Taken from the introduction of Dánta Aodhagáin Uí Rathaille; the poems of Egan O’Rahilly, published 1900, edited by Ó Duinnín.
O’Rahilly’s works may be divided into three classes: Lyrics, Elegies, and Satires. As a lyric poet he deserves a very high place. His pieces are short, often without regular order or sequence of parts; often, too, with a line or a clause thrown in to fill up space and keep the metre going, but the main thoughts come from the heart, and throw themselves without apparent effort into language of great beauty and precision. No idea foreign to the subject is obtruded on the reader’s attention; the whole seems produced in the heat of inspiration. The rhythm is perfect, without tricks of style or metre. The poet’s very soul seems poured out into his verse. Most of his lyrical pieces that have reached us are concerned with his country’s sufferings and wounds then bleeding flesh, the decay of her strength, the usurpation of her lands by foreigners, and the expulsion of the old nobility. His mind is never off this theme. The energies which other poets devoted to the praise of wine or woman, he spent in recounting the past glories and mourning over the present sorrows of his beloved land, whose history he had studied as few men have ever done, and whose miseries he beheld with the keen eye of genius, and felt for with the warmth and sensibility of the most ardent of natures.
His power as a lyric poet consists mainly in the strength of his passion, and in his unequalled pathos. One gets the idea from some of the shorter pieces, in which he depicts the bleeding and tortured condition of his country, that a very tempest of passion swept through the poet’s soul. His paroxysms are fierce, vehement, and fitful. In such gusts he is often taken so far beyond himself, that when the storm is over he seems to forget the links that bound his thoughts together. He takes little trouble to present the reader with a finished whole, in which the various parts are joined together by easy natural links. He is only anxious to fix our attention on what is great and striking, leaving minor matters to care for themselves. We can imagine a poet like Gray counting with scrupulous care the number of his lines, labouring his rhymes, and linking one verse to another, so as to form a homogenous whole. Our poet seems to care little about the number of his lines, or such minor points. He is conscious that his thoughts, glowing hot, deserve attention, and he compels it.
There are few pictures in poetry more pathetic than that drawn in ‘The Merchant’s Son’ (III). The frequency with which visions of Ireland, cast into stereotyped form, were produced at a later date is calculated to create a prejudice in the mind of the reader against this poem. But the vision here described is altogether different from the common poetic reveries of the later poets. The loveliness and grace of the maiden, her misfortunes, her trust in her absent deliverer and lover, her belief in his speedy arrival, the fidelity with which she clings to his love – all these create in our minds an intense interest in the distressed queen. But our hearts melt to pity when she is described as looking, day after day, across the main, ‘over wild, sand-mingled waves,’ in the hope of catching a glimpse of the promised fleet. Then the poet has a sudden and painful surprise in store for her and for us. The hero she loved is dead. He died in Spain, and there is no one to pity her. It is more than she can bear. Her soul is wrenched from her body in terror at the word. It is impossible to describe adequately the power of this poem. It is ablaze with passion, while the sudden terror of the concluding stanza belongs to the sublime.
O’Rahilly, as we have seen, lived at a time of supreme crisis in Irish history. The pent-up passion of a suffering people finds expression in every line of that magnificent threnody, which stands second in this collection. Never, perhaps, since Jeremias sat by the wayside and chanted a mournful dirge over the ruin of Jerusalem, never were a nation’s woes depicted with such vivid anguish and such passionate bursts of grief. We have no reason to suppose that the poet made a special study of Biblical literature; yet it is impossible to read this outburst of fierce, intense passion without being reminded of passages in the writings of the Hebrew prophets, and especially of the Lamentations. The similarity in thought, in intensity of feeling, in vigour of expression, in variety and simplicity of imagery, between this poem and the Lamentations is, we think, not due to conscious imitation. It is rather to be ascribed to the brooding of kindred spirits over subjects that had much in common.
‘How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! how is the mistress of the gentiles become a widow; the prince of provinces made tributary!’ – LAM. i. I.
‘Weeping she hath wept in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; there is none to comfort her among all them that were dear to her.’ – LAM. i. 2.
‘My eyes have failed with weeping, my bowels are troubled; my liver is poured out upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people, when the children, and the sucklings, fainted away in the streets of the city.’ – LAM. ii. II.
‘And from the daughter of Sion all her beauty is departed; her princes are become like rams that find no pastures; and they are gone away without strength before the face of the pursuer.’ – LAM. i. 6.
Let these well-known verses be compared with the first three poems and the twenty-first of this collection, as well as with many passages in the elegies, and we think it will appear that our poet in vigour of expression, in majesty and simplicity of imagery, in melting pathos, may claim kinship with the greatest writers of all time.
The Elegies differ in style and metre from the Lyrics. They are death-songs for distinguished persons. The poet soothes every sorrow. He remembers every friend; the wife, the sister, the helpless orphan, the weeping father and mother, the famished poor mourning at the gate with no one to break them bread. He brings before our eyes the house, wont to be so gay, now cold and comfortless and still with the melancholy silence of death.
There is something exquisitely affecting in the tender names which O’Rahilly applies to the deceased; a fountain of milk to the weak, their Cuchulainn in a hostile gathering, the guard of their houses and flocks. But, in spite of their tenderness, too-frequent repetition palls. There is too much sameness in the drapery of his grief. Nature mourns, the hills are rent asunder, there is a dull mist in the heavens. Such are ‘the trappings and the suits of woe’ that he constantly employs.
