The Purcell Papers, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Scraps of Hibernian Ballads.

Being an Eighth Extract from the Legacy of the late Francis Purcell, P. P. of Drumcoolagh.

I have observed, my dear friend, among other grievous misconceptions current among men otherwise well-informed, and which tend to degrade the pretensions of my native land, an impression that there exists no such thing as indigenous modern Irish composition deserving the name of poetry — a belief which has been thoughtlessly sustained and confirmed by the unconscionable literary perverseness of Irishmen themselves, who have preferred the easy task of concocting humorous extravaganzas, which caricature with merciless exaggeration the pedantry, bombast, and blunders incident to the lowest order of Hibernian ballads, to the more pleasurable and patriotic duty of collecting together the many, many specimens of genuine poetic feeling, which have grown up, like its wild flowers, from the warm though neglected soil of Ireland.

In fact, the productions which have long been regarded as pure samples of Irish poetic composition, such as ‘The Groves of Blarney,’ and ‘The Wedding of Ballyporeen,’ ‘Ally Croker,’ etc., etc., are altogether spurious, and as much like the thing they call themselves ‘as I to Hercules.’

There are to be sure in Ireland, as in all countries, poems which deserve to be laughed at. The native productions of which I speak, frequently abound in absurdities — absurdities which are often, too, provokingly mixed up with what is beautiful; but I strongly and absolutely deny that the prevailing or even the usual character of Irish poetry is that of comicality. No country, no time, is devoid of real poetry, or something approaching to it; and surely it were a strange thing if Ireland, abounding as she does from shore to shore with all that is beautiful, and grand, and savage in scenery, and filled with wild recollections, vivid passions, warm affections, and keen sorrow, could find no language to speak withal, but that of mummery and jest. No, her language is imperfect, but there is strength in its rudeness, and beauty in its wildness; and, above all, strong feeling flows through it, like fresh fountains in rugged caverns.

And yet I will not say that the language of genuine indigenous Irish composition is always vulgar and uncouth: on the contrary, I am in possession of some specimens, though by no means of the highest order as to poetic merit, which do not possess throughout a single peculiarity of diction. The lines which I now proceed to lay before you, by way of illustration, are from the pen of an unfortunate young man, of very humble birth, whose early hopes were crossed by the untimely death of her whom he loved. He was a self-educated man, and in after-life rose to high distinctions in the Church to which he devoted himself — an act which proves the sincerity of spirit with which these verses were written.

‘When moonlight falls on wave and wimple,

And silvers every circling dimple,

That onward, onward sails:

When fragrant hawthorns wild and simple

Lend perfume to the gales,

And the pale moon in heaven abiding,

O’er midnight mists and mountains riding,

Shines on the river, smoothly gliding

Through quiet dales,

‘I wander there in solitude,

Charmed by the chiming music rude

Of streams that fret and flow.

For by that eddying stream SHE stood,

On such a night I trow:

For HER the thorn its breath was lending,

On this same tide HER eye was bending,

And with its voice HER voice was blending

Long, long ago.

Wild stream! I walk by thee once more,

I see thy hawthorns dim and hoar,

I hear thy waters moan,

And night-winds sigh from shore to shore,

With hushed and hollow tone;

But breezes on their light way winging,

And all thy waters heedless singing,

No more to me are gladness bringing —

I am alone.

‘Years after years, their swift way keeping,

Like sere leaves down thy current sweeping,

Are lost for aye, and sped —

And Death the wintry soil is heaping

As fast as flowers are shed.

And she who wandered by my side,

And breathed enchantment o’er thy tide,

That makes thee still my friend and guide —

And she is dead.’

These lines I have transcribed in order to prove a point which I have heard denied, namely, that an Irish peasant — for their author was no more — may write at least correctly in the matter of measure, language, and rhyme; and I shall add several extracts in further illustration of the same fact, a fact whose assertion, it must be allowed, may appear somewhat paradoxical even to those who are acquainted, though superficially, with Hibernian composition. The rhymes are, it must be granted, in the generality of such productions, very latitudinarian indeed, and as a veteran votary of the muse once assured me, depend wholly upon the wowls (vowels), as may be seen in the following stanza of the famous ‘Shanavan Voicth.’

‘ “What’ll we have for supper?”

Says my Shanavan Voicth;

“We’ll have turkeys and roast BEEF,

And we’ll eat it very SWEET,

And then we’ll take a SLEEP,”

Says my Shanavan Voicth.’

But I am desirous of showing you that, although barbarisms may and do exist in our native ballads, there are still to be found exceptions which furnish examples of strict correctness in rhyme and metre. Whether they be one whit the better for this I have my doubts. In order to establish my position, I subjoin a portion of a ballad by one Michael Finley, of whom more anon. The GENTLEMAN spoken of in the song is Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

‘The day that traitors sould him and inimies bought him,

The day that the red gold and red blood was paid —

Then the green turned pale and thrembled like the dead leaves in Autumn,

And the heart an’ hope iv Ireland in the could grave was laid.

