An Irishman’s Diary on Jack B Yeats and the woman who met Blind Raftery

“There is a touch of gaiety in the woman’s headscarf, decorated with circles. But her face is gaunt, hardship etched on it. She survived the Great Hunger, for Raftery died in 1835.”

Jack B Yeats drew a woman who met Blind Raftery. A wandering poet, Raftery was born on March 30th, 1779, it is said. Thirty years ago the Yeats sketch was reportedly in a private, unidentified US collection. A rare reproduction of it has turned up in Bray.

There is a touch of gaiety in the woman’s headscarf, decorated with circles. But her face is gaunt, hardship etched on it. She survived the Great Hunger, for Raftery died in 1835.

Smallpox blinded him when he was a boy in Mayo. The blind bard frequented Kiltartan, Co Galway, where Lady Augusta Gregory later lived at Coole Park. Jack Yeats and his poet brother Willie used to stay with her there. While in south Galway, Jack met this woman.

When Jack Yeats first went to America (for the St Louis World’s Fair), New York’s The Gael published his striking sketch as “The Woman Who Knew Raftery the Poet”.


In the same issue of April 1904 there was a review of Raftery’s Irish songs, as newly collected and translated by Douglas Hyde, future president of Ireland.

Is this the “old woman at Kiltartan”, once beautiful, who told Hyde that she met Raftery at a dance?

Raftery said to her, “He was a good tradesman made you, my girl, it was smooth he rubbed the plane on you, he had his trade.” “Better than you have yours,” she replied, for he had two strings broken on his fiddle.

Her father “did not like it, and wouldn’t let me have any more talk with him. If it wasn’t for that perhaps he’d made a song for myself, as he did for Mary Hynes and Mary Staunton”.

Raftery’s verses for Mary Hynes (An Pósaé Glégeal) are among his best. WB Yeats first heard them in the 19th century, at Ballylee in Kiltartan where an ancient tower later became his own home.

An unnamed old woman told WB Yeats, “If you treated him [Raftery] well he’d praise you, but if you did not, he’d fault you in Irish . . . There was a bush he stood under from the rain, and he made verses praising it, and then when the water came through he made verses dispraising it.” He urged people against the English.

A spare thin man, with “a voice like the wind”, Raftery wore ragged clothes. His hair was greasy. Yet, by a woman called Siobhán he had at least one child, a son who went with him playing the fiddle before running off with a circus.

A woman told Hyde that, “When he used to lie on his bed at night, that is the time he used to make all his songs, and he would put wonder on you in the morning and you without knowing where he had got them.”

The version of a poem learnt by generations of Irish school children (I Am Raftery) may not be his but by an admirer.

He was no troubadour troubling priests. He preached an old-fashioned, tribal faith, while confessing himself a sinner. He wrote, “If I have spoken, privately, Courteously, with pretty women, That is all that is written against me, That –and that I drink whiskey!”

Yet he was also accused of being too sharp in rattling the plate for money. He saw it differently: “My face to a wall, A’playing music, Unto empty pockets.”

The historian James Hardiman knew Raftery, “an honest man” who “played the violin tolerably”.

Raftery died at Christmas 1835. Another sketch by Jack Yeats, “The Man That Buried Raftery”, was bought by Patrick Pearse and reproduced in his An Macaomh journal in 1909. The original of “The Man” now hangs in Pearse’s former study at St Enda’s. The Bray image of “The Woman” is better than that in The Gael.

A witness told Hyde that men digging Raftery’s grave came to a big stone. So, “the boys thought that they would bring him into the barn, and take the night out of him. But my mother – God have mercy on her – had a great respect for Raftery, and she sent out two mould candles lit to give us light”, to finish the job. A good breeze did not quench the candles, “and that shows that the Lord had a hand in him.”

In 1900 Lady Gregory erected over Raftery’s unmarked grave near Craughwell (about 20 kilometres from Kiltartan) a simple stone, with a cross and the name of the poet in Irish in letters of gold.

The stonemason’s wife owned a rare manuscript volume of Raftery’s verses, which Hyde relied on for his book.

She said it was “nearer to me than my heart”.