“Samuel Ferguson Centenary Speeches”, The Irish Book Lover (April & May 1910)

A. P. Graves, Ferguson Centenary Address, in The Irish Book Lover, Vol. I, No. 9 (April, 1910).

The Centenary of Sir Samuel Ferguson was celebrated with much enthusiasm in Belfast, the city of his birth. The proceedings commenced on Wednesday, 9th of March, when Miss E. Alexander opened in the Art Gallery, an exhibition of relics and mementoes of Ferguson and his illustrious fellow-workers in art, literature, music and archaeology, and gave a delightful address. This was followed by a reception by the Lord Mayor, McMordie. Sir John Byers delivered an interesting lecture on Ferguson’s life and work to the students of Victoria College, and the Ulster Literary Theatre produced his dramatic scene “The Naming of Cuchullain”. On Thursday 10th, Mr. F. J. Bigger placed a wreath of bay upon the graves of Ferguson and his wife in Donegore, and after a memorial service in the church, delivered a glowing eulogium on their beautiful lives.

In the evening Mr. Percival Graves interested a crowded audience with the following centenary address:

'The relation in which Sir Samuel Ferguson stood towards Irish music and poetry was remarkable. As a poet, born both before and after his time, he was the only modern Irish epic writer of commanding genius who united in his personality the three requirements of the old Irish bard:

Lips free from satire’s poisonous flow,
Knowledge that nothing base doth know,
And love unsullied as the snow.

Yet, while the three ancient sorrows of Irish story telling-the fate of the Children of Lir, the fate of the Sons of Tuireann, and the fate of the Sons of Uisneach-are written in stately Gaelic prose, Ferguson modelled himself upon Homer, but in the metre of Chapman’s great translation when he gave himself over to his magnum opus “Congal”. This great epic records the final struggle between paganism and Christianity, in which the legions of the Cross ultimately prevail on the field of Maigh Rath. This poem abounds with great passages, and whilst, as Roden Noel remarks, Ferguson frequently makes use of the sonorous native names they are sometimes almost too thickly strewn over his pages, but the interest on the whole is sustained throughout, and the development of the action is conducted with the utmost artistic skill; the chariot of song thunders majestically to its goal with burning axle in direct impetuous course. But Ferguson is even greater in the epopee than in the epic. The “Tain Quest”, written in rhymed trochaics, had the sublime and impetuous power and a mystical grandeur unequalled in any modern poem written upon an heroic supernatural subject. For splendid savagery Ferguson’s “Welshmen of Tirawley” has excited the admiration of Swinburne, and for a calm beauty of an old world character “Aideen’s Grave” furnished a beautiful contrast. Indeed, the modes of Ferguson’s Heroic Lyric were many and wonderful; but he achieved his highest excellence in his great dramatic poem of “Conary”, which Mr. W. B. Yeats placed even before his vivid and haunting “Deirdre”.

Ferguson did not, like some of his successors, reproduce the verse technique of the old Irish bards exhibited by Dr. Douglas Hyde and others in their works on Irish Gaelic metres. He struck out a line of his own, and a strong and significant one, of which perhaps the most original was to be found in the “Welshman of Tirawley”. It was only when he was translating from the Irish that Ferguson felt himself constrained to adopt Gaelic measures. Ferguson had made up his mind to turn his back upon modern’ themes, or at any rate only to give them a by-the-way attention. He was persuaded of the nobility of heroic Irish subjects. He was equally persuaded that at the time they had no public behind them. A generation before, they would have had the support of a cultured and unprovincialised upper class; a generation later they would have claimed attention in his hands as the noblest outcome of the Irish literary revival. He was therefore both before and after his time, and he realised his position to the full.’

