That there were poets or those poetically minded among members of Coisde Feis na nGleann need surprise no-one. After all the Bards were held in high esteem in Irish society in past ages and their position, when threatened, was defended by Colmcille at the famous Convention of Druimceatt, the one occasion when the Saint returned to Ireland from his self-imposed exile in Iona.
That the idea of rhyme originated with the Arabs is discounted by authorities and Dr Douglas Hyde, who attended the first Feis in Glenariff in 1904, noted that ‘already in the seventh century the Irish were inventors of rhyme, not only rhyme, but made intricate rhyming metres, when for many centuries the Germanic nations could only alliterate. And down to the sixteenth century the English poets for the most part exhibited a disregard for the fineness of execution and technique of which not the meanest Irish bard attached to the pettiest chief could have been guilty’.
The outstanding poet among the Feis poets was Alice L. Milligan. She was regarded by Thomas MacDonough as the most Irish and therefore the best.
I have no hesitation in offering this anthology of Feis poets to the public, confident that they will accept it as the work of men and women working for the nation and its survival.
Séamus Ó Cléirigh
A murmurous tangle of voices,
Laughter to left and right,
We waited the curtain’s rising,
In a dazing glare of light;
When down through the din came, slowly,
Softly, then clear and strong,
The mournful minor cadence
Of a sweet old Gaelic song.
Like the trill of a lark new-risin,
It trembled upon the air.
And wondering eyes were lifted
To see for the singer there;
Some dreamed of the thrush at noontide,
Some fancied a linnet’s wail,
While the notes went sobbing, sighing,
O’er the heartstrings of the Gael.
The lights grew blurred, and a vision
Fell upon all who heard –
The people of moorland heather
By a wonderful wind was stirred;
Green rings of rushes went swaying,
Gaunt boughs of Winter made moan;
One saw the glory of Life go by,
And one saw Death alone.
A river twined through the shallows,
Cool waves crept up on a strand,
Or fierce, like a mighty army,
Swept wide on a conquered land;
The Dead left cairn and barrow,
And passed in noble train,
With sheltering shield, and slender spear,
Ere the curtain rose again.
The four great seas of Éire
Heaved under fierce ships of war,
The God of Battles befriended,
We saw the Star! the Star!
We nerved us for deeds of daring,
For Right we stood against Wrong;
We heard the prayer of our mothers
In that sweet old Gaelic song.
It was the soul of Éire
Awakening the speech she knew
When the clans held the glens and mountains,
And the hearts of her chiefs were true;
She hath stirred at last in her sleeping,
She is folding her dreams away,
The hour of her destiny nearest –
And it may be to-day – to-day.
I make no apology for including the poems of Ethna Carbery in this anthology of Feis na nGleann poets. It is true she died two years before the founding of the Feis. The truth is that Ethna Carbery and Alice Milligan, who was associated with the Feis, were leaders ‘(as the wise ones thought) of a forlorn hope’.
‘It was just a few years after the death of Parnell’, as Seamus McManus tells us, ‘when Ireland had slipped into the Slough of Despond – when the nation’s hopes seemed shattered – and all patriotic work for Ireland was completely arrested – that these two gallant young girls, seeing their duty, stepped into the breach, and founded the little magazine, the Shan Van Vocht, for the rallying of the scattered and disheartened few, who, in the wilderness, still had not entirely lost the faith’.
Professor RM Henry, in his book ‘The Evolution of Sinn Fein’, describes the Shan Van Vocht as ‘a literary and political journal which became a semi-official exponent of the new Irish-Ireland movements’. Professor Henry was, of course, a brother of Paul Henry, the noted Irish artist.
Of these two gallant girls, Seamus McManus writes: “They rallied to them the faithful in exile and the half-hopeless at home. They inspired patriotic writers to lift again the pen that had fallen from their despairing fingers. And they inspired new ones, young ones, to take up the pen and aid in the work for Ireland. The rallying call of these two girls was heard wherever around the world a patriotic Irishman had halted his wanderings. And from the most out-of-the-way corners of the globe came the response to their call; and through the little Shan Van Vocht, in that dark hour for Ireland, they gathered to them a regiment of Ireland’s truest lovers – the fruitful nucleus for the far greater army that was soon to follow. Today (1918), only the few remember that it was these two girls, with their wonderful little magazine, patriotic, poetic, firing, stimulating, who renewed Ireland’s spirit when it seemed dead, and turned the tide of Ireland’s fortune when to many it seemed flown for ever. With this revival of Ireland’s poetry and Ireland’s patriotism came the beginning of the Great Revival. And when, today (1918), I find foreigners – and even some of their Irish imitators – expatiating upon the great service of some remote ones, in reviving Ireland’s literature, I smile amusedly. Almost all Irish writers of the day helped with their contributions the brave work which the brave girls were struggling to accomplish. And it is worth adding that of the many notable or to-be-notable ones who enthusiastically aided, there were three who (God rest them), in the fair springtime of their life-work and the springtime of this national work, soon followed Ethna Carbery into the Land Beyond. They were Norah Hopper, ‘Fear na Muintire’ and poor Lionel Johnson. Another valued contributor was sterling James Connolly, who, later, nobly and happily fell with the first swath of the golden Harvest – and went to join the Joyful company. May they, one and all, bask eternal in the glad smile of God.
