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Voices of the Dispossessed

Brian Earls

Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory, by Guy Beiner, University of Wisconsin Press, 488 pp, £28.95, ISBN: 978-0299218201

Leabhar Mhaidhc Dháith: Scéalta agus Seanchas ón Rinn, ed Máirtín Verling, An Sagart An Díseart An Daingean , ISBN: 978-1903896320

In her survey of Hungarian folklore genres Linda Dégh remarked, with evident surprise, on the almost complete absence of historical legends. This may have been because, as the storyteller Lajos Ámi maintained, “miracles don’t happen since 1848. Nobody can do such things as they did before.”(1)



The Hungarian storyteller’s startling vision, in which the year of revolutions marks the advent of modernity and a displacement into an eventless and quotidian time, is one with few Irish echoes. This may be because the longer term results of 1848 were happier in Hungary than in Ireland so that, in contrast with the Magyar lands, narratives which linked past and present continued to be told throughout nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland. As contemporaries were uneasily aware, these stories contained within themselves an understanding of Irish history, at certain registers possessed a prophetic edge, and were, potentially at least, incitements to action. As one strand within this body of lore consisted of narratives of origin, which told how those who wielded authority in the early nineteenth century countryside had come into their possessions two centuries earlier, the affect could be to delegitimise existing power relationships. In pre-Famine Ireland those most responsive to such incitements were young men, for whom past-centred talk “of Erin’s injured plains, of England’s galling yoke” could kindle “a subtle fire” leading, in what Gerald Griffin presented as a near sequence of cause and effect, to the cropping of the proctor’s ear, the slitting of the gauger’s nose, the burning of the bishop’s hay.(2)

Such responsiveness, while most acute among the insurrectionary young, was not confined to that group. Like Gerald Griffin, Bishop Doyle of Kildare and Leighlin belonged to the small Catholic middle class who sympathised with the grievances of the Catholic peasantry while deprecating the violence to which these sometimes gave rise. A public letter of Doyle’s from the 1820s is notable for the linking of past and present, and the apparent extension of peasant self-understanding to his own class, when he commented: “How often have I perceived in a congregation of some thousand persons how the very mention of the Penal Code caused every eye to glisten and every ear to stand erect; the very trumpet of the last judgment, if sounded, would not produce a more perfect stillness in any assembly of the Irish peasantry than a strong allusion to the wrongs we suffer.”(3)



The evidence of another churchman is equally impressive. At around the same time as Bishop Doyle penned his letter, William Ullathorne travelled in Ireland. In his autobiography he told of a scene he had witnessed when a young Englishman, who had shouted from the top of the coach that he was a Tory, was saved from being beaten to death only by the intervention of a Catholic bishop. The young man’s rescuer reproved him for his folly, telling him: “You little know what goes into the ears of these poor people with the hated word Tory.”(4)

An episode from nineteenth century Carlow points to the nature of the historical narratives that went into the ear of the Irish lower classes and suggests something of their resonance. The episode occurred when a monumental effigy of an ancestor of a local landowning family, the Hartpoles of Shruel Castle, was accidentally discovered. The individual in question was held “in such detestation by the people of the town, on account of cruelties which he formerly exercised and which tradition preserved”, that the sculpted effigy was thrown “with every mark of indignity into a quarry pit”. The Hartpoles were one of seven English families who received extensive grants of land in the midlands, following the dispossession of the “native tribes” of Laois during the reign of Philip and Mary. Although they and their fellow planters were “traditionally remembered and detested by the country people”(5) for many acts of cruelty during the Elizabethan wars, one particular episode achieved a notoriety far beyond the confiscated O’Moore lands. This occurred on New Year’s Day 1577, when leading members of the indigenous Irish families, then living in peace with the newcomers, were invited to a parlay with the English in the Rath of Mullaghmast. The invitation was a deception and, in a long remembered act which came to function as an emblem of treachery, several hundred Irish were massacred.

In addition to the written record, information regarding the killings at Mullaghmast was transmitted orally. One oral account, as recorded in an eighteenth century manuscript, was quoted by John O’Donovan in his edition of the Annals of the Four Masters as follows:

In the year 1705 there was an old gentleman of the name of Cullen in the County of Kildare, who often discoursed with one Dwyer, and one Dowling, actually living at Mullamast when this horrible murder was committed, which was about the sixteenth year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and the account he gives of it, that those who were chiefly concerned in this horrible murder were the Deavils, the Grahams, the Crosbys, the Pigotts, the Bowens, the Hartpoles, the Hovendens, and the Dempseys … Notwithstanding what is said that one O’Moore only had escaped the massacre, yet the common tradition of the county is that many more had escaped through the means of one Harry Lalor, who, remarking that none of those returned who entered the fort before him, desired his companions make off as fast as they could in case they did not see him come back. The said Lalor, as he was entering the fort, saw the carcasses of his slaughtered companions, and fought his way back to those who survived, along with whom he made his escape to Dysart, without seeing the Barrow …(6)

The tradition here summarised, like all extant oral tradition, is available only because at a point in the line of transmission it was committed to writing. The manuscript quoted by O’Donovan came from the library of Rev John Whelan, parish priest of Portarlington, who died a very old man in 1775. O’Donovan got his text from a copy made in 1792 by Laurence Byrne (born 1771, still living 1833), who had borrowed the original from Rev James O’Neill, parish priest of Maryborough, who, in turn, had abstracted the manuscript from the sale of Rev Whelan’s books. We have thus an asserted line of oral transmission, from the time of the massacre to the early eighteenth century, followed by manuscript transmission from some time in the first half of the eighteenth century to early Victorian times.

