Michael O'Sullivan reviews Danta Sheafraidh Ui Dhonnchadha an Ghleanna (The Poems of Geoffrey O'Donoghue) with Ireland's War Poets 1641-1653 by John Minahane, Aubane Historical Society, ISBN: 9 781 903497 49 4, €25
IN HIS introduction to Ireland's War Poets 1641-1653, which accompanies his selection from the poetry of Seafraidh O'Donnchadha, John Minahane cautions his readers to prepare themselves for a treatment of the great Confederate war poets as 'important historical witnesses'.
He has in mind of course the enormous social upheavals of the late 16th century, the consequent transformations in Irish society and the effects these had on the poets and their work.
The defeat at Kinsale in 1601, the ignomy of Hugh O'Neill's surrender to the English and the Flight of the Earls in 1607 had seen the virtual completion of the Elizabethan conquest.
The structure of the old Gaelic clan system largely disintegrated and with it went the power and patronage that had long supported the hereditary schools of bardic poetry. Dependence on aristocratic support for their very existence meant that the members of this once esteemed professional poetic caste were obliged to seek new patrons or shift for themselves. Some of the more fortunate ones did secure a degree of patronage under still influential chieftains though most took refuge on the margins of Gaelic society among the poor and dispossessed where they survived as farmers or school teachers or lived on their wits.
Perhaps their final flourish came in 1616 with the great eight year gathering of poets known as 'The Contention of the Bards'. Convened in part to praise, in verse, the relative virtues of their former patrons, the debate soon developed into a lament for the sudden impoverishment of the chieftains and a bitter denunciation of the hated usurper.
The 'Contention' not only marked the decline in the fortunes of the poets themselves but also saw the virtual abandonment of the great bardic style of verse writing An Dan Direach or classical metre.
In less than a generation classicism was to give way to looser more organic forms capable of accommodating a much wider range of poetic expression, the Aisling, or dream poem for instance, and the politically charged Caoineadh or Lament.
Bereft of aristocratic support the bards were forced to form new associations, and while traces of the old learning still survived, strongly in places, from henceforth their concerns were mainly survival, history and politics, and a poetry inspired by and imbued with a profound sense of loss.
Seafraidh O'Donnchadha was born in Glenflesk in west Kerry about 1615 into an aristocratic family but was to become very much one of John Minahane's 'historical witnesses' though he did have as a young man something of a classical poetical training.
No full biography exists as yet and little enough is known of his life though Minahane includes a lively little sketch of his fairly prosperous family background, his two, (at least) marriages and something of the social upheavals of the period which were to influence him as a writer.
A participant in the 1640's rebellion, his lands became forfeit and he was to remain something of an outcast for most of his adult life. His poems bear ample testimony to the injustices visited upon his countrymen and to his own tragic loss though everywhere in his work the prevailing tone or sentiment, while defiant and at times contemptuous, is refreshingly free from either bitterness or despair.
Hugely prolific, the bulk of his work has not survived the years, though what has come down to us is a highly accomplished corpus of verse, written in a wide range of literary styles and possessing a high degree of virtuosity.
This is in fact the second edition of the Rev. Patrick Dineen's well known collection of 1902, somewhat enlarged to include a handful of O'Donnchadha's Cromwellian war poems, as well as a number of 'doubtful attributions'. English translations of the poems appear in parallel alongside the originals facilitating easy reference for readers with some knowledge of the Irish texts. There is a full list of manuscript sources and copious notes and glosses accompany each poem.
John Minahane's aim seems to be to convey as much as possible of the nature and quality of O'Donnchadha's verse without attempting to reproduce the more difficult technical aspects of their prosody. The subtle intonations of the originals, the rhyming devices, accentual rhythms, assonances etc he either treats with caution or leaves entirely untouched, though the majority of O'Donnchadha's ideas and images, his 'word pictures', are reproduced, often with great vividness.
Previous translators of the poets of this period usually choose to rhyme their renderings, though in a style which bears little resemblance to the elusive and intricate rhyme schemes of the originals, with predictable results.
The effects of O'Donnchadha's masterful use of internal rhyming for example are impossible to replicate in translation and Minahane wisely avoids any such experiments, though he does occasionally employ rhyme to very good effect.
These versions moreover are not 'free' ones; they are probably as faithful to the originals in form and content as any translator could make them. Losses in translation are inevitable but enough of the essential quality of the originals is captured here to enable much of O'Donnchadha's poetic genius to shine through.
It is not easy to 'rate' Seafraidh O'Donnchadha as a poet, or even to 'place' him among his contemporaries; overlooked by the critics and the anthologists and with much of his work still languishing in manuscripts he, along with scores of other fine poets of his time, suffers the neglect and carelessness which seem to characterise the current academic attitude to our literary heritage.
We owe John Minahane and his publishers a debt of gratitude for this authoritative new edition, which must in time become the standard work on O'Donnchadha. Beautifully produced and scrupulously edited this book is a joy to handle and thoroughly accessible, a worthy successor to the Rev. Dineen's great pioneering work.
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Copyright © 2009 Michael O'Sullivan