These girls, then, with their wonderful little magazine, started the so-called Irish Revival. And with the earnest few men who were then devoting themselves to the Gaelic Revival, the two girls helped to plough the ground and sow the seed for the Gaelic Harvest that soon followed.” Alice Milligan was active in the early days of Feis na nGleann and was responsible for many of the Historical Tableaux staged at the Feis in its early years.
Sláinte na n-Éireann
O wind-drifted Branch, lift you head to the sun,
For the sap of new life in your veins hath begun,
And a little young bud of the tenderest green
Mine eyes through the snow and the sorrow have seen!
O little green bud, break and blow into flower,
Break and blow through the welcome of sunshine and shower;
‘Twas a long night and dreary you hid there forlorn,
But now the cold hills wear the radiance of morn!
And there will be joy in our hearts since you bring
A whisper of Hope and a promise of Spring –
A Spring that is fairer for long waiting years,
And a Hope that is dearer because of our tears.
There cannot be the least doubt that Francis J Biggar, who was to a great extent the inspiration and driving force behind the founding of Feis na nGleann, was a genuine lover of Ireland, his country, the Irish people and all things Irish. One has only to consult his writings for evidence of this fact. He had much to say ‘of the many lovely and ancient things, the many homely traits and virtues of life that go so far to make anyone who has really studied and loved our people, their history, and their land, treasure and esteem them, one and all, far beyond any other people or land the world over’.
As he so well put it ‘To the Swiss, their snow-capped mountains and blue lakes; to the Norseman, his fjords and history of Viking raids and fierce war world of a thousands years; to the Italian, his marble hills and dark churches, brilliant with frescoes and jewelled shrines; to the dweller by the broad Zambesi (before rubber gatherer or white civilizer and slave hunter invaded his country) the drowsy noon and quivering palm by the river’s brink. To each and all his own special love and longing desire for the land that bore him, but to an Irishman the green fields and talking rivers, the dun-topped ridges and carn-crowned mountains, the ruined and desecrated fanes in the Irish valleys, the white-walled cottages on sloping hillsides, the thatched roofs and bright turf hearths speak to his very heart and soul, of the ploughboy’s whistle, of the busy harvest field, of the pipes and the dancing, of children’s merry laugh and reckless glee, and, quick as shower follows sunshine on an April day, tears course down the cheek at the thought of ruined homes and heartless evictions and state-aided exile and penalised worship.
The women of Eire keening,
And Cromwell loosed on the land
And O’Neill in his grave clothes lying.
Thoughts of these things’, he writes, ‘flit across the mind, and then the figure gnaws erect, and the face becomes set, as Brian at Clontarf appears to his vision, or Sarsfield at Limerick, of Emmet at Saint Catherine’s Church, or Mitchel in the dock, and the quiet manse at Newry desolate. And so from the valleys, the yellow fields of corn, the circling rivers and cattle dotted meadows; yet to all of Irish birth can never be hidden the crumbling walls of empty farmsteads, the briar grown graveyard, with roofless abbey and broken cross, the gallows hill, the decaying towns with huge barracks and ponderous jails, and the ever-present workhouse’ (happily no longer part of the Irish scene) ‘where no work or industry is ever taught, and from whose walls no good ever came’.
‘All these’, he tells us, ‘are sights from the hills of Ireland, causing the thoughtful to grieve and ponder, and cast his eyes inwards and wonder at the mystery of it all. And as we ponder, a spot of light breaks through the dark clouds, widening and widening with great shafts of light, brightening the hilltops, then the slopes, and finally the valleys, until the whole landscape is radiant with sunshine and buttercups and ceannbhan dance with a newness of life. As yet it may be that only a shaft of light is apparent; may we all live to see the happy day when the whole of our land will be suffused with the light of peace and prosperity.
All this’, he hastens to let us know, ‘has been expressed by a sweet Ulster poet in words far beyond any I can hope to use –
The White Bog Flower
From the dark turf of poverty and home
The white bog cotton like the fairy springs;
Symbol of Ireland, spirit from the earth
To which your heart in loving fondness clings.
We look upon the sadness of the bog,
Of the dark turf beneath the still grey sky,
Pity and sorrow fill our very soul,
And only barren poverty seems nigh.
Yet from this bog the rich brown peat will burn
In fragrant homeliness on lov’d hearths here,
And dancing flowers of strangest whiteness rise,
To tell of Ireland’s spirit life so dear.
So dear to you who from the sad dark land
See dreams of beauty and of vision rise,
Who see the flowers triumph o’er the bog,
The Irish aspiration to the skies.
From love and sorrow beauty comes to birth,
From love and sorrow hope has come to be,
To clasp this land in confidence of joy
O’er mountain, field and bog from sea to sea.
In this booklet from which I have quoted, ‘The Hills of Holy Ireland’, Biggar gave many of the names of people and places in the Irish way ‘ignoring the common English corrupted forms, as it is time in Ireland’, he wrote, ‘we, at least, thus far restored our own’.