Brian Merriman (?1745-1805)

Quotations


Life
[var. Merryman]; b. Ennistymon, Co. Clare, son of itinerant stone-mason; Cúirt an Mhéan-Oíche (c.1780), set on the shores of Lough Graney, was composed while recovering from a broken leg during a prolonged engagement and argues for women’s right to sexual self-expression (‘Melted by lust [...] for long I’ve been patient; give me relief!’ - P. C. Power trans.); m. 1787, with two daughters; won prize of two spinning wheels from RDS for growing flax, 1797; moved to Limerick to teach, 1802; d. 5, Clare St., Limerick; bur. Feakle, in an unknown grave;
 
the earliest trans. of the Cúirt was made by Dennis Woulfe [Donncha Ulf] in the 1820s; others were made by Michael C. O’Shea, Arland Ussher, Frank O’Connor, Ciaran Carson and Seamus Heaney, et al.; there is an active Merriman Society [Cumman Merriman], fnd. by Con Howard in 1967; a Brian Merriman Summer School convenes annually in Ennistymon, Co. Clare [subseq. Lisdoonvarna], since 1968; Druid Theatre (Galway) produced a Musical Interpretation of Midnight Court in 1993; the scholarly edition is by Fiachra Éilgeach [pseud. of Riseárd Ó Foghludha, anglice Foley],. DIW DIB FDA OCIL

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Works
Printed Editions
  • Mediae Noctis Consilium ... a heroic comic poem in Irish Gaelic (Dublin 1897);
  • [?] von Lodwick, Cúirt an Mheadhóin Oidhghe: Ein Komische Epos in Vulgaririschen Sprache. Mit Einleitung, &c. (Halle 1904);
  • Cúirt an Mheadhón Oidhche, Riseárd Ó Foghludha i. Fiachra Éilgeach, do chuir in eagar. Aiste ann o Phiaras Beaslaí (Dublin 1912, 2nd edn. Dublin: Hodges Figgis and Co.c1949);
  • David [William] Greene, ed., Cúirt and Mhéan Oíche [for Cumann Merriman] (Dublin 1968).
Translations
  • Michael C. O’Shea, The Midnight Court; literally translated from the original Gaelic (Boston 1897);
  • Percy Arland Ussher, The Midnight Court, trans. from the Gaelic of B. Merriman, & The Adventures of a Luckless Fellow trans. from the Gaelic of Denis MacNamara, pref. by W. B. Yeats (London 1926), woodcuts [?by] Frank W. Peers;
  • Frank O’Connor, trans., The Midnight Court (1945), rep. in Kings, Lords, and Commons (1961, 1970);
  • Lord Longford, trans., The Midnight Court, intro. Padraic Colum, in Poetry Ireland, 6 (July 1949);
  • David Marcus, trans., Cúirt an Mhéan Oidche (Dublin 1953; Dolmen 1967);
  • [Canon] Cosslett Ó Cuinn, trans., The Midnight Court (Cork 1982), drawings by John Verling;
  • Ciaran Carson, trans., The Midnight Court (Gallery Press 2005), 62pp.
 

Note: translation-versions of his famous poem made by O’Connor and Heaney are included in Gregory Schirmer’s After the Irish: Anthology of Poetic Translations (2009)

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Criticism
Declan Kiberd, ‘Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court’, in Irish Classics (London: Granta 2000), pp.182-202.

See also Eugene O’Brien, ‘"More than a Language ... No More of a Language": Merriman, Heaney and the Metamorphoses of Translation’, in Irish University Review, 34, 2 (Autumn 2005), pp.277-90, and Sarah E. McKibben, Endangered Masculinities in Irish Poetry 1540-1780 (UCD Press 2010), espec. Coda: ‘Illegitimate, Abased ... and Triumphant: Merriman’s Embrace of Bastard Culture’.

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Commentary

Obituary: A brief obituary appeared in the General Advertiser & Limerick Gazette: ‘Died on Saturday morning in Old Clare St., after a few hours of illness, Mr. Bryan Merryman, teacher of mathematics, &c.’ (29 July 1805.) This constitutes virtually the only contemporary information we have on the author of The Midnight Court.

