Eponymous poem not penned by Raftery


IT MAY be one of the most enduring poems in the Irish language, but the man credited as author didn’t actually write it.

Not only that, but Anthony Raftery’s autobiographical verse, Mise Raiftearaí an File, may have been written across the Atlantic, according to a documentary to be broadcast on TG4 tonight.

And though the blind wandering poet railed against the oppression of a Protestant landlord class in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was the son of a Church of Ireland minister who did most to put him on a pedestal after his death.

Séan Ó Cualáin, award-winning director of tonight’s documentary, believes that there are many paradoxes about Raftery – not least the fact that there has been no official commemoration of the 175th anniversary of his death on Christmas Eve, 1835.

It was while working on the project over the past four years that Ó Cualáin also learned through the academic work of Ciaran Ó Coigligh that the poet never wrote Mise Raiftearaí An File, recited by generations of schoolchildren.

It was actually penned by Seán Ó Ceallaigh in Oswego in New York state, published in a journal called An Gaodhal in New York and later credited to Raftery by Douglas Hyde.

Hyde, Ireland’s first president, scholar and founder of the Gaelic League, fell under Raftery’s spell, as did WB Yeats and Lady Gregory in the early years of the last century. Hyde first heard about him in 1878, over 40 years after the poet’s death, when he heard an old man reciting his verse, Cill Aodáin.

Much of Raftery’s verse had survived in the oral tradition, and was highly critical of the Protestant establishment and supportive of Whiteboy activity in Co Galway, where he lived. Yet Hyde considered him to be of sufficient stature to publish an anthology of his work in 1903.

The documentary narrated by Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin explores Raftery’s early years in his home county of Mayo, where he lost eight siblings to smallpox and was blinded by the disease himself. The programme suggests that his description of bodies laid out in another of his famous poems – on the drownings at Eanach Chuain (Annaghdown) on the shores of Lough Corrib – was inspired by one of his own last images of his dead brothers and sisters, before he lost his sight.

It also notes that he never wrote of his partner Siobhán, mother of his two children – yet his verses are replete with references to other women with whom he was besotted, such as Nancy Walsh and Brídín Bhéasach.

Dramatic reconstructions of Raftery’s life involved actor and musician Aindrias de Staic, and the documentary interviews Nollaig Ó Muraile and Gearóid Denvir of NUI Galway, Mayo historian Betty Solan and sean-nós singers Treasa Ní Cheannabháin, Naisirín Elsafty and Máirtín Tom Sheánín among others.

Ó Cualáín says it is regrettable that there has been no event to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Raftery’s death in an old shed in Craughwell, south Galway, on Christmas Eve, 1835, when he was buried in the dark by candlelight at Killeeneen.

Mise Raiftearaí – an Fíodoir Focal is broadcast at 7.45pm tonight on TG4 and is supported by TG4, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Foras na Gaeilge.