Thursday, 24th September 2020

Review – The Furrow

This handsome volume is a substantial contribution to the currently flourishing study of the last independent Irish princes, and of the long and dramatic history of Irish exile on the European continent which their abrupt departure inaugurated. It is therefore particularly appropriate that it should be published from the Irish College in Rome, that enduring representative of the Europe-wide network of colleges which did so much, in the days of our subjection, to ensure the survival of our identity and self-awareness as a people.

Over half of the book consists of a re-editing of the text in Irish of Tadgh Ó Cianáin’s journal of that epic journey, from Rath Maoláin to Rome as the book’s title says, with facing translation into English by Dr. O Muráile.  The mere presence of such a scholar’s name assures us of a completely reliable text and an equally accurate translation, although I suppose few but the specialists will attempt reading the original.  The orthography and grammar of classical seventeenth-century Irish can be a deterrent even to those conversant with contemporary Irish.  The question then raises itself as to whether a text adapted to the modern reader might not have done more for the reputation of Tadgh Ó Cianáin, although I am sure the question must have been considered by the book’s originators.

Whatever of that, the current text is amply illuminated by its setting. Preceded by an able bilingual preface from Professor Micheál Mac Craith, a formal introduction from Dr. Ó Muráile discusses the original manuscript, its author and his background, and previous editions of the text.  The body of the text is followed by a translation into English of the introduction by the late Tomás Ó Fiaich to his own edition of Ó Cianáin, two hundred pages of notes on the dramatis personae, together with an absorbingly detailed account by that inveterate traveller of every stage of the great itinerary. Tomas Ó Fiaich had taken nothing on hearsay, visiting them all personally by train, local bus and even, he told me, once or twice by bicycle.  Filled out by the preface and notes of the remarkable research scholar Paul Walsh, the entire presentation gives us intimate possession of that unusual experience, a detailed participation from the native point of view in a fateful event of our pre-colonial past.

Tadgh Ó Cianáin was a chronicler in the traditional mode.  There is no evidence that he was admitted to the anguished debates of that inner circle of advisers, beset by spies, harried by English diplomacy, which was attempting to retrieve their fortunes in the maelstrom of European and Counter reformation statecraft.  What we have from him is a travel journal, full of wonder and even credulity of a simple man in strange places.  Faithful and honourable servant of his lord that he is, following him in person and in his chronicle far beyond the horizons of the world he knew, it is a tragic irony that so many of us his compatriots have to read him in the language of his hunters.

We must not forget Tadgh Ó Cianáin and what he left us.  The English did not forget. We still have the pathetic auction list of the few meagre possessions left him after nine years of merciless war in Ulster, and which they sold up.  And if Tadgh himself was beyond their grasp in the service of the traitor, they consoled themselves by hanging his brother the priest, it appears, in their new colonial redoubt in the city of Colm Cille.

Breandán Ó Doibhlin, Má Nuad, in The Furrow Volume 59 No 4 April 2008  pp251 – 252