Variants of the traditions recorded by Father Whelan were still current in the late nineteenth century, and were recorded around 1891 by Walter Fitzgerald “from the lips of an old man, eighty years of age, named Larry Moore, living near Moone Abbey on the Belan Road”. Larry Moore’s story is essentially the same as that recorded by John Whelan, although considerably more detailed, more topographical, more value-laden, and stylised in some of its particulars. Although we tend to think of oral tradition in terms of variation, the lore collected from Dwyer, Dowling and Moore points to a continuity of narrative from shortly after the massacre to the late nineteenth century. Stories of this kind, reinforced by beliefs regarding the working out of curses over a number of generations on the families of those who took part in the killings, the desecration of a memorial in the ruined church of Ballyadams to a member of the Bowen family who was believed to have taken part in the massacre (the head of this “hated figure” was “broken off by the neighbouring peasantry, who seek every opportunity to hammer away, and otherwise disfigure the projecting sculptures of this image”(7)), and by place names which memorialised the massacre, constitute a powerful example of what Guy Beiner has called social memory. Although those who performed the act have left no record of their motives, we may infer that it was some combination of this complex of narratives, evaluations and collective beliefs regarding the past that animated those who, earlier in the nineteenth century, hurled the Hartpole effigy into a quarry pit.



Stories of the kind that were told about Mullaghmast would have been described in the communities in which they were current, for as long as these remained Irish-speaking, as seanchas, a term glossed by James Delargy, the director of the Irish Folklore Commission, as “the orally preserved social-historical tradition”.(8) Within this overarching category, historical lore (stair sheanchas) was a recognised sub-genre, to which a chapter of suggested questions and potential lines of enquiry was devoted in A Handbook of Irish Folklore, the guide for Irish Folklore Commission collectors published in 1942. The range of stair sheanchas extended from the saints of the early church to such later figures as Cromwell, Dean Swift, the miser Damer, O’Connell and various holy priests, poets, robbers, schoolmasters, landlords and other memorable national and local characters. Developments which were regarded as particularly important - the coming of Christianity, “the wars in Ireland”, the Penal Laws, 1798, the nineteenth century evangelical offensive known as the Second Reformation, the struggle against tithes, the advent of famine, together with faction fights, abductions, hangings and a host of striking local events – were remembered and woven into the lore of particular areas.(9) At the level of the parish, historical legends were enacted against a peopled landscape; the names of legend protagonists, details regarding their families and descendants, the exact location of a house which was burned or the turn on the road at which a man was murdered were frequently remembered.

Although historical lore could find a home in a range of settings, extending from songs to proverbs, its primary embodiment was by way of comparatively short prose narratives. These were transmitted inside family or neighbourly settings, frequently as part of fireside entertainment, where, because of their comparative brevity, they were more suitable for earlier stages of the evening, as a prelude to fairytales or hero-tales. In William Carleton’s portrait, in the Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, of storytelling on a winter’s evening early in the nineteenth century, the company begin with a conversational and near collective recital of ghostly lore concerning a local landlord, before a single voice takes over and embarks on an extended folktale. A comparable mix of genres can be found in Matthew Moore Graham’s portrait of storytelling in Louth in the early 1830s. Although the centre of the evening’s entertainment were stories of “princely Fionn and Osgar”, there was also time for songs, legends of ghosts and fairies, classical lore, recitals from the south Ulster poets (“Great Lindon’s odes, and Dornin’s lays”) together with, in the immediate wake of Catholic Emancipation, animated discussion of “affairs of state”, “tales of ancient days” and a “backward view” of the “historic page”. A similar pattern can be seen in Roscarbery of the 1830s where, as O’Donovan Rossa recalled, “many of the neighbours used to sit skurreechting at night at my father’s fireside”. It was in this setting that, in addition to “stories of all the fairies that were ‘showing’ themselves from Carrig-Cliona to Inish-Owen”, and accounts of “all the battles that were fought in Christendom and out of Christendom”, Rossa “learned many matters of Irish history before I was able to read history”.(10)

Attitudes to the past of the kind which O’Donovan Rossa picked up at his father’s fireside were also transmitted inside middle class families, where servants and poor relations occupied a role akin to that taken by storytellers in more traditional settings. As the nineteenth century progressed, and anecdotes replaced folktales as the oral tradition mutated under the pressure of literacy and anglicisation, historical lore seems to have retained its hold. We can glimpse its continued presence inside one well known family of Munster origin, that of John Joyce. In their Dublin setting the older members of the Joyce household, although unenthusiastic readers, are portrayed by Stanislaus Joyce as immersed in an urban variant of oral tradition whose resources included, in addition to John Joyce’s endless supply of comic stories and reminiscences, together with the scurrility he had learned from the Queenstown pilots, Land League oratory and after dinner speeches, remembered remarks, “Dublin small talk” and urban lore, the recitation of literary texts such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Seamus O’Brien”, which had been appropriated into orality, and Victorian and Italian songs. Within the family, historical lore was transmitted to the younger generation by Mrs Conway (Dante), a distant relative of John Joyce’s who, as Stanislaus recalled, “inculcated a good deal of very bigoted Catholicism and bitterly anti-English patriotism, the memory of the Penal Laws being still a thorn in the flesh of Irish men and women when I was a boy”.(11) As is evident from the quarrel during the Christmas dinner scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, such memories were not confined to Dante. Each of the protagonists brings to the dispute a sharpened set of historical grievances and reads the Parnell split in terms of selected precedents, with Mr Casey countering Dante’s faith and fatherland vision with his own exclamatory recital: “Didn’t the bishops and priests sell the aspirations of their country in 1829 in return for catholic emancipation? Didn’t they denounce the fenian movement from the pulpit and in the confession box? And didn’t they dishonour the ashes of Terence Bellew MacManus?”

