This Wednesday, I attended a symposium about Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, ‘The Lament for Art O’Leary’. Even if you don’t know much else about early modern Irish literature, you might be familiar with this lament if you’ve read A Ghost in the Throat, which revolves around the act of translating it. Before this week, that was my sole exposure to the lament, too;1 having been composed in the late eighteenth century, it’s later than most of what I work on. But I’m interested in caoineadh (keening, laments) as a genre or motif because of the work I’ve been doing on Oidheadh Con Culainn, which involves a number of laments, so I thought it would be useful context for me.
The symposium was organised by Vona Groarke, writer in residence at St John’s College, Cambridge, and the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies. It combined academic discussion of the lament itself (the historical context of its composition; its manuscripts and transmission; issues of translation) with creative responses to it (a panel of poets discussing works they’d written in dialogue with this lament; two of its translators discussing their approach; a musical performance of works inspired by/relating to the lament), allowing for a multi-disciplinary and multifaceted approach.
I’ve got to say: I think this might be my favourite format for a conference. There’s something about having a whole day to focus on a single text that allowed me to take in far more information than I ever can at any conference where I’m having to adjust my brain to an entirely new topic every half an hour. More to the point, the mixture of academic context and creative responses is exactly what interests me about engaging with historical material, and I felt inspired both creatively and academically by the discussion.
I didn’t write down who said it, but at one point somebody during the day said that creative writing can be a form of critical commentary on the text. I absolutely agree. I discussed this a little a few weeks ago when I wrote about retellings and academia, and I loved hearing from others who found creative reworkings to be a way of understanding a text. That emphasis on textual response was refreshing for me, as medieval Celtic Studies often doesn’t engage too much with that; I would like to see more of it.
What follows is going to be a mixture of me reporting on what I heard at the symposium, and also my own thoughts and ideas that arose in response to it, or which had been percolating for a while and were brought to the surface by it. Bearing in mind that I’m working from memory and my own imperfect notes (which are in insular minuscule because I write notes like an act of personal violence against my future self), I apologise if at any point during this blog post I misrepresent the arguments made by the speakers; moreover, I’ve left out a lot from the day if it didn’t directly relate to my own creative and academic ideas. All errors are on me.
As I mentioned above, I went in not knowing too much about the lament itself. If you’d asked me, I would have said that it was an eighteenth-century poem. I quickly learned that this was an inaccurate representation of it. It was pointed out during the discussion that Eibhlín Dubh, the lament’s composer, would not have considered herself a poet, nor been considered one by eighteenth century Irish standards, and the lament did not belong to the formal, written, poetic tradition. Nor was it written in the eighteenth century, although it was composed then. It wouldn’t have been written down until some time later, probably in the early nineteenth century, because it’s a product of an oral tradition.
There was a wonderful phrase used by Angela Bourke about this: she likened the written text to a documentary about a dance performance. The documentary is not the dance, although it gives the audience a way of perceiving it. The living performance is the dance. This stuck with me throughout the day, and I found myself wondering whether dance was, actually, a key way one could engage with the lament. A repeated theme throughout both academic and creative discussions was that lament begins in the body, that it is an embodied, physical act. Could you choreography Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, I asked myself? Would it be meaningful to choreograph it, or would the loss of the verbal elements destroy something fundamental about it? What would that choreography look like?
I have a lot of thoughts about what that choreography would look like, few of which I’m capable of articulating verbally. I came to the conclusion that it would be meaningful, and also that I would not be good enough as a choreographer to do it. But I have a strong idea of what my creative vision and approach would be to that, and I would love one day to find a way of making it happen.
To return to the symposium itself, though, and specifically to the discussions of oral tradition, which were eye-opening… From Tríona Ní Shíocháin’s talk about oral compositional practice, I learned how the lament incorporates repetitive, formulaic phrases belonging to a broader tradition of lament. Ní Shíocháin discussed how the shared traditions of caoineadh and the use of these formulaic rhythms problematises the very concept of single authorship: how the lament should not, perhaps, be considered a unique and original work of single genius, but the climax of a much larger tradition and a multivocalic tradition.
