Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last Friday night, in the gargantuan banquet hall of City West hotel in Dublin, the Mayo Association celebrated the latest recipients of its annual awards. Joe Kennedy, the Mayo Person of the Year and the Bonniconlon Show Committee who won the Meitheal award, took their places in a roll of honour that stretches back to the 1960s.
I have been thinking recently that it would be a fruitful project if we, in Mayo, honoured and highlighted each year someone from the back catalogue of county achievement.
My thoughts on this matter have been prompted by the publication of the nine-volume ‘Dictionary of Irish Biography’, which I believe is our greatest intellectual achievement of the last century. Last week the dictionary won the 2009 American Publishers Award for professional and scholarly excellence for the “best multivolume work in the humanities and social sciences”.
Organised by the Royal Irish Academy and published under the imprint of Cambridge University Press, it is the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionary ever published for Ireland. It contains over nine thousand articles which outline and evaluate the careers of subjects in all fields of endeavour, including politics, law, religion, literature, journalism architecture, painting, music, the stage, science, medicine, engineering, entertainment and sport.
A quick perusal of the work showed me that many Mayo people have contributed significantly to the social, political and cultural landscape of our country. Obviously, Grace O’Malley, Michael Davitt and George Moore are there, but there are many more.
To deepen a proper sense of county pride I think it would be a good idea if some institution, perhaps the Mayo County Library, which does magnificent and insufficiently heralded work in the preservation of our heritage, would host a major exhibition each year, focussing on some great figure from Mayo’s past.
Hearing last week on radio one of my favourite pieces of music, Vivaldi’s ‘Ode to Spring’, brought to my mind one of these great figures, Anthony Raftery, our own poet of spring.
For the writer Frank O’Connor, who had true taste in these matters, Raftery’s works were “the height of literacy”. He sympathetically rendered into English Raftery’s most famous poem, his ode to spring, ‘Cill Aodáin’.
“Now with the springtime the days will grow longer
And after St Bride’s Day my sail I’ll let go;
I put my mind to it and I never will linger
Till I find myself back in the County Mayo.
It is in Claremorris, I’ll stop the first evening;
At Balla beneath it I’ll first take the floor;
I’ll go to Kiltimagh and have a month’s peace there,
And that’s not two miles from Ballinamore.
I give you my word that the heart in me rises
As when the wind rises and all the mists go,
Thinking of Carra and Gallen beneath it,
Scahaveela and all the wide plains of Mayo;
Killeadan’s the village where everything pleases,
Of berries and all sorts of fruit there’s no lack,
And if I could but stand in the heart of my people
Old age would drop from me and youth would come back.”
Whenever I hear ‘Cill Aodáin’, in Irish or English, I feel a sense of exhilaration. It has the authentic note of new life which is spring.
Raftery was born in Cill Aodáin, near Kiltimagh, in 1779, the son of a weaver. His childhood was marked by poverty and illness. He was blinded by smallpox. He was befriended by Frank Taafe, his father’s employer, for whom he was the family entertainer. This relationship ended when Raftery allegedly killed Taafe’s favourite horse.
From then on, Raftery wandered the roads of the west, especially in South Galway, where he was supported by the bigger farmers. It was at best a precarious existence. He reflected ruefully in ‘Mise Raifteirí’:
“I am Raftery the poet,
Full of hope and love,
With eyes without light,
With gentleness without torment...
Look at me now
My face to the wall,
To empty pockets.”
He lived until 1835. None of his poems or songs were published in his lifetime. We are indebted to Douglas Hyde and Lady Gregory who, in the 1890s and 1900s gathered 519 of his compositions before they had faded from folk memory.
He was the folk poet of his era, just as the Saw Doctors illuminate the life of the West of Ireland today. In the words of Ciaráin Ó Coigligh, who had published an edition of his work, in Raftery, “Pre-Famine Ireland, densely populated, unruly, dangerous but energetic, is vividly portrayed.”
His work reflects the political controversies of his time. He wrote a poem in honour of Daniel O’Connell’s victory in the Clare By-Election of 1829 which led to Catholic Emancipation. He was a supporter of rural agitators who tried to undermine the landlords. ‘Seanchas na Sceiche’ is an accomplished poem evoking the history of Ireland from the earliest times. He wrote a wonderful love song about Mary Hynes. ‘Eanach Dhúin’ is a poignant lament for 20 people who were drowned in Lough Corrib in 1828.
In her book, ‘Poets and Dreamers’, Lady Gregory has a long chapter on Raftery. Among the stories she heard about him in the cabins of South Galway was of the marriage of a poor servant boy and girl. It was, she wrote, “only a marriage”, until Raftery “chanced” to come along and made it a “wedding” through his songs, poems and music. The story telescopes his achievement. Raftery brought joy into the hearts of an oppressed people and for that alone he deserves to be remembered.