South Galway still echoes with stories of Antoine O Raifteiri , and 18th century blind poet and fiddle player in the ancient bardic tradition. His best known poems are probably Cill Aodain, and Anach Cuan. He never wrote his poems down, but they were collected by Douglas Hyde, and Lady Gregory, from those whom he taught them to, after his death.
The following extract is from Kiltartan – Many Leaves, One Root, a History of the parish of Kiltartan, by Mary de Lourdes Fahy RSM.
Lady Gregory found that Kiltartan was alive with memories of the blind poet, Anthony Raftery, whose verses were recited at weddings, wakes and firesides. He was born at Killeadan, near Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, but he spent most of his life in South Galway. It is said that he had a house in Ballylee. She describes how she heard about him from people who knew him personally or knew about him indirectly, like the women who discussed him in the Workhouse. The old woman from Kilchreest boasted:
' Raftery hadn't a stim of sight. He was the best poet that ever was and the best fiddler. It was always at my father's house, opposite the big tree, that he used to stop when he was in Kilchreest. Though he was blind, he could serve himself with his knife and fork as well as any man with his sight'.
There were many in South Galway who remembered Raftery's biting satires, one of which “withered up a bush” near Rahasne. Many obtained their knowledge of Irish history, forbidden in the schools, from his songs, which were historical, political and religious. A neighbour told Lady Gregory:
He used to stay with my uncle who was a hedge schoolmaster in those times at Ballylee and who was very fond of drink. But at evening he'd open the school and neighbours who would be working all day would gather in to him and he'd teach them through the night and there Raftery would be in the middle of them.
Raftery lived through the 1798 Rebellion and the struggle for Catholic Emancipation. He experienced the Tithe War and the beginning of the Repeal Movement. An old woman in Ballylee informed Lady Gregory that, “one time there were night-walkers called Ribbonmen and they asked Raftery to come to their meeting. He went but he bade them give up their night-walking and come out and agitate in the daylight”. Another old lady related: “I often saw him when I was a little child in my father's house at Corker; he'd often come in there and here to Coole. He couldn't see a stim and that is why he had such great knowledge. God gave it to him”. Quinn's of Ballyaneen was another house visited by Raftery.
Somebody told W B Yeats, “if you treated him well, he'd praise you; but if you didn't he'd fault you in Irish.” He once complimented a young girl: “Well planned you are; the carpenter that planned you knew his trade!” He praised a priest in Kilcolgan, stating that he was, “the good Christian, the clean wheat of God, the generous messenger, the standing tree of the clergy”. He also praised Sean Conroy, a carpenter from Castletaylor for his “quick, lucky work”.
On the occasion of the founding of the Gaelic League in Kiltartan, January 1899, Tommy Hynes of Ballylee met Douglas Hyde and gave him some of Raftery's songs. One of them, An Pabhsae Gleigeal, or “Mary Hynes of Ballylee” was about a beautiful girl, a relative of Tommy's, who died earlier in the century. Raftery met Mary near Kiltartan on his way to Mass there. Ta'n soilear laidir i mBail-ui-Liagh is said to allude to a great deep pool, a swallow-hole in the river, near where Mary Hynes' house stood. At the time of the Hyde/Hynes meeting, most of the stones had been taken out of the gable and side walls to build other houses or stone walls. Whitethorns and briars grew among the remaining stones.
Lady Gregory was told: “There usedn't be a hurling match in the county that she wouldn't be at and a white dress on her always. Eleven man asked her in marriage in one single day but she couldn't marry any of them. One man went to Ballylee to see her and when he came to the bog of Cloon he fell into the water and was drowned.” An old woman who lived close to Ballylee Castle stated: “I often saw Mary Hynes, she was handsome indeed. She had two bunches of curls beside her cheeks and they were the colour of silver. I was at her wake too- she had seen too much of the world.”
Yeats refers to Mary's beauty in some of his works. He was also told that she had five handsome brothers. Her end was the sad but not unusual one of such peasant beauties. According to a story told to Hyde, she was seduced and abandoned by one of the so-called aristocracy and died in poverty some years before the Famine. However, the late John Hynes maintained that she got “the bad eye” from a crowd at the Stony Bridge in Derrybrien as she was coming on horseback from the Holy Well in Abbey. As a result, she died of pneumonia shortly afterwards. She was the daughter of Brian Hynes whose name is inscribed on headstone D56 in Kiltartan cemetery, 1818, or the sister or daughter of John Hynes whose name appears in the Tithe Applotment Books, 1826? We may never know.
Raftery died in Darby Cloonan's house on Christmas Eve, 1835. According to a witness there was a sharp wind blowing at the time of Raftery's funeral but it failed to quench the candles and “that shows that the Lord had a hand in him.”
Some years ago, through the initiative of the late Fr Martin Coen, sculptures to honour Raftery and Lady Gregory were erected in Craughwell.
Ar dheis De go raibh
a n-anamnacha dilse.