‘The day I saw you first, with the sunshine fallin’ round ye,

My heart fairly opened with the grandeur of the view:

For ten thousand Irish boys that day did surround ye,

An’ I swore to stand by them till death, an’ fight for you.

‘Ye wor the bravest gentleman, an’ the best that ever stood,

And your eyelid never thrembled for danger nor for dread,

An’ nobleness was flowin’ in each stream of your blood —

My bleasing on you night au’ day, an’ Glory be your bed.

‘My black an’ bitter curse on the head, an’ heart, an’ hand,

That plotted, wished, an’ worked the fall of this Irish hero bold;

God’s curse upon the Irishman that sould his native land,

An’ hell consume to dust the hand that held the thraitor’s gold.’

Such were the politics and poetry of Michael Finley, in his day, perhaps, the most noted song-maker of his country; but as genius is never without its eccentricities, Finley had his peculiarities, and among these, perhaps the most amusing was his rooted aversion to pen, ink, and paper, in perfect independence of which, all his compositions were completed. It is impossible to describe the jealousy with which he regarded the presence of writing materials of any kind, and his ever wakeful fears lest some literary pirate should transfer his oral poetry to paper — fears which were not altogether without warrant, inasmuch as the recitation and singing of these original pieces were to him a source of wealth and importance. I recollect upon one occasion his detecting me in the very act of following his recitation with my pencil and I shall not soon forget his indignant scowl, as stopping abruptly in the midst of a line, he sharply exclaimed:

‘Is my pome a pigsty, or what, that you want a surveyor’s ground-plan of it?’

Owing to this absurd scruple, I have been obliged, with one exception, that of the ballad of ‘Phaudhrig Crohoore,’ to rest satisfied with such snatches and fragments of his poetry as my memory could bear away — a fact which must account for the mutilated state in which I have been obliged to present the foregoing specimen of his composition.

It was in vain for me to reason with this man of metres upon the unreasonableness of this despotic and exclusive assertion of copyright. I well remember his answer to me when, among other arguments, I urged the advisability of some care for the permanence of his reputation, as a motive to induce him to consent to have his poems written down, and thus reduced to a palpable and enduring form.

‘I often noticed,’ said he, ‘when a mist id be spreadin’, a little brier to look as big, you’d think, as an oak tree; an’ same way, in the dimmness iv the nightfall, I often seen a man tremblin’ and crassin’ himself as if a sperit was before him, at the sight iv a small thorn bush, that he’d leap over with ase if the daylight and sunshine was in it. An’ that’s the rason why I think it id be better for the likes iv me to be remimbered in tradition than to be written in history.’

Finley has now been dead nearly eleven years, and his fame has not prospered by the tactics which he pursued, for his reputation, so far from being magnified, has been wholly obliterated by the mists of obscurity.

With no small difficulty, and no inconsiderable manoeuvring, I succeeded in procuring, at an expense of trouble and conscience which you will no doubt think but poorly rewarded, an accurate ‘report’ of one of his most popular recitations. It celebrates one of the many daring exploits of the once famous Phaudhrig Crohoore (in prosaic English, Patrick Connor). I have witnessed powerful effects produced upon large assemblies by Finley’s recitation of this poem which he was wont, upon pressing invitation, to deliver at weddings, wakes, and the like; of course the power of the narrative was greatly enhanced by the fact that many of his auditors had seen and well knew the chief actors in the drama.

‘Phaudhrig Crohoore.

Oh, Phaudhrig Crohoore was the broth of a boy,

And he stood six foot eight,

And his arm was as round as another man’s thigh,

’Tis Phaudhrig was great —

And his hair was as black as the shadows of night,

And hung over the scars left by many a fight;

And his voice, like the thunder, was deep, strong, and loud,

And his eye like the lightnin’ from under the cloud.

And all the girls liked him, for he could spake civil,

And sweet when he chose it, for he was the divil.

An’ there wasn’t a girl from thirty-five undher,

Divil a matter how crass, but he could come round her.

But of all the sweet girls that smiled on him, but one

Was the girl of his heart, an’ he loved her alone.

An’ warm as the sun, as the rock firm an’ sure,

Was the love of the heart of Phaudhrig Crohoore;

An’ he’d die for one smile from his Kathleen O’Brien,

For his love, like his hatred, was sthrong as the lion.

‘But Michael O’Hanlon loved Kathleen as well

As he hated Crohoore — an’ that same was like hell.

But O’Brien liked HIM, for they were the same parties,

The O’Briens, O’Hanlons, an’ Murphys, and Cartys —

An’ they all went together an’ hated Crohoore,

For it’s many the batin’ he gave them before;

An’ O’Hanlon made up to O’Brien, an’ says he:

“I’ll marry your daughter, if you’ll give her to me.”

