived at Hanover Hall, near Macroom. It seems there had been bad blood between Art and himself for some time. It is said to have begun –unoriginally enough– over “a woman at a dance.” Art and Morris seemed fated to disagree.
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The infamous Penal Laws had been in existence in Ireland since 1691. They were many, oppressive and demeaning. One of them –that a Protestant could buy any horse from a Catholic for no more than 5 Pounds– is important in the unfloding tragedy.
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But these laws were now 80 years old, and most people on either side had worked out –more or less– a modus vivendi.
Not Art and Morris! Wild Art, captain in the famous cavalry Hungarian Hussars –the word means ‘freebooter, pirate’– was home and feeling his oats. As a horseman he was magnificent: it seems he was also a frightful showoff. He had brought his Hungarian steed home with him, riding it across Europe. Decked out in the hunting jacket that Eileen had bought for him (bright scarlet, at a guess) Art left everybody –Morris included– way behind at the hunt. With his silver-hilted sword, he was a menacing figure in the saddle.
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At the Macroom races, he beat Morris’s horse handily. He may have tried to humiliate Morris, to rub it in before the crowd. If Art provoked, Morris invoked the 5 Pound law –almost unheard of then– requiring Art to sell his prized horse to him. Art refuses. It is said he challenged Morris to a duel, but Morris, invoking another law, will not fight a Papist. Art strikes him. Morris has Art declared an outlaw.
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The chronological flow of events here is uncertain. But, on July 13th, 1771, Art calls at Morris’s house. Morris’s notice in the Cork Evening Post accuses Art of trying to kill him. He offers 20 Pounds to anyone who will arrest “said Leary” and lodge him in the county gaol.
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Two weeks later “said Leary’s” account appears: we read of Art’s “very modest & respectful” visit which drew “unexplicable violence from Morris.” Unprovoked, he “fell into a furious rage, and made use of very indecent…ungentlemanlike language,” –all very distressing, no doubt, to a freebooting Hussar. A civil Art withdraws; is pursued, shot, wounded, was “lucky to escape with his life.” He hopes “the public and the authorities will suspend judgment until the merits of the case receive an impartial trial.” (We recognize the old “Where were you? Out. What were you doing? Nothing,” defense.)
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But Art’s situation is worsening. One story tells of Crown soldiers coming to Rath Laoi to arrest him, but he and Eileen drive them off –she loads the guns, Art lets them have it.
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Three weeks before his death, Art, it seems, visits Hunting Cap –ever aloof to Art– at Derrynane: what ever his purpose there, it comes to nought. (It would be close on 20 years after eloping before Eileen returned there.) Now, Art is back at Rath Laoi, ready for the final tragic act with Morris.
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THE BEAN CAOINTE AND THE PRIEST
What a dramatic moment it must have been at that wake in Derrynane in 1751 when Maire Dubh so roundly castigated her relative from Cork City, Mrs Charles Philip O’Connell, for kneeling and praying silently by Maire’s son John’s corpse.
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“Where,” she cried, “are the dark women of the glens, who would keen and clap their hands, and would not say a prayer until he was laid in the grave?”
The room is taut with tensions: even the very names of the two women tell us that ‘Maire Dubh’ and ‘Mrs. Charles Philip O’Connell’ are from two different worlds. One is rural and could hardly be more Irish. The woman from Cork City goes by her husband’s name: his two forenames are foreign imports. (They celebrate the Bonnie Prince and Philip of Spain –two hoped-for deliverers who never delivered.)
Then there is the clash of mourning systems: the vocal tradition of Maire Dubh, ‘bean caointe,’ versus the new anglicized style of the silent generic prayer, with “no words of praise or sorrow” for the dead person.
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And there is that line-of-demarcation dispute implicit in Maire Dubh’s “…not say a prayer until he was laid in the grave.” She is telling us that in 1751, in a proper death ritual, all that went on before the burial was the preserve of the bean caointe and her “dark women”, and that the burial service –the interment– fell to the church and the priest.
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There are several recorded instances of mna caointe complaining about priests intruding on their ministry. Clearly, the two traditions competed for turf. The older caoine tradition did things in a local and uniquely Irish way, in contrast to the universal, institutionalizing practices of the church.


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