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Fran Lock on The Lament for Art O'Leary

Earlier this year – the 4th of May to be exact – the famous Irish lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire or The Lament for Art O'Leary, celebrated its 250th anniversary. We have the exact date of compositon, which is unusual for any work of literature, because records show that on this date Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill's husband, Art Uí Laoghaire, was murdered in Co. Cork, by officers acting on the orders of the local sheriff, Abraham Morris. Art was twenty-six years old. His specific "crime" remains unknown, although by all accounts he was a bit of a lad, and seemed to be in the habit of flouting the country's suppressive Penal Laws, and generally thumbing his nose at authority. For those who did not grow up with the long shadow of those Laws, they included: forbidding Catholics from holding a commission in the army, entering a profession, or owning a horse worth more than £5 (all of which Art certainly did). Catholics could not possess weaponry or arms, could not study law or medicine, and were forbidden from speaking Gaelic or from playing Irish music. These laws intensified the injustice brought to Ireland by Protestant English settlement, wherein they stripped the Catholic Irish of religious freedoms and nearly all of their holdings, including land. The impetus and narrative arc of the Lament are simple enough: it begins when Art is killed and his horse returns to the house he shared with Eibhlín, its reigns trailing on the ground, blood smeared across its flank. Eibhlín leaps onto the horse and gallops off to try and find her husband, but she is too late, he has died by the side of the road. In the first extremis of her grief, she begins to extemporise the Lament over his body. A lament, or a keen, is a traditional form of extemporised oral performance in situ. It is a poem of personal loss and mourning, but it is also a poem of white hot fury; the lamenting woman – and in traditional Irish keening it was usually a woman – is expressing her own grief, but at the same time she is using the public display of that grief as emblematic of the suffering endured by her entire community; she is using her grief to stage and to articulate that suffering community. She's gathering and rallying those same forces behind her. These laments are singular because they lay blame, heap invective, call down curses, and incite listeners to retribution. There are times I have needed that. Because I write and study poetry, when Marty died, well-meaning people kept sending me poems. Elegies mainly. They were trying to help. They didn't help. I didn't understand why they didn't help. I needed to understand. I devoted a great deal of time to thinking about it. I thought about it obsessively, and I came to believe that there was something about the canonical English elegy: the way it's supposed to mirror what are said to be the three stages of loss. First comes lament, where the speaker expresses grief and sorrow, then comes praise and admiration for the idealised dead, and finally consolation and solace. There's a graceful symmetry to it that I find deeply suspect. No, that's not quite fair. But, after a certain point, those poems' coercive insistence upon a linear trajectory for loss and healing constitute a disavowal of those who cannot reproduce that normative performance of grieving. I felt judged by those poems, lopsided, ugly and stuck. How they wanted to bind me to a mode or manner of grieving I could never live up to. I read this tendency as embedded in the structural symmetries of those poems, their orderly metrical structures, their controlled rhyme schemes. All of these features seemed to imply something definitive and manageable about loss. This was not my experience. Where were the poems for the raw, recalcitrant stuff of grief? Where were the poems of rage? Where are the poems of vengeance, curse and oath? Feral poems of feud and ruin. Scorched earth. Reason's stronghold sacked. Mutually assured destruction. Those were the poems I wanted. Poems for a pain not amenable to metaphor, for the minutely laboured violence of it, the double-bitted braining of it. I turned in tight circles inside the cancelled labyrinth of my anger. Wanted words to quicken cudgels – crack! – in the green wood of the hurley. I knew I needed the Lament, its swift movement through anger, accountability, duty, affection, and real terrible grief. From the curses, addressing Morris directly, but by implication also addressing the members of her community who are unwilling or unable to "fire a shot" on her husband's behalf – in defence or in revenge. Then she pivots, she starts to talk about her sadness that she wasn't there to take the bullet for him; she begins to address him directly as "rider of the ready hands", she moves out of that passage into a more elegiac mode, where she's describing both Art's virtues and her grief at his loss. All of these feelings constellate round this single figure. Hers is poetry as protest, where the body matters. Art's body of course, but so too the body of the speaker. The poem's space matters, how and when it enters the world, by whom it is received. We only have this poem written down – let alone in English – because its various fragments and versions began to be collected and transcribed around 1800, shortly before Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill's death. Prior to this