Authors: Benedict Kiely
When in the early 1940s Thomas MacGreevy came back to Ireland from Paris, where he had been the friend of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot,
et alibi aliorum sanctorum martyrum et
the first place I had the honour of seeing him was at a meeting of the English Literature Society of University College, Dublin, when everything, or nearly everything, happened in Earlsfort Terrace. (Somewhere else at that time there was, I have heard, a war going on.)
At that meeting of great minds Thomas MacGreevy was in the chair, I was in the mob. The matter under discussion was: ‘That Shakespeare was a nineteenth-century myth.’ The high moment in the proceedings came when another member of the mob made a precise, well-calculated speech describing his own personal relationship with William Shakespeare, and some of the things they had been up to together, in all sorts of places from Strabane to Stratfordupon-Avon. The speaker was Kevin, a brother of Brian
O’Nolan: Kevin, a man of infinite jest, went on to be a Professor of Classics.
We worried for a bit as to how the learned and distinguished chairman might, or might not, accept such flippancy. But he rose to it, recalling how, as a young man in Tarbert, County Kerry, he had once welcomed Shakespeare to that happy place, and led the Bard around the roads of the Kingdom.
In later years I was honoured to become a friend of Thomas MacGreevy. One evening at sunset I stood with him on Capel Street Bridge, and we looked at the light dying on the old, wine-coloured, quayside houses. And he, who had seen so much of splendid Paris, said to me: ‘Dublin is very beautiful.’ And because I was an Ulsterman, and because he knew I admired it, he recited his poem about Red Hugh O’Donnell:
Juan de juni
the priest said
Each J becoming H;
And the G was aspirate;
he said then
And aspirated first and last.
But he never said
And – it seemed odd – he
Never had heard
The spirated name
Of the centuries-dead
Bright-haired young man
Whose grave I sought.
All day I passed
In greatly built gloom
From dusty gilt tomb
At mouldy inscriptions
With fingers wetted with spit
Where I might find it
Not as at home
When heroes, hanged, are buried
With non-commissioned officers’ bored maledictions
Quickly in the gaol yard –
His blackening body
Walking behind it
And all Valladolid knew
And out to Simancas all knew
Where they buried Red Hugh.
What follows is in a very different style, but is as much part of Donegal as any memory of Red Hugh.
Many of us have happy memories of Rann-na-Feirsde in the Rosses, and of Coláiste Brighde, and the lovely people in the houses all around, who led us gently into a knowledge of our own language, and of the music and traditions that went with it. My own memories of that enchanted place go back to 1940, getting to know the O’Grianna family and listening to the singing of Hudie Devaney.
Here now, an echo over a half-century, is one of his songs, translated by Paddy Tunney:
When I rose like a Russian that morning
No cross on my forehead I signed,
For the thought that my true love had left me
It drove me clean out of my mind.
I reached for a scythe that hung high in the hawthorn,
Fell to her with file and a blue sharping-stone,
And stripped to the waist in the cornfield
I cut half the harvest alone.
My feet are too long without leather,
My pockets much longer want gold,
I envy the old mountain weather
For his love tales need never be told.
They say that his heartache all winter will tarry
And lead to the tomb before next Easter day,
And the boys that I hurled with will carry
My corpse to its rest in the clay.
If I were stretched prone with the fever
Or seven years under the ground,
And you came to my tomb, love, and called me
I would rise from the dead with one bound.
My sorrow that death did not strike down my father,
’Fore he drove me to drink & the King’s own armie,
In the boneyard my hard bed is waiting,
O my darling have pity on me.
But we are lingering too long in Ulster and yet have touched on only a few portions of the Noble Nine Counties. Voices call to me from here and there. Listen now to one from Inniskeen, in the County Monaghan, telling us about memories of ‘A Christmas Childhood’.
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars at the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.
An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk’ –
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
Many years ago I remember coming out, much moved, from a performance of Synge’s
Deirdre of the Sorrows
in the old Abbey Theatre. Siobhán MacKenna had played Deirdre, and walking home, all the way to the far end of Clontarf, I could still hear her voice in those great final speeches. This epic story had absorbed so many of the writers of that time: Yeats, George Russell, the lot. I was set muttering to myself the tribute that the poet James Stephens paid the tragic queen:
Do not let any woman read this verse;
It is for men, and after them their sons
And their sons’ sons.
The time comes when our hearts sink utterly;
When we remember Deirdre and her tale,
And that her lips are dust.
Once she did tread the earth; men took her hand;
They looked into her eyes and said their say,
And she replied to them.
More than a thousand years it is since she
Was beautiful; she trod the waving grass;
She saw the clouds.
A thousand years! The grass is still the same,
The clouds as lovely as they were that time
When Deirdre was alive.