There was a lot of discussion throughout the day about caoineadh as a tradition belonging to women, in both the academic discussions and the creative ones. I found this particularly mentally stimulating, because I disagree: my own work looks at texts in which laments can be as much a masculine tradition as a feminine one. There were moments that threatened to become uncomfortable (a remark about ‘female bodies’ and how the speaker would not elaborate on the topic for fear of getting in trouble made the audience laugh, because of course the idea of being ‘cancelled’ for transphobia is hilarious and the only reason one shouldn’t make overly simplistic binary remarks, right), but for the most part, I found this gap or omission in the discussion to be something that made me think more about my own research. And not always for the reasons I expected.
For example, I loved the session featuring three poets giving their responses to the lament — I hadn’t expected to, because I don’t know a great deal about modern poetry, but I found it incredibly engaging. The first poet, Fran Lock, read aloud works of hers inspired by this one, talking about grief, talking about looking for a framework for expressing personal emotions in pre-existing work, and finding it in Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, which is so much angrier than elegy. I loved listening to the work, letting the rhythms of it happen to me, feeling the emotions it evoked. But it was the second poet, Mícheál McCann, who really got my brain moving.
Mícheál’s forthcoming work includes a poem called ‘Keen for A–‘, which uses Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire as a springboard to depict a gay relationship in modern Northern Ireland. He talked about poetry of the AIDS crisis as a starting point for queer elegy, and considered the wildly different connotations and resonances of blood in those kinds of poems versus for Eibhlín Dubh. He discussed whether queer love in poetry is always expressed as elegy, because it cannot be permitted to last, and discussed the grief of things that aren’t safe to name or keen aloud.
But what really struck me was when he came to justify his use of this ‘female text’, as Ní Ghríofa puts it, to discuss a marginalised masculinity and to express a different kind of grief. How it might seem, to some, that he was co-opting a tradition that wasn’t his, when in fact, he was seeing resonances across categories and across boundaries of gender and sexuality. He discussed the marginality of queer voices within the Irish literary tradition: who can and cannot speak in the tradition as it exists, and who has been omitted?
This, immediately, ignited the part of my brain that had written down, in an earlier talk: “women’s bodies and women’s songs? but — earlier laments can be spoken by men. modern gendering of bodies and of voices? who have we cut out of this tradition?”
See, the idea that keening/caoineadh is a female tradition is a modern one. I mean ‘modern’ in the technical sense here, not in the sense of ‘recent’ — e.g., I’m including the eighteenth century in this. We heard during talks at the symposium about professional keening women, who could weep dramatically even for a stranger in exchange for fairly decent pay at the time, and were essential to any respectable funeral, and of course, this specific lament is explicitly a lament from a woman’s perspective. That caoineadh has been, in certain times and places, the primary domain of women is undeniable.
There are also, definitely, texts where men participate in caoineadh. Some have argued for a distinction between abstract mourning laments and those spoken specifically over a body, suggesting that the latter is more specifically a feminine activity, but still I disagree. In the fifteenth-century Oidheadh Con Culainn, for example, it is Conall Cernach who first speaks a lament over Cú Chulainn’s dead body; it’s referred to as a ‘laoidh’ rather than a ‘caoineadh’, but the young warriors of the Ulaid are ‘ac caoinedh’ Cú Chulainn. Ac caoinedh. Keening, specifically: these young men, participating in this supposedly female tradition. (I discussed this somewhat in my article about Láeg in Oidheadh Con Culainn.)
Then, of course, there’s Cú Chulainn’s famous lament for Fer Diad in Táin Bó Cúailnge. Some have argued that this doesn’t technically count as caoineadh; others have argued that it’s a misogynistic co-option of women’s voices and women’s place in society by a male hero; others have seen it as an act of protest by the marginalised and politically powerless youth fighting on behalf of others.2 All of these explanations suggest that the very act of a man lamenting another man requires justification, a reason for it to occur, and that in itself is because we are assuming, based on the modern tradition, that caoineadh is a female tradition.
In the coffee break that followed the poets’ session, I sought out Mícheál McCann to discuss this with him. I told him that I thought his work absolutely belonged to the Irish tradition — that men had been keening men for centuries, in familial contexts and homosocial contexts and perhaps, depending on your reading, homoerotic contexts too. We discussed Cú Chulainn’s lament for Fer Diad, and the fact that even if caoineadh were an exclusively female tradition, there’s something strange about the automatic reading of a man performing ‘feminine’ activities as inherently misogynistic, parodic, or appropriative. Why don’t we assume that that could be genuine? Why can’t a male character also perform femininity, without that being seen as a bad thing?
