Máire Bhuí Ní Laeire (1774-c.1848) [‘Yellow Mary O’Leary’] was considered by many to be the greatest Irish-language song-poet of her generation. However, Máire Bhuí never wrote a poem: rather she was an oral composer who acquired sophisticated skills in composition through immersion in the poetic soundworld of orality. Famed for her eloquence and fluidity in composition in performance, it was told that Máire Bhuí surpassed all male poets during her own time. Thus she earned the accolade ‘Bláth is Craobh na nÚdar’ [‘Flower and Greatest of Authors’]. Máire Bhuí’s songs existed beyond ‘text’, living in the ephemeral moment of performance itself. It was in this performative sphere of idea-making that Máire Bhuí would come to prominence as one of the most important anti-colonial thinkers of the nineteenth century. Though tomes and pamphlets produced by male thinkers during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries feature more prominently in history books, it is arguable that the song form was even more potent a medium of thought in the contemporary world of Máire Bhuí. Irish-language oral culture was in its heyday, and songs would rip through the countryside through the pervasive channels of the oral tradition, and with no small rapidity. Furthermore, there was an important message to the medium of sung poetry as a vehicle for prophecy and truth-telling. The compelling experience of song performance would therefore be key to the influence of this Singer of Ideas, whose penetrating problematisation of the colonial order would stir her community to revolt. Thus Máire Bhuí, a woman of no letters, challenged the colonial order through song. She sung ideas that castigated the false authority of a colonial order that imposed extreme poverty and hunger on the indigenous Irish; she sung of a day of reckoning in which there would be ‘cead ráis ar na huaisle’ [‘the right to send the nobles racing.’], and the collective will of the people would rule.
‘Ar Leacain na Gréine’
The earliest composition attributed to Máire Bhuí is ‘Ar Leacain na Gréine’ [‘On the Sunny Side of the Hill’], composed in in response to the attempted landing of the French Revolutionary fleet in Bantry Bay 1796. This was a seminal moment in the politics of the time: the fleet in the bay represented the looming possibility of a Jacobin revolution in Ireland, only to be thwarted by a storm. Máire Bhuí, who would have been 22 years of age at the time, and lived only 24 miles from Bantry Bay, responded to this momentous happening through song, in the traditional aisling or vision theme. As so often in the songs of Máire Bhuí, however, the traditional form encapsulated a new radicalism. Here the spéirbhean figure of the otherworldly truth-telling sovereignty goddess heralds a fast-approaching revolution, and the tenor of the prophecy is framed by proto-egalitarian political ideals as expressed in the concluding verse: ‘beig talamh gan íoc gan chíos gan cháin is gan phlé’ [‘we will have land without payment without rent without tax and without dispute’]. The song continued to be sung well into the twentieth century, but unfortunately the air to the song has not survived to this day. The following rendition was collected by Fr. Donncha Ó Donnchú in the early part of the twentieth century from Diarmuid ’ac Coitir of Ballingeary, and speaks to the pertinent political ideas of song that framed and influenced anti-colonial activism over generations. The song below is printed with grateful acknowledgement of Seán Ó Súilleabháin and the Ballingeary Historical Society, and Berghahn Books.
The following recitation was given by the author of Singing Ideas. Performance, Politics and Oral Poetry , Tríona Ní Shíocháin, lecturer in the School of Music and Theatre, University College Cork.
Dr. Tríona Ní Shíocháin is lecturer in Irish Traditional Music at UCC’s Department of Music, and was previously Lecturer in Irish Language and Literature at the University of Limerick (2007-2017), where she was also Head of Irish Language and Literature for a number of years. An interdisciplinary scholar of Irish and Music, she is author of Bláth ’s Craobh na nÚdar: Amhráin Mháire Bhuí (2012) and also the recently published Singing Ideas: Performance, Politics and Oral Poetry (Berghahn 2018), which includes a theorization of the songs of Máire Bhuí, and also an appendix of songs and lore in Irish with accompanying English translation: http://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/NiShiochainSinging . Readers of www.deepmapscork.ie can avail of a special 50% discount on Singing Ideas by using the following code at checkout: SHI673