To Ireland I by Paul Muldoon, Oxford University Press, £19.99
rE OXFORD PROFESSOR of
poetry takes the title for
poetry takes the title for his Clarendon lectures from Donalbain's cry in Macbeth, nicely so for his journey through Irish writing from Cuchulainn to Samuel Beckett. His closeness to the Irish language matches Heaney's.
He asks if Swift understood Irish and looks at his poem "Description of An Irish Feast", "translated almost entirely out of the original Irish", which starts: O'Rork's noble fare Will ne'er be forgot, By those who were there, And those who were not.
Muldoon instances the last line as an "Irish Bull", defined in 1802 by Maria Edgeworth as "an expression containing a manifest contradiction in terms or involving a ludicrous inconsistency unperceived by the speaker".
In 1687, two decades after Swift's birth, there came a teasing of Irish idiom: Dare was an old prophecy found in a bog,
Lillibulero, bullen-a-la, Ireland shall be ruled by an ass. and a dog...
For Talbot's de dog and James de ass...
Talbot was made Lord Deputy of Ireland by James both Catholic and victims of the Glorious Revolution. The Protestant poet was Thomas Wharton, and Henry Purcell made the tune.
Bishop Burnett of Salisbury noted the Williamites' use of Lillibulero as an anti-Catholic chant, and concluded: "The whole army, and at last the people... were singing it perpetually. And perhaps never had so slight a thing so great an effect". After the Boyne came the Penal laws. No Catholic could own a horse worth more than five pounds. The young Eileen O'Connell of Derrynane, Co Kerry — Daniel's aunt — married Art O'Leary, a soldier back from Europe. He was outlawed for refusing to sell his mare to a Protestant for five pounds, and shot dead in Co. Cork. He is buried in the ruined Kilcrea Abbey, under an epitaph written by the widow: La Arthur Leary, generous, handsome, brave/ Slain in his bloom lies in this humble grave.
But what stirs is the long "Lament for Art O'Leary", also Eileen's work. Muldoon gives a version:
...I would find you stretched
By that low whin bush Without pope or bishop, Without priest or monk To preside or pray over you...
Eileen's lament stirred Patrick Pearse, whose Irish lectures showed an anglophobia that turned away James Joyce, a name that turns up often in Professor Muldoon's provocatively learned exegesis.