Women have always played an important role in Irish rebellion. Whether they were active militants, such as Lady Markievicz, or were providing logistical support such as Mary Ann McCracken, or were writing literature, such as our focus today, Ellen O’Leary, the womanhood of Ireland have been to the fore in an ofttimes male-dominated world.
Ellen O’Leary was the sister of the noted Fenian activist, John O’Leary. She was immersed in Republican circles throughout the 1860’s and 70’s, working in support of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. She published quite a lot of revolutionary poetry that is unfortunately not well known today.
In the 1880’s, both Ellen and John played a key role in the revival of Irish nationalist literature. Writers such as W.B. Yeats owe a huge debt of gratitude to the O’Learys for lighting the way. Ellen and John drew upon Ireland’s rich folklore to reconnect with the true Irish identity in face of increasing attempts to exterminate anything that was not in line with the British colonial agenda.
Much of Ellen O’Leary’s poetry is described as Celtic Twilight writing, which involves creating imagery that is magical and/or supernatural. It is easy to see the influence that O’Leary had on Yeats.
The following two poems from this ardent Irish Republican are, ‘A Legend of Tyrone‘ and ‘To Ireland‘. The first is a haunting comment upon the Famine when the Irish were starved by the colonial administration of their nation, before being abandoned to death or emigration. It tells of the return of a deceased mother to care for her children each night, as their drunkard father leaves them alone. The second short verse is as relevant today as it was when it was written all those years ago. It could still serve as a solid battle-cry for Irish Nationalism.
In our modern world, cultural imperialism is all too real. In the Ireland of bygone days it was the British influence that degraded the Irish identity. After the Tan war, the Irish people had an opportunity to reclaim their true heritage, yet Free Stateism saw to it that the new state merely attempted to replicate the ways of their colonial masters.
Today, it is the insidious influence of the USA that is slowly destroying the very nature of Ireland. Irish youth grow up to use US expressions. They adopt US customs and styles of dress. Some have chosen to affect US accents, regardless of the fact that they have never been to that side of the Pond.
Ireland, true Ireland, is being stolen from us as we cheer from the sidelines, apparently oblivious of the damage being done to who we are. Our beautiful native language struggles to survive in a nation where adverts and capitalist media tell us what we should prioritize and how we should think.
Ireland needs women like Ellen O’Leary, and men like Bobby Sands, to once more step forward as a bulwark against the erosion of the Irish identity. If nothing substantial is done, then future generations on this glorious island will be indistinguishable from those to be found in Yonkers, or Boston or LA. At that time, the Irish people will cease to exist, at least in any way that would be recognizable to Ellen O’Leary.
A Legend of Tyrone
Crouched round a bare hearth in hard, frosty weather,
Three lonely helpless weans cling close together;
Tangled those gold locks, once bonnie and bright–
There’s no one to fondle the baby tonight.
“My mammie I want; oh! my mammie I want!
The big tears stream down with the low wailing chant.
Sweet Eily’s slight arms enfold the gold head:
“Poor weeny Willie, sure mammie is dead–
And daddie is crazy from drinking all day–
Come down, holy angels, and take us away!
Eily and Eddie keep kissing and crying–
Outside, the weird winds are sobbing and sighing.
All in a moment the children are still,
Only a quick coo of gladness from Will.
The sheeling no longer seems empty or bare,
For, clothed in soft raiment, the mother stands there.
They gather around her, they cling to her dress;
She rains down soft kisses for each shy caress.
Her light, loving touches smooth out tangled locks,
And, pressed to her bosom, the baby she rocks.
He lies in his cot, there’s a fire on the hearth;
To Eily and Eddy ’tis heaven on earth,
For mother’s deft fingers have been everywhere;
She lulls them to rest in the low suggaun chair.
They gaze open-eyed, then the eyes gently close,
As petals fold into the heart of a rose,
But ope soon again in awe, love, but no fear,
And fondly they murmur, “Our mammie is here.”
She lays them down softly, she wraps them around;
They lie in sweet slumbers, she starts at a sound,
The cock loudly crows, and the spirit’s away–
The drunkard steals in at the dawning of day.
Again and again, ‘tween the dark and the dawn,
Glides in the dead mother to nurse Willie Bawn:
Or is it an angel who sits by the hearth?
An angel in heaven, a mother on earth.
– Ellen O’Leary
Oh! Ireland, mother Ireland, is it true the tale they tell?
That you shall reign a queen again; it makes my bosom swell
With hope, and joy, and tenderness, to think of you ma stor
Erect, triumphant, happy, free, as in the days of yore…
– Ellen O’Leary