From Shan Van Vocht, 5th September, 1898.
In these days of “decadence” and “art for art’s sake,” it may not be fashionable to hint that anything really worth study has come from the peasantry of any country. Paris, the first to lead the fashion in millinery, has latterly subdued literature and controls the study and the editorial chair as completely as she does the boudoir. Style and elegance in art or literature are to be admired, but they are not things to which everything is to be subordinated. The polish and glitter of the schools may perfect the artist, but equally in our days as in those of Horace, Nature makes the poet. A little examination will go far to show that the men who hold to-day as poets were influenced by no school, but in most instances depended on their own genius and judgment. That they took the wiser course let the recognised genii of all nations attest.
This is not exactly the place to discuss very minutely the judgment of those who seek to graft French styles on the original Irish stock. This paper does not profess to go very deeply into the matter, but merely to point out a few men who owe none of their power to either school or system, who have obeyed the voice within, and written from the heart. Some few of them have come to fame, others obtain a popularity here and there, more are never heard of. It is a notorious fact that even yet, after the “National” school system has been half a century working, that almost every townland has its local rhymer, who chronicles the goings and comings of the neighbourhood, in perhaps slipshod, but not unmusical verse. We do not seek to argue that their writings are worthy of serious attention; but they do a service in so far as they centralise attention on local affairs, and are in such wise a check in some degree on the Anglomania which unhappily has crept into even the most remote parts of our country. It is little to their discredit if their work is merely assonantal, if it scorns all the rules of English syntax, and all the conventionalities of prosody. It keeps alive interest in matters Irish, and as it thus serves a purpose deserves consideration. It is to men of this class that we owe the preservation of our old airs, for long before Bunting had collected or Moore immortalised them, and often since, these men wedded their words to melodies which win the hearts of all who hear them. To these men we owe also the preservation of the legends, traditions, and local history of almost every parish in Ireland. To them likewise is due all the knowledge of the past that exists in country places. One meets occasionally in out of the way corners men who never knew the pleasures of reading, to whose fingers a pen would, perhaps, be the clumsiest of possible implements; yet they are often the repositories of a priceless store of songs and story committed to memory line by line from the rude rhymings of these village bards. How much more preferable it is to listen to one of those simple rural songs than to any of the imported abominations of the nearest large town we shall not pause to say. Whatever their imperfections, they are in a sense true to their surroundings, and possess all the flavour of the mountains and the moors of Ireland.
Yet it is not of them so much as of those men of real ability who have imitated them that we would deal, and a few names will best convey our idea. There is a poem familiar to us all, “Caoch O’Leary,” which we owe to this school, the simple earnestness and homely truth of which no one will be found to deny. It is rough and uncouth, yet it conveys a perfect picture, and one that must affect the reader, and favourably, to the class of which it is a type.
It is a more natural piece than the “decadents” all combined have accomplished, not viewed artificially, but naturally, from the heart, the only true test of real poetry. Its author, John Keegan, has left but little after him, but every piece is true to its subject. “The Blind Girl at the Holy Well,” “The Holiday Dance,” “The Irish Harvest Hymn,” “The Holly and Joy Girl,” and “The Connaughtwoman’s Lament” are brimful of the feeling, whether reverent, fierce or sad, which, like that “harp” spoken of by Boucicault, “rests in the bosom of every Irishman.” John Banim, whose novels of Irish life are amongst our most treasured possessions, is also a poet of this company. His “Soggarth Aroon,” “The Reconciliation,” “Mo Bhouchailin Buidhe,” “Aileen,” “Irish Mary,” and others are veritable transcripts of Irish thought and passion. Griffin, too, in his best work, has aimed at catching the idiom, and crystalising the thought of the peasant in his verse, and his “Wake of the Absent,” “Gille Machree,” “Siubhail a Gradh,” and kindred songs are far better than his efforts in more classic styles. Davis occasionally tried the same key, but save in a few notable instances like “Oh! The Marriage,” “Maire Ban a Stoir,” “The Girl of Dunbuidhe,” and “The Welcome,” not with notable success. James MacKeown, the author of “The Ould Irish Jig,” and John Walsh, of Cappoquin, were greater masters of this particular vein, but perhaps the best peasant poet we possess is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, whose two great poems, “Shemus O’Brien” and “Phadrig Crohoore,” are instances of how much may be made of the realities of Irish peasant life by anyone who brings to it beside the all-necessary gift, a kindly sympathy with and honest desire to faithfully depict the people. Kickham, in his “Rory of the Hills,” touches the very highest level in this class; a few pieces of Mary Kate Murphy, and almost every line of Ellen O’Leary’s, are instinct with the life that knows not yet the benefit of British civilisation.
In our times, spite of prevailing influences, a little that is very good has been accomplished. Mrs. Tynan-Hinkson, in her “Shameen Dhu,” showed a leaning in its direction. Frank Fahy’s “American Wake,” “The Donovans,” “The Ould Plaid Shawl,” and many other equally racy piece; P. J. McCall’s “Going To The Fair,” “The Little Heathy Hill,” “The House in the Corner,” Threshing the Barley,” and countless others, are unmistakably the heart of the country. But beyond and above all in this style (always excepting Le Fanu) stands Miss Jane Barlow, whose poem, “The Ould Masther,” is a marvel of faithful word-painting, and brings home at once to the reader a sense of the world of varied characteristics that lies virgin in the everyday life of Ireland, waiting some wizard hand to wake it into life and being.
We do not mean to assert that all the possibilities of Irish Literature (in English) should be forced to run in this channel, but dare to claim that nothing true to Irish life as it exists, to Irish thought as it is, to Irish sentiment and passion, as we meet them, can find an adequate or even general expression in the carefully turned periods of London Bohemianism, influenced by Parisian fads. Perfection can be reached and fidelity attained without seeking to imitate the style of the Boulevards. Art in its truest guise should not attempt to ornament, or disguise, it should imitate Nature, else it is not natural; it has nothing to appeal to what is common to natural man. Some there will always be found, of course, so hyper-superior as to scorn everything that is palpable. To them the Nature note may be abhorrent, but to the ordinary individual the note which takes its tone from the things around will be always acceptable, since it tells of something we have felt, something we can understand, something of that touch of Nature which makes all men brothers.
Celtic Literary Society, Dublin.