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In Search of Máire Bhuí ní Laoire
by Brian Brennan
My maternal grandmother first told me about Máire Bhuí ní Laoire when I was a small boy in short pants, with scabs on my knees.
- She is your great-great-great grandmother, she told me during one of those long summers of my early childhood when I journeyed down from Dublin on the train and spent the months between the end of school in June and the beginning of school in September living on the Twomey family farm in Ballyvourney. I couldn't imagine what a great-great-great grandmother would look like. My grandmother looked older than anyone I knew.
- Go down the boreen and bring back another galleen of water from the well. Cut the thistles in the meadow, then go to the shed and bring back some turf for the kitchen fire. Peel the poppies, dust the settle, and bring in the eggs from the henhouse.
That¹s the long-ago voice of my widowed grandmother, as I like to imagine it. There never seemed to be an end to the work that had to be done on this small farm where she lived with her second-oldest son, John Pat. Her oldest son, Mikey, abandoned his birthright when he took off for England during the Second World War.
My grandmother, Hannah, was one of the Burkes of Inchibeg. Her father John Burke was the oldest son of Mháire Bhuí's fifth son, Alexander Burke. Máire Bhuí was married to a horse trader turned farmer named James Burke. That's how I trace my genealogical connection back to the celebrated folk poet of West Cork. My grandmother Hannah moved to Kippaghs after she married Michael Twomey in 1913, and she lived most of her life on the farm until she died in 1971. My mother Maud, who married Jack Brennan of Naas, was Hannah's oldest daughter.
My grandmother told me about Máire Bhuí during one of those many afternoons in Kippaghs when there was nothing to do but sit at the kitchen table, looking out the window across the valley to where St. Gobnait's old churchyard held the grassed-over graves of my Twomey ancestors. The fields rising up on the other side of the valley looked like a patchwork quilt of green squares. Forty shades of green. I would think of those fields, years later, when the Johnny Cash song came wafting across the airwaves from America.
- She wrote the poem, Cath Chéim an Fhiaidh, said my grandmother. Then my grandmother would sing the poem to me.
I never knew that poems could be sung. I thought that poems had to be memorized with your eyes clenched tight, and then given out in class like the multiplication tables. If you stumbled or forgot the words, the Brother would slap you on the ear and call you a eejit.
They didn't teach Cath Chéim an Fhiaidh at my school in Dublin, so I never learned the words. Though I had a famous poet in my family, I could never tell my classmates about her. There was no opportunity for the subject to come up. Máire Bhuí ní Laoire, Yellow Mary O'Leary, what an unusual name. I stowed her name away somewhere in the back of my mind, and turned my attention to other things.
I grew up, left school, went to college, became a civil servant and a part-time professional musician, then emigrated to Canada.
I became a journalist in Canada, continued to moonlight as musician, married a French-Canadian lass from Prince Edward Island, and we raised a daughter, Nicole. When she turned 22, Nicole went to Ireland for a year. In Canada, they call this getting in touch with your roots. Nicole got in touch with her roots, and returned to Canada with a wonderful gift for me: A rare copy of a little red book, Filíocht Mháire Bhuidhe ní Laoghaire by an tAthair Donncha Ó Donnchú, M.A. First published in 1931, third and last printing in 1950. Oifig an gSoláthair, Baile Átha Cliath.
Máire Bhuí ní Laoire, how long had it been since I heard that name? This was 1992, and I had been gone from Ireland for 26 years. I leafed through the little red book and wished I could remember more of my Irish. "Rugadh Máire Bhuidhe Ní Laoghaire ar Thúirín na nÉan i mbliain a 1774, agus is ann a chaith sí a saoghal le linn a hóige go dtí gur phós sí Séamas de Búrca timcheall na bliana 1792." Máire Bhuí ní Laoire was born in Tooreennanean in the year 1774, and it was there she spent her early life until she married Seamus Burke around 1792. Would that the rest of the words could come to me so easily.
I tried translating bits and pieces of the book with a tattered old copy of Dinneen's Irish-English Dictionary at my right hand. No such luck. Every Irish word that stopped me cold seemed to have three or four possible meanings in English. If I had managed to get some kind of flow going with the words, I might have been able to get a general sense of what the author was writing ‹ in much the same way that you can understand Hamlet when it is performed in Russian, or understand Finnegan's Wake when it is read out by Niall Toibín. But I couldn't get to first base with Father O'Donnchú. I put the little red book away and turned my mind to other things.
But not for long. Something kept drawing me back to this book which this long-ago priest had been moved to write about my ancestor. I needed to know more. How did a farmer's wife, illiterate and a mother of nine, become one of Munster's most celebrated folk poets of the 19th century? I needed to know more about this ancestor of mine.
I faxed off pages from the little red book to cousins and friends in Ireland whose grasp of the Gaeilge is surer than mine. I thought I would fashion their translations into a manuscript which I would circulate privately among family members. The translations came back in bits and pieces, and I started to put together a text which ‹ like the O'Donnchú original ‹ was part genealogical exploration, part social history, part anecdotal biography, part literary preservation and analysis, and part homage to a woman who clearly was the poet of her people and the voice of the dispossessed.
I looked around for a printing firm that would turn the manuscript into book form, and good fortune brought me to the doorstep of The Collins Press in Cork, which undertook to publish the manuscript. That led to my taking a quick trip to Cork and Inchigeelagh, this past summer, (1999) doing some additional research in the Special Collections department of the library at University College Cork, and taking photographs of such local landmarks as the grave of Mháire Bhuí in the old Inchigeelagh churchyard, the ruins of Carrignacurra castle, and the commemorative monument installed in 1998 in the Pass of Keimaneigh by the Bantry and Ballingeary historical societies.
Thanks to such supportive individuals as Helen Davis and Seán Ua Suilleabháin at University College Cork, and Seán O'Sullivan and Peter O'eary of the Ballingeary Historical Society, I was able to complete a manuscript considerably expanded in scope from the O'Donnhú original. That indefatigable hotelier and social historian Joe Creedon introduced me to a further translation of Filíocht Mháire Bhuidhe ní Laoghaire which proved to be a most valuable additional resource. It was privately published in 1996 by two American priests, Fr. Richard P. Burke SJ of College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass. and Father Seán Sweeney SMA of Dedham, Ma. They produced it as a non-profit venture for circulation to 150 people, and their labour of love immensely aided mine. All the mysteries of the little red-backed book were finally unlocked for me.
This literary labour of love has brought me great satisfactions and a few regrets. I am gratified to have been able to give wider recognition to one of the very few female Irish-language poets to achieve name recognition during the period from medieval times to the present. But I regret not having had an opportunity to fully experience Máire Bhuí' poetry in performance. What must it have been like to witness her singing the laments she composed in response to local tragedies, assuming ownership of her community' grief, and expressing it in all its complexity with her words, appearance, behaviour and voice? One can only just imagine.
Brian Brennan' literary biography, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire: Poet Of Her People, will be published next year by The Collins Press in Cork.
A major course in Máire Bhuí's poetry is being taught by Seán Ua Suilleabháin, this year, as part of an MA program in modern Irish in University College Cork.