When we assume that gender boundaries are rigid, we pass judgment on those who transgress them, and in doing so, limit our understanding of those same characters. I have, of course, argued for a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, and my main purpose in doing so is to gently suggest we look at how gender is being constructed in this text and all the ways in which characters do or don’t live up to those ideals, rather than taking as read what we think the categories should be. One thing we may choose to consider as part of those constructions is the act of lamenting: who does it, and for whom?
I have often been disappointed by discussions of Cú Chulainn’s lament for Fer Diad that allow for gender fluidity only because they deny the possibility of homoeroticism. Leaving aside the fact that I believe treating caoineadh as a women’s job is erroneous, there’s something very odd about arguments which think the only reason Cú Chulainn laments the way that he does is because he is casting himself in the role of female admirer of male beauty. This is incomprehensible to me as an argument. Is it so impossible that he could be situating himself as a male admirer of male beauty? Are we so determined to impose a heteronormative view that the only way a man could lament another man is to take on a woman’s role?
I am always happy to explore the ways male characters embrace femininity and problematise masculinity — but not at the cost of acknowledging the possibility of homoerotic desire, seriously. It’s 2023, let’s stop being afraid of that as a concept.3
What I think would be actually interesting to discuss in the context of this particular act of caoineadh is something that was brought up at this symposium, too: laments as an act of resistance, an expression of injustice and a call for change. The idea of the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire as an anti-colonial work recurred throughout several talks, highlighting the way it contrasts the rightful social status of Art with how it has been taken from him by English aggressors. Mulligan, too, has discussed Cú Chulainn’s lament for Fer Diad in the context of social protest to some extent (see fn. 2).
What I’d love to do some time, although I don’t know when I’ll have the time and the brainpower, is to explore lament in Táin Bó Cúailnge at more length through the framework of ‘grievability’. This is a term I learned from Judith Butler’s discussions of equality, war, and nonviolence,4 and it has struck me ever since as a crucial piece of articulating what is going on in Comrac Fir Diad. For a life to be grievable means it has value: it is a life that ‘even before it is lost, is, or will be, worthy of being grieved on the occasion of its loss; the life has value in relation to mortality.’5
Medb and Ailill have made it very clear that they do not consider Fer Diad’s life to be grievable:
‘Do you hear your new son-in-law bidding you farewell?’ ‘Is that what he is doing?’ asked Ailill. ‘It is indeed,’ said Medb. ‘But I swear my people's oath that he who is so bidding you farewell will not return to you on his own feet.’ ‘Because of what we have gained by this marriage,’ said Ailill, ‘we care not if both of them fall, provided that Cú Chulainn is killed by him. But indeed we should be the better pleased if Fer Diad escaped.’ (Táin Bó Cúailnge, Recension 1, trans. O'Rahilly.)
‘We care not if both of them fall.’ Fer Diad’s life is only valuable because of what he can potentially offer to them; it is not worthy of being mourned in its own right. But Cú Chulainn, the very person who killed him, asserts otherwise. He mourns, and in doing so, protests that exact judgment. He says: this life was worth grieving, and if you will not do it, I will. In doing so he asserts that Medb and Ailill are wrong, and that there is injustice in the judgments they are making (which in turn, casts serious aspersions on their integrity as rulers, because Bad Judgment is the last thing a medieval Irish monarch wants to be accused of).
Lament as an act of protest against injustice: it’s not just for women.
Later in the day I mentioned this to Margo, my former modern Irish teacher, who was also at the conference. She agreed with my medieval examples, and pointed out that even some of the modern caoineadh is spoken by men, for men — in fact, one of the very examples (the name of which I sadly didn’t write down) given by one of the speakers was spoken by a man. Why, then, were we all agreeing that caoineadh was a female tradition?
True: the literary tradition is often male dominated, and to have a genre that is dominated by women is refreshing. True: after a few decades of scholarship agreeing that this is the case, it’s unpalatable to say, “Actually, we were wrong, men do this too.” But we agreed that this ‘boys don’t cry’ understanding of caoineadh was a limiting one, and one that denied men an outlet for grief which so many have sorely needed. Throughout the centuries men have mourned and cried and touched and held the bodies of their friends and loved ones, and nobody gains from pretending this is not the case, and portraying masculinity as untouched by these kinds of emotions.
