Literature in Irish - The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Even after aristocratic literary patronage had totally ceased in the eighteenth century, Irish literature continued to be cultivated by members of the clergy, farmers, artisans, and schoolmasters. Such people diligently maintained the manuscript tradition and composed topical and personal verse, sermons and pious matter, and some prose narrative. They included Seán Ó Neachtain (1655-1728) and his son Tadhg (c.1680-c.1750); Eoghan Ó Caoimh (1656-1726); Seán Ó Murchadha (1700-62); and, perhaps most prolific of all, Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766-1837). Industrious scribes and sober hard-working people, who devoted what energy they could in adverse times to the preservation and cultivation of literature in Irish, they were overshadowed in the popular imagination by the more rakish and often more talented personalities who for many typify the period. Among the latter were: Peadar Ó Doirnín (1704-68); Aindrias Mac Craith (1708-95); Donnchadh Rua Mac Con Mara (1715-1810); Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1748-84); and pre-eminently the mathematics master Brian Merriman (1747-1805) who wrote the long poem Cúirt an Mheán Oíche ‘the midnight court’, which has attracted more numerous and illustrious translators than almost any other composition in Irish.

Merriman and Raftery (Antoine Ó Reachtabhra 1784-1835), or indeed others of earlier date, have often been described as the last representatives of the tradition. By ‘tradition’ here is presumably meant the concept of literature and the themes and styles of versification which had characterized composition in the Irish
language, at least since the end of the Early Modern period. The reality is not quite so clear-cut. Though the nineteenth century was a period of severe disruption and decline for the Irish-speaking community, the cultivation of Irish literature was not abruptly abandoned. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin, for instance, was active until his death in 1837. Besides him, the following at least deserve mention: Seán Ó Coileáin (1754-1817), a somewhat pedantic poet whose best-known poem is Machnamh an Duine Dhoilíosaigh ‘the melancholy man’s reflections’; Dáibhí de Barra (1757/8-1851), a prolific writer and scribe; Pádraig Phiarais Cúndún (1777-1857), who, having emigrated with his family to the United States in 1826, continued to write and correspond in Irish and apparently never learned English; Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin (1780-1837), whose diary for the years 1827-35 is the earliest surviving example of the genre in Irish literature; Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1785-1848), in his verse a vigorous supporter of Daniel O’Connell; Art Mac Bionaid (1793-1879), a stonemason who in his day enjoyed a high reputation as a scribe and literary scholar; Aodh Mac Dónaill (1802-67), who in addition to verse wrote a treatise on natural history; Nioclás Ó Cearnaigh (1829-74), an industrious writer and collector who, however, left some confusion in his wake by ascribing to earlier authors many of his own compositions. Even in the twentieth century, poets such as Mícheál Ó Gaoithín (1904-74) of West Kerry can only be regarded as representatives of an unbroken poetic tradition.

Raftery, in fact, did not belong so much to this strand of the Irish literary tradition as to that of folk-poetry, which was no doubt vigorously cultivated at all periods. However, folk-poets of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries flourished late enough to ensure that their compositions came to the attention of the folklorists and collectors of the Irish revival. Raftery (1784-1835) owes his renown to Douglas Hyde’s edition, Songs ascribed to Raftery, which appeared in 1903. Other equally commendable exponents of the folk-verse tradition were: Diarmaid Ó Súilleabháin (1760-1847); Máire Bhuí Ní Laoghaire (1770-1830); Seán Ó Duinnlé (+1897); Mícheál Ruiséal (+1928). To this category of primarily oral literature must also be assigned Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, the powerful lament by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (1748-1800) for her husband Art Ó Laoghaire, who was murdered in 1773. This outstanding example of an oral funerary lament, or caoineadh, survived long enough in the folk tradition to have been written down by nineteenth-century collectors. How accurately it has been preserved one cannot now ascertain.


by Michael Green
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