But there has never been a woman born
Who was so beautiful, not one so beautiful
Of all the women born.
Let all men go apart and mourn together;
No man can ever love her; not a man
Can ever be her lover.
No man can bend before her; no man say –
What could one say to her? There are no words
That one could say to her!
Now she is but a story that is told
Beside the fire! No man can ever be
The friend of that poor queen.
If Deirdre can be placed anywhere in Ireland or in the world it would be around Armagh, and Eamhain Macha. With the tragic brothers, and the raving king, and a woman will be young forever. After all, Cleopatra’s other name, or perhaps one of her other names, was Egypt. Samuel Ferguson heard Deirdre lamenting in splendid words the passing, and tragedy, of the sons of Uisneach:
The lions of the hill are gone,
And I am left alone – alone –
Dig the grave both wide and deep,
For I am sick, and fain would sleep!
The falcons of the wood are flown,
And I am left alone – alone –
Dig the grave both deep and wide,
And let us slumber side by side.
The dragons of the rock are sleeping,
Sleep that wakes not for our weeping:
Dig the grave and make it ready;
Lay me on my true Love’s body.
Lay their spears and bucklers bright
By the warriors’ sides aright;
Many a day the Three before me
On their linked bucklers bore me.
Lay upon the low grave floor,
’Neath each head, the blue claymore;
Many a time the noble Three
Redden’d those blue blades for me.
Lay the collars, as is meet,
Of their greyhounds at their feet;
Many a time for me have they
Brought the tall red deer to bay.
Oh! to hear my true Love singing,
Sweet as sound of trumpets ringing:
Like the sway of ocean swelling
Roll’d his deep voice round our dwelling.
Oh! to hear the echoes pealing
Round our green and fairy sheeling,
When the Three, with soaring chorus,
Pass’d the silent skylark o’er us.
Echo now, sleep, morn and even –
Lark alone enchant the heaven! –
Ardan’s lips are scant of breath –
Neesa’s tongue is cold in death.
Stag, exult on glen and mountain –
Salmon, leap from loch to fountain –
Heron, in the free air warm ye –
Uisneach’s Sons no more will harm ye!
Erin’s stay no more you are,
Rulers of the ridge of war;
Never more ’twill be your fate
To keep the beam of battle straight.
Woe is me! by fraud and wrong –
Traitors false and tyrants strong –
Fell Clan Uisneach, bought and sold,
For Barach’s feast and Conor’s gold!
Woe to Eman, roof and wall! –
Woe to Red Branch, hearth and hall! –
Tenfold woe and black dishonour
To the false and foul Clan Conor!
Dig the grave both wide and deep,
Sick I am, and fain would sleep!
Dig the grave and make it ready,
Lay me on my true Love’s body!
from the Irish
Sometime in the late 1960s I sat in an orange-grove in Pomona, California, listening humbly to a dissertation on Stephens and Ferguson and those Deirdre poems by another great poet, W.R. Rodgers. And what, you may ask, were two sons of Ulster doing under the oranges in sunny Pomona? D’Arcy O’Brien, novelist and professor, had organized a week of Irish literary studies with guests including Rodgers, Conor Cruise O’Brien and his wife Máire, the American academic Herbert Howarth, a sound authority on Irish literary matters, and, well down the ranks, myself.
W.R. (Bertie) went on to speak his own poem about another notable tragic lady:
Mary Magdalene, that easy woman,
Saw, from the shore, the seas
Beat against the hard stone of Lent,
Crying, ‘Weep, seas, weep
For yourselves that cannot dent me more.
O more than all these, more crabbed than all stones,
And cold, make me, who once
Could leap like water, Lord. Take me
As one who owes
Nothing to what she was. Ah, naked.
My waves of scent, my petticoats of foam
Put from me and rebut;
Disown. And that salt lust stave off
That slavered me – O
Let it whiten in grief against the stones
And outer reefs of me. Utterly doff,
Nor leave the slightest veil
Of feeling to heave or soften.
Nothing cares this heart
What hardness crates it now or coffins.
Over the balconies of these curved breasts
I’ll no more peep to see
The light procession of my loves
Surf-riding in to me
Who now have eyes and alcove, Lord, for Thee.’
‘Room, Mary,’ said He, ‘ah make room for me
Who am come so cold now
To my tomb.’ So, on Good Friday,
Under a frosty moon
They carried Him and laid Him in her womb.
A grave and icy mask her heart wore twice,
But on the third day it thawed,
And only a stone’s-throw away
Mary saw her God.
Did you hear me? Mary saw her God!
Dance, Mary Magdalene, dance, dance and sing,
For unto you is born
This day a King. ‘Lady,’ said He,
‘To you who relent
I bring back the petticoat and the bottle of scent.’