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Brian Merriman (c. 1747-1805)
Brian Merriman, poet, was born at Ennistymon, the son of a journeyman stonemason, about 1747. For some reason which is not known the whole family and some friends migrated to the district of Lough Graney, near Killanena, Feakle. Brian spent his childhood here. The details of his education are not clear but it is probable that he attended a hedge-school, and may have picked up scraps of learning from wandering poor scholars and poets. There are conflicting biographical accounts of his life. One manuscript says "He was a wild and pleasure seeking youth but an accomplished performer on the violin." He married a woman from Feakle in 1787 and they had two daughters.
It appears that he inherited his father's small farm in Feakle because in 1797 he won two prizes from the Dublin society for flax growing.
He taught at various schools in the area for about twenty years, first at Kilclaran and later in a school near his farm. Teaching in those days seems to have been a profession that attracted those with a taste for literature. Many of the Irish poets of the 18th and 19th centuries were school teachers. It allowed them to exist while they wrote. Later on he became resident tutor to the families of the local gentry.
This may be where he got the subject matter for his poem "Cúirt an Mhéan Óiche". It is likely that he had access to books of European literature which gave him ideas for the theme. His famous poem, written in his native Irish language, has well over a thousand lines. It has been translated into English as "The Midnight Court" by many translators. The principal themes are the plight of young women who lack husbands, clerical celibacy, free love, and the misery of a young woman married to a withered old man. It is probably the most famous poem in the Irish language. It is written in the form of a vision or aisling. Brian falls asleep on the shores of Loch Gréine near Feakle in East Clare and finds himself present at a fairy court where the women of Ireland were discussing their great problems. It is thought that he wrote the poem as a result of certain frustrations he had or of some complex he suffered from. It is believed that Merriman was illegitimate and wanted to justify his complex in the poem. His vigour, fluency and earthy humour made his poem widely popular and while he was still alive numerous manuscript copies were circulated.
About 1802 Merriman and his family moved to Limerick City, where he continued to teach. Little more is known about him until his death on 27th July 1805 was announced in the paper "The General Advertiser and Limerick Gazette".
"Died - : on Saturday morning in Old Clare Street, after a few hours illness, Mr. Bryan Merriman, teacher of mathematics, etc."
He is buried in Feakle . His grave has not been located but a plaque honouring his memory has been erected in Feakle churchyard.
In commemoration of Merrimans poetic works an Annual Merriman Summer School is held each year in County Clare.
Brian Merriman's biography is from The Clare County Library.
County Clare Library has told about Brian Merriman. Now I get to comment on The Midnight Court. There have been many translators and hats off to all of them. There is no doubt, in my mind at least, that this was a serious challange to a translator. It isn't that it is simply a large effort. The original Irish was certainly much more ...um, candid, not to say vulgar or downright pornographic. These were eggshells, indeed, to walk upon. When it was written, about 1780, Merriman's world was not interested in prudery. That didn't come in until more than a century later (unless you were a puritan).
I chose the translation of Arland Ussher. This is comparatively recent; into the twentieth century. Ussher's translation still had to be closely watched (in these days of the politically correct, you can offend anyone without effort).
I suggest you read the poem with two thoughts firmly in mind: one, it was written around 1780 and two, it was originally in Irish. So, then, have a go and it will give a lot of laughs and some serious thoughts and perpectives on the world of Merriman and of today.
The Midnight Court
by Brian Merriman (c.1780)
Translated by Arland Ussher
'Twas my wont to wander beside the stream
On the soft greensward in the morning beam,
Where the woods stand thick on the mountain-side
Without trouble or care what might betide.
My heart would leap at the lake's near blue,
The horizon and the far-off view,
The hills that rear their heads on high
Over each other's backs to spy.
'Twould gladden the soul with dole oppressed,
With sorrows seared and with cares obsessed
Of the outcast Gael without gold or goods
To watch for a while o'er the tops of the woods
The ducks in their flocks on the tide, the swan
Gliding with stately gait along,
The fish that leap in the air with glee
And the speckled perch with gambols free,
The labouring waves laving the shore
With glistening spray and rumbling roar,
The sea-gulls shrieking and reeling wide,
And the red deer romping in woodland ride,
The bugle's blare and the huntsman's yell
And the hue and cry of the pack pell-mell.