And the match was made up, an’ when Shrovetide came on,

The company assimbled three hundred if one:

There was all the O’Hanlons, an’ Murphys, an’ Cartys,

An’ the young boys an’ girls av all o’ them parties;

An’ the O’Briens, av coorse, gathered strong on day,

An’ the pipers an’ fiddlers were tearin’ away;

There was roarin’, an’ jumpin’, an’ jiggin’, an’ flingin’,

An’ jokin’, an’ blessin’, an’ kissin’, an’ singin’,

An’ they wor all laughin’— why not, to be sure? —

How O’Hanlon came inside of Phaudhrig Crohoore.

An’ they all talked an’ laughed the length of the table,

Atin’ an’ dhrinkin’ all while they wor able,

And with pipin’ an’ fiddlin’ an’ roarin’ like tundher,

Your head you’d think fairly was splittin’ asundher;

And the priest called out, “Silence, ye blackguards, agin!”

An’ he took up his prayer-book, just goin’ to begin,

An’ they all held their tongues from their funnin’ and bawlin’,

So silent you’d notice the smallest pin fallin’;

An’ the priest was just beg’nin’ to read, whin the door

Sprung back to the wall, and in walked Crohoore —

Oh! Phaudhrig Crohoore was the broth of a boy,

Ant he stood six foot eight,

An’ his arm was as round as another man’s thigh,

’Tis Phaudhrig was great —

An’ he walked slowly up, watched by many a bright eye,

As a black cloud moves on through the stars of the sky,

An’ none sthrove to stop him, for Phaudhrig was great,

Till he stood all alone, just apposit the sate

Where O’Hanlon and Kathleen, his beautiful bride,

Were sitting so illigant out side by side;

An’ he gave her one look that her heart almost broke,

An’ he turned to O’Brien, her father, and spoke,

An’ his voice, like the thunder, was deep, sthrong, and loud,

An’ his eye shone like lightnin’ from under the cloud:

“I didn’t come here like a tame, crawlin’ mouse,

But I stand like a man in my inimy’s house;

In the field, on the road, Phaudhrig never knew fear,

Of his foemen, an’ God knows he scorns it here;

So lave me at aise, for three minutes or four,

To spake to the girl I’ll never see more.”

An’ to Kathleen he turned, and his voice changed its tone,

For he thought of the days when he called her his own,

An’ his eye blazed like lightnin’ from under the cloud

On his false-hearted girl, reproachful and proud,

An’ says he: “Kathleen bawn, is it thrue what I hear,

That you marry of your free choice, without threat or fear?

If so, spake the word, an’ I’ll turn and depart,

Chated once, and once only by woman’s false heart.”

Oh! sorrow and love made the poor girl dumb,

An’ she thried hard to spake, but the words wouldn’t come,

For the sound of his voice, as he stood there fornint her,

Wint could on her heart as the night wind in winther.

An’ the tears in her blue eyes stood tremblin’ to flow,

And pale was her cheek as the moonshine on snow;

Then the heart of bould Phaudhrig swelled high in its place,

For he knew, by one look in that beautiful face,

That though sthrangers an’ foemen their pledged hands might sever,

Her true heart was his, and his only, for ever.

An’ he lifted his voice, like the agle’s hoarse call,

An’ says Phaudhrig, “She’s mine still, in spite of yez all!”

Then up jumped O’Hanlon, an’ a tall boy was he,

An’ he looked on bould Phaudhrig as fierce as could be,

An’ says he, “By the hokey! before you go out,

Bould Phaudhrig Crohoore, you,must fight for a bout.”

Then Phaudhrig made answer: “I’ll do my endeavour,”

An’ with one blow he stretched bould O’Hanlon for ever.

In his arms he took Kathleen, an’ stepped to the door;

And he leaped on his horse, and flung her before;

An’ they all were so bother’d, that not a man stirred

Till the galloping hoofs on the pavement were heard.

Then up they all started, like bees in the swarm,

An’ they riz a great shout, like the burst of a storm,

An’ they roared, and they ran, and they shouted galore;

But Kathleen and Phaudhrig they never saw more.

‘But them days are gone by, an’ he is no more;

An’ the green-grass is growin’ o’er Phaudhrig Crohoore,

For he couldn’t be aisy or quiet at all;

As he lived a brave boy, he resolved so to fall.

And he took a good pike — for Phaudhrig was great —

And he fought, and he died in the year ninety-eight.

An’ the day that Crohoore in the green field was killed,

A sthrong boy was sthretched, and a sthrong heart was stilled.’

It is due to the memory of Finley to say that the foregoing ballad, though bearing throughout a strong resemblance to Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Lochinvar,’ was nevertheless composed long before that spirited production had seen the light.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/purcell/chapter8.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49