As the example of O’Donovan Rossa and the comments of Stanislaus Joyce suggest, in its presentation of Irish history stair sheanchas was a partisan and emotionally charged genre, which embodied the understanding and aspirations of those among whom it was current. Although it cannot be adequately summarised in any single formulation it might, under one aspect, be seen as recording and explaining the community’s relationship with the wielders of political and economic power. It embodies the historical self-understanding of Irish people before their transformation into newspaper readers, voters and citizens. Its perspectives are Milesian or, somewhat more broadly, the community which was on the losing side in the great wars of the seventeenth century; the genre provides an account of how Irish society came to assume its present configuration from the viewpoint of that large swathe of society referred to as “the lower Irish” or, by themselves, clannadh Gaeil bocht. While caution is necessary in attempting to generalise regarding such a large body of lore, much of which concerns events which had no overt political significance, where the central themes of Irish history are concerned the view proposed is certainly emphatic. Although not coterminous with political nationalism, which arguably it predates, the lore is notable for its deep and frequently articulated hostility towards the English presence in Ireland and, at local level, towards the landlord class referred to as Gall, Sasanaigh or “Cromwell’s breed”. English possession of the land of Ireland, and the laws upholding that possession, are alike rejected as illegitimate and are seen as the result of a conquest which it is hoped will be reversed.

Nineteenth century observers were aware of the view of their own past current among the “poor classes”. In 1819 one well informed observer characterised the Irish as “a people who think themselves a sort of aboriginal race, and that the majority of landowners are invaders and intruders”. In even more emphatic terms a traveller of 1812 commented: “No one can enter into the cabin of an Irishman and converse with him familiarly in his own language, without perceiving his strong dislike to the person and religion of the Gall. He remembers that his country has been invaded and conceives that the chiefs of his people have been oppressed and extirpated by the English. He still points to the ruins of the castle which was once the habitation of his own prince of the Milesian race … and with a sigh recounts the years that have passed since its walls were demolished by the hand of stranger.”(13)

Like other areas of the oral tradition, historical lore was not an undifferentiated mass and, although in some sense it was a collective product which was dependent upon the approbation of its audience, it was the possession of individual tradition-bearers, who had selected the items which they judged significant enough to be worth retelling and bore the mark of their interests and life experience. Máirtín Verling’s recently published edition of the stories and seanchas of Mícheál Turraoin (1878-1966) makes it possible to examine in detail the historical lore of one particular storyteller.



Mícheál Turraoin (Maidhc Dháith) was described by James Delargy as one of the best exponents he had ever met of the oral traditions of the Decies area of Co Waterford and as possessing “an immense body of tradition of all kinds, märchen, seanchas, songs, rimes, proverbs, quatrains and couplets, prayers etc.” His historical lore consists of thirty- two items, amounting to twenty-three pages of text out of a total of over five hundred pages of lore. Unlike other Irish tradition-bearers whose repertoires have been printed, in which pride of place was given to märchen (fairytales) and hero-tales, Mícheál had comparatively little interest in the fictional and was firmly focused upon everyday matters. In addition to a fondness for jests and poetry, both of which were woven into the daily life of the community, his lore provides a deeply informative overview of popular belief and practice relating to the dwelling house and farm, to agricultural implements and domestic and farm animals, to fishing and the weather, to the parts of the human body, to illnesses and their cures, to human life and the varieties of human types, to relations between men and women, to childbirth, courtship, married life, old age and death.



It was no doubt because of the realism of his vision that, although his historical lore contains a scattering of items about earlier times, including a remarkable story about Cromwell, the majority of his narratives should be based firmly in the nineteenth century and concern events which, in his youth, would have been within living memory. His topics include faction fights and shipwrecks, the struggle against tithes, the Famine, the Fenians, evicting landlords and the Land League and a parliamentary election involving John Dillon. The historical lore section of Leabhar Mhaidhc Dháith also contains a series of anecdotes devoted to the difficult life of the spailpíní (migratory agricultural labourers). Mícheál Turraoin was himself familiar with hiring fairs, having first left home to work with a farmer at the age of ten, and his stories are supplemented by a fascinating account, of extraordinary materiality, of his time as a labourer, in which episodes from his early life are remembered in terms of what he was given to eat. Even at his most autobiographical, however, the historical vision and its attendant explanations are not lost sight of. The account concludes (somewhat improbably, if Irish and British social welfare legislation of the period were to be compared) with Mícheál thanking God and the new Irish government that John Bull and his laws have been expelled and that agricultural labourers now have enough to eat and drink.

What are we to make of the stories of Mícheál Turraoin and his many predecessors? More specifically, how are we to assess the claim to veracity implicit in the storytellers’ assertions that what they recounted could be traced to informants who had been present at Mullaghmast or had witnessed the events of 1798, or the great Famine? As is clear from Guy Beiner’s Remembering the Year of the French, a study of folklore linked to the French landing at Kilalla in late summer 1798 and the short military campaign which followed,Irish historians have chosen to make very little of this potential source. While the most common response has been to ignore the material, and the considerable problems and potentially rich insights it carries with it, more robustly dismissive responses are on record. In the opening pages of Remembering the Year of the French, Marianne Elliott is quoted as announcing that “the oral history of 1798 was almost nil”. In fact, as Guy Beiner demonstrates, the French incursion in 1798 generated a huge amount of lore, in a range of genres and in both Irish and English, extending across wide swathes of the West of Ireland and into the Midlands. When in the 1930s the Irish Folklore Commission, and enthusiasts such as Richard Hayes, collected along the route taken by the Franco-Irish army, and in its hinterland, they discovered that the events of 1798 were of the keenest interest and were vividly remembered. Guy Beiner’s study addresses itself to the quality and nature of that act of remembering; it asks, in effect, what the lore can tell us about what happened between the arrival of the French on August 22nd and their final defeat and the massacre of the remaining rebels on September 23rd, what it reveals about the communities in which these stories have been told for over two centuries and how these intensely local narratives relate to twentieth century Ireland’s broader, state-endorsed national narrative.