Yesterday morn the sky was clear
In the dog day's heat of the mad mid-year,
and the sun was scouring the slumb'rous air
With his burning beams and gleaming glare,
And the leaves lay dense on the bending trees
And the lush grass waved in the scented breeze.
Blossom and spray and spreading leaf
Lightened my load and laid my grief,
Weary and spent with aching brain
I sank and lay on the murmuring plain,
In the shade of a tree with feet outspread
With my hot brow bared and shoe-gear shed,
When I closed the lids on my languid eyes
And covered my face from teasing flies
In slumber deep and in sleep's delusion
The scene was changed in strange confusion,
My frame was heaved and my head turned round
Without sense or sight in sleep profound.
I fancied there as I dare avouch
That the land was quaking beneath my couch,
And a hurricane blew with fury o'er me
And tongues of fire flared forth before me.
I threw a glance with beglamoured eyes
And beheld a hag of hideous guise,
Her shape with age and ague shook,
The plain she scoured with glowering look,
Her girth was huge, her height was quite
Seven yards or more if I reckoned it right,
Her cloak's tail trailed a perch's length,
She gripped a staff with manful strength,
Her aspect stark with angry stare,
Her features tanned by wind and air,
Her rheumy eyes were red and blear,
Her mouth was stretched from ear to ear,
A plate of brass held fast her bonnet
With bailiff's powers inscribed upon it.
She grimly gazed and gruffly spake: -
'You lazy laggard, arise! awake!
Is this the way for you, wretch, to be,
When the court is seated for all to see?
No court of robbers and spoilers strong
To maintain the bane of fraud and wrong,
But the court of the poor and lowly-born,
The court of women and folk forlorn.
It's joyful hearing for Erin that
The Good Folk's Host have in Council sat
On the mountain's summit for three days' space
In Brean Moy Graney's meeting-place.
His Highness grieves and his noble throng
That Erin lingers in thraldom long,
Wasted by woe without respite,
To misery's hand abandoned quite,
Her land purloined, her laws decayed,
Her wealth destroyed and her trust betrayed,
Her fields and pastures with weeds o'er grown,
Her ground untilled and her crops unsown,
Her chieftains banished and an upstart band
Of hirelings holding the upper hand,
Who'd skin the widow and orphan child
And grind the weak and the meek and mild.
Shame 'tis, sure, that the poor oppressed
By lawless might, in plight distressed,
Get nought for aught but extortion vile,
The judge's fraud and the lawyer's wile,
The tyrant's frown and the sycophant's sneer
Bribing with fee and with fawning leer.
'Twas among the plaints that there were pleaded -
For every wrong was heard and heeded -
A charge in which you'll be implicated,
That the men and youths remain unmated,
And your maids in spinsterhood repining
And their bloom and beauty in age declining,
And the human race apace decreasing
With wars and famines and plagues unceasing,
The pride of kings and princes feeding,
Since your lads and lasses have left off breeding.
Your scanty brood 'tis sad to see
With women in bands on land and sea,
Buxom maids that fade obscure
And tender slips with lips that lure,
Damsels shy by shame retarded
And willing wenches unregarded.
'Tis sad no noble seed should rise
From lads of lusty thews and thighs,
'Twere well could all know what maids' woes are,
Prepared to fall on the first proposer.
To consider the case with due precision
The council came to a new decision,
To find the fittest among the throng
To learn the right and requite the wrong.
They appointed straight a maid serene,
Eevell of Craglee, Munster's queen,
To hold her court and preside there o'er it
And invite the plaintiffs to plead before it.
The gentle lady swore to elicit
Of falsehood purged the truth explicit,
To hear the plea of the unbefriended
And see the state of the hapless mended.
This court is seated in Feakle now,
Arise and trudge, for you thither must go,
Arise and trudge without more delay,
Arise at once for I'll take no nay!'
She clapped her claw on my cape behind
And whisked me away like a wisp on the wind
O'er mud and mire, mountain and valley
To Moinmoy Hill at the churchyard alley.
