Leabharlann na Meán


Memory, myth and history: what is transmitted and what is suppressed - Angela Bourke

17th November, 2022

A Uachtaráin, a Dhaoine Uaisle, a Chairde,

Is mór liom an onóir agus an ócáid, agus mé thar a bheith buíoch den Uachtarán Higgins as a chuireadh teacht chuig Áras an Uactaráin agus píosa cainte a dhéanamh libh.

When that terrible explosion devastated Creeslough, Co. Donegal, last month, people rushed to the scene, co-ordinating their practical and personal resources to rescue the injured and offer comfort. President Higgins cut short his official business in Strasbourg and arrived without delay. He embraced the bereaved, and listened. He remained there until the last victim was laid to rest. When he spoke in public he expressed gratitude that people in ever widening circles across this island and beyond were ‘… able to reveal their feelings and that their hearts are breaking.’ 

‘Being able to take the grief of other people into ourselves’, the President said in Creeslough, shows ‘a very important aspect of character, of a person, of a community and of a people.’                             

Reading this in The Irish Times, I was grateful, because for so long in this country, revealing that your heart was breaking was unthinkable, at least in hegemonic middle-class culture. I thought of the bean chaointe, the traditional lamenter of the dead, whom so many visitors described before the Great Famine, as did John Synge, early in the 20th century, in The Aran Islands. She wasted no time in getting to the place of death; she took the grief into herself.[1]

To leave a dead person unlamented, people said, was to treat their body like the carcass of a cow or a horse: as less than human. For a man of any standing not to be keened by several women was a disgrace: a stain on a family’s reputation. A long, bespoke, sung poem, on the other hand, extemporised over the body from the traditional stock-in-trade of the oral tradition, was an honour and something to treasure, and remember.[2] Most of the texts we possess were written down long after being composed in performance, transcribed from women who’d memorised them, and had filled any gaps in the wording from their own familiarity with the practice. All keens follow the same pattern, but no two are quite alike, and many are unique.  

Before the Famine, all the women in a household might be expected to range themselves around a dead body, or above a grave, to lift their arms above their heads and move back and forth, raising ‘the Irish cry’: a loud, repeated, drawn-out Óchón ó! or Olagón! Those are sounds the body makes, sobbing and groaning, when the worst has happened, and words won’t come. It seems that this theatrical performance triggered a conditioned reflex, as mourners and neighbours gathered in large numbers, and each newcomer joined in the weeping and wailing. Still, not every woman could compose the kind of poem we call a caoineadh.

The noted bean chaointe was a solo artist, and a community therapist. She expressed the distress, disorientation, affection and fury people felt, now that life had been changed forever by the loss of this person. Her raised voice, active body and loosened hair, the words and melody she chose from a large shared stock that she carried in memory, constituted the caoineadh, anglicised as ‘keen’. Traditional phrases and themes offer praise or vituperation, depending on whom they address. They describe grand hospitality, flourishing crops, thoroughbred horses, silver-hilted swords: even if the deceased had no such resources. They use images we might associate with horror films, to confront the physical reality of decomposition. The performance, like a tragic drama, must have had a huge therapeutic effect, allowing people in attendance to ‘reveal the grief they feel, and that their hearts are breaking’, as the President said in Creeslough.[3]

A mourner at a wake or funeral might not always be heartbroken, but everybody has had experience of grief, and it may be a consolation if their community can acknowledge that. Better too, perhaps, if the horror-movie images appear in the mind’s eye while you’re in company, when all attention is on what has been lost, and others are around to hold you.

Traditional keeners didn’t just praise the dead; they used their position to call out injustice, dishonesty, abuse, avarice and oppression—as oral poets have done since Homer’s time, and before. Sometimes they were even hired to publicise political meetings.

During the last three decades, as awful revelations have emerged about the conduct of our institutions and of trusted individuals, Irish artists have taken up the bean chaointe’s toolkit to express grief and anger at some of the atrocities that have come to light, and deal with other kinds of trauma.