Although Marianne Elliott’s assertion is depressing (Guy Beiner characterises it as brazen), in a larger sense it is easy to see why historians have hesitated to make use of stair sheanchas. In a well known development, with the foundation of Irish Historical Studies the study of Irish history took a positivist turn, abandoning accounts of the past that were collectivist, self-justifying and, at times, polemical, in favour of a European-derived model of archive-based history that aspired to the rigour and objectivity of science. For practitioners of this new history, the material collected by the Irish Folkore Commission can only have seemed problematic. Its most obvious weakness was that it was not contemporary with the events it chronicled, as narratives which purported to give information on occurrences generations or even centuries before had a provenance sometime between the 1930s and 1950s. Viewed sceptically, this body of lore could be seen as telling us more about the Ireland of de Valera, when it was collected, than the periods which it claimed as its subject matter. In a less reductive formulation it might be claimed that the stories were not stable and that, in addition to inevitable confusion and human error, they must have been affected by the varying concerns of the narrators who were responsible for their transmission over long periods of time.

Although specific as to people and places, stair sheanchas can be curiously timeless. It offers a history largely without dates, which can be marked by a certain circularity, as similar narrative and explanatory patterns recur across the centuries. The atemporal quality of the genre is also evident in its ability to incorporate contemporary events, which are handled in terms of pre-existing models and interpretive frames. The lore from her home district which was collected by Lady Gregory and included in The Kiltartan History Book extends from Noah and the Flood to the Great War (seen in terms of its Napoleonic parallels and as bearing of the prophecies of Colum Cille) and the depredations of the Black and Tans. Parts of the final section of The Kiltartan History Book were apparently collected within days of the events to which their narrators refer and might almost be seen as an oral commentary on current affairs. It is thus only an apparent paradox that historical legends can readily embrace the contemporary. At times what seems more important is angle of vision rather than period.

Although largely collected by a government agency, stair sheanchas had its own angle of vision and was far from providing an endorsement of the ideology of the new state. Much of what it reported was so intractably local as to defy generalisation and be unusable for pedagogic purposes. A number of its themes, most notably the bitterness which marked relations between labourers and smallholders and larger farmers in the lore of the Famine, place it outside any paradigm of national unity. (Micheál Turraoin remarked that such was the harshness of farmers towards the poor during the Famine years that they did not deserve to be prayed for after their deaths.) Similarly, although there was no Whig stair sheanchas, and no endorsement of English rule, Irish lore was not without its nuances. While it seems clear that the pre-seventeenth century ruling class was regarded as possessing a legitimacy which was denied to their Cromwellian and Williamite successors, individual Gaelic and Anglo-Norman notables were remembered in their roles as hangmen and oppressors of the poor. Similarly, although the lore is characterised by a powerful current of feeling directed against the landowning class, the terms in which individual landlords were remembered varied. It was said of Sir John Parnell, the Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer in the old Irish parliament and a leading opponent of the Union, that “the peasantry” of the parish of Kilcomanbane in Laois “were accustomed to relate many anecdotes, especially relating to his convivial and vivacious habits”. In the same county the Barringtons, who had been granted O’Moore lands in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, were “exceedingly popular” and remembered for their duelling and “a fondness for horsemanship and field sports, especially for the favourite game of hurling”.(14) While conviviality and hurling evidently functioned as culturally integrating forces, a less genial vision underlay the terms in which many nineteenth century landlords were remembered. These included George Moore’s ancestors, of whom it was said, “Moore as Moore Hall nó diabhal as Ifreann” (“A Moore from Moore Hall or a devil from hell”). The lore itself contains a clue to these very differing assessments, for while the stories of Sir Thomas Parnell and the Barringtons date from the late eighteenth century, a period of comparative agricultural prosperity, the Moores, together with fellow Mayo landlords such as the Knox Gores and the Lucans, earned their unenviable reputation as evictors in Famine times.(15)

The shading and mixed verdicts which are evident in the lore concerning landlords also mark Guy Beiner’s material. Although the central narrative celebrates the Franco-Irish campaign, and regrets its defeat, Beiner has uncovered enough complications woven into the story – the fear initially aroused by the appearance of the French, neighbourhoods that were so poverty-stricken and obsessed with food as to be indifferent to the great public drama, divided loyalties within certain families and, the most persistent motif, a pragmatic appraisal on the part of local priests and others of the likely outcome based on the comparative strengths of the British and French forces, and a prudent anticipation of the slaughter of the Irish that would follow a British victory – as to undermine any monotone presentation of 1798 in the West.

Guy Beiner is conscious of the difficulties which attend the assessment of orally transmitted historical lore. In Remembering the Year of the French he inclines more to interpretive than positivist perspectives, that is to say he believes that, while the information that can be gleaned from the lore regarding what happened in August and September 1798 is problematic and incomplete, it provides an incomparable perspective on how that past was regarded in local communities throughout the West and Midlands during the two centuries that followed. At one point Beiner cites the view that the absence of an “acceptable methodology” has been the major obstacle to the use of folklore sources by historians. In support of this assessment he quotes Colm Tóibín’s comment, made in relation to the Famine, that while the Folklore Commission archive is undoubtedly “an invaluable treasure trove”, it can “be anything you want it to be”. The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the great famine was notable for the publication of two anthologies of lore relating to the disaster, both edited by Cathal Póirtéir, one in Irish (Glórtha ón Ghorta) and one in English (Famine Echoes). My reading of this material differs from that of Colm Tóibín in that, far from seeming hospitable to any interpretation, I am struck by its internal consistency, its strongly circumstantial quality, and its appeal to the known and verifiable. The voices we hear in Glórtha ón Ghorta and Famine Echoes are those of men and women who had passed their youth in the final quarter of the nineteenth century and were thus in contact with an older generation who had witnessed the Famine. What they had to say had the quality of a report, almost of raw unprocessed data, was bereft of the stylisations of folklore and was clearly of a different evidential value to stories of rapparees, priest-hunters or eighteenth century poets. The Famine lore is impressively detailed in its citing of sources, its naming of protagonists and in specifying where particular events took place. Much of what it has to say would seem open to procedures of verification used by local historians, while certain details (the location of a cluster of cabins or a Famine burial pit) might be tested by archaeological procedures.