'Indeed’, said the lecturer, 'when I once spoke to him, with regret, of the neglect of all but Irish political literature, he acknowledged it but with a quiet expression of confidence that his time would come. It has come to-day! Quite apart; from the beautiful addresses delivered on the previous day by the literary daughter of famous literary parents, Miss Alexander, there appears in the March number of the Irish Monthly a masterly review of Ferguson’s poetry, which was delivered in the form of a lecture for the Irish Literary Society of London by the Hon. Roden Noel-Irish on his mother’s side and a poet who had yet to win the fuller recognition due to his genius. This appreciation was followed by a charming poetic tribute to Ferguson by Miss Emily Hickey, in whose hands the manuscript of this lecture had been left.

He (the lecturer) did not think the characteristics of Ferguson’s genius could be more ably summed up than in this fine passage from that criticism by Roden Noel: “But the poetry of Ferguson is the very reverse of what may be described as popular; it is human, unaffected, sincere, without mannerism, remarkable for economy of power and parsimony of epithet-concentrated, firm in outline, with a strong grip upon the chosen theme; vivid and graphic in delineation; constructed with the utmost artistic skill, symmetrical proportion of parts, and general unity of effect; now and again moving us profoundly by a touch of unforced and thrilling pathos all the more telling for this economy of power and use of the simplest means to produce the effect intended. A touch does it, a master touch as in Byron’s “Gladiator” or Wordsworth’s “Michael”, or a song of Burns’s, or one of the old ballads such as the “Twa Corbies”. Sometimes profoundly tragic, and again instinct with the fairy glamour or shadowy sublimities of the early Celts-mythopoetic genius, interpreting the mystic scenes and sounds of nature, primeval forest, wild craggy mountain or stormy ocean.” Miss Alexander and Miss Hickey had shown the fine appreciation of Irish-women’s literary insight into Ferguson’s position as an Irish poet.

To the testimony of Professor Dowden that Ferguson was the only true epic poet of the Victorian age, he wished to add the following appreciation which he had received that morning from Stopford Brooke, the foremost living literary critic who wrote in the English language: “I have not only a great admiration for Sir Samuel Ferguson’s poems, but I consider him as the first and perhaps the best of all those who have striven to bring into recognition, light, and beauty the ancient poetic sagas and tales of Ireland. The scholars have done much to make them known; he struck home to their poetry, and fired into importance their national essence, and great has been the use and the results of this to the Irish people and to the literature of the world. What he did so well, and with such fire and passion has had a life in it which has grown and will continue in the work of others.’

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F. J. Bigger, Ferguson Centenary Address, in The Irish Book Lover, Vol. I, No. 10 (May, 1910), 125.

Hold not lightly home, nor yet
The graves on Donegore forget,

-sang Samuel Ferguson whilst contemplating the resting-places of England’s illustrious dead in Westminster Abbey. His admonition was not disregarded during the Centenary celebrations, for there, on the 10th March, his Natal day, Francis Joseph Bigger, before placing a wrealth of Irish Bay upon the grave, delivered the following oration:

'They were assembled in Donegore that day, in that holy house and on that equally holy hill in their own beloved land, to place a wreath-an Irish wreath-upon the graves of Sir Samuel and Lady Ferguson, and the honour had been put upon him of being askedi to say a few words at that time. The grave was robbed of its sadness on the present occasion: There was a spring in the earth and a brightness in the sky, telling of hope and resurrection. Amongst the Gaels was an old belief in heroes slumbering in the hilltops in great caverns awaiting the times for them to ride forth, a mighty host, to right the wrongs of the people. Their heroes slumbered on the hilltops beside the massive moat, but in consecrated ground, and every pagan bitterness had been taken away, as it was in the lives of those who lived so gently, so humanly, so lovingly. To Ferguson was given the privilege of opening the closed gates of the past, calling forth the dead heroes from the mountains of suppression and ignorance, and they had rid­den forth, and no one could stay their progress. The heroes of Ireland were brought forth from their caverns by the Fergusons, who marshalled and formed their ranks, speeding them on their way to conquest and renown, crowning them for all time with haloes of valour and truth and strident manliness, placing high names upon their breasts that future generations might know and so recognise them as their own. To the Fergusons the hills of holy Ireland were bedewed with such a spirituality, such a fulness of life and adventure as must appeal to all lovers of our country in every or any aspect of her life. The carp-crowned mountain, the cromleach on the hillside, the cavern by the river bed, the deep crimson of the setting sun across the Shannon wave from the storied cross of Clonmacnoise, the lone wave-beaten islands of Arran, each had its own tale to tell. The rugged path from slope to slope did to them resound with the tread of heavy armed warriors, tracking their way from dun to dun, their bronze shields and spears glancing in the sun’s rays, or seemed to level itself to the wearied feet of the learned scholar or pious pilgrim treading his road from school to school in the acquisition, of a fuller knowledge, to be again spread abroad to other lands and other peoples. The bards of old chronicled the daring actions of their clan, in order that a due and proper pride of race might be given to the rising youth, and their mantle fell on the shoulders of Samuel Ferguson. Did they not say, did he not urge this in the most vehement of all his verses?