In the final spoken session of the day, before the musical performance, two of the lament’s translators discussed their approaches to it: Vona Groarke and Paul Muldoon. Vona Groarke was clear that she doesn’t consider her work to be a translation from the Irish: she worked from seventeen prior translations to write her own version. I was astonished by the idea of having seventeen translations, or indeed, any translations to work from, since I spend a lot of my time working with untranslated texts or those that were translated once in the 19th century and never again. Seventeen! Can you imagine?! Muldoon, on the other hand, based his translation directly on an edition of the Irish text by Ó Túama. This seems to be the ‘standard’ edition, considering how many copies of it I saw in the audience during the day — which made me feel wildly unprepared, as someone who’d never even read it, I’m not gonna lie.
One topic particularly dominated (you could even say derailed) this session: the issue of blood-drinking. There is a line in the lament where Eibhlín Dubh mentions cupping Art’s blood in her hands and drinking it. This line is not in every version or manuscript, because the thing about the oral tradition is that it gives rise to a lot of variant versions, but it seems to have been fairly definitively established that it does belong to the lament and isn’t a late insertion. Having established that, there was some animated conversation about what, exactly, is going on in this scene.
At first, neither panellist could recall any other Irish examples of drinking the blood of the deceased, but fortunately, somebody else in the audience (possibly one of the other speakers? I am so bad at faces, I couldn’t recognise people when they changed locations in the room) mentioned Emer, Cú Chulainn’s wife, and Deirdre, who drinks the blood of her lover Naoise (and also of his brothers, in some versions). So I was not obliged to give an impromptu Oidheadh Con Culainn lecture, for which everybody was probably quite grateful, whether they knew it or not. But yes, this motif is very well-established in the early modern Irish tradition.6
There was some discussion following this about Classical traditions of blood-drinking, for example, the motif of preventing blood from hitting the floor so that the Furies wouldn’t come for vengeance. In Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoighaire, the blood has already touched the ground, so that can’t be the mechanism we’re thinking of here, and some instead favoured the interpretation that this is more of a ‘last kiss’, a way of taking the beloved into one’s body in the only way that is still permitted. A final intimacy.
Which makes sense. But this got me thinking, because there is one text I know of from medieval Ireland where the blood of a living character is drunk: Aided Derbforgaill. In this text, a young woman called Derbforgaill comes in search of Cú Chulainn, because she’s heard about his great exploits and wants to marry him. She’s injured, and when Cú Chulainn sucks the stone from her wound, he accidentally drinks some of her blood. As a result, he cannot marry her — presumably because the blood-drinking has created some kind of kinship bond — so she marries his foster son, Lugaid. Later, when she dies horribly for unrelated reasons and Lugaid dies of grief about it, Cú Chulainn is the one to avenge her.
I was thinking about this in the context of these blood-drinking examples from laments and death tales. Cú Chulainn’s role as Derbforgaill’s avenger is, presumably, because she is his daughter in law. But could it not also be because of the blood-drinking, and the kinship that bestows on the pair of them? And if that’s the case, could this be related to blood-drinking in death tales? Is drinking someone’s blood a way of asserting yourself as their next-of-kin, and therefore claiming the right to vengeance for their death? It is Conall who avenges Cú Chulainn, not Emer, but he does so for Emer, and brings the heads of the slain to her. And Eibhlín’s lament certainly has a vengeful tone, even if direct action isn’t taken.
This is purely just me noodling around with ideas; this may have been proved or disproved in academic discussions already. (I intend to look at it more eventually.) But although we are not trying to prevent vengeance by the Furies, perhaps there is a vengeance connection here, via kinship: claiming the dead, claiming the right to avenge them, claiming that the injustice that has been done is against you, the bereaved.
The session ended before I’d plucked up the courage to raise my hand and suggest this possibility, so I settled for inflicting it on a friend via WhatsApp instead. (They had been receiving a few stream-of-consciousness responses to the conference throughout the day, including a lot of my thoughts about choreographing the lament.) Still, it made me think that in future research into those kinds of mourning rituals, I should definitely incorporate or at least explore the late texts and the insights they have to offer on the matter.
