- Expressing the Nineteenth Century in Irish: The Poetry of Aodh Mac Domhnaill (1802–67)
When reflecting on the seemingly relentless decline of the Irish language in the nineteenth century, the Donegal Gaeltacht writer Séamus Ó Grianna, was wont to recall John Mitchel’s indictment of that century itself: “the ‘nineteenth century’ would not know itself, could not express itself in Irish.”1 For Mitchel, and for generations of his nationalist devotees like Ó Grianna, the Irish language found itself not just out of favor but outside of time itself. Of course, Mitchel regarded “the nineteenth century” as less a specific period of time than as an insidious amalgam of evils—chief among which were industrialization, rampant pauperization, and the rise of the British trade empire and the accompanying Victorian socioeconomic value system. For Mitchel, this was truly “the darkest of all dark ages” in which language—rather like the Irish monks in the dark ages—existed without and in spite of the nineteenth century. As such, the language was a reminder the Irish of an age of pristine virtue, the mark of which was that “there is no name for modern enlightenment in Irish, no word corresponding with the ‘masses’ or with ‘reproductive labour’; in short, the ‘nineteenth century’ would not know itself, could not express itself in Irish.”2
When Mitchel penned these damning remarks during the apocalyptic summer of 1847, he could scarcely have been aware that Aodh Mac Domhnaill (1802–67), a poet and scribe from County Meath, had set himself precisely the task of expressing the experience of the nineteenth century in the Irish language. In so doing, he gave some testament to the lives of an entire class of Irish people whose encounter of the shock of industrialization and the continuous displacement of rural communities was generally expressed by others for them, often retrospectively, and scarcely ever expressed in the only language that many of them could speak. [End Page 81]
The famine years have been characterized as a time of profound silence when there was “no singing, nor the desire to make song”(níl ceol in aon áit ná suim ina dhéanamh), as one of the few contemporary Irish songs has it.3 It is with this in mind that one should judge the significance of Aodh Mac Domhnaill’s poem “Ceol na mBacach” (“The Song of the Beggars”), in which he strives to give voice to a people who were being occluded from the record of history at a time before even the official recording of deaths had been initiated.
The proposition that the famine years left a legacy of unexpressed trauma of the famine years has, in our own time, inspired many critical engagements with that period.4 It seems, however, that an awareness of the power of unresolved trauma is much less recent. As though anticipating the psychiatric tropes of postcolonialist writing, as early as 1963 Máirtín Ó Cadhain described in now-familiar terms the phenomenon of unexpressed trauma: “That sodden pulp of Famine fields, those nights of reeking coffin ships are bone of our bone, we carry them about with us still as rancorous complexes in our breasts.”5
Although describing himself an “Ulster poet,” Aodh Mac Domhnaill was probably born just over the modern provincial border in Drumgill, in northeast Meath in the year 1802. This places him within the southeast Ulster and northeast Leinster region known as Oiriall (Oriel), the seat of a rich literary tradition that flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries under the Ulster poets: Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta (1647?–1733), Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin (1666–33), Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (1680–1756), Peadar Ó Doirnín [End Page 82] (1700–69), and Art Mac Cumhaigh (1738–1773).6 The work of these poets, and the body of folklore it generated, became the focus for the Ulster scribes and antiquarians of the nineteenth century. It was to this project that Mac Domhnaill would make a key contribution.
In the personal genealogy he provides in his Fealsúnacht (Philosophy), Mac Domhnaill traces his oldest forbears back seven generations to at least the mid-seventeenth century to...