Raftery Remembered – Frank McNally on two contrasting tributes to the Bard of Kiltimagh

Sculpture of Antoine Ó Raifteirí in Craughwell, Co Galway

Sculpture of Antoine Ó Raifteirí in Craughwell, Co Galway

 

Of all the tributes and monuments to the memory of the poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí (1779-1835), the one that might have surprised him most was his cameo appearance in a landmark 20th-century novel about lesbianism.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) made literary history for its considered treatment of female homosexuality. Although far from graphic, it was the subject of a moral crusade in Britain, led by the Sunday Express, whose editor wrote that he would rather give young readers “a phial of Prussic acid” than the book.  

In the US, meanwhile, it had to be defended against obscenity charges by Morris Ernst, the same man who a few years later would also get the ban on Ulysses lifted.

The novel is set in an upper-class milieu of late-Victorian England, so Raftery does not feature in person. But a hunting horse of that name does, bought from Ireland by the heroine’s doting father, and helping establish her character as a tomboy (with a Joycean twist, she is called “Stephen”).

Here’s how Hall explains the horse’s name: “The hunter, when he came, was grey-coated and slender, and his eyes were as soft as an Irish morning, and his courage was as bright as an Irish sunrise, and his heart was as young as the wild heart of Ireland, and his name was sweet on the tongue as you spoke it – being Raftery, after the poet. Stephen loved Raftery and Raftery loved Stephen. It was love at first sight and they talked to each other for hours [...] not in Irish or English but in a quiet language having very few words [...] And Raftery said: ‘I will carry you bravely, I will serve you all the days of my life.’ And she answered: ‘I will care for you night and day, Raftery – all the days of your life.’”

Which she duly does, throughout her teenage and early adult years, until the horse is a frail, suffering 18-year-old, whereupon – spoiler alert – she also takes care of him, as she sees it, with a revolver.

*****

I don’t know if Hall knew this, but by some accounts, the death of a horse was also a pivotal event in the two-legged Raftery’s life. After losing his sight in childhood from smallpox, he worked as a stable boy for a local landlord, Frank Taafe of Killeaden House, who also acted as his early patron. 

Raftery enjoyed happy years there. But according to Douglas Hyde, who researched the bard’s life and collected what he could of his oral verse, the relationship ended after Raftery was implicated in the loss of a much-valued horse. Taafe had sent him and another man out one night to get whiskey, but they recklessly rode the horse into a boghole, where it broke its neck or drowned.

Banished from Killeaden, the hard-drinking Raftery was thereafter condemned to an itinerant life, much of it in Galway, performing for audiences little richer than he was. As he writes in Mise Raifteirí an File: “Look at me now/My back to the wall,/Playing music/To empty pockets.”

That banishment may also haunt another of his most famous poems, the one entitled variously “Song of Mayo”, “Song of Killeaden”, or just “Cill Aodáin”, although also known to many by its opening line. 

Hyde suggested it may have been written as an attempt to get back into Taafe’s good books. But the latter didn’t like the crude way Killeaden was name-checked (“Cill Aodáin an baile a bhfásann gach ní ann”/Killeaden’s a place wherein all good things flourish”), nor the fact that it was relegated to the last verse. The sponsorship was not renewed.

Raftery failed to make it back to Mayo at the end of his days. He died in and is buried near Craughwell, Co Galway, where no less a poet that WB Yeats helped erect the memorial stone. But maybe the tribute he would most have enjoyed is the continued existence in popular memory of his love-song to Killeaden, which for many Irish people is an enduring relic of national school.

With its theme of longer evenings, and planning for the year ahead, it’s guaranteed an outing on today’s date, especially, which we romantics continue to regard as the first day of spring, whatever the weather forecast says: “Anois teacht an earraigh/Beidh an lá ag dul chun síneadh,/Is tar éis na féil Bríde/Ardóidh mé mo sheol./Ó chuir mé i mo cheann é/Ní chónóidh mé choíche/Go seasfaidh mé síos/I lár Chontae Mhaigh Eo.” ( Now with spring’s arrival, the day will be lengthening, and after St Bridget’s Day I’ll raise my sail. Since I put it into my head I’ll never stay put until I stand down in the centre of Mayo).

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