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|Clare’s Gaelic Bardic Tradition by Michael Mac Mahon|
Michéal Ó Coimín
After the Mac Curtins, Michéal Ó Coimín comes next in a group of four poets frequently linked by association in the literature of eighteenth century Clare. The last and, indeed, the only one of the group, of whose work we have a comprehensive published edition, is Seán Ó hUaithnín of Kilshanny. All four are the subject of two short biographical sketches written within a few years of each other around the middle of the nineteenth century. One of these is in English, written by James Mac Curtin, the self-styled "last bard of Thomond"; the other in Irish from the pen of Micheál Ó Raghallaigh, a well-known Ennistymon scribe. Mac Curtin's note on Micheál Ó Coimín (Michael Comyn) reads as follows:
Michael Comyn lived at Kilcorcoran within a mile of Miltown Malbay…. He belonged to the Protestant profession and observed better household economy than any of his contemporary bards: hence he maintained a regular independence for life and left his next heir so well circumstanced as to get very respectable connections, and to support the title Justice of the Peace. Little however can now be recorded of this bard besides his productions, and of these few have transpired to posterity, the chief part having been committed to the flames after his death by his son Edmund Comyn. It is to be regretted that any prejudice or affection should have induced the son to destroy the effusions of so judicious a father…
Ó Raghallaigh's account broadly concurs with that given by Mac Curtin, although he cites Edward's embarrassment at his father's dalliance with poetry as the reason for the burning of the manuscripts. It should be said, however, that this version of events is entirely at odds with the local tradition. The story current among the poet's neighbours was that it was his wife, not his son, who consigned the papers to the flames. It seems that Ó Coimín was married twice and Edmund was a son of the first marriage. It is said that the second wife, jealous of the special place which she perceived her step-son to hold in his father's affections, caused the manuscripts to be secretly destroyed in a spiteful attempt to poison relations between father and son. In truth it matters very little which version we choose to believe; what is of far greater importance is that among the eight or nine of Ó Coimín's poems which have come down to us is the Fenian lay - Laoi Óisín ar Tír na nÓg – a work that will secure his reputation for as long as Irish poetry is read. This haunting ballad of some six hundred and thirty-six lines is one of the loveliest of all the so-called Ossianic poems composed by various authors since medieval times. And, remarkably, it is also said to be the only one of that genré whose authorship we know. A universal theme of the Ossianic literature, or Fiannaíocht as it was known, in both prose and poetry is the heroics of Finn Mac Cumhail and the Fianna – the Irish counterparts of King Arthur and his chivalrous knights. Of the later Ossianic poetry the typical form is the ballad, semi-dramatic in form, usually consisting of a dialogue between Óisín and St. Patrick.
Ó Coimín's lay adheres to this model. St. Patrick asks Óisín to relate how he survived the downfall of the Fianna after the great battle of Gabhra. In reply Oisín relates that Finn and his warriors were hunting a deer on the shores of Loch Lein when they encountered a beautiful lady – the golden-haired Niamh. She suddenly appeared, mounted on a white steed, apparently out of the sea. She approached Finn and told him she had come from the Land of Youth, had heard of the valour and mighty deeds of his son, Óisín, she had fallen in love with him and desired him to go with her to Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth. She described the charms of the lovely land from whence she has come and Óisín gladly consented to go away with her.
'Sí an tír is aoibhne le fáil,
Is fairsing innti mil is fion,
On fairer land no setting sun
Bounteous there the honey and wine -
There, after a fashion reminiscent of Tennyson's Lotus Eaters, the couple settled down to a life of uninterrupted bliss. Óisín, however, having sampled all the delights of Tír na nÓg, hankers after his old colleagues and desires to pay them a visit. Niamh tries by every means to dissuade him, and only after much weeping and pleading does she finally consent to let him go. But first she solemnly pledges him not to dismount from his horse, or he will never be able to return to the Land of Youth.
Adeirim leat-sa arís gan ghó
I tell thee truly vain's thy might
Faithfully agreeing to honour the pledge, Oisin returns to Erin only to find that all traces of the Fianna have vanished and their once famed banquet halls are but mounds of grass. To his amazement he discovers that he has been away for three hundred years. Realising that his journey has been in vain, he prepares to return to Tír na nÓg. Just then he encounters a party of men struggling with a large boulder. Moved to pity by their helplessness, he responds to their pleas for assistance and leans down from his horse to help. He moves the stone with ease but, in the effort, the girth of his saddle breaks, and he literally 'comes down to earth'. In that instant he loses his aura of immortality and resumes his mortal life, a decrepit and companionless old man.
Between the Lines:
The conception of bringing the spirit of paganism and of Christianity together in the person of the last great poet and warrior of the one, and the first great saint of the other, was truly dramatic in its conception…I think it nearly certain that in former days there was real acting and a dialogue between two persons, one representing the saint and the other the old pagan. It was from a less promising beginning that the drama of Æschylus developed.