In the decade before the Famine John O’Donovan travelled throughout extensive areas of Ulster on behalf of the Ordnance Survey. O’Donovan’s perspective is an important one, as he was a man of vigorous intelligence and strongly positivist bias, who had a deep familiarity with and respect for older Irish sources and was capable of maintaining, with all the seriousness of jest, “I don’t believe in any authority upon Irish antiquities but Keating and Moses”. As a cartographer he had a job to do and was intent on establishing place names with the greatest possible historical accuracy. One result was that, a century before the Folklore Commission, he found himself engaged with many of the same issues regarding the reliability of oral sources that recent scholarship has also had occasion to ponder. Unlike twentieth century collectors, who were memorialists aware that they were witnessing the end, O’Donovan encountered a living oral tradition, with its extemporising and fabulating powers active before his eyes. His attitude towards the tradition was less respectful than became customary later and, where place names were concerned, and the accompanying gobbets of explanatory history which he heard from helpful countrymen at every turn, he regarded its creative dimension as a nuisance and an obstacle to his goal. O’Donovan’s source-based empiricism, and attachment to the “veracious dryness” of the Annals, had as its corollary the conviction that tradition was “a blundering historian”, whose mode of transmission could not be trusted. His judgment on the latter was both reasoned and dismissive. “I need not remark,” he wrote in a letter of September 3rd, 1834 from Maghera, “what an imperfect mode of transmitting knowledge oral tradition necessarily must be in consequence of the weakness of the human mind and its love of the wonderful and the wild when it remains for a succession of ages in a state of ignorance and romance.”(16)

In his travels throughout Ulster John O’Donovan could be seen as engaged in an ongoing debate, primarily with himself but communicated in his letters to his superior, Captain Thomas Larcom in Dublin, regarding the reliability of oral tradition. In spite of judgments against which there might seem no appeal, he is aware that, although tradition “variously mixes up, confounds and fabricates stories, [it] always retains some glimmering of the truth”. Moreover, although exasperated by the unreliable fluency of tradition-bearers, when these were not to be had, either because the district was a planted one or because of the decline of Irish (“for with that language the remembrance of things old vanish”), O’Donovan found himself at a loss. Thus, writing from Letterkenny in September 1835, he had to report that, although he wished to verify placenames mentioned by Mac Colgan and in the Annals, “in consequence of the disappearance of the Irish language from the district around the town of Letterkenny, and the consequent loss of tradition, we have had but a partial and unsatisfactory success”.(17) Correspondingly, whenever, as regularly happened, he encountered intelligent tradition-bearers, his reports were filled with a mixture of enthusiasm and respectful affection as he sifted and assessed the old men’s lore and attempted to match it against the authority of Mac Colgan and the Annals. In his approach to the tradition O’Donovan may not have always been completely consistent; nonetheless it is hard to believe that his combination of hardheaded intelligence and sympathetic pragmatism cannot continue to be drawn upon to answer contemporary questions.

The writing of O’Donovan and his contemporaries, who were incomparably closer to the storytelling communities than ourselves, suggests a number of further perspectives on historical lore. One possible line of approach is via the genealogical recitals which O’Donovan frequently encountered in his travels throughout Ulster. Genealogy is a stabilising element, which introduces the outlines of a chronology into what might otherwise seem the fluidity of oral narrative. Such information, whose reach commonly extended beyond the seventeenth century into pre-plantation times, was commonplace and could be encoded in an informant’s name, or the manner in which they introduced themselves. The full name of an “old man of the gifted tribe of the O’Brolloghans”, who knew more “about the traditions of Derry than all the rest put together”, whom O’Donovan met in the townland of Labby near Draperstown Cross in September 1834, was “Francis, mac Francis, mhic Shemus Oge, mhic Shemus More, mhic Teige, mhic Rory”.(18) The habits implied by such recitals of ancestry persisted.



In the early 1950s, when Michael J Murphy collected on behalf of the Irish Folklore Commission in the residually Irish-speaking district of Glenhull, Co Tyrone, he encountered a society which was saturated in genealogical assumptions. More than a century after O’Donovan, rural Ulster still retained its specialists in genealogical lore. One of these was described as follows. “I knew a man myself could go back and read up all the breeds and everything else of everyone from Newtown to the Black Bog. He was a Paddy McCullagh. I mind one time he spent the whole night telling a priest the history of every family from Newtown up here and away beyond. A whole night; he missed none.” Such recitals served as a bridge across the generations, linking nineteenth or twentieth century narrators with historical figures who figured in their lore. Moreover, to the degree that genealogy was inescapably local, being linked to marriage and the possession of land, it contained within itself a potential for verification.



