I was reminded of what little credit I give sometimes Ireland's forgotten writers and poets, especially those who wrote in Irish, 'as Gaeilge'. This struck home when I read again Galway's blind poet, Anthony Raftery's ( Antoine O Raifteiri ) beautiful poem, Cill Aodáin - though perhaps it is better known by the poem's first line, the joyous announcement, "Anois teacht an Earraigh" (Now Cometh the Spring).
"Anois teacht an Earraigh, beidh an lá dúl chun shíneadh,
Is tar eis na féil Bríde, ardóigh mé mo sheol...."
Yes, you know it too, or at least remember all or some of it. Reading it, or hearing in in my mind's eye or ear, brings me right back to my primary school days. You too? You can probably remember also the smell of chalk-dust and perhaps even the smell of the class-room's turf-fire and feel the cool, hard wood with the shiny patina on the old twin school desks with the ceramic ink-wells under your oh-too-cold bottom and your skinny legs with the knee-high socks and the long short pants. Enough of that trip down memory lane...'an bhuill cead agam dul amach?'
Sure we all learned it by rote in National School, as we did much of our 'learning'. Problem is, even though I knew the poem, I felt little empathy with it. I didn't realise then that his words were straight from the heart, and as rich and clear a description of Paradise or the Promised Land as any poet had ever imagined. Perhaps it was the cold classroom, or the fear of punishment, or the 'having to learn a stoopid Irish poem' attitude we all had, but so much of what we were taught could have enriched our lives so much more, had we but cherished it, or been taught how to love and appreciate it.
Antoine Raftery was born in an impossibly overcrowded 'tigeen' on a shared small-holding in Killaiden, near Kiltimagh in 1784. He had 8 brothers and sisters, but an outbreak of small pox took the entire family and left Raftery blind. He learned to play the fiddle and was a natural bard. Blind Raftery became the wandering bard of the west in the early 19th century, moving from parish to parish, leaning on the generosity of the local folk who gave him shelter, food and drink, in return for his music and stories. Newspapers were not common and news was spread by word of mouth back then, or in songs and poems, as Raftery did. Like the bards of old he told and retold tales of valiantry, victory, wrong-doings and tragedy to the farmers and anyone who would listen, give him a bed for the night and share a jug of Poitin.
Raftery was well loved by the country folk. He was illiterate, and thus knew all his poems and songs by heart, recounting them at will, or composing new ones on the spot for a challenge or for sport. He had no end of inspiration, what with rebellions, hangings, murders and evictions being so commonplace in that turbulent time, post the bloody rebellion of 1798, the consequences of which he witnessed first-hand in Mayo. He walked a land that had seen terrible retribution, with gallows and gibbets at every crossroads. Later on he saw the rise of land agitation, the Whiteboys and the beginnings of the land league. He composed hundreds of poems, many of which, thankfully, have been handed down and saved. His tale of the tragic drownings at Anaghdown ( Eanach Dhun ) in 1828, is a classic even today.
Raftery stayed in houses he knew he would be welcomed in and looked after. They were not 'Big Houses' per se, but comfortable tenant farmers houses mostly that he stayed at. One such house was O'Dwyers in Duniry, near Abbey on the road between Loughrea and Woodford. Even today, the memory of his annual visits there is still remembered. He had many such stops along his well-travelled roads of east Galway where he spent much of his later life, but eventually he himself wore out. He was reputedly 'fond of the dhrop', and cranky, with a sharp tongue and caustic wit, so perhaps his true friends were few. Poor Ratfery fell ill and died in a cow-barn in the village of Craughwell one snowy winter's day in 1835. He was buried at night by torchlight, for reasons I still don't understand, in a small ruined church-yard cemetery between Craughwell and Labane. So much for his wish to go home to Mayo and 'be amongst his people'.
Were it not for the poems that have been handed down to us by people who cherished his wonderful words, and the collectors who wrote them down, we may never have had the chance to get to know again his poem about the approach of Spring.
On a Saturday six years ago, (19 February 2010) the Irish Times newspaper published a variant translation in English of his poem. I love how Raftery sets his sights (though he was blind) on the small, simple pleasures, much as we all do and did when visiting someone who was ill or just plain old. Take a minute out of your busy day to read these 16 lines and remember warmly your family and friends who may have shuffled on lately. Or perhaps, they have just gone home to Mayo!
The Blind Poet's Vision of Spring
With the coming of spring the light will be gaining.
So after Brid's feast day I'll set my course -
Since it entered my head I'll never rest easy
Till I'm landed again in the heart of Mayo.
I'll spend my first night in the town of Claremorris
And in Balla I'll raise my glass in a toast,
To Kiltimagh then, I could linger a month there
Within easy reach of Ballinamore.
I testify here that the heart in me rises
Like a fresh breeze lifting fog from the slopes.
When I think on Carra and Galen below it,
On Sceathach a' Mhile or the plains of Mayo.
Killeadan's a place where all good things flourish,
Blackberries, raspberries, treats by the score,
Were I to stand there again with my people
Age would fall from me and I would be restored.
-- Anthony Raftery (1784-1835). Translation by Michael Coady
Below, the full Irish version of 'Anois Teacht An Earraigh'
Anois teacht an Earraigh,
beidh an lá dúl chun shíneadh,
Is tar eis na féil Bríde
ardóigh mé mo sheol.
Go Coillte Mach rachad
ní stopfaidh me choíche
Go seasfaidh mé síos
i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.
Fágaim le huacht é
go n-éiríonn mo chroí-se
Mar a éiréonn an ghaoth
nó mar a scaipeann an ceo
Nuair a smaoiním ar Cheara
nó ar Ghaileang taobh thíos de
Ar Sceathach an Mhíle
nó ar phlánaí Mhaigh Eo;
Cill Aodáin an baile
a bhfásann gach ní ann,
Tá sméara is subh craobh ann
is meas de gach sórt,
Is dá mbéinnse i mo sheasamh
i gceartlár mo dhaoine
D'imeodh an aois díom
is bheinn arís óg.
Bíonn cruithneach is coirce,
fás eorna is lín ann,
Seagal i gcaobh ann,
arán plúir agus feoil,
Lucht déanta poitín
gan licence á dhíol ann,
Móruaisle na tíre ann
ag imirt is ag ól.
Tá cur agus treabhadh
is leasú gan aoileach
Is iomaí sin ní ann
nár labhair me go fóill,
Aitheanna is muilte
ag obair gan scíth ann,
Deamhan caint ar phingin cíosa
na dada da shórt.
Photograph of Daffodils by kind permission of Larry Morgan Photography
Originally published in 2010 on my personal blog 'Paddyscrossbetimes' on Blogspot www.paddyscrossbetimes.blogspot.ie
If you ever find yourself with some time to spend in Galway, you are welcome to join me on one of my 'Galway Walks. www.galwaywalks.com - Give me a buzz or email me beforehand and be sure to mention The Wild Geese.
Happy Spring, St. Patrick's Day can't be far away now! Brian Nolan