'Tis sure I saw with torches flaring
A lofty hall with trumpets blaring,
With glare of light and brightly burnished,
With fleeces draped and great doors furnished,
And the portly queen with a courtly gesture
On the judge's bench in a splendid vesture,
And a troop of toughs with gruff demeanor
To clear the court and escort and screen her,
And people in throngs along the benches
Both women and men and boys and wenches,
And a weeping nymph in the witness-box
Of comely mould and golden locks,
With heaving breast and face aflame
And tears that gushed with grief and shame,
With flowing hair and staring eyes
And moans and groans and sobs and sighs,
her passion's blast at last abated,
Weary of woe, with sorrow sated,
She dried her eyes, her sighs surmounted,
And in these words her woes recounted: -
'We give you greeting, Eevell fair,
Gracious queen, your people's care,
Who pity the poor and relieve their plight
And save the brave and retrieve the right.
'Tis the cause of my anguish and grief of heart,
the source of my sorrow and inward smart,
My wounding rending pain unending,
The way our women thro' life are wending,
Gray gloomy nuns with the grave pursuing,
Since our men and maidens have left off wooing;
Myself among them condemned to wait
Without hope and mope in the maiden state,
Without husband heaping the golden store
Or children creeping on hearth and floor,
In dread and fear - a drear subsistence-
Of finding nought to support existence,
By troubles pressed and by rest forsaken,
By cares consumed and by sorrows shaken.
Chaste Eevell, hasten to the relief
Of the women of Erin in their grief,
Wasting their pains in vain endeavor
To meet with mates that elude them ever,
Till in the ages is such disparity
We would not touch them except from charity,
With bleary eyes and wry grimaces
To scare a maiden from their embraces.
And if in manhood's warm pulsation
A youth is tempted to change his station,
He chooses a dour and sour-faced scold
Who's wasted her days in raising gold;
No lively lass of sweet seventeen
Of figure neat and features clean,
But blear-eyed hag or harridan brown
With toothless jaws and hairless crown
And snotty nose and dun complexion
And offering constant shrill correction.
My heart is torn and worn with grieving,
And my breast distressed with restless heaving,
With torture dull and with desperation
At the thought of my dismal situation,
When I see a bonny and bold young blade
With comely features and frame displayed,
A sturdy swearer or spanking buck,
A sprightly strapper with spunk and pluck,
A goodly wopper well made and planned,
A gamey walloper gay and grand,
Nimble and brave and bland and blithe,
Eager and active and brisk and lithe,
Of noted parts and of proved precocity,
Sold to a scold or old hideosity,
Withered and worn and blear and brown,
A mumbling, grumbling, garrulous clown,
A surly, sluttish and graceless gawk
Knotted and gnarled like a cabbage's stalk,
A sleepy, sluggish decayed old stump,
A useless, juiceless and faded frump.
Ah, woe is me! there's a crumpled crone
Being buckled to-night while I'm left lone,
She's a surly scold and a bold-faced jade
And this moment she's merry - and me a maid!
Why wouldn't they have myself in marriage?
I'm comely and shapely, of stately carriage,
I've a mouth and smile to make men dream
And a forehead that's fair with ne'er a seam,
My teeth are pearls in a peerless row,
Cherries to vie with my lips pray show,
I've a dancing, glancing, entrancing eye,
Roguish and rakish and takish and sly,
Gold locks lustre beside my hair,
And every curl might a saint ensnare,
My cheeks are smooth without stain or spot,
Dimpled and fresh without blemish or blot,
My throat, my hands, my neck, my face,
Rival each other in dainty grace,
I've hips and ankles and lips and breast
And limbs to offer as good as the best.
Look at my waist tight-laced and slim,
I'm not coarse or ragged or rank of limb,
Not stringy or scraggy or lanky or lean
But as fair a female as e'er was seen
A pleasing, teasing and tempting tart
That might coax and entice the coldest heart.
If I were a tasteless, graceless, baggage,
A slummocky scut of cumbrous carriage,
A sloven or slut or frump or fright,
Or maid morose and impolite,
An awkward gawk of ungainly make,
A stark and crooked and stiff old stake,
A senseless, sightless, bent old crone,
I wouldn't complain if they left me alone.