Sinéad O’Connor called herself a keener 30 years ago, when she used her fame to cry out against the physical and sexual abuse of children, in church-run institutions and in families—and suffered severe punishment for doing so.[4] Alanna O’Kelly had returned from London by then, after postgraduate study at the Slade School of Art. She’d already begun exploring Irish   identity, language and the Famine, using her own keening voice alongside installation, video and painting. Official commemoration of the Famine’s 150th anniversary in the mid-1990s favoured academic approaches, but in O’Kelly’s work, later acquired by Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim, for its Workhouse Attic, the sound of her keening accompanied video of her breast milk moving through bathwater, asserting woman’s authority and perspective much as the bean chaointe used to.[5]

And younger artists have taken up caoineadh as vocal art. Michelle Collins, who completed a 2014 MA in Norway on ‘de-ritualisation and re-ritualisation’ of caoineadh in Ireland, last year facilitated workshops with Marymount University Hospital and Hospice in her native Cork to support its Service for Older People.[6] In Galway, starting on Nollaig na mBan (6 January) 2014, Ceara Conway brought asylum seekers together with local people for public condemnation and lamenting of the Direct Provision system, by candlelight. This year, she has gone back, as Sinéad O’Connor did for a while, to old songs of grief, mostly from Connemara, reinterpreting them for these times.[7]

Even people with no Irish are learning to sing those songs. Some, who have spent their lives insisting they don’t know any Irish—like Hungarians with Russian, after the Soviet Union fell, because it was compulsory, and they’d hated it—are discovering that there may be something in it after all. This year too, the National Gallery has honoured the heroic Catherine Corless, once dismissed as a ‘local historian’, by purchasing Paul MacCormaic’s fine 2021 portrait of her.[8]

Thirty years ago Cormac Ó Gráda drew attention to the ‘sanitized and apologetic approach to the Famine’ among Irish-based historians, contrasting it with work by scholars in the US. He noted too that ‘a leading Dublin academic’ had derided Robert Kee’s 1980 television documentary Famine, as ‘lending succor to terrorism.’[9]

Teaching at American universities around that time, I met many Irish-Americans. What struck me was the difference in social memory between the people I was meeting and what was familiar to me at home—from people I knew, from spending time in Gaeltacht areas, reading Gaeltacht autobiographies, and going through manuscripts of what’s now the National Folklore Collection (NFC).

Irish-Americans I met spoke about ‘the Potato Famine’, injustice, poverty, mental illness and alcoholism. But the Famine was hardly mentioned in Ireland, nor was poverty, though people donated generously to famine relief in Africa. I knew next to nothing about our Famine. Clearly, different stories had been told on either side of the Atlantic. What is transmitted and what is suppressed doesn’t only depend on which stories people tell, however; it depends also on what people are willing to hear. It has been obvious here since the 1990s that people were telling their stories, over and over, but that they weren’t being listened to—and weren’t being believed. Misogyny was at work, of course, because so many of the people telling the stories were female, or poor, or both. Now, though, men who attended some of the country’s most prestigious schools are coming forward with the pain they’ve carried for decades. A myth can either be a story that’s completely wrong, or it can be a treasured narrative that tells a community how things came to be the way they are. Either way, it occupies a place somewhere between memory and history, and merits looking at.

Since the Famine commemorations of the mid-’90s, I’ve come across many statements that ‘Nobody died here’, though quite a few accounts mention a place ten miles away, where ‘things were very bad.’ And yet when radio producer Cathal Póirtéir went through the NFC manuscripts, in search of material to make documentaries for RTÉ, he found stories of land-grabbing farmers, land agents and gombeen men, who abused and cheated the starving poor. And I recall reading about a farming family who fed new milk to their pigs, while destitute people starved in their boundary ditches.

Póirtéir published books in English and Irish on his research. His excellent Introduction to  some 500 items in English discusses historians’ reluctance to engage with the folklore record as evidence. That may be based on a false premise, he suggests, ‘that the folklore of the Famine, by dint of its nature as folklore, carries a nationalist interpretation of the causes, events and effects of the calamity’; he had found both unionist and nationalist views expressed in the manuscripts, however.[10]

Famine had been a major issue during the Land War, when the west of Ireland was again experiencing hunger and deprivation after hard, wet winters and bad harvests. By then, though, among strong farmers and big shopkeepers in particular, the Great Hunger was best forgotten.