Something of the larger implications of genealogy, and of the claims to local consequence which they carried with them, may be glimpsed in Charles Gavan Duffy’s account of his childhood in Monaghan in the 1820s. “When I was a boy there were half a dozen of my relations among the Catholic priests of the diocese of Clogher, and I listened with complacency to their talk of the McMahons, chiefs of Oriel, and the McKennas, chiefs of Truagh, as our near kinsmen … even when penury was sorest old social distinctions were cherished, and my father, as a descendant of “the ould stock” was one of the few leaders of the people in the district.” Claims of this kind could be extended across social class, finding a home in what might seem improbable settings. The account of himself which Francis Ledwidge, a labourer of modest circumstances, wrote shortly before his death on the Western Front in July 1917 gave prominent place to the transmission of historical lore. This included: “I have heard my mother say many times that the Ledwiges were once a great people in the land, and she has shown me with a sweep of her hand green hills and wide valleys where sheep are folded … and this was all ours.” In addition to its permeability with regard to class, genealogy was adaptable to local circumstances, so that its generational sequences could be used to reflect what particular communities regarded as important. In Remembering the Year of the French Guy Beiner reports that genealogies linking participants in 1798 with those who took part in the War of Independence of 1919-21, “were common in the West” and were to be found among “the most upright and respected people in the countryside”.(19)

The anxiety of the old men whom John O’Donovan encountered in the 1830s to communicate their lore suggests something of the immense value they attached to it. Oblique confirmation of its importance, particularly in its historical dimension, is provided by the overwhelmingly negative English response which it elicited. From the late seventeenth century the Irish sense of history, and its impact on the consciousness of those who entertained it, was contested, either by way mockery or dismissal, as evidently absurd and self-deceiving. Where genealogy was concerned this tradition of hostile ethnic commentary, which had both its elite and popular dimensions, finds reflection in Bishop Berkeley’s anecdote of the servant girl who refused to carry out the ashes on the grounds that she was descended from the ancient kings of Ireland. In The Comical Pilgim of the early eighteenth century the Irish propensity to “speak largely of their antiquity, boasting as if they were a people before the creation” was cited in support of the proposition that “An Irishman and fool are correlatives; or at least synonymous terms: and catch him without a blunder, which makes him love bulls, ’tis to be feared the world is near its dissolution.”(20) The function of bulls, which were a central device in English representations of the Irish over several centuries, was strategic. By inserting an illogicality at the heart of Irish speech, including the property-related claims that were the corollary of genealogical recital, the affect was to render it absurd. It was in this spirit that, in a joke book of the early nineteenth century, a down-at-heel Irish lawyer assured Lord Camden: “I have some very great estates in Ireland, but they were taken away from my ancestors by that rogue Oliver Cromwell.”(21)

In a sense the joke book had a point; not everyone could be the heir to confiscated lands and many of those who made such claims must have been engaged in a form of amiable self-deception. How individuals responded to socially transmitted memories of the great confiscations depended no doubt on personal temperament, and could range from the conventionality of Francis Ledwidge’s mother to O’Donovan Rossa’s intense engagement with the place names, lore of ownership and the physical and man-made landscape of Rosscarbery. Such memories, however evaluated, must have constituted something of an irritant, or at least provided a background of mild discontent, to landlord-tenant relations. In his autobiographical Realities of Irish Life, Steuart Trench, who was in succession agent for the Shirley estate in Monaghan and the Lansdowne estate in Kerry, mentions having acquired a map of Ireland in which territories were indicated with the names of the old families who were their owners before the seventeenth century.

In his writings Trench presents himself as implacable defender of existing property relations and opponent of an inchoate peasant world of prophecy, rumour, speechmaking, folk history, vague excited expectations and incipient violence. Although he affected to find the map an amusing curiosity, in the context of Realities of Irish Life it requires little interpretive pressure to conclude that this was a pretence and that he regarded the claims to a rival ownership encoded in it as anything but a jest. How these matters were regarded in circles with which Trench was associated may be inferred from the alarm of the west Cork gentry of the 1850s when they learned of the “historical-genealogical research” being undertaken by O’Donovan Rossa. This sense of the inflammatory potential of the study of local history seems to have been shared at institutional level. During the 1830s the topographical department of the Ordnance Survey assembled a huge mass of literary and transcribed oral material “relating to the topography, language, history, antiquities, productions, and social state, of almost every county of Ireland”. In 1842 the British treasury insisted upon the discontinuation of the work of the department, on the grounds of cost and because of “the revival of old animosities that might result from indicating the ancient territories, and the danger of reopening questions of Irish local history”.(22)

Oral tradition can stand in a tense dialectical relationship with historical interpretation, including self-interpretation, which it both supplements and contests. A number of examples, of which Oliver Cromwell is perhaps the most dramatic, could be cited. Two examples, those of Cromwell and of the nineteenth century land agent Trench, may suggest something of what was involved. Where Ireland was concerned, the prevailing Victorian view of Cromwell, most trenchantly articulated in James Anthony Froude’s The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (1872), was as the bearer of a stern but necessary justice, as if he had been a living embodiment of the figure of Sir Artegall from book five of The Faerie Queen. Almost three decades before Froude, this view found expression in Macaulay’s State of Ireland speech to the House of Commons on February 19th, 1844. Cromwell’s Irish policy, he asserted, “was wise, and strong, and straightforward, and cruel. It was comprised in one word which, as Clarendon tells us, was often in the mouths of the Englishry of that time. That word was extirpation.”(23) Like the Carlow rioters, the Irish-American working class possessed its own understanding of the history of their country. When, towards the end of his life, Cromwell’s apologist Froude embarked on a lecture tour in the United States, demonstrations by Irish-Americans outside the theatres at which he scheduled to speak forced the cancellation of the tour.