W. B. Yeats wrote in his preface of ‘This vital, extravagant, immoral and preposterous poem’, remarking that it was ‘so characteristically Gaelic and medieval’, and that it was actually inspired by Swift’s Cadenus and Vanessa ‘read perhaps in some country gentleman’s library’; Yeats considers Standish O’Grady’s estimate of The Midnight Court as the best poem written in Gaelic extravagant, but though that Merriman ‘might have founded a modern Gaelic literature’ in different political circumstances; Further, ‘Certainly it is not possible to read his verses without being shocked and horrifed at the free speech and buffoonery of some traditional festival.’ (Preface to Arland Ussher, trans., Brian Merriman, The Midnight Court, 1926, p.8; cited in Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal: the Irish Revolution in Literature from Parnell to the Death of Yeats, 1977, p.251.)

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Daniel Corkery tends to downgrade Merriman, ‘[His opening lines] are commonplace - nature apprehended by a spirit only slight raised. His way of seizing nature is blunt, and worlds away from the early Gaelic manner.’ (Hidden Ireland, p.238.) [SEE Walsh, UUC MA Diss., 1993; LIB.] Note that Frank O’Connor, spells the name ‘Merryman’ (Backward Look, 1967).

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John Eglinton [William Magee], ‘The Best Irish Poem’ [on The Midnight Court], Bards and Saints (1908), notes that The Midnight Court was published in translation in Zeitschrift fur Celtische Philologie, by L. C. Stern. Eglinton gives a paraphrase of the poem (op. cit. pp.49-54).

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T. F. O’Rahilly, long review of Cúirt an Mheadhon Oidhche, ed. Riseárd Ó Foghludha (Dublin: Hodges Figgis and Co. [n.d.]). in Gadlica, Vol. I (1912-13) , pp.190-208; writes: Mr. Foley’s recently published edn. removes the reproach that nothing like a good edn. of this important work [by far the most successful sustained effort in verse in Mod. Irish] ... &c. / To Mr Foley’s ed. Mr Peirce Beasley contrinutes a very interesting introductory essay. Mr Beasley is an enthus. admirer ... a fact which contributes not a little to the readability of his essay. But he has sometimes allowed his enthusiasm to get the bertter of his critical judgement, and the result is he lays himself open to the charge of exaggeration.’ [190] To much has been made of the singularity of Merriman’s attitude towards life, as seen in the Cúirt. Merriman’s “revolt”, as such, had nothing unique about it; the uncommon thing was that he had the courage ... to record his ideas in verse the striking way he did. [cites An mangaire Súgach and Eoghan Ruadh] [191] Identifies name of Merriman with Mac Meanman, and cites O’Donovan as source (Clare Letters, ii, 183], and refers also to the line, meadhreach meanmnach a aimn ’s aorach (l.988). O’Rahilly cites the printed editions of John O’Daly and P. O’Brien, and lists the MSS: , incl. Eg. 111; 3 in possession of D. Hyde; five more listed by Foley; and adds 14 ‘under my notice’. The earliest of all these is written by Seán Mac Searraidh, 1792 ?Clare; the latest by Ml. Ó Raghallaigh, c.1850, Clare. A description of Humphrey O’Sullivan’s diary is ‘not very accurate and plainly second-hand’; apparently O’Sullivan of Callan collated texts K and S, together with some other, and made marginal corrections and additions to each of them.

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P. W. Joyce, Old Celtic Romances (1907; 1920 Edn.), Preface: ‘Three years ago, I met a man at Kilkee, who had a great number of these stories by heart, and who actually repeated for me, without the slightest hitch or hesitation, more than half - and if I had not stopped him would have given me the whole - of “Cuirt an Mheandhon-Oidhche” (“the Midnight Court”), a poem about six times as long as Gray's “Elegy”.’ (p.ix.)

