Anthony Raftery,1779 – 1835, the poet, was, we were told, born in Cill Liadain (Killeadan), near Kiltimagh Co. Mayo, as the son of a weaver from Co. Sligo. Blinded by smallpox in childhood and illiterate, he was helped by his father’s employer, Frank Taaffe, for whom he was a household entertainer, until they fell out, allegedly because he killed a favourite horse. Raftery then joined the thousands of homeless people, who roamed Ireland to live off a population not much better off than himself.
Mise Raiftearaí an file,
Lán dóchas ‘s grá,
Le súile gan solas,
Le ciúnas gan crá…
Féach anois mé
Is mo chúl le balla
Ag seimn ceoil
Do phócaí folamh.
This poem tells us how he lived. ‘I am Raftery,the poet, full of hope and love; with eyes without light, with gentleness without misery… Look at me now and my back to the wall, playing music to empty pockets’. However, he must have been better off than most. Because of his talents as a poet and musician he was welcomed in many houses. He spent most of his adult life in ‘Achréidh na Gaillimhe’(the rich farmland of East Galway), where the ‘strong farmers’ were his patrons.
A poet of the people, his work deals with events of the time and reflect the views of the people of the area. Loud in his praise of those who helped him, his sharp tongue was used against those who incurred his wrath.
Born into a time in Irish history which saw the Rising of ’98 and its aftermath of violence, he witnessed the Act of Union in 1801 which resulted in the ‘Absentee Landlords’ giving the ‘Middlemen’ a free hand to charge ‘rack rents’ to the tenants who lived in fear of eviction. Years before the landowners had started to ‘enclose’ the commonages where, since the time of the Irish Chieftains, the people were allowed free grazing for their young cattle. Secret societies such as the Whiteboys and Ribbonmen were formed by people who strongly objected to this. Raftery was on the side of these societies and praised the activities of those, who agitated for ‘fair rents’ and ‘security of tenure in their farms’.
After some ‘outrage’ against a local landowner, Anthony Daly, a journeyman carpenter from Kilrickle, was arrested because of his membership of the Whiteboys. Even though it was widely acclaimed that he was innocent, he was hanged as an example to all. On the way from the court in Galway to Seefin near Craughwell, for the hanging he travelled on a cart and sat on his own coffin. The people called out to him, in Irish, to jump down and that they would hide him and even some of the soldiers who were Irish shouted out that they would only fire into the air, if he ran but he declined in case of reprisal against the people. Raftery, who witnessed this event, composed a poem in praise of Daly – Antoine Ó’Dálaigh. He called him a ‘good tree that wouldn’t let any branch of it fall to the ground’, meaning that he did not renege on his companions. He denounced those who took part in the hanging. In the poem ‘Na Buachaillí Bána’, he says of Denis ‘the Rope’ Brown, High Sheriff of Mayo, that he would like to stick a spear through his huge stomach.
He lived through the end of the Penal Laws when Catholics could not practise their faith openly and had no proper system of education. He hated the ‘Tithe’ system that obliged Catholics to give one tenth of their income to the Protestant Clergy. Being blind and having nothing much else to do, apart from of course his favourite pastime of drinking when he had the ‘price of a drop’, he often attended the hedge schools in the area. He was well versed in the history of Ireland, as can be seen from the poem ‘Seanchas na Sceiche’ (Talk with the Bush), which gives the history of Ireland from the early times of the Firbolg and the Tuatha De Danaan, up to Patrick Sarsfield and the Treaty of Limerick. He also picked up a knowledge of Latin and Greek and in poems in praise of the local girls, such as Máire Ní Eidhin, Máirín Staunton, Peigín Bláth na Scéimhe or Brídín Bhéasaí, he compared them to Venus or Helen of Troy, throwing in the names of Virgil, Cicero and Homer for good measure. Lady Gregory wrote that people told her that ‘He used to carry a book about with him – a Pantheon – about the heathen gods and goddesses; and whoever he’d get that was able to read, he’d get him to read it to him, and then he’d keep it in his mind and it as he wanted to’. He was very intelligent and recited his many poems and songs from memory even though he could neither read nor write. Seanchas na Sceiche has over three hundred lines and many of his other poems are nearly as long.
