Monday, 24 February 2020 12:57

International Women's Day 2020: A grieving woman resolves to liberate Ireland

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Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill
Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill
from Alchetron

Jenny Farrell celebrates International Women's Day with a presentation of an Irish lament by a grieving woman who resolves to liberate Ireland

The most famous, fabled and feted Irish filí (poets) are male: the reasons clearly lie in patriarchal class society. So all the more reason for us to seek out the female representatives of a skill that in the old Irish days was associated with prophesying, or seeing – in fact the Irish word filí derives from just this meaning.

The oldest extant piece of writing which has come down to us, albeit through the lens of early Christian monks, celebrates powerful women including just such a prophetess poet, Fedelm. This profession was largely oral, having initially developed in a pre-literate society, and it survived for a long time in story-telling and so on. Some types of poetic expression were the preserve mainly of women. Most notably among these, perhaps, is the keening – lamenting a death. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, “The Lament for Airt Ó Laoghaire”, spoken in 1773, is one of the greatest laments in Gaelic literature.

In this poem, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill describes the circumstances surrounding the murder of her husband Airt in Carriganimmy (Carraig an Ime), in county Cork, at the behest of the British colonial official Abraham Morris.

At the same time, the lament speaks on behalf of the oppressed Catholic Gaelic population of Ireland, suffering under colonial rule. Specifically, this is about the rebellion against the penal laws introduced at the end of the 17th century. Among other things, these laws prohibited education for Catholic children, restricted the right to property, for example a horse worth more than five pounds, marriage between people of different denominations, access to higher education and professions, etc. Morris outlawed Airt Uí Laoghaire for refusing to sell him a horse for five pounds, which Airt had brought back from his service in the Austro-Hungarian army. Morris decreed that Uí Laoghaire could consequently be shot on sight.

Airt and Eibhlín came from important families in the feudal Gaelic order. The earls had fled from Ireland to the European continent in the early 17th century following military defeats, consolidating the complete collapse of the old Gaelic order. Part of the surviving Catholic nobility, Airt was educated on the continent and served as a Hussar.

The Lament is divided into five parts. The first part was probably spoken by Eibhlín over the body of her husband in Carriganimmy. The lament begins with a short account of how the lovers met and, contrary to the wishes of their families, eloped and married.

My steadfast love!
When I saw you one day
by the market-house gable
my eye gave a look
my heart shone out
I fled with you far
from friends and home.

Next, Eibhlín reports what a good husband Airt made:

And never was sorry:
you had parlours painted
rooms decked out
the oven reddened
and loaves made up
roasts on spits
and cattle slaughtered;
I slept in duck-down
till noontime came
or later if I liked.

Eibhlín repeatedly addresses Airt personally - as friend and partner, as an equal. Here, she describes the awe and fear that Airt instilled in the English by his imposing figure and defying the penal laws. He carried a valuable sword, wore splendid clothes and rode his white-faced steed.

My steadfast friend!
it comes to my mind
that fine Spring day
how well your hat looked
with the drawn gold band,
the sword silver-hilted
your fine brave hand
and menacing prance,
and the fearful tremble
of treacherous enemies.
You were set to ride
your slim white-faced steed
and Saxons saluted
down to the ground,
not from good will
but by dint of fear
- though you died at their hands,
my soul’s beloved....

She also evokes their happy home life and Airt’s love for his sons. Then she speaks of the moment when Airt’s death became clear to her, when his horse returned riderless to their homestead. At this point, Eibhlín’s determination and courage, already hinted at in her marriage to Airt against the wishes of the family, become stronger. In three leaps, she jumps to the door, to the gate and into the saddle and gallops to the scene of the crime. Here she finds Airt’s lifeless body:

to find you there dead
by a low furze-bush
with no Pope or bishop
or clergy or priest
to read a psalm over you
but a spent old woman
who spread her cloak corner
where your blood streamed from you,
and I didn’t stop to clean it
but drank it from my palms.

