Fr Kevin Hegarty
Antaine Ó Raiftearaí is the Mayo poet of spring. Whenever I read or hear ‘Cill Aodáin’ in February I feel a sense of exhilaration. The dismal and dark day of winter are nearing an end.
The writer, Frank O’Connor, claimed Raiftearaí’s poetry was ‘the height of literacy’. He translated ‘Cill Aodáin’ sympathetically into English:
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.
Raiftearaí (also spelled Antoine Ó Raifteiri) was born in Cill Aodáin, near Kiltimagh, in 1779, the son of a Sligo weaver. His childhood was marked by poverty and illness. He was blinded by small pox. He was befriended by his father’s employer, Frank Taafe, for whom he became the family entertainer. The relationship soured and ended when Raiftearaí allegedly killed Taafe’s favourite horse. Though illiterate, he was steeped in the oral traditions of Gaelic Ireland.
After the collapse of his relationship with Taafe, Raiftearaí wandered the roads of the west, especially in south Galway where he was supported by the bigger farmers. It was a precarious livelihood. He reflected ruefully in ‘Mise Raiftearaí’:
I am Raftery the poet,
Full of hope and love,
With sightless eyes
And undistracted calm.
Going west on my journey
By the light of my heart,
Weak and tired
To the end of my road.
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. Much later in the century, Douglas Hyde and Lady Gregory, in an important act of cultural retrieval, collected 51 of his compositions from the homes of south Galway, before these verses had faded from folk memory. Ciarán Ó Coigligh edited a collection of his work in 1987. According to Ó Coigligh, in Raiftearaí’s writings, ‘pre-famine Ireland, densely populated, unruly, dangerous but energetic, is vividly portrayed’.
Raiftearaí reflects the political events of his time. He wrote a poem in praise of Daniel O’Connell’s victory in the Clare bye-election of 1829, which led to Catholic Emancipation. In tune with the strong anti-English sentiment in south Galway, he was a supporter of rural agitators like the Ribbonmen and the White Boys, who sought violently to undermine the landlord system.
‘Seanchas na Sceiche’ is an accomplished poem evoking Irish history from earliest times. In it he employs an unusual literary device. He curses a bush, near Headford, for providing him with inadequate shelter from a deluge of rain. To his surprise, the bush replies. In answer to a question about its age, the bush recounts the history of Ireland from earliest times to Patrick Sarsfield’s doomed exploits.
Among other works are poems about a sense of place, a wonderful love song about Mary Hynes and ‘Eanach Dhúin’, 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 about Raiftearaí. Among the stories she heard about him was a marriage of a poor servant boy and girl. It was ‘only a marriage’ until Raiftearaí ‘chanced’ to come along and made it ‘a wedding’ through his songs, poems and music.
The story sums up his achievement. He brought joy into the hearts of an oppressed people, and for that he deserves to be remembered.