Michael Geaney, a graduate in Gaelic Language and History from University College Cork, educated students on his tenth visit to Elizabethtown College through song and poetry at Bowers Writers House on Tuesday, March 10.
Geaney began his presentation by singing a song associated with the beginning of Ireland. The song focused on first discovering Ireland in the midst of a storm, and the explorer silenced the wind and sea by speaking the poem. Geaney used that poem to then discuss the Irish language. He said that in America the language is known as Gaelic; however, in Ireland, they simply refer to it as Irish. “We count it as one of the oldest languages in Europe,” Geaney said. He added that it is about the third oldest European language next to Greek and Latin and it could go back as far as 3,000 years.
Initially, all language was spoken in Ireland. All poetry and songs were passed down through oral tradition rather than in written form. Writing did not become a part of the culture until Christians came over and instructed them in writing. From that period on, literature became a prominent part of their culture, both in Irish and in English, and many poets, such as W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, read both in Europe and America.
Irish poetry, as well as the language, began to die out around 1600 due to competition with England and discouragement from England in education. A revival of the language did not occur until the 19th century; however, some natives, such as Sean Clark McDonald, who was also an Irish poet, held schools that taught Greek, Latin, Irish, English and mathematics.
Despite losing some of the language, poetry written in English continued the tradition of Irish poetry. Patrick Kavanagh wrote several songs in English. One his most famous songs titled, “On Raglan Road,” became one of Ireland’s most famous love songs. “This on was solidly stitched into Ireland,” Geaney said. The song focuses on the speaker reflecting on a girl with whom he initiated a love affair despite knowing it would most likely end in hurt. Geaney said, “The love song is very strong in Ireland.” The tradition almost always uses forlorn love of where the speaker loves a person who does not return their love.
Geaney also shared the poetry of Seamus Heaney, one of Ireland’s most prominent poets. “While he was quite private himself, his poetry was quite public,” Geaney said. The poem was called “Digging” and detailed Heaney’s experience watching his father farm and labor toward growing potatoes and concludes with him laboring toward his literary pursuits.
Farming was the main source of food and income for most of Ireland. During the mid-1800s, 90 percent of the land was owned by five percent of the population. The other 95 percent farmed primarily potatoes and sold calves to pay the mortgage. However, a potato famine struck in the 19th century due to potato crops being wiped out for four years. Geaney said that during the time, around one million Irish immigrated, and many other died. “It was one of those things that went into the psyche of Ireland,” he explained. The impact of that time of the Irish culture was reflected in Irish poetry.
The poem Geaney shared about the potato famine was titled “Quarantine” by Eavan Boland. The poem focused on a man and a woman walking from the workhouse until night. In the morning, the two are found dead from cold and starvation. The poem, written in the mid-20th century, demonstrates how deeply the mindset from famine had set into the minds of the Irish.
Geaney said that sharing the poetry of Ireland would not be complete without sharing a poem by Yeats. “It’s impossible to pick a poem that represents Yeats,” Geaney said, emphasizing that Yeats was an extremely diverse poet. Geaney chose “Song of Wandering Angus” to share with the audience.
The Chancey Brothers was a singing group that was key in sharing Irish music with America. The Chancey family had 11 children, and all the children were either actors or singers. “Acting was where they headed first,” Geaney said. Eventually, five of the brothers formed the singing group, and they became famous in America. The Chancey Brothers signed an agreement to tour for two weeks of their choice in America. Geaney said that one day, one of the brothers would be farming, and the next, the five would perform at Carnegie Hall. Geaney described their singing as the “no ego kind of singing pleasure.”