Daniel O’Connell, who was instrumental in getting Catholic Emancipation in 1829, was his hero and ‘Bua Uí Chonaill’ was composed his success in the Clare election. Even though he knew the importance of education, Raftery was not happy with the coming of the National School system in 1831, as it was against the teaching of his beloved Irish language. To insure that the pupils did not use Irish in school, they were often obliged to wear a stick hanging from around their neck. If they were heard using Irish, the teacher would cut a notch on this stick and when their parents saw this at home, they would be punished.
With Catholic Emancipation came a revival of the religion. Gone were the days of the ‘Mass Rocks’ and the hounding of priests. Archbishop Mac Hale, ‘The Lion of the West, who was educated in the local hedge school and at Maynooth, was a leader in this renaissance. He built our own cathedral in Tuam as well as many schools in the West of Ireland. Nano Nagle of the Presentation Order, Catherine McAuley of the Mercy Sisters and Edmund Ignatius Rice of the Irish Christian Brothers all lived in Raftery’s time. While Raftery was in his own words ‘a terrible sinner’ – B’fhearr liom go mór imirt is ól, ná maidin Domhnaigh triall chun Aifrinn’ (I would rather have sport and drink than go to Mass on a Sunday morning), he spent the end of his life ‘praying and making religious songs’. ‘Seanchas na Sceiche’, his history of Ireland was written from a fiercely Catholic standpoint and he put the teachings of the Church and the need to repent across in many of his poems as did Achiní Raiftearaí.
‘Ag gabháil a luí duit ná bí balbh
nocht do ghlúine agus brúigh an talamh,
cuimhnigh i ndiaidh ar chuir tú tharat,
go gcaithfidh tú triall ar shlua na marbh’.
His advice here being : ‘When going to bed don’t be dumb (speak to God), go on the ground on bare knees and remember to examine your conscience, for soon you’ll be on death’s door.’
Other poems in this vein were Faoistin Raiftearaí (Raftery’s Confession), Achainí Raiftearaí ar Íosa Críost (Raftery’s petition to Christ) and Agallamh Raiftearaí agus an Bás (Raftery’s dialogue with Death).
There were other poets in Acréidh na Gaillimhe at the time who competed with each other for popularity. Raftery often turned to satire to best his rivals. His usual trick was to compare his opponent to a fox (animal) and hunt him through the land. In the year 1829, he declared that Peatsy and Marcus Callanan, poets of renown, from Killeeneen insulted him. His answer was to have ‘The Blazers’ hound them from one end of the country to the other. He ordered the same recipe for Seán Burke, another homeless poet and musician.
One of his best known songs to this day is Eanach Dhún. It tells the sad story of the tragic drowning of some people, who with their sheep, were on their way to Galway fair by boat. At Bushypark a sheep put its foot through the boat. He says:
Má fhaighimse sláinte is fada ‘bhéas tráchtadh
ar an méid a báthadh as Eanach Dhúin’
‘S é mo thruaí amárach gach athair is máthair,
bean is páiste atá ag sileadh súl.
See featured video of “Anach Cuan” sung by Dolly MacMahon – compliments of the LP “Mo Cheol Thú”
As I have mentioned before, Raftery was fond of a ‘drop’ and was quick to praise anyone who invited him in ‘for a sup’. Two brothers from Cnochán an Eanaigh, near Esker (Eiscir na mBráthar), were held in high esteem because of this. His praise of the whiskey itself was as high: ‘Fíorshláinte an fuisce ach é a fháil in am áirithe’ which means- Whiskey is very healthy for you if you get it at the right time’. Fr. Matthew who lived at this time and preached temperance, does not get a mention, but then neither does Arthur Guinness who was building his empire on black porter, at the same time. Folklore seems to imply that Raftery may have got the taste for learning and whiskey in the same place – the hedge schools. I suppose, if the authorities weren’t told that school was in progress, well, they certainly weren’t told about the ‘still’ either. Times have changed!