Oh, brave young men, my love, my pride, my promise,
’Tis on you my hopes are set,
In manliness, in kindliness, in justice,
To make Erin a nation yet.
Self-relying, self-respecting, self-advancing,
In union or in severance, free and strong.

The clear morality, the unfeigned rectitude, the splendid principle of every word that ever proceeded from mouth or pen of Samuel Ferguson were indeed evident to the most casual student of his life and works. There was never any stepping aside to meet contingencies, his duty was plain to him; his honour fitted him as a well-made garment without seam or rent in any part of it; a truly Irish mantle that he ever wore by day, and it was his covering at night, aye, and his burial cloak. His friends and neighbours, and those who knew and valued him in other places, and a newer race that knew him not in the fleet, but loved and, acknowledged his worth all the same, were assembled there that day to do honour to his name and memory. They might stand there on the Moat of Donegore and look over the many scenes so dear to him, and so familiar to his earthly eyes-the rich valley of the Sixmilewater, over Templepatrick and past Lyle, and away to Divis or over Carnmoney to the ransomed hill of Down, or across the woods of Farranshane and Antrim, past the historic Rathmore of Moylinney and the Grange of Mucamore to the shimmering waters of Lough Neagh. Far across the lake, the hills of Tir Eoghan rose to view. the fair land of the princely O’Neills, and, as they looked around, they must, if there was one drop of Irish blood in their veins, have some thoughts akin to those which surged so often through the hearts of the slumberers there beside them. There was an old Gaelic proverb which reads 'man is like the waves of the sea, which are here to-day and to-morrow are hence.’ Erin of old had three great sounding waves of the sea, which, when any danger menaced the nation, resounded through the whole land, thus acting like a great protecting trinity. The past, the present, and the future-these were the three great waves affecting every one of them now, individually and nationally. Let them know the past as fully and as conscientiously as Ferguson knew it-nought extenuating and nought set down in malice-and if they did they would bear a conscious pride in their breast, and a fuller loyalty would be theirs to their own beloved land.

’Tis she shall have the golden throne,
’Tis she shall reign and reign alone,
My dark Rosaleen,
My own Rosaleen.

With a knowledge of the past and such a line of conduct in the present, they could walk assured as to the future. The gates had been thrown open to them, and hitherto hidden forces were riding forth over our land. In most unexpected places, from most unanticipated quarters influences have generated all tending the one way-the regeneration of our country. God grant that the future might be as full of fruit as the present was full of promise. In placing that wreath on the Ferguson tomb, they were only acting as good citizens, and like mercy they were blessed in the giving. Might the soil of Ireland lie light upon the sleepers-might the people of Ireland know and love them, and follow their good example, and might all assembled there that day be the better Irishmen and Irishwomen for having stepped aside for a little while from the ordinary duties of every-day life to pause at the grave of a sweet Gaelic poet, a learned Irish antiquary, a loving husband and wife, and, above and beyond all, a true patriotic and tenderhearted Antrim man, Ulsterman, Irishman.’

Both before and after the eulogy which was delivered from the lectern in the chancel of the church to a crowded audience, the usual invocations on such occasions were delivered in the Gaelic tongue, of which Ferguson was such an ardent student.

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