“The Lament for Art O’Leary”: Part 5 of my introduction to the famous Irish poem by Art’s wife, Eileen Dubh O’Connell (1773).

Some months ago I posted four sections of the introduction I wrote for one of the most popular of my handmade books at The Stone Street Press. I had intended to post the rest of it, but did not do so –until now.

I don’t know if I will finish it in one sitting, but here at least is “the beginning of the end”

[Incidentally the reviewer of my book at The Cork Examiner –now The Irish Examiner– in his review commented “You’d have to go a long way to find a more beautiful book!”
Well! What could I say!

I’ve had in my time probably more than my share of wonderful reviews, but this one…took the cake! Or is it the biscuit?]

In any event, I hope you enjoy the rest of this most fascinating story and poem:

INTRODUCTION: continued–

“We are privileged to be able to know
Maire Dubh, Eileen’s mother, thanks to
her well-recorded life. A classic bean-
caointe, she was steeped in the tradition
but –one would think– no more than any-
one else around her. It is as if she had a
calling, that she felt more keenly the
need to observe and administer the trad-
itions. Her position, her passion, her
poetry, her great sense of responsibility
all brought Maire Dubh to the fore as
bean caointe: Derrynane and its environs
would be her “parish” for nearly a century.

It was believed that when a great bean
caointe died she became a banshee (bean
sidhe), a presence living on in the mount-
ains and the valleys, and the woods,
requiring continuing proper observance.

The keen was a direct address to the
corpse, sung –ideally– in its presence.The
noted scholar, Father Dineen, defined the
bean caointe as “gifted with a plaintive
voice …(and) able to put her thoughts into
verse without too much premeditation.”

P.W. Joyce, in 1873, wrote: “There are
usually in a neighborhood, two or three
women, who are skilled beyond others in
keening, and who make a practice of
attending at wakes and funeral. These
often pour forth over the dead person, a
lament in Irish –partly extempore,
partly prepared– delivered in a kind of
plaintive recitative; and at the
conclusion of each verse, they lead a
choral cry, in which others who are
present join, repeating throughout,
‘ochone’!” (Alas!”) or some such words.

The keen began with the Salutation.
Eyes closed, and rocking back and forth, the
bean caointe intoned to herself the name
of the deceased, or a term of endearment,
as if to focus in on her subject and
induce inspiration. The other mourners
took this up. Stock opening lines were
much used: “Caoine Art O’Laoghaire” has
several, some occurring more than once.

Next, in The Dirge –or verse– the dead
person is extolled. The extemporized (or
sometimes prepared) verses were always
sung: usual themes were the character,
virtues, and achievements of the depart-
ed; genealogical data; premonitions & dreams;
declamations of enemies, and so on.

The third stage –The Choral Cry– comes
at the end of each verse.

[] [] [] [] []

Thus, the bean caointe has a formal
structure to work within, and stock lines
and images to draw on. In this way, she
is not unlike a jazz musician improvising
from within a known chord sequence –but
the bean caointe has the more onerous
burden of verbal intelligibility.

Though the caoine tradition goes back
to earliest times, historical references
start about 1200 A.D. The Four Masters (in
1322 A.D.) mention a caoine. A 1786 music
book has a keen, “Gol na mna san ar” (“The
cry of the women at the massacre,”) first
sung about 1650 by a band of womemn as
they searched a bloody battlefield near
Buttevant, Co. Cork, for the bodies of their
husbands who had been slaughtered by
Cromwell.

Eileen Dubh’s lament was made in 1773
and there were other well-known laments
from this century and well into the 1800’s

But a threat to the tradition had been
developing: Irish, the language of the caoine,
was slowly disappearing. (There is probably
no fundamental reason why caoine’s could
not be composed in English, but equally,
there is probably no fundamental reason
why there should be no English tradition
of lament.) The bean caointe was losing
her voice just as the century of hunger
and anger and death came to Ireland.

My grandmother had a saying, “We can’t find
grief for everything.” Now the limits of grief
would be tested.

[End of segment: I will conclude the
introduction in my next posting. In this
I make a comparison between the caoine
and the church traditions –a comparison
that was very fresh in my mind from the
sad and moving occasion of my own
mother’s death in 1994.

It strikes me as odd –at the time of
writing in February 2010– that my
mother is again very much in my thoughts
as I finish my own long story-poem
about her and her cousin Liam Lynch
Chief-of-staff of the Irish Republican
Army in the Irish Civil War of 1922-
1923 (which ended when Liam was
shot dead at the age of 29, in April,
1923 –the last shot fired in that
bitter civil war!)

Their lives were very intertwined.
They both grew up in or near the
town of Mitchelstown in County Cork,
and as a young man Liam had worked
as an apprentice in my grandfather’s
hardware store. Their two families were
very close and frequent visitors.

My long poem tells the story of their lives
and examines closely the factors that
combined to make the young Liam such an
extraordinary and heroic but ultimately
a tragic figure in Ireland’s fierce struggle
for freedom from 1916 to 1923,
–pivotal in the lives of Michael Collins,
DeValera and Churchill in Ireland– and turn out
to be the one who, with his casting vote,
could have ended the Civil War.

But didn’t.

It is said that he was on his way to
accept the truce the day he was gunned
down –a truce he had turned down
several times beforehand!

Liam Lynch is truly a tragic figure in
Ireland’s recent history –a young man who
if he had signed the truce one day before
would probably have been seen as one of its
great heroes.
His dying words: “This should never have
happened.”

Which will be the title of the book —
” This should never have happened.”

My book is almost ready –there is a little
more preparatory work to do, especially the
calligraphing of the text ( some 2000
lines in all!). You can actually reserve your
signed copy or copies by email right now.

(If buying it happens to be outside your budget,
don’t worry –I plan to post large sections of it right here
in this blog.)

After two years of being completely absorbed
in this very satisfying project,
I am looking forward to going out and doing
readings and other appearances, and
presenting an important subject with
as much compassionate objectivity,
(and as much of the Venerable Bede’s
“Outstanding Moderation”) as
I can muster in these low days of toxic
polarization.

Wish me luck!


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