Raftery was very familiar with this part of the country, as he spent some winters in Keane’s house in Greethill or Cnochán Iomhair. He composed a beautiful song about one of the family Úna Ní Chatháin and showed his high regard for the area.
Tá an t-uan is an chaora, an bhó is an lao ann,
taltaí míne gan fraoch ná móin,
treabhadh is síolchur i mí na bhfuílleach,
céachta is cliath ann i gcaoi is i gcóir.
An cíos tráth a ndíoltar bíonn sí lena íoch ann,
coirce, lín agus eorna mhór.
Siúil an ríocht agus ar ais aríste,
ní bhfaighfeá i dtaoibh ar bith aon áit dá shórt.
(The sheep and the lamb are there; the cow and the calf are there; fine lands are there without heath or bog. Ploughing and seed-sowing in the right month, plough and harrow prepared and ready; the rent that is called for there, they have means to pay it, with oats and flax and long-eared barley. Walk the kingdom and back again and you’ll never find in any side a place like it.)
He was also fond of Coshla and lamented the death of his friend Tomás Ó’Dálaigh (Thomas Daly), a musician, who lived across the road from where Egan’s Pub now stands. In this song, he mentions Casán Liam Deois – The path of the highwayman Liam Joyce, whose ‘stomping ground’ was from the Cúinne Geal near Carnmore Cross to Cussaun Cross.
This was the time of the Bianconi Cars when Ireland had many robbers and highwaymen. Raftery probably stopped for refreshments in the sheebeen at Cussaun in his day. He was no stranger to Monivea either. We hear of a certain Mairtín Mac Giollarnáith (Martin Forde) from that area who is said to have started the row that ended in the ‘hunting’ of poor Seán Burke (Fiach Sheáin Bhrádaigh) . In this great poem, when The Blazers hunt him through the country, the Lobdels and the Taylors of Athenry are mentioned as are the Lamberts of Castle Lambert. Hyacinth Daly of Raford and Persse of Dunsandle all featured in his work. He spent nights in Ballywhinna, Killconiron, Frenchford, Claregalway and ‘choirnéal Chill Tulach’ (the corner of Kiltulla, possibly Tallyho, the stand of many travelling shows) and ‘geata Mhaigh Fhód’ (Moyode) also featured in his itinerary.
If we go by the many times that Athenry and its surrounding townlands are mentioned in Raftery’s songs and poems, we can safely say that he was every bit an Athenry poet as he was of Coillte Magh, Killeeneen or South Galway. The reason the Athenry Area, especially Greethill or Cnocán Iomhair, is not mentioned often by those who wrote about him, is probably because Lady Gregory, who gathered much of his work, thought Cnochán Iomhair was in Co. Mayo. One thing is sure, she didn’t travel through Clorane or Greethill on a foggy day.
Tar éis na Nollag le cúnamh Chríosta
ní chónód choiche má mhairim beo
go dté mé arís go Cnocán Íomhair
mar is áit bhreá shaoithúil é nach
Áras ródheas a lasann grian air,
ní ardaíonn gaoth ann ná ní dá shórt,
dá mbeifeá bliain ann ní bhfaighfeá scíth ar bith
ach do shuí aon oíche go síoraí ag ól.
‘After the Christmas, with the help of Christ, I will never stop if I am alive; I will go to the little hill of plenty; for it is a fine place, of wisdom and entertainment, without fog falling; a blessed place that the sun shines on, and the wind doesn’t rise there or any thing of that sort. And if you were a year there, you would get no rest, only sitting up at night and the drink running freely’.
Go ndéanfaidh Dia tróchaire ar anam Antoine Raiftearaí agus ar anamnacha na bhfear siúil a mhair lena linn agus tá súil agam go bhfuil siad ar fad í gCnocán Iomhair na bhFlaitheas, áit nach dtuiteann ceo!
Bunaithe ar “Raiftearaí, Amhráin agus Dánta” le ÓCoigligh 1987
Feature Photo: Statue in honour of Antoine O’Raifrearaí in Craughwell, County Galway
Written by Finbarr O'Regan
Published here 08 Feb 2021 and originally published June 1999
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