“Lament for Art O’Leary” –Malachi McCormick tells the story behind one of the great Irish poems.

You can find this famous Irish poem in the Stone Street Press’s list. And because so few people know the fascinating story behind the poem, I thought I would quote at length from my introduction to it that I wrote some years ago.

I note now that I published it in May 1994. My mother, Ann O’Neill McCormick, of Mitchelstown and Cobh, Co. Cork had died that January –the book is dedicated to her memory. So, clearly, mourning and lamenting was very much in my mind.

H E R E W I T H, M Y I N T R O D U C T I O N
to “The Lament for Art O’Leary” by his wife Eileen Dubh O’Connell.

“This book is divided into two parts. The second part presents a new translation of “The Lament for Art O’Leary,” a remarkable 18th Century love poem, some 400 lines long. It was extemporized within the old Irish tradition of lamenting by Art’s distraught young widow, Eileen Dubh, of the famous O’Connell family of Derrynane (in Co. Kerry.)

The events of the poem happened in and around the town of Macroom in West Cork.

The reader should understand: Eileen Dubh composed this poem on the spot, so to speak. She did not write it down, nor indeed was it written down for many years afterwards, but rather carried in the memories of ordinary individuals.

The first part of the book takes a new look at the intriguing story behind the poem; the influences on Eileen Dubh that came to bear on her great achievement –mainly her extraordinary mother, Maire Dubh–; and the events that led up to the shooting of Art O’Leary. And it looks at the ancient tradition of the Irish caoinead (pronounced “kween-eh”) meaning “keen” or “lament.”
[Note: Keen is actually an anglicized pronunciation of the Irish word “caoinead”.]

T H E K I L L I N G O F A R T O’ L E A R Y
On the evening of May 4th, 1773, the handsome young Art O’Leary, 26, is riding his horse through the village of Carriganima near Macroom in West Cork. He crosses the footbridge over the river Keel.
The horse is a beautiful brown mare with a white star on its forehead; Art –who has been a Captain in Empress Maria Theresa’s Austrian Army– has brought it back with him from Vienna.
He wheels his horse left and heads for his home at Rath Laoi near Macroom, some five miles south on the coach road.
He does not get very far. Shots ring out. Art is mortally wounded. He falls to the ground near a sulphur-blossomed gorse bush. The startled horse gallops away.

Art O’Leary dies.

A short while later, Art’s wife, Eileen Dubh hears the horse in the courtyard at Rath Laoi, kicking the bolted door. Filled with foreboding, she runs to it. She leaps into the saddle. She sees Art’s blood. She claps her hands; the horse takes her back to Art’s lifeless body. Distraught, she reaches into her very soul in the time-honored fashion of the caoinead , and delivers a lamentation –in Irish– for her dead husband.

The result is one of the finest poems in the Irish language. And note: it was not written down! Eileen’s lamentation was completely extemporized, making it all the more extraordinary.

Eileen came from a famous Kerry family, the O’Connells of Derrynane. Through her mother, Maire Dubh, she was strongly connected to the old Gaelic tradition of lamenting the dead.


M A I R E D U B H, M O T H E R O F E I L E E N D U B H
“She was small and slight,” goes a contemporary account, “an active person. All her sons were tall. She was blonde haired, with hazel eyes.” It was, we are told, the conventional wisdom that “women of this description were the most energetic beings in the universe.”
Born in 1708 into another wellknown family, the O’Donoughues of Glenflesk, Maire Dubh married Donal Mor O’Connell c.1725. He was a “Big, handsome amiable man,” the kind, we are told, who like being dominated by small fair wives.”

She bore twenty-two children –about one a year– with the amiable Donal: 10 of them died. Eight daughters and four sons survived. Death –and lamentation– was ever present.
Effectively, the fortunes of the Derrynane O’Connells for the entire 18th Century were managed by the intriguing duo of Maire Dubh and her second son, Maurice, born in 1728. Maurice was known as “Hunting Cap” because of the headgear he chose to wear all his life, rather than pay the gentleman’s hat tax to the Crown, just another of the myriad demeaning Penal Laws. He was devoted “to his clever, keen-witted mother, from whom he got his practical shrewdness.”

The Derrynane household must have been an extraordinary environment for Eileen Dubh to grow up in, full of contrasts, tensions and stimulation. Somehow, the successive generations of O’Connell from 1601 on, had found ways of holding on to their ancestral lands, and of outsmarting English occupiers, or of avoiding confrontation. The last thing that the O’Connells wanted was to draw attention to themselves. When in 1753 a writer, one Charles Smyth, sought information about Kerry of Hunting Cap, he replied in stately, magisterial langiage: “We have peace in these glens, and amid their seclusion enjoy a respite from persecutuion: we can still in these solitudes profess the beloved faith of our fathers…but if you make any mention of me or mine, these seaside solitudes will no longer yield us an asylum. The Sassenac will scale the mountains of Derrynane, and we too shall be driven out upon the world without house or home.”

In a sentence or two, Hunting Cap sketches the abiding O’Connell strategy for surviving and prospering, and leaves us in no doubt as to the depth of his feeling about the Crown presence. His marriage in 1758 –the year of Eileen’s first marriage– produced no children. His portrait shows a sober, intelligent elegance. He lived 97 years, until 1825.

He insisted on writing his own epitaph –“…lest it be too fulsome.” He wrote: “The chief ambition of his long and Prosperous life was to elevate an Ancient Family from unmerited and unjust oppression.”
Though he died four years before Catholic Emancipation in 1829, his nephew and protege, Daniel, would be the instrument of his –and Ireland’s– “chief ambition.”

[Coming next:

“Of Maire Dubh’s many vocations, it was poetry which lay at the center of her being….”

[Copyright: Malachi McCormick/ Stone Street Press, 1994]

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