‘The capital, Galway, is a terrible place. It has of course St Nicholas, one of the few remaining pre-Reformation churches; the frontispiece of a Renaissance town house erected as a gateway to the public park; and a medieval fortified house about which they tell the well-known story of the Lynch who hanged his own son when the sheriff wasn't available. At least once a year while I was director of the Abbey theatre we got a play on that. From Miss Edgeworth's account of her travels to Galway it would appear that as a theme for tragedy it was popular a hundred years ago. But even before that I had a lively hatred of the town....'
O dear. Just when we were all excited about how great Galway is to win the City of Culture designation 2020, along came Frank O'Connor to bring us back down to earth. Admittedly his observations were made some time ago in his book Leinster, Munster and Connaught* and were based on his belief that Galway was not a real town, let alone a city, in the true meaning of the word 'urban'. First of all, he argues, Galway is run by the 'ferocious O'Flahertys'. 'And, as if that is not enough to break the heart in any responsible community, it has the Aran Islands on its hands as well. That is not to decry Connemara, or even the Aran Islands, which are a wonderful place for those who do not suffer as badly as I do from insulaphobia. But they do not produce city-dwellers. Theirs is an exclusively agriculture culture....'
'Tuam will find me'
As for the busy town of Tuam, O'Connor has no patience at all. 'Tuam is even worse, much worse. Once in a Dublin bookshop I saw an ecclesiastical dignitary buying a book.
"Of course, " said the assistant, " I can make an effort to get you the complete poems."
"I'd be very glad if you could try," said the ecclesiastical dignitary. " You know the address. Tuam will find me."
My curiosity as to what sort of poetry people would read in a hole like Tuam was too much for me. I am afraid I stole up behind to get a look at the book.
"Of course," the assistant said enthusiastically, "just as poetry this is a very good selection."
"I don't mind the poetry," said the ecclesiastical dignitary wearily." It's the crossword clues I want. They use Kipling such a lot in the puzzles."
Seduced by poetry
But for all his mockery O'Connor is seduced by our poetry. 'The poetry is still there, though the schools are at their task of destroying one tradition without being able to provide sufficient of another to fill the vacuum they create.'
Yet, he relates, that it was a school inspector in Connemara who offered sixpence for the best song the children brought in from home who gave O'Connor the original Irish of 'How Well for the Birds,' which he translates:
How well for the birds that can rise in their flight
And settle together on the one bough at night;
It is not so with me and the boy of my heart,
Each morning the sun finds us rising apart.
O'Connor is moved by the verse. He observes that the poetry of the west of Ireland is very different from the 'over elaborate rhyme-schemes and pseudo-literary conventions' found in the poems of Cork and Kerry.
'The poetry of the west is almost pure folk poetry... here it is almost shapeless; it drifts like mist..' He recalls that he was taking 'a rather tough love song' from a young girl whose grandfather had been a well-known story-teller. The girl's grandmother came into the room carrying a load of sticks, and sat down. When the child had finished the old woman began a song of a girl who gave her virginity too easily:
Éiri' is cuir fál ar an bpáirc a mhill tu aréir,
Má théigheann na ba sa bhfásach is fánach ar an bhféar. (Arise and put a fence about the field you spoiled last night.
If the cows get into the meadow, 'twill go hard upon the grass ).
'That is the sort of thing which can happen to you still in Connemara, and nowhere else I know of in western Europe, unless it be in the Scottish islands.'
O'Connor got into conversation with a Mayo tramp, who asked him if he had visited Killeadan, where the poet Anthony Raftery was born?
Before O'Connor could reply, the man drew himself erect and quoted in Irish:
"If I could stand in the heart of my people
Old age would drop from me and youth would come back..."
Referring to the great burst of energy that emanated from the writers and artists who had gathered at Lady Gregory's Coole Park at the beginning of the century, O'Connor believed that 'it was only from these western counties that so romantic a literature could have sprung. A little civilisation would have upset it.'
Frank O'Connor, who claimed to have been always scared of Lady Gregory when he worked with her in the Abbey theatre, enjoyed her dismissive comment on modern poetry. WB Yeats had presented her ladyship with two books. One was translations from the Irish, the other was a book of poems by one of the Auden school.
'Some time later Yeats found the modern book lying unread. "I like the translations better," said the old lady. "Dey're all about original sin." O'Connor smiles. "That was the most blasting comment ever made on modern poetry."
"What theme had Homer but original sin?" was how Yeats put it '" in a later poem**
Next week: James Joyce and the great Galway harbour plan
NOTES: *Published by Robert Hale and Co, London 1950.
** It is a quote from Yeats' Vacilliation:
The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem. / The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme? / The Soul. Isaiah's coal, what more can man desire? / The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire! / The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within. / The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?