There is little doubt that the Laoi Óisín had its genesis in a folktale, one that obviously jumped across linguistic and geographical boundaries for it is found under various guises in several different cultures. It contains remarkable echoes of the thirteenth century Scottish ballad called The Romance of Thomas the Rhymer attributed to Thomas Learmouth, better known as Thomas of Erilsdoune (now Earlston) in the Scottish Border Country. Manuscript copies of this ballad, which deals with a journey to the Otherworld accompanied by a beautiful woman riding a white horse, enjoyed immense popularity throughout the Gaelic highlands ever since it was first committed to writing in the fifteenth century. Tír na nÓg can be compared with the "Isles of the Blest" and the "Elysian Fields" of classical writers. Reading between the lines we find an obvious Christian underlay in the poem, for at its deepest level it deals with the inevitability of death, the after-life, and the tension between man's sensual nature and the pull of his spiritual pole star. Oisín's chivalry and valour had made him worthy of Tír na nÓg. His later hankering after his former life is but a metaphorical expression of the incompatibility of earthly things with man's higher destiny. That immortality comes at a price is a gospel truth, and one that is well expressed by Patrick Kavanagh in his poem On Raglan Road:
When the angel wooes the clay he'd lose
And, so, at the heart of the story of Oisín and Tír na nÓg are questions that have exercised the minds of every sage and saint from Omar Khayyám to Saint Augustine to Thomas Merton. In the Irish tradition, where the discourse between St. Patrick and Óisín sometimes turns into a moralistic sparring match, the contrast between the pagan and Christian world views is greatly heightened by the profoundly iconic personalities of the protagonists.
W.B. Yeats, who relied a good deal on Irish tradition for inspiration for his work, accessed Ó Coimín's Laoi Óisín through of O’Looney's translation, and he used it as one of the principal sources for his long poem: The Wanderings of Oisin. And there is much to suggest that Yeats was again influenced by Ó Coimín's work when he came to write Sailing to Byzantium, a poem which has been described as 'a trumpet blast against the onset of old age'. In this poem Yeats's desire to escape from Ireland, 'no country for old men', to the world of Byzantium in search of the spiritual self mirrors Oisín's journey to the otherworld. Even the very terms used by Yeats to depict the pervasive materialism of the age e.g. "the salmon falls", "the mackerel-crowded seas" are unmistakeably Ossianic.
The Ossianic ballads were hugely popular in the oral culture. Padraig Ó Siochfhradha ("An Seabhach"), who edited some sixty four Ossianic lays collected from oral recitation in various parts of the country says they constituted the great epic literature of the ordinary people – ‘mór-sgéal eipiceach na gnáth-mhuinntire’. Nearer home their popularity can be seen in the oft-quoted cameo of social life in west Clare provided by Eugene O’Curry, himself a native of the district. The focus of O'Curry's sketch is a colourful character named Anthony O’Brien, who operated a 'hedge-school' at Doonaha, near Kilkee in the final years of the eighteenth century:
He had a rich and powerful voice; and often on a calm summer’s day, he would go with a party into a boat on the lower Shannon, at my native place, where the river is eight miles wide; and having rowed to the middle of the river, they used to lie on oars…on which occasion O’Brien was always prepared to sing his choicest pieces, among which were no greater favourites than Oisin’s poems. So powerful was the singer’s voice that it often reached the shores at either side of the boat in Clare and Kerry and often drew the labouring men at both sides down to the water’s edge to enjoy the strains of the music.
There is little doubt that Ó Coimín's flowing verses, being easily memorised, infused the Ossianic repertoire with new life and, in the words of De Blacam, 'gave the story of the flight to Tír na nÓg a popular currency during two centuries'.
For more than a hundred years 'Laoi an Choimínigh' or 'Comyn's Lay', as it became known, existed only in manuscript, but copies passed from hand to hand, and in this way and by oral transmission it spread from Clare to the western counties generally, and even to the Atlantic edge of Scotland where there was a strong cultural coherence with Gaelic Ireland. In 1859 the poem, together with a literal prose translation, was published for the first time by Ó Coimín's fellow Clareman, Brian O’Looney. Another edition of the poem - this one made for schools - by the poet's namesake, Dáithí Ó Coimín, again himself a Clareman, appeared in 1880, accompanied by a prose translation and glossary. In 1907 Tomás Ó Flannghaile, broke new ground by publishing a literal translation for students and, for the first time, a metrical version after the manner of the original poem. He also included a full vocabulary of the text. He describes O’Coimín's poem as 'a beautiful story and perhaps the best poem of the ballad kind these countries produced in the eighteenth century'. A modern edition of the poem was published by "An Seabhach" in 1941.
O'Coimín's penchant for romance did not end with his Ossianic lay. He also wrote two romantic prose tales, both of which again were widely acclaimed – Eachtra Thoirdealbhaigh mhic Stairn or 'Adventures of Turlough, son of Starn', and Eachtra thriúir mhac Thoirdealbhaigh or 'Adventures of Turlough's three Sons'. Both were published at the end of the nineteenth century. The Eachtra Thoirdealbhaigh Mhic Stairn was described by O'Rahilly as 'a remarkable achievement in Irish prose at a time when prose was little cultivated'.
Note: I wish to record my thanks to the Royal Irish Academy for permission to publish extracts from the Mac Cruitín and Looney manuscript material, and to reproduce the extract from the mss. of Aodh Buí Mac Cruitín's poem beginning Ar aonach má théid siad. – M. Mac M.