The Lays of a Western Bard — Sons Ascribed to Raftery — Translated by Dr. Douglas Hyde

The Tuam Herald, Saturday, March 26, 1904.

A poor old, wandering fiddler, earning a wretched pittance by playing at weddings and other festivities up and down throughout the County Galway, dressed almost in rags that would shame a respectable scarecrow — such indeed might be a pen picture of Raftery, the blind Western poet, whose poems have been translated and edited by Dr. Douglas Hyde, the indefatigable President of the Gaelic League, and issued in a handsome volume at the small price of 3s 6d. Throughout the book, which is a very welcome addition to Gaelic literature, we find frequent reference to the invaluable assistance given to the author by our distinguished and erudite townsman, Mr. John Glynn, one of the best Irish scholars of the present day. Here is one of the many references: — "After that I got the loan of a M.S. from my friend, Mr. Glynn, Town Clerk of Tuam, in which he had written down out of a M.S. belonging to one of the O'Kelly's and from the mouths of different people, a great number of the poems I had already. I went through the M.S. with great care and it was useful to me to correct the other versions by. There were in it only two songs and a couple of ranns that I had not got before.

I get the M.S. of Hessian's from my friend, Mr. Glynn, Indeed my friend, Mr. Glynn, whose modesty is commensurate with his merits, figures largely throughout the book, the valuable notes at the end being mainly his work, and the fruit of his ripe and rare knowledge of things Gaelic.

The story of the blind old bard's life as unfolded by Dr. Douglas Hyde in his own inimitable style is a veritable romance. We have the Irish on one side and the English on the other for the sake of convenience, and few will leave the book aside without reading it to the end. It appears that Anthony Raftery was born about the year 1784, near Kiltimagh in Co. Mayo. When he was about nine years of age he was struck with small—pox and lost his sight. He began then to learn the fiddle. Coming into the Co. Galway he spent his life here, especially between Athenry and Loughrea or Gort, making a livelihood for himself with his songs and fiddle. "There were," says Dr. Hyde, "three or four good poets at this time in Connacht, like MacSweeney and Barrett, in the Co. Mayo, and some of the old people say that they were better poets than Raftery. But the greater part of their poems are lost, and for this reason it is difficult to institute a comparison between them, nor would it be right to do so. For these two were men of learning and knowledge and means; while here we have Raftery, without house, home, shelter, dwelling, without knowledge of reading or writing, without mastery of any other language than his own Irish, and yet he has left his mark behind him to the present day, more deeply, I think, than they have. If this book were of no other use than to collect the songs made by this unlettered man it would be worth the trouble." In this we cordially agree with the author. It would be impossible in the short space at our disposal to give many quotations from the plethoric wealth of song before us, dealing with all sorts of subjects, from "grave to gay, from lively to severe," but one or two may be permissible. Here is one description of himself: —

I am Raftery.

I am Raftery, the poet,
Full of hope and love,
With eyes that have no light,
With gentleness that has no misery.
Going West upon my pilgrimage,
(Guided) by the light of my heart,
Feeble and tired.
To the end of my road.
Behold me now
And my face to a wall
a—playing music
Unto empty pockets.

A good number of the songs given by Dr. Hyde, with the assistance of Mr. John Glynn, and others, are still sung around Tuam: such as "The Wife of the Red—Haired Man." The longest poem in the book is "The Dispute with the Bush," which is indeed a marvelous production for an illiterate man. In it he describes how when traveling near Headford he was overtaken by a terrible rain—storm, and took shelter beneath a bush, which afforded him but feeble covering from the pitiless pelting of the rain. In revenge for the meager hospitality given him Raftery turns and upbraids the bush with right good will, and in right good rhyme, and then the bush — not unlike Tennyson's "Talking Oak" — replies not in dulcet love tones but in stern uncompromising style, telling Raftery all it has seen and known from its birth — a veritable and singularly accurate history of Ireland from the earliest times down to Raftery's day. Dr. Hyde says of this poem: —

We now come to the longest poem and the greatest effort which Raftery made in the shape of Poetry. This is neither more nor less than a short, concise history of Ireland, set down in the form of a conversation between himself and an old withered bush. I think it wonderful how a person without sight, steeped in the extremist poverty, like Raftery, composed this long poem so cleverly; and it is hard to say where got his knowledge of the history and ancient story of Erin. Because the account which he gives of the ancient story of Erin. Because the account which he gives of the ancient families and part of the ancient history was not to be found in any book, and no doubt it was in the mouths of the people that the most of this history survived, coming down and being filtered from person to person from the time when the Gaels had their own historians.

Raftery's death is thus described. "Lady Gregory got a full account of his death from a man who was present when his closing days approached. This man said he was struck with the illness in Galway, and when he got better he went on through the country again to gather a trifle of money; but he was struck down again when he came to this house. He was not very old, about 70 years. He was sick and in bed for a fortnight." But enough; like many another poet who instructed and amused mankind, he died poor, old, and lonely. Now, thanks to Lady Gregory and other friends, a handsome cross with an appropriate inscription marks the last resting place of this blind old Homer of the West. Peace to your ashes, O'Raftery! We think in our mind's eye we see you yet through the mists of the years that have rolled by, with your bag upon your back and your trusty fiddle in your hand, tramping lonely through the lonesome, melancholy bogs of Galway, with Poverty as your companion; but not the sole one: for ever by your side and in your mind there travels the great consoler, the gentle Muse of Poesy, the great inspirer of "the vision and the faculty divine."