Vax of life – Frank McNally revisits Raftery and the disease that robbed him of his sight

“As late as the 1930s, the fear of smallpox still haunted Ireland, and yet many people refused to vaccinate, by then a legal requirement.” Photograph: iStock

It seems that when writing about the poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí last week, I made the common mistake of assuming one of his most famous verses to have been written by him.

In this I was influenced by such lines as: Mise Raifteirí, an file/Lán dóchas is grá/Le súile gan solas/Ciúnas gan crá (I am Raftery, the poet,/Full of hope and love/With eyes without light/Silence without torment.)

And I was joining good company in my error. The former president Douglas Hyde, who earlier in life had collected what he could of Raftery's work from oral tradition, thought it was one of his too. So it seems did the latterday Irish Central Bank, which published part of the poem in a best-selling work of the 1990s: the £5 note.

You might remember that for its picture of Catherine McAuley, the nun who founded the Sisters of Mercy. It was also arguably an early symptom of Celtic Tiger Ireland losing its way. I once rang the Central Bank's press office to ask why so many of the fivers were in such bad condition: typically torn in the middle, along the silver strip.


One of the explanations was that the note had been designed for wallets and purses, not the pockets to which most people were now consigning it, with contemptuous familiarity.

In any case, the opening verse of Mise Raifteirí also featured, via a blackboard in a primary school classroom. Maybe, in light of the subsequent crash, the bank should have used the last verse, the one in which Raftery describes his vagrant life, playing music "to empty pockets".

But as several of you have since pointed out, recent scholarship suggests the eponymous poem was not in fact the work of Raftery.

It was instead a tribute, written in America by a man named Seán Ó Ceallaigh and first published in the New York Irish journal, An Gaodhal.

The revelation, based on scholarship by Ciaran Ó Coigligh, featured in a TG4 documentary a few years back.


As also mentioned last week, Raftery lost his eyesight in childhood to smallpox, yet in doing so got off lightly.

All eight of his siblings died during the same outbreak, in the late 1780s.

Smallpox was rife then and the vaccine yet to be discovered, although even in poorer parts of Ireland like Raftery's Mayo, it was already being treated by inoculation.

In a travel book a few years later, A Frenchman's Walk Through Ireland, Jacques Louis de Bourgenet describes meeting a freelance inoculator on a Mayo mountain road. The man, who had been bound for the priesthood until economic reverses deprived him of the education, had instead fallen back on medicine, earring up to £40 a year from the work.

He amused de Bourgenet by explaining that the care he took was in part motivated by self-preservation: if he lost a patient, he would also lose the payment and probably get a beating into the bargain.

The Frenchman thought this a system other countries should follow to ensure best practice.

But he was genuinely impressed by the inoculator's low mortality rate (he claimed only one of 361 children treated that year had died) and by the willingness of the Irish to embrace advances in medicine, which he thought far greater than in France.

That was 1797, while he was fleeing a revolution in his own country and witnessing the preparations for another in Ireland.

Epochal events of the time also included the work of English scientist Edward Jenner, whose idea of infecting people with the mild cowpox as a defence against the deadlier disease would soon give the word vaccine (from the Latin vacca, meaning cow) and by the 20th century eradicate one of the greatest scourges of human history.

But Irish trust in medical advances may not have been as complete as de Bourgenet thought.

As late as the 1930s, the fear of smallpox still haunted Ireland, and yet many people refused to vaccinate, by then a legal requirement. This newspaper reported regularly on the numbers of “vaccination defaulters” compiled by local authorities then, and there were repeated demands for higher penalties, or for existing ones to be enforced.

In one of the last such reports, the Derry Board of Guardians was threatening to prosecute 4,000 defaulters, despite protests in favour of a conscience clause and a counter-threat that mothers in the city were “up in arms”. The story was headlined “Vaccination War”.

But that was in January 1939, and other kinds of war must have pushed the issue from the headlines thereafter.