“The Lament for Art O’Leary” –My Introduction to the famous Irish poem by his wife, Eileen Dubh O’Connell (1773)

[Note: This is Part Two of my Introduction. Be sure to read Part One that I posted yesterday.]


“There seems to have been no limit to what the energetic and resourceful Maire Dubh could turn her hand to, and it is staggering to consider her household responsibilities.
First we must remember that she was permanently pregnant for about 25 years. There was all the care of raising the twelve surviving children, feeding, clothing, educating (-in times of Penal restriction.)
There was the running of the household, a laborious business in 18th C. rural Ireland. All water had to be carried. All heat came from turf fires, which meant cutting and saving turf. Maire Dubh was famous for her blazing fires, and open-door hospitality. Anyone who came in was fed a hot meal. For bread: the wheat was grown, threshed, ground for flour, the bread baked, white cakes, at times, for the family, and brack (wholewheat) for the rest. There was a dairy for milk, cheese and eggs. Maire Dubh, so generous in most ways, was so obsessively tight with her eggs, that she was called, behind her back, “Pianta na Uba,” which translates to the wonderful “Egg-tormented.”
All butter was churned. Vegetable and fruit gardens were maintained. Sloke, dulse, –edible seaweeds– were gathered. There was a slaughterhouse; meats were preserved in salt. Fish was a feature of the diet; fisheries were maintained. A Friday visitor to Derrynane observed eight different kinds of fish on the table.
Saltmaking was a major operation. Hides were tanned. All shoes had to be handmade. All horse harness was made; all horse shoes forged. All lighting was by candles, which were made from tallow.
All clothes had to be made. Sheep were sheared for wool, flax harvested for linen, which then was carded and spun. Maire Dubh kept time for her spinners with one of her own rhymes:
Hasten, O women (Brostaig a mna)
Spin your fine thread (caolaig a snat)
Women without hunger, (mna gan ocras)
Spinning steadily.( ag turainn socaire.)

The wool and flax yarns were then used for weaving or knitting, sources of all clothing –save for the silks, cambrics and other fine fabrics, continental barter-imports directly into Derrynane harbor. The fine linen thread was used for lacemaking, a high art in Ireland.
Tenants had to be supervised; farms managed; rents collected; workers paid. Maire Dubh was paymaster. She was famous for her payday motto, issued to each in turn with the wages: “God bless your wages, my love,” –to which she added a darker, “–or otherwise, according to how you earned them!”.

But of Maire Dubh’s many vocations, it was poetry which lay at the center of her being. She was the keeper of the traditional Irish ways. The O’Connell men spoke English outside, and to each other. Maire Dubh and the women spoke Irish. Some of the men dropped the “O'” from their surname to avoid identification as Catholic. Not Maire Dubh.
She was raised with poets and with poetry. Some newly “redundant” poets –famous Piaras Ferriter was one– were taken in and looked after by her recent forebears. As a girl, she herself grew up with the one-and-only Egan O’Rahilly living under the same roof: she was 18 when he died in 1726. Egan’s poetry is one long lament for the passing of the old ways: the two must have been kindred souls.
She was known for her poetry, her work rhymes, her singing, or her penetrating language and her pithy rejoinders. And she was known for her laments. It was a folk belief that when a bean caointe died, she became a banshee: after her death, Maire Dubh would live on in the mountains and the glens –and in the hearts and minds of the people.
And, of course, in Eileen Dubh.

In 1751 an incident occurred at a wake that must have impressed a young Eileen, aged about 7 at the time. Maire Dubh’s eldest son, John, died. At the wake she keened her lament. A relative, a Mrs Charles Philip O’Connell –accustomed only to city life and ignorant of the ways of the traditional wake– fell on her knees next to the laid-out corpse and began to pray silently.
Suddenly, Maire Dubh began to reproach her violently for uttering no words of praise or sorrow over her son. She clapped her hands and called out in Irish, “Where 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?”
Mrs. C.P. O’Connell excused herself, She said she had spent most of her life in Cork City, where no keens were recited. There it was etiquette to pray in silence.
Where we might anticipate obduracy, Maire Dubh instead shows her big heart. She is touched by the woman’s prayer; she calls out, in Irish, “Do foscail an paidir me,” (“The prayer opend me up.”) And, we are told, her tears flowed.

Such a dramatic exchange –a confrontation of Irish tradition with new anglicizing currents– must have impressed the young Eileen mightily.

[End of Part Two. In the next section, I give some more details about the young Eileen. Her parents “gave her in marriage” –at age fourteen, to a Mr. O’Connor of Fines, an “old man” who dies within six months. An ominous development, and indeed –apparently– there were omens to mark it. As the superannuated Mr. O’Connor lifted his new bride over the threshold, a string of a harp that was hanging in the O’Connor hallway, suddenly snapped –an unpropitious omen indeed.]

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