Week 208: From ‘Lament for Art O’Leary’ by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, tr. John Montague

These are just the closing lines of a remarkable eighteenth-century Irish elegy, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, written by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill to lament the death of her husband Art, murdered in County Cork in 1773 at the hands of a British official with whom he had quarrelled. Much of the poem takes the form of a debate between wife and sister in which Art’s vitality and generosity of spirit are celebrated, producing a sense of loss that reminds me of Lorca’s great lament for the bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías: there is also the same sense of a sophisticated literary intellect harnessing the power of a great oral tradition.

From ‘Lament for Art O’Leary’

Until Art O’Leary comes again
This sorrow won’t lift
That lies across my heart
Like a tightly-locked trunk
With rust on the hasps
And the key thrown away.

So stop your weeping now
Women of the soft wet eyes
And drink to Art O’Leary
Before he enters the grave school
Not to study wisdom and song
But to carry earth and stone.

Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill  (tr. John Montague)