The final session of the day was a musical performance: an excerpt from a student composition using Muldoon’s text, and two scenes from an opera based on Groarke’s. This opera, composed by Irene Buckley, was due to be performed in April 2020, but we can imagine what happened to that (it did not happen), so we got a brief almost-premiere. I confess to being no great lover of opera, particularly of the highly ornament and warbly classical variety; this wasn’t that, and the soprano’s clear tones managed to entrance me. I could almost see my choreography in my head as the music was performed, and my body itched with the need to make it real: to embody the lament, just as the poets and academics had discussed.
I’ll finish here, before this post ends up being too absurdly long, but I’ll end with this: I left that night with two translations/versions of the lament in my bag, half a dozen new creative and/or academic ideas in my head, and a strong sense of having learned far more from the day than I’d anticipated. I was extremely glad I’d been able to go, despite the fact that it meant getting up a lot earlier than I usually do on my days off work. It was an excellent way to mark the 250th anniversary of the lament’s composition, and I hope in future to have the opportunity to explore other works from the same mix of creative and academic angles.
And if you see me writing an article with a title like ‘Boys Don’t Cry?: A Reconsideration of the Gendering of Caoineadh‘ any time soon, well… you’ll know some of what prompted it.
But in the meantime, I’m just going to be eagerly awaiting the publication of Mícheál McCann’s ‘Keen for A–‘, because I can’t wait to eventually read the whole thing. Seriously, those excerpts slapped. And I’ll definitely be checking out the other poets’ work too. Maybe it’s time for me to get back into modern poetry again.
1 I actually had mixed feelings about A Ghost in the Throat. I loved the idea of exploring one’s own feelings and experiences through translation, and the dialogue between past and present that that creates. I was uncomfortable with some of the ways gender and sex are portrayed in the book. It is very much a book about cis womanhood and cis motherhood, written for cis women, especially for cis mothers. This is fine; I don’t expect to be the target audience of every book. But it was a book that did not allow the possibility of a world in which people like me exist, and that was alienating. Ní Ghríofa at one stage focuses intently on the mare of the Lament as a female animal, and the overall impression it left me with was that she saw herself as more similar to a mare, because it has a uterus, than to a cis man, because he does not. I simply can’t vibe with that kind of distancing between sexes, and as someone who has a uterus but is very much not a woman and considers myself a hell of a lot more like a man than like a horse, I was conscious that this was a narrative I could not be part of. This may be an uncharitable reading of that section of the text. It’s nevertheless been my lasting recollection of the book, and shapes my retrospective feelings about it.
2 See, for example, Ann Dooley, Playing the Hero: Reading the Irish Saga Táin Bó Cúailnge (U. of Toronto Press, 2006), who perceives Cú Chulainn as co-opting a female role, and Amy Mulligan, ‘Poetry, Sinew, and the Irish Performance of Lament: Keening a Hero’s Body Back Together’ in Philological Quarterly 97.4 (2018), who presents the ‘social protest’ argument alongside discussions of Dooley’s reading, while still mostly presenting male caoineadh as transgressive/unusual.
3 Sarah Sheehan’s article, ‘Fer Diad De-flowered: Homoerotics and Masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad‘ in Ulidia 2 (2009) is one of the only published academic discussions of this lament that embraces homoerotic possibilities, though to read some scholars complaining about queer readings, you would think they were endemic.
4 Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (Verso, 2020), and Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (Verso, 2016). I highly recommend both of these, but especially The Force of Nonviolence, which disrupts the traditional understanding of pacifism as a passive refusal to fight and foregrounds the need for active, forceful disruption of violent system and societal structures.
5 Butler, The Force of Nonviolence, p. 75.
6 It is specifically the early modern Oidheadh Con Culainn that emphasises this detail for Emer. I read an article once which discussed the fourteenth (?) century Deirdre/Naoise blood-drinking tradition as deriving from the Emer tradition, but the entire argument was undermined by not realising that Oidheadh Con Culainn is the fifteenth century text, and the early version of the story (Brislech Mór Maige Muirthemni) lacks the exact details they rested their discussion on. I haven’t looked at it further since, but based on the dates they gave for the Deirdre texts, it may well be that the Emer tradition derives from there, rather than the other way around. I was surprised no peer reviewer caught that error, as it was fairly fundamental, but I guess that’s what happens when nobody cares about the late versions of the texts :( I swear, I have read multiple articles that made similar errors or confused events of one story with the other.