from friends and home. Although it mightn’t sound like it, this is the beginning of one of the great poems of loss and lamentation in Irish literature: ‘Caoineadh Airt UÍ Laoghaire’ or ‘The Lament for Art O’Leary’. It’s by Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill, Art O’Leary’s widow.
Eibhlín was born in around 1743, in Derrynane, in co. Kerry.
Her family was prosperous and she was the aunt of the great nineteenth-century politician, Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’. The family also had a tradition of producing women poets.
Eibhlín was married twice: her first marriage, when she was less than 15 years old, ended after only six months with the death of her husband.
She married again in 1767, when she was in her mid-twenties, to Art Ó Laoghaire of Macroom in Co. Cork
As the lines ‘I fled with you farfrom friends and home’ indicate, her family didn’t approve.
The two families were similar in that both were Catholic and, despite the anti-Catholic ‘Penal Laws’, they’d managed to retain a degree of prosperity and status. The hostility of Eibhlín’s family seems to have been based on the fact that while they kept their heads down and didn’t draw attention to themselves - or to their smuggling activities - Ó Laoghaire was a much brasher individual. The Uí Chonaills saw him as a hothead.
He had been an officer in the Austrian army, and continued to serve with them off and on after his marriage. At home, he would draw attention to himself by parading in his officer’s finery.
Unfortunately – he got on the wrong side of the local magistrate - Abraham Morris. On the 4th of May 1773, Morris gave the order for Ó Laoghaire to be shot and killed – he claimed that Ó Laoghaire had tried to attack him. Most versions of the story say that Morris demanded his right under the Penal Laws to buy Ó Laoghaire’s horse for £5, an insultingly low price that was more or less guaranteed to provoke Ó Laoghaire. Although Morris - and the soldiers who actually fired - were found guilty of murderat the inquest, Morris was later acquitted.
The event has historical interest as a story from the last days of the penal laws; a series of ‘Catholic Relief Acts’ over the next decade would lessen the impact of those laws and pave the way for the Catholic Emancipation movement. A leading light of this movement would be Daniel O’Connell – the nephew of Art Ó Laoghaire’s wife, Eibhlin. However, for our purposes, Ó Laoghaire’s life and death is important - and is more generally remembered - because of the poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire.
The lament, or ‘keen’, was by this time a long-established verse form - with a strict set of conventions. Some part of it, at least, was supposed to be improvised over the corpse, and it must have had an almost theatrical immediacy. Imagine these words spoken over the body of a loved one:
My steadfast love!
with bright sheets upon it … This strong rhythm, along with repetition and refrains, gives the poem an impetus and drive which seems to defy death.
It’s easy to imagine the poem spoken out of the depths of the desperate energy of grief - a grief which is trying to bring the beloved back to life.
But we can’t be sure that this is wholly Eibhlín’s lament. Her name was certainly attached to the poem while it survived in the folk tradition – and when was written down over 70 years after her husband’s death. The written versions don’t always agree with each other, though they all exhibit signs of being strongly influenced by the existing conventions for laments - including verses which are spoken alternately by Eibhlín and Art’s sister, as if they’re in competition to express their sense of loss.
But the poem is remarkable - whatever its source. It combines a strength of character, with a sense of political injustice, and a richly detailed account of the life and death that give rise to it.
My steadfast friend!