I've never been present that I'm aware
At wedding or wake or fete or fair,
At the racing-ring or the hurling ground
Or wherever the menfolk may be found,
But I've managed to make some shape and show
And been bedizened from top to toe
With stylish hood and starched coiffure
And powder-sprinkled chevelure,
My speckled gown with ribbons tied
And ruffles with the richest vied,
With cardinal of scarlet hue
And facings pleasing to the view,
And cambric apron gaily sown
With blowsy flowers of kind unknown,
And rigid hoops and buckled shoes
With smooth high heels attached by screws
And silken gloves and costly lace
And flounces, fringes, frills and stays.
Mind, do not think I'm an artless gull,
A stupid, unsocial or bashful trull,
Timid, a prey to wayward fancies,
Or shy or ashamed of a man's advances.
I'm ever on view to the crowds that pass
At market or meeting or Sunday Mass,
At supper or social or raffle or race
Or wherever the gayest are going the pace,
At party or pattern or picnic or fete
In hopes that I'd click with some lad soon or late;
But all my pursuit is a futile endeavor,
They've baulked me and bilked me and slipped from me ever,
They've baffled my schemes and my best-conceived art,
They've spurned me and turned from me and tattered my heart;
After all my advances, my ogling and sighing,
My most killing glances, my coaxing and eyeing,
After all I have spent upon readers of palms
And tellers of tea-leaves and sellers of charms.
There isn't a plan you can conceive
For Christmas or Easter or All Saints' Eve,
At the moon's eclipse or the New Year's chime
That I haven't attempted time on time.
I never would sleep a night in bed
Without fruit-stuffed stocking beneath my head,
I would steep my shift in the millstream deep
And await the vows of my spouse in sleep,
With broom I brushed the barn as bid,
My nails and hair in ashpit hid,
beneath the hearth the flail I laid,
below my pillow placed the spade,
My distaff in the grace-yard's bed,
In lime-kiln low my ball of thread,
The flax I strewd amid the dust,
A cabbage-head in bed-straw thrust,
At every stage, by rage distraught,
The deuce and his dam aloud besought.
'Tis why I'm laying my case before ye
That I'm single still at the end of the story,
And age draws near with outrageous pace
To rob my form of its former grace.
O matchless maid, have mercy, pray,
E'er my freshness fade and my charms decay
And you see me left in plight forlorn
My beauty's prime and pride to mourn,
With bleaching hairs, by cares oppressed,
On unfriendly hearths an unwelcome guest.
By blood and wounds, fire, thunder, air,
Of shame and scorn I've borne my share,
My plans and plots foiled and frustrated
Whilst I view my nearest kindred mated.
Jane has a fine and fair-faced spouse
And Kate is waiting to take the vows,
Helen has hooked a handsome buck
And with jeers and gibes derides my luck,
My neighbor Nan is spliced with a spanker
While I'm left on the shelf to cark and canker,
Consider my case and face my plight,
And say if you dare that it's fair and right.
Too long I wait and waste my pains,
One hope untried as yet remains,
A potent charm as I have heard
Is putrid herbs well stewed and stirred,
I know the sort and will proceed
To make it aid me in my need.
A subtle spell that succour brings
Is orchid's leaves and dungfly's wings
And roots of figwort powdered well
With more besides I may not tell.
'Twas wondered everywhere of late
How yonder maid secured a mate,
At Shrove her secret she confessed
And Hallow E'en has seen her braced,
For water-spiders soaked in beer
And withered grass formed all her fare.
So, pity, queen, my lonely plight
Or troth! I'll try the plan to-night.'
The Midnight Court Part Two
For more Poetry Click the Poetry Index.
Thu, Jul 9, 2015
No matter who does the collecting, the works stand on their own but this is an excellent compilation and well worth adding to your library.
Click here for Yeats.
Interested in Irish Poetry?Here's the easy way to collect them all (well, almost all, anyway).
Malachy McCourt says in his introduction, "With the republication of this book, the Irish recover under their roof of stars all the great poets and writers who have been falsely claimed by the saxon crown and its minions - even our reprobates."
Amazon states this is out of stock. They still have used copies for almost nothing (except shipping - chuckle). If you would like a new edition, it was available at Powell's. We can't promise it's still there. Click here for Powell's 1000 Years.
Click here for used at Amazon.