This somewhat unexpected act of drinking blood corresponds to the tradition of lamenting the dead. Most remarkable, however, is the statement that no one is present, other than an old woman, who undoubtedly represents old Ireland. One of the ways in which this is evident is that she puts the ends of the traditional cloak where Airt bleeds. It is also significant that no Catholic clergy was present. Eibhlín is left alone with this woman. It is a desolate picture of the state of the country and its forgotten loyalties. Remarkably, in all this lamentation there is no hope for life after death, one might even say that the absent clergy at the scene disqualified it from a role in the liberation of the country. Eibhlín can only rely on herself alone - supported by the old woman, the memory of old Ireland.

In the second part, a dispute between Airt’s sister and Eibhlín takes place, in which her sister-in-law accuses Eibhlín  of having been in bed when she came to the farm from Cork. This may well be a commentary on the discord between the two noble families and, in a wider context, on the disintegration of the vanishing Gaelic order.

Given the very public appreciation of Airt in the third part, this was probably uttered by Eibhlín after the body had been prepared for burial:

My friend and my treasure trove!
An ugly outfit for a warrior:
a coffin and a cap
on that great-hearted horseman
who fished in the rivers
and drank in the halls
with white-breasted women.
My thousand confusions
I have lost the use of you.
Ruin and bad cess to you,
ugly traitor Morris,
who took the man of my house
and father of my young ones
- a pair walking the house
and the third in my womb,
and I doubt that I’ll bear it.

In this part, Airt’s last words to her are quoted, and then images from nature suggest that Airt was the true ruler of the country, even if this has been forgotten among the population.

Take the narrow road Eastward
where the bushes bend before you
and the stream will narrow for you
and men and women will bow
if they have their proper manners
- as I doubt they have at present....

Into every part of this lament is written Eibhlín’s resistance against foreign rule and the oppression of her people. This connects her very closely with Airt.

In the fourth part, Eibhlín’s sister-in-law speaks once more and explains how death and disease prevented her from coming sooner. Again, a metaphorical dimension suggests the disintegration of the old order. Returning to the murder, Eibhlín  explains her determination to avenge this. She will leave no avenue unused to obtain justice:

Jesus Christ well knows
there’s no cap upon my skull
nor shift next to my body
nor shoe upon my foot-sole
nor furniture in my house
nor reins on the brown mare
but I’ll spend it on the law;
that I’ll go across the ocean
to argue with the King,
and if he won’t pay attention
that I’ll come back again
to the black-blooded savage
that took my treasure.

Eibhlín's determination to do everything possible to achieve justice reasserts her previous boldness in her choice of partner and her ride to the scene of the crime. In her quest for justice too  there is a progression from the sale of all possessions to pay for lawyers, to visiting the king in person, to her own revenge if these paths prove fruitless. More and more Eibhlín develops into the woman who will not stand idly by but revenge the man who represented Ireland’s Gaelic order. By implication, she will stand up for her people.

The fifth and last part reflects a greater distance to Airt and was probably only available at the second burial. Due to some legal obstacles, Airt Ó Laoghaire’s body was not buried in the ancestral cemetery at the Monastery of Kilcrea, Co. Cork until a few months after his death.

Once again Airt’s generosity is evoked and Eibhlín states that she is successfully running the farm, that the grain and livestock are thriving despite her great grief. In many ways, Eibhlín  has taken up Airt’s legacy. There is no mention of a new man. Eibhlín will run the farm, raise the children, never forget Airt, and avenge him. Contrary to the expectations in the 17th and 18th century Aisling poetry, in which a female  figure awaits a male saviour, Eibhlín takes her fate into her own hands. She, like Aoibheal in Brian Merriman’s “Midnight Court” only a few years later, follows the tradition of strong Gaelic women, and will free Ireland from foreign rule.

Read 136 times Last modified on Thursday, 05 March 2020 11:30