The legends which must in some way have animated those who opposed Froude’s presence in the United States ranged from the generalised and exemplary, which made no claim to historical truth, to accounts of specific events which, it was asserted, took place at particular, named places during the course of Cromwell’s Irish campaign. On January 10th, 1846 Thomas Carlyle’s life of Cromwell was reviewed in The Nation. This occasion was anything but commonplace as the reviewer, Charles Gavan Duffy, was an ardent admirer of the Scottish sage, whom he described as having “long been our venerated and beloved preceptor”. Duffy seems to have experienced Carlyle as a source of intellectual energy, capable of provoking trains of thought that were remote from his own, rather than as a model whose ideas were to be accepted. Where Ireland was concerned Duffy was explicit in rejecting Carlyle’s analysis, arguing that Cromwell’s Irish policy was wrongheaded, because antagonistic to the deep structures of Irish society. As a result, the innovations of the Commonwealth period were incapable of being grafted onto the existing society, and instead gave rise to “a deep and wide spreading root of bitterness that may bear bloody fruit yet”. Duffy’s argument with his “guide, philosopher and friend” regarding policy was supplemented by a larger disagreement with English commentators regarding what took place during Cromwell’s progress through the island. It was in connection with an event of that campaign, the reported killing of two hundred women in the market square in Wexford, that Duffy invoked local tradition, buttressed by written sources. He wrote:

This is the famous massacre of the women of Wexford, which we have seen denied repeatedly by an English newspaper (The Standard), the writer of whom tells us that Lingard is the only authority for the story; although Mac Geohegan had stated it nearly a hundred years before, and local tradition, no light authority, has told it with horror ever since.

Like many episodes from the Famine, or the advance of the Franco-Irish army from the West into the Midlands in autumn 1798, the claims of tradition regarding what took place at Wexford should, in theory, be capable of verification or disproof. A story from a different area of the body of stair sheanchas, posing quite different challenges regarding its interpretation, is to be found in the repertoire of Mícheál Turraoin. This tells how, seven years before Cromwell’s advent, the Munster prophet Mac Amhlaoi’ advised his neighbours not to bother with their private affairs as Ireland was going to be ravaged by a man called Cromwell. When Cromwell, then in England, hears of the prophecy he sends for Mac Amhlaoi’ and asks how his Irish campaign will fare. The visitor replies that the point of greatest danger will be at Limerick Bridge (“Drochad Maol Luimní”), but that if he escapes this he will return home safely. Things turn out as Mac Amhaaoi’ had foretold, with Cromwell surviving a mishap at Limerick, when a horse from his carriage was being shod. Following his safe return to England Cromwell sends once again for Mac Amhlaoi’. On this occasion Cromwell, who has concealed a quantity of gold under the floorboards, challenges the seer to tell him what he is standing on. When Mac Amhlaoi’ answers correctly, Cromwell asks who put the gold there. “You put it there yourself,” Mac Amhlaoi’ replies. When Cromwell asks what is the source of the Irishman’s knowledge (an fios), Mac Amhlaoi’ responds by asking for a fortnight before giving a reply. Mac Amhlaoi’ then goes to his family grave in Ireland and brings back with him the skulls of his father and grandparents, and their sword, which he presents as the source of his knowledge. “How long will I live?” Cromwell enquires. “As long as you wish,” Mac Amhlaoi’ replies. “Well,” said Cromwell, “I will now award the glens far and wide to you.’ (“Well,” arsa Cromail, “bronnaimse na gleannta thall is abhus ortsa anois,” arsa é.”) The narrative concludes with the observation that Cromwell’s phrase has become proverbial in Ireland.

At first sight this strange story, made up of fantastical elements and reporting on a meeting that never took place, would seem impenetrable and with no obvious clue as to its interpretation. One suspects that those among whom the legend was current were aware of its fictionality and that, while stories of Cromwell and Mac Amhlaoi’ may have informed their understanding of mid-seventeenth century Irish history, those who protested at Froude’s presence in the United States did not do so in order to vindicate the truth of this and similar legends. Moreover, while the story is opaque, its meaning is not altogether elusive. It could be seen as a response, from within the resources of the oral tradition, to the overwhelming nature of the Cromwellian victory. Mac Amhlaoi’ stands in a strange relationship to Ireland’s conqueror which, if not quite that of a collaborator, is certainly not adversarial. At key points in his career, he provides the Puritan leader with truthful information and at the conclusion of the story features, like some member of the new ruling class, as the recipient of a land grant. Mac Amhlaoi’s prophetic knowledge is vindicated, but it is knowledge which is used to warn the Irish of their coming defeat and, by investing Cromwell with a terrible inevitability provides a passive endorsement of the new order. In the legend a society which had an enormous repertoire of prophecies, which foretold the overthrow of English power and the restoration of a Gaelic-Catholic order can be seen reflecting on the experience of utter defeat. In the figure of Mac Amhlaoi’ an accommodation of sorts is made with new realities.

The above reading of Mícheál Turraoin’s legend is necessarily speculative and is offered tentatively. If correct, the logic of the reading would suggest that the story was formulated in the immediate wake of Cromwell’s victory and before the expectation of relief that came with the restoration of the Stuarts. When prophecy men, such as Carleton’s Barney M’Haigney or Big Paddy of the Prophecies, whom John O’Donovan met in Moneymore, Co Derry in September 1834, appear on the nineteenth century stage they do so as performers who possess a relationship with either the manuscript prophecies of Colm Cille or the printed prophecies of Pastorine, which provide them with their starting point and act as a warrant for their commentaries. Mac Amhlaoi’s knowledge, which is independent of any text and draws its authority from the skulls and sword of his ancestors, suggests that we may be dealing with an older and perhaps more archaic level of material. The Mac Amhlaoi’ legend is certainly consistent with the defeatist tone which informs other legends from the same cluster, most notably that in which Cromwell exults “Is liomsa Éireann” (“Ireland is mine”) after he has persuaded one Irishman to turn another on the spit.