That class was doing well in the late 19th century, and the country was recovering, despite agrarian outrages in various places. Contracts for supplying bread or meal or coffins to a workhouse had been lucrative; the English language and the Catholic church were in the ascendant; railways were extending across the country, and newly middle-class Catholics were cultivating respectability.[11] They dressed well, wore shoes, read newspapers, and sometimes books, avoided rough speech, kept a parlour for special occasions, sent their daughters to convent boarding schools, and in the case of the farmers, aspired to have ‘a bull in the field, a pump in the yard, and a son in Maynooth.’ They were careful whom their children married, and many of their offspring remained single, leaving large legacies to the church. A great many young women entered convents. If their parents could afford to send a fine piano or equivalent with them as ‘dowry’, they became choir sisters. Girls from poorer households became lay sisters, who did the heavy work.[12]

Poorer households in this rural society were those of small farmers and farm labourers. That second group was considered inferior, its members badly exploited until the 1960s, and most of their children emigrated. The people who could not be spoken of were the cottiers, living in pitiable conditions since the potato became established as a subsistence food, and the population of the poor and marginalised exploded. When the potatoes failed, there was no slack in the system, so the Irish-speaking casual labourers and beggars were the first to starve and to die of various diseases. They threw up shelters against ditches for themselves, their children, their hens and pig, if those hadn’t been sold. Sometimes a landlord or a charitable organisation packed them into ships and ‘emigrated them’. Huge numbers died at sea, or just after reaching Québec. But the land they left meant more for farmers and graziers. Historian Breandán Mac Suibhne, now of University of Galway, broke one silence in 2017 with The end of outrage, where he carefully traces names that disappeared in the 19th century from his own home townland in southwest Donegal.[13]

For the new middle class, strongest east of the Shannon, caoineadh became embarrassing after the Famine, as did bare feet, and speaking Irish. Good manners required women in particular to disavow the body and sexuality, never to give in to strong emotion. Caoineadh, by contrast, spoke frankly of the body and sexuality, the bean chaointe sometimes baring her breasts as well as her feet, loosening her hair.  

When a woman called Alma Curtin asked a little girl in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, in 1893 about speaking Irish, the child’s reply was that she didn’t like to speak it, because it was ‘so common in itself’. Alma was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant from Vermont, visiting with her husband, Jeremiah Curtin, collecting tales and legends to publish in English. The little girl was from a big farm nearby; she used to visit the Americans, bringing gifts of butter, potatoes or honey.

My paternal grandfather was born on that kind of farm in Co. Kilkenny. Úna Bolger, mother of the New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan, came from another, in Co. Wexford.[14] Both got married early in the 20th century, neither to the kind of person their parents might have chosen for them.

Robert Brennan’s mother kept a small shop in Wexford town; his father had been a pig-dealer. Bob became a journalist, and met his wife in nationalist circles. Both took part in the Rising in Enniscorthy, and he spent much of the next two years in various jails. Early in 1918, when Sinn Féin set up a Propaganda Department in anticipation of an end to the Great War, and an election, Éamon de Valera invited him to be its Director, at £3 a week. The Brennans moved to Dublin with their two young daughters, renting a house from Count Plunkett.  

Their third daughter, Deirdre (Derry), was born that October, and three years later, while the plenipotentiaries were in London, the Brennans bought a small house in Ranelagh. Maeve turned five on the day before the Treaty was ratified in 1922, and her father went on the run, yet again. In 1934, when de Valera sent him to Washington, the whole family went too. Maeve was 17.

On 24 October 1953 The New Yorker published ‘The Day We Got Our Own Back’, by Maeve Brennan. Deceptively brief and simple, as though told by a five-year-old, though no child could have written it, its action begins soon after that fifth birthday. Úna is alone with her younger daughters in their new house in Ranelagh when a Free State search party arrives. Derry is upstairs, sick in bed. Downstairs, one man tries to get Maeve to say where her father is, until her mother, a tiny, quiet woman, flies at him.