it was passed down through the oral keening tradition, where it would have been spoken and sung in Irish. This matters. Irish, so you know, was first prohibited by law in 1367, and this law said that English settlers in Ireland couldn't speak Irish, and that Irish people couldn't communicate in Irish with them. Then you have The Statute of Ireland – An Act for the English Order Habit and Language of 1537, that prohibited the use of the Irish language in the Irish parliament, and later banned the use of Irish in the areas of Ireland then under English rule. Next comes The Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) in 1737. This act not only forbids the speaking of Irish within the courtroom, it also prohibits the completion of legal documents in Irish and imposes a financial penalty of £20 each time Irish is spoken in court in contravention of that law. What must it have meant for Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill to have been cursing and lamenting in this very public way in her own forbidden language? The defiance of that act. And because she is lamenting the death of her husband in a language that is also suffering suppression and destruction, she's imaginatively yoking the two things. Grieving Art becomes a way of grieving that language, and those traditions threatened by English Protestant ascendancy. Poetry becomes a counter-language; it offers a way of intervening in language for those who are not afforded full participation in the legal and civic life of their own country. The force of that is both galvanising and shattering. The lament is of the body. This Lament begins in the body. She understood the body as a tactile repository of loss; the cavernous quality of desire in the face of loss, that this is both political and primal. When I hear the poem again, it is in a language I cannot speak, the lack of which I feel in me as a second – no, a preceding – grief, and so I listen to the sound, and I understand, as I didn't before, that the poem in Irish is strictly patterned; the lines tighten like a wet knot, beat, by beat, by beat. Leap, by leap, by leap. A riddle, then: why should the formal attributes of the Lament feel so propulsive and kinetic, so full of motive force, while those elegies I was sent reduce themselves to bland, flat glyphs against the page? Do I know what I mean when I say the Lament channels anger, those other poems managed it? Why do I feel guided by Eibhlín, and goaded by those others? The lament is a form of uniquely pressured speech, born of – out of – moment, a porous form that suffers and seeps beyond the perceived enclosure of the printed page. How the body is a spur to this charged, collective iteration. This Lament is full of suppleness and touch. It remembers the body above all else. And Eibhlín's body becomes a lightning-rod for protest. Those mannered elegies are memorial. The lament is relational, mobile and somatic. Handed down, body to body, or breath to breath, across centuries. It incubates and spreads in sinew, in the soft tissues and the long threads of intergenerational memory. It's like Jean-Marie Gleize says: "revolutionary movement does not spread by contamination / but by resonance / something that constitutes itself here / resonates with the shock wave given off by something that constituted itself elsewhere / the body that resonates does so in its own way..." I wanted an imaginative commons transcending time, place, tradition, class. I wanted the Lament. I renewed my accquaintance with the Lament this year, in preparation for a symposium organised by the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies, held at Magdalene College. All of those eminent big-name academics. And me. I am telling a room full of Irish speakers what I just told you, that I feel the absence of the Irish language as an initiating and absolute loss. Our panel agree that we feel mainly exhausted. We are always explaining ourselves, apologising for our presence. We confide that we feel like frauds. We did not think of ourselves as Irish until Irish was the kick-me sign at the small of the back. Or until even that was taken away. Cancelled by Gypo! Or Queer! I cling to Eibhlín. The pikey and the noble woman, imagine! I was so horribly conscious of my body. Which is my only country. Which is full of fury. Which craves and yearns.

This Lament begins in the body. To say something is political is not to detach it from the body, but to concentrate it absolutely in the body. Political is a matter of mycelium and melanin, the throb of melancholy horniness, prole gob framing its totalled phrase with broken teeth, the mouth as a stretching satchel of knives. She spoke. To me that is a kind of miracle. I imagine her rocking, intoning her sorrow by the roadside, at the wakehouse, in the market square. The bravery and vulnerability of that act. Collapse the impossible silence which is, in itself, a collapse. Love's remains. Its mutilation. To breach the broken world, to make a better.

Dr Fran Lock is a some-time itinerant dog whisperer, the author of seven poetry collections and of numerous chapbooks, including Hyena! Jackal! Dog!, which was published by Pamenar Press last year, and Contains Mild Peril (Out-Spoken Press, 2019). Her Ph.D. from Birkbeck College, University of London, is titled, "Impossible Telling and the Epistolary Form: Contemporary Poetry, Mourning and Trauma". She is an Associate Editor at Culture Matters.


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