'Egan, Egan O'Rahilly!' cried the crow

By Caoimhín O Brolcháin

Frank O’Connor (Kings, Lords & Commons, Gill & MacMillan, 1991 ed.) makes an astounding claim for the poetry of ‘Raftúrai an File’: ‘Statistical evidence - in so far as I understand statistics - shows that Anthony Raftery is the greatest poet in the world, greater than Goethe and far greater than Shakespeare. I have never been called on a quotation from Shakespeare, twice I have been called on quotations from Goethe. Three times I have been called on Raftery, the latest on the very evening when I put finish to this book. I asked a waitress in a Brooklyn restaurant where she came from and she replied: ‘Mayo.’ I retorted with the first two lines of Raftery’s ‘County Mayo,’ and in perfect Irish she quotes: ‘I put my mind to it and I will never linger Till I find myself back in the County Mayo.’ He is, of course, biased in favour of the Connacht poets: ‘In Munster the old world died in its sleep. The poetry of Egan O’Rahilly, David O’Bruadair and a hundred other peasant poets is that of the sleep walker; their thoughts are so much of the old dead world that it is as though a veil had fallen between them and reality.. .they move with their heads in clouds of romanticism.. .Connacht poetry is a very different affair, rooted in the lives of the common