The story of Cromwell and Mac Amhlaoi’ might be compared with the written record left by English and Irish commentators from the second half of the seventeenth century. One text, in particular, would seem to provide an oblique confirmation of the reading proposed. The enemies of the Catholic Irish were aware that their opponents placed undue reliance on prophecies and were not above manipulating these for their own purposes and mocking their failure to come true. The “ould prophecy found in a bog”, which features in Liliburlero towards the end of the seventeenth century could be seen as drawing, very approximately, upon the same body of experiences as the Cromwell-Mac Amhlaoi’ legend. Given the differing perspectives of those responsible for the narrative and the song, and their intended audiences, it is not surprising that the Cromwell-Mac Amhlaoi’ encounter should be coded and subdued and that the Williamite response, delivered a generation later, should be explicit, parodic and filled with delight in its own high spirits. While those who constituted the first audience of the Mac Amhlaoi’ legend can have possessed little of the energy which animates Liliburlero, they may have found in the image of the skulls and sword a subliminal reminder that that which had been seized by force might be regained by the same means. In its ambience and concerns, the legend certainly seems to belong to the second half of the seventeenth century and to be remote from the Ireland of 1951 when it was collected from Mícheál Turraoin.

In summer 1843 Daniel O’Connell embarked on a series of mass meetings in support of his demand for repeal of the Union. A number of the sites where these took place were chosen for their strong historical resonances. Two in particular, Tara on August 15th and Mullaghmast on October 1st, drew on a powerful set of associations, whose significance would not have been lost on the vast crowds that gathered in both places. In his account of the gathering at Tara, Francis Ledwidge wrote that, although O’Connell “spoke in a voice of thunder, there were thousands who were unable to get within a hearing distance, and those turned their attention to the Croppies grave, the resting place of the valorous youths, who had sacrificed their lives for the freedom of which they were robbed.’ Those who travelled to Tara in 1843 “to view the grave of their fathers, husbands, and children who were cruelly sabred by the yeomen in the red year of ’98” were not historians and may have had a quite different sense of the past to ourselves.(24) They nonetheless had an intense engagement with the history of their country. Remembering the Year of the French raises, and goes some way to answering, the question of how they are to be understood.

1. Quoted in Bengt Holbek, Interpretation of Fairy Tales, (Helsinki, 1987), p 621.

2. The Poetical and Dramatic Works of Gerald Griffin, (Dublin, 1877), pp 183-186.

3. WJ Fitz Patrick, The Life, Times, and Correspondence of Dr. Doyle, (Dublin 1880), Vol 1, p 5.

4. William Ullathorne, The Devil is a Jackass, (Downside Abbey, 1995), p 239.



5. Canon John O’Hanlon, The Poetical Works of Lageniensis, (Dublin,1893), p 44, p 69.

6. Lord Walter Fitzgerald, “Mullaghmast: its history and traditions”, Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, Vol 1, 1891-1895, p 383.

7. O’Hanlon, (1893), p 44.

8. JH Delargy, The Gaelic Story-Teller, (Chicago, 1969), p 4.

9. For a representative selection of historical legends see Sean O’Sullivan, Legends of Ireland, (London, 1977), pp 106-146. See also Sean O’Sullivan, The Folklore of Ireland, (London, 1974), pp 129-135. For a discussion of the genre see D Ó hOgáin, The Hero in Irish Folk History, (Dublin and New York, 1985).

10. Matthew Graham, The Giantess, from the Irish of Oisin, (Belfast, 1833), pp 139-141; O’Donovan Rossa, Rossa’s Recollections 1838 to 1898, (Guilford, Connecticut, 2004), p 36.

11. Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, (New York, 1958), pp 64-5, 7.

12. WS Mason, A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland, (Dublin, 1814-19), Vol 3, p 625; D Dewar, Observations on Character, Customs and Superstitions of the Irish, (London, 1812), p 172.

13. Delargy, (1969), p 13.

14. Canon John O’Hanlon, The Poetical Works of Lageniensis, (Dublin, 1893), pp 97-8, 164;

15. TS Ó Máille, Sean-fhocla Chonnacht, (Dublin, 1948), Vol 1, no 1625b; Cathal Póirtéir, Famine Echoes, (Dublin, 1995), pp 238-9.

16. Michael Herrity, ed, Ordnance Survey Letters Donegal, (Dublin, 2000), p 75, 74, 48; G Mawhinney, ed, John O’Donovan’s Letters from County Londonderry (1834), Ballinascreen Historical Society, (1992), p 55 .

17. Herrity, (2000), p 55, 56.

18. Mawhinney, (1992), p 113.

19. CG Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, (London, 1889), Vol 1, pp 2-3; Francis Ledwidge, Legends of the Boyne and Selected Prose, (Dublin, 2006), pp 131-2; Beiner, (2007), p 113.

20. The Comical Pilgrim; or, Travels of a Cynick Philosopher, Thro’ the most Wicked Parts of the World, Namely England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Holland, (fourth edition, London, 1723), p 94.

21. The Spirit of Irish Wit, or Post-Chaise Companion: Being an Eccentric Miscellany of Hibernian Wit, Fun, and Humour, (London, no date), p 226.

22. AM Sullivan, New Ireland: Political Sketches and Personal Reminiscences or Thirty Years of Irish Public Life, (fourteenth edition, Glasgow, no date) p 200; S Atkinson, Essays, (Dublin, 1895), p 11.

23. The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay, Popular Edition, London, 1889), p 644.

24. Ledwidge, (2006), p 68.

Brian Earls is a diplomat. He has served in the Embassy of Ireland in Athens, Moscow, Warsaw and Ankara. His published work focuses on the relationship between oral tradition and printed literature, principally in the nineteenth century.

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