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Frank O’Connor, The Backward Look (London: Macmillan 1967), ‘Bryan Merryman [sic] was a fine poet - as good as Swift, Goldsmith, or Burns, all of whom me seems to have studied closely - and, writing in Ireland, he had the advantage, which only the writer in Irish had, of not worrying whether what he wrotes was IIrish or not. Accordingly he wrote of simple things that mattered in his own neighbourhood - the unmarried girls, the illegitimate children and the priesets who had love affairs on the side. / “Many a girl filled byre and stall / And furnished her house through a clerical call; / Everyone’s heard of priests extolled / For the lonesome women they consoled.” / But Irish was dead, and Merryman was to have even less influence than Wolfe Tone.’ (p.130.)

Further -

‘Limerick has a reputation for piety. Merryman [sic]was born about the middle of the eighteenth century in a part of Ireland which must then have been as barbarous as any in Europe - it isn’t exactly what one would call civilised today. He earned five or ten pounds a year by teaching school in a god-forsaken village called Feakle in the hills above the Shannon, eked it out with a little farming, and somehow or other managed to read and translate a good deal of contemporary literature, English and French. Even with compulsory education, the English language,, and public lIibraries you would be hard set to find a young Clareman of Merryman’s class today who knew as much of Lawrence and Gide as he knew of Swift, Goldsmith and most of all, Rousseau. How he managed it in an Irish-speaking community is a mystery. He was obviously a man of powerful objective intelligence; his obituary describes him as a teacher of mathematics which may explain something; and though his use of “Ego Vos” for the marriage service suggests a Catholic upbringing, the religious background of The Midnight Court is protestant, which may explain more. He certainly had intellectual independence. In the Midnight Court he imitated contemporary English verse, and it is clear that he had resolved to cut adrift entirely from traditional Gaelic forms. His language - that is its principal glory - is also a complete break with literary Irish. It is the spoken Irish of Clare ... Intellectually Irish literature did not exist. What Merryman aimed at was something that had never been guessed at in Gaelic Ireland; a perfectly proportioned work of art on a contemporary subject, with every detail subordinated to the central theme. The poem is as classical as the Limerick Custom House; and fortunately the Board of Works has not been able to get at it.’

(The Midnight Court, A Rhythmical Bachhanalia from the Irish of Bryan Merriman, translated by Frank O’Connor, London & Dublin 1945, pp.1-2.)

Source: Quoted in Alan Titley, ‘The Reshaping of Tradition: The Case of Frank O’Connor’, in Nailing Theses: Selected Essays (Belfast: Lagan Press 2011), pp.101-18 - remarking: ‘There is very little in that chunk above that is defensible on even mildly scholarly grounds [...] there is enough bullshivism in it to keep us busy for years to come.’ (Titley, op. cit., p.112.).

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Quotations

  Section from Cúirt and Mhéan Oíche

 

Gan seilbh, gan saoirse ag síolrach seanda,
Gan cheannas i ndlí, gan chins, gan cheannphort;
Scriosadh an tír agus níl ina ndiadh ann
In ionad na luibheanna ach fliodh’s fiaile

[Without property, without freedom for an ancient race,
Without sovereignty in law, without rent, without a ruler;
The land destroyed and nothing after it there
In place of the herbs but chickweed and weeds ...]

 
  Seamus Heaney, The Midnight Verdict
  It’s goodbye to freedom and ancient right,
To honest dealing and leadership;
The ground ripped off and nothing put back,
Weeds in the field once crop is stacked.
With the best of the people leaving the land,
Graft has the under and upper hand.
Just line your pockets, a wink and a nod,
And to hell with the poor! Their backs are broad.
Alas for the plight of the underclass
And the system’s victims who seek redress:
Their one recourse is the licensed robber
With his legalese and his fancy slabber.
Lawyers corrupt, their standards gone,
Favouritism the way it’s done,
The bar disgraced, truth compromised,
Nothing but kick-backs, bribes and lies.
 

—Given in Gregory A. Schirmer, ed, After the Irish: An Anthology of Poetic Translation (Cork UP 2009); quoted by Hugh McFadden in review of same, Books Ireland (April 2010), p.78.

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References
Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 1 [297-303], cites a translation of Cúirt an Mhéon-Oíche by Dennis Woulfe (c.1820) and notes that an expurgated version appeared in The Irishman in 1880

Helena Sheehan, Irish Television Drama (RTE 1987), lists Cuirt an Mhean-Oiche, Merriman; directed by Louis Lentin (1966).

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