When the men left, Maeve writes, she was ‘spellbound with gratitude, excitement, and astonishment that the strange man had included me.’ But the story isn’t over, and a second raid a year later raises it into three dimensions, like a house inside a bottle, allowing many points of view. This second raid, when the soldiers wrecked the house, illustrates what Declan told us about men ‘addicted to fighting’, and also what he quoted from Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, about ‘the usual soldier’s contempt for civilians, particularly women, though these had often risked their lives to help him.’ One of them got his comeuppance, though, when he tried to look up the chimney, and brought down a load of soot on himself and on the carpet. Úna, whom her daughter usually portrayed as timid, anxious and houseproud, ‘laughed as though her heart would break.’  

I could say a great deal more about Maeve Brennan and the stories she set in that house, with their silences, and her characters’ powerful, unspoken feelings.[15] She died in 1993 in a nursing home in Long Island, where The New Yorker, apparently, had placed her, after she became a danger to herself. She exemplified the ‘silence, emotional breakdown, and exile’ Declan identified among the ‘massive’ effects of the Civil War. Neither she nor her sister Derry could abide de Valera, after all he had inflicted on their family.


[1]A. Bourke (1993) ‘More in anger than in sorrow: Irish women’s lament poetry’, in J. N. Radner, ed., Feminist messages: coding in women’s folk culture, Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp.160-82.

[2]For the music of caoineadh see B. Ó Madagáin (1982) ‘Irish vocal music of lament and syllabic poetry’ in R. O’Driscoll, ed., The Celtic consciousness, Mountrath: Dolmen, pp.311-31; (2005) Caointe agus seancheolta eile/keening and other old Irish musics, Indreabhán, Conamara: Cló Iar-Chonnachta; M. Nic an Airchinnigh & L. Ó Laoire (2014) ‘Caointe agus amhráin chrúite: “Is le gach bó a lao agus is le gach caoineadh a cheol”’, Aiste 4, pp.155–176. 

[3] A. Bourke (2000) ‘Keening as theatre: J.M. Synge and the Irish lament tradition’, in N. Grene, ed., Interpreting Synge: essays from the Synge Summer School, 1991-2000. Dublin: Lilliput.

[4] J. Waters (1995) ‘Sinéad the keener’, The Irish Times, 28 January; E. Nolan (2010) ‘Sinéad O’Connor: The story of a voice,’ Field Day Review  6, 53-69: https://fieldday.ie/wp-. content/uploads/2015/12/9780946755493-FDR6.pdf

[5] A. Bourke (2016) Voices underfoot: memory, forgetting, and oral verbal art, Famine Folios series, ed., N. O’Sullivan, Hamden, Connecticut: Quinnipiac University Press, and Cork: Cork University Press.  

[6] Anon. (2021) ‘Marymount and Cork County Council receive seed grant’, The Avondhu 11 March:  https://www.pressreader.com/ireland/the-avondhu/20210311/282011855108371.

[7] Conway’s album, Caoin (2022) was released on 30 March. For her Making visible (2014), see https://www.cearaconway.ie/recent-work.

[8] P. MacCormaic (2022) ‘She changed my life’, The Gallery: National Gallery of Ireland magazine, Autumn/Winter, 14-15.

[9] C. Ó Gráda (1993 [1988]) mentions American historians Joel Mokyr, James S. Donnelly and Timothy O’Neill: Ireland before and after the Famine, Manchester University Press, 98-101, 145, n.8.

[10] C. Póirtéir (1995), Famine echoes; his (1996) Glórtha ón Ghorta uses similar material in Irish.

[11] T. Inglis (1998 [1987]) Moral monopoly: the rise and fall of the Catholic church in modern Ireland, Dublin: UCD Press.

[12] C. Clear (1988), Nuns in nineteenth-century Ireland. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

[13] B. Mac Suibhne (2017) The end of outrage: post-Famine adjustment in rural Ireland. Oxford.

[14] A. Bourke (2016 [2004]) Maeve Brennan: homesick at The New Yorker, London & New York, 2004;  Berkeley, CA, 2016.

[15] See Bourke (2016 [2004]).