The use made of the Greek and Roman deities is, however, to modern critics, the greatest blemish in these compositions. Pan and Jupiter, Juno and Pallas, give the renowned infant at baptism the gifts peculiar to themselves. The elegy on Captain O’Leary (XXII.), in spite of these faults, is a beautiful poem. The elegy on O’Callaghan (XV. and XVI.) is, perhaps, the most finished production of the author. But the least faulty and most affecting of all the elegies is, without doubt, that on Cronin’s three children, who were drowned (XII.). The rhythm is exquisite, and the beautiful metre is that employed in O’Neaghtan’s lament for Mary of Modena.
As a prose satirist, O’Rahilly belongs to the same school as Swift. His invention is daring; he indulges in minute descriptions, and delights in the most harassing and disgusting details, provided they serve his purpose. He is the author of three coarse, fierce prose satires – ‘the Eachtra Chloinne Thomáis,’ the ‘Parliament Chloinne Thomáis,’ and the ’Eachtra Thaidg Dhuibh.’ The two former are given anonymously in the manuscripts; but their similarity in thought and language to the latter, and the allusions to them to be found in the lyrics, leave no doubt that O’Rahilly was the author; and they were attributed to him by the universal belief in Munster as late as 1840, as O’Curry testifies. In execution, in plot, in the management of details, in strength of expression, in command of language, these works stand high; and the strong light they throw on Irish history gives them peculiar importance. ‘Clan Thomas,’ a breed of semi-satanic origin, full of pride and avarice, whose morals and language do justice to their parentage, are doomed for generations to be the slaves of the nobles in Ireland; but they watch every opportunity of throwing off the yoke. They are essentially a gens rustica. In reading their squabbles, their foolish conflicts on questions of ancestry, down through the ages, we feel that we are getting a vivid glimpse of the brawls, the disunion, the traitorism of a certain species of Irishman that has ever been a foul stain on the pages of Irish history. The poet, with peculiar pleasure, ridicules their love of lisping in an English accent, and of being taken notice of by English nobles. The author takes us through the minutest particulars of a scolding match, or a meeting, or a feast, taking care that we in the meantime conceive a perfect loathing for the actors in these petty dramas. We stand and look on as they devour their meals, we hear the noise made by the fluids they drink as they descend their throats, we listen to their low oaths and foolish swagger about their high lineage, and we turn away in disgust. Surely the upstart or the snob was never elsewhere delineated in such vivid colours.
With a literature such as this, there was little danger that the Irish people as a whole, much less the people of the southern province, would suffer the canker of slavery to eat into their souls. This literature, ever appealing to the glories of the past, ever stinging with keen sarcasm those who attempted to supplant the rightful heirs of Irish soil, ever taunting the oppressor with his cruelty and treachery, kept alive in the Irish heart, to use the words of Burke, ‘even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.’ The mission of the Irish ollamh in those troubled days, and in the dark night of the penal times which followed, was to proclaim in words of fire the injustice that was being committed, to divert the people’s attention from present troubles by pointing to a glorious past, and, lest they should fall into despair, to kindle hopes of future deliverance. Our ollamh’s strain is sad, and infinitely tender, but withal bold and uncompromising. He is an ardent admirer of the great Irish families that stretch back through our history into the twilight of legend; he is a believer in aristocracy; but his fiercest invectives are poured out against those who in the stress of a national crisis purchase a vulgar upstart nobility at the cost of honour and virtue.
In estimating O’Rahilly’s place in literature it must be remembered that Irish literature continued in a state of almost complete isolation down to its total extinction at the beginning of the present century. It imitated no foreign models. It did not compete for the ear of Europe with any neighbouring literature. It was little influenced by the invention of printing, or by the revival of learning in Europe. The number of books printed in the Irish language from the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century would hardly more than fill a school-boy’s box; and of those none were on general literature. The desire for learning for which the Irish race was proverbial, during these centuries of strain, operated as by a kind of instinct mainly in two directions; the attainment of priestly orders, and the cultivation of national history and poetry. Even writers learned in classical and foreign literature showed little inclination to adopt a foreign style. Keating was undoubtedly a man of broad learning, and gifted with a vivid imagination; but he wrote poetry not in the style of Virgil or Dante, nor yet of Ronsard or Spenser, but as the Irish poets who preceded him. O’Rahilly, though some eighty years later than Keating, is more truly Irish still, in style, in thought, in metre.
The reader must not, therefore, be surprised to find in our author’s poems a freshness, a simplicity, a vigour, that savour of the Homeric age. The descriptions of life in O’Callaghan’s house (XV.), or in that of Warner (X.), have something of the old-world charm of the Odyssey. It would be uncritical to judge this poet according to the canons of taste accepted by the nations of modern Europe. He is a survival of the antique, in thought, in style, in metre, in spirit. His spirit is as strong, as fresh, as vigorous, and olden, as the language in which he wrote, as the race whose oppression he depicted; it is soft and glowing as the summer verdure of his native lake-lands; it is melancholy as the voice of the storm-vexed Tonn Tóime that disturbed his rest on that night when in poverty and loneliness he lay in bed weaving verses destined to be immortal (VII.).