Names under which Ireland was personified in the Seventeenth Century

John Johnson Marshall
Chapter II

The names enumerated sufficed the bards and senachies in their allusions to Ireland so long as Irish literature and letters were centred in their own country and fostered by Irish Chiefs and Princes, afterwards native writers and literary men had a different centre, and a different point of view. The “flight of the Earls” was the first blow. The historians and bards that formed a part of the retinue of every great chief were now orphaned and beggared, the lands alloted to them in support of their profession confiscated and planted by alien strangers. Under these circumstances Ireland is alluded to under quite a new set of names. This is illustrated by “Roisin Dubh”—little black rose, an allegorical ballad in which strong political feelings are personified under the form of an address from a lover to his fair one. It was composed to celebrate Hugh Roe O’Donnell, and by “Roisin Dubh” (Roseen Duff), supposed to be a beloved female was meant Ireland,

“Oh! my sweet little rose cease to pine for the past,

For the friends that come eastward shall see thee at last,

They bring blessings—they bring favours which the past never knew,

To pour forth in gladness on my Roisin Dhu.”

The ruin of the Irish literary profession was practically completed by the rebellion of 1641, when such of the gaelic chieftains and lords as had survived the Plantation period, were mostly ruined and driven into exile, and the driving out of the last Stuart king by William of Orange was the final blow. Under the penal laws naught was left to the Irish bard but his imagination, where he could take refuge in a more ethereal world from the hard realities of the one in which he at present existed. It was this that buoyed him up, and in the depressing circumstances in which he found himself caused him to sing of exalted greatness.

In these songs Ireland is alluded to as a beloved female of superlative beauty and charm, whose name must not be mentioned, and whose sorrows will yet end in most glorious triumph:—

“Her sorrows fleeted—she struck the golden

High-ringing harp with her snowy hand,

And poured in music, the regal, olden,

The lofty lays of a free-made land;

The birds the brooks, and the breeze seemed springing

From grief to gladness that sunny dawn,

And all the woods with delight were ringing

So sweet her singing for Bauhil Bawn!”

“The Blackbird” was well understood to mean Prince Charles Edward (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), and was a poetic pretence common to both Scotland and Ireland:

“Once on a morning of sweet recreation,

I heard a fair lady a—making her moan,

With sighing and sobbing and sad lamentation,

Aye singing, “My Blackbird for ever is flown.”

In these poems the Stuart Prince was a subsidiary personage, the agent for Erinn’s deliverance as in “Shiela gal (bright) ni Connolan.”

“Brave men and chiefs to lead them

Shall flash their spears in valour’s van,

And glorious days of freedom

Crown Shiela gal ni Connolan.”

Another name under which Ireland was personified by the Jacobite bards was “Kathaleen Ni Houlahan.”

“Think her not a ghastly hag, too hideous to be seen,

Call her not unseemly names, our matchless Kathaleen;

Young she is and fair she is, and would be crowned a queen

Were the King’s son at home here with Kathaleen Ni Houlahan.”

Yet another name by which the poets voiced their hopes for Ireland was “Drimin.”

“Oh say my brown Drimin, thou silk of the kine,

Where, where are thy strong ones, last hope of thy line?

Too deep and too long is the slumber they take,

At the loud call of freedom why don’t they awake?”

(Translation by J. J. Callanan).

Drimin is the favourite name of a cow, by which Ireland is here allegorically denoted. “Silk of the kine” is an idiomatic expression for the most beautiful of cattle, which has been preserved in the translation. This epithet reminds us that it was the impassioned lay of his bard which in the sixteenth century decided the revolt of “Silken Thomas,” or literally “Thomas of the silken vest,” King Henry VIII’s Lord Deputy in Ireland.

“Graunia Wael” is one of the endearing names given to Ireland during the Penal times. Named after Grace O’Malley, a famous heroine in Irish history and tradition who flourished during the reign of Queen Elizabeth to whom she paid a visit.

“Above the bay, at dawn of day, I dreamt there came

The beautiful—the wonderful—the dear bright dame!

Her clustered hair, with lustre fair, lit all the vale—

She came a Star, with fame afar,

Our [*]Grainne Mael!”

Séan Clarach MacDonnell. Translation by Dr. Signerson.

“Maggie Laider.” “This is another early eighteenth century name for Ireland, and signifies strong, or powerful Maggie. By an easy change the adjective, laider, strong, was converted into Lauder, the patrynomic of a Scottish family, and the air was employed to celebrate a famous courtesan of Crail.” (Hardiman: Irish Minstrelsy, I. 177.)

The latter part of the eighteenth century, which saw the rise and decline of the Volunteers, followed by the rise of the United Irishmen, added little with one notable exception to the very considerable stock of names that Ireland had already accumulated. “The Shan Van Vogh,” properly Ant sean bhean bochd, meaning “poor old woman,” seems to be about the only one.

“Oh! the French are on the sea

Says the Shan Van Vogh;

The French are on the sea,

Says the Shan Van Vogh;

Oh! the French are in the Bay, (Bantry)

They’ll be here without delay

And the Orange will decay,

Says the Shan Van Vogh.”

There was an abortive French expedition towards the close of the year 1796, which would fix the date of the ballad.

Amongst a collection of street ballads purchased by T. Crofton Croker in Limerick, in 1821, there was one in which Ireland was allegorically styled “Cathaleen Thrail”—“Catherine the Slave.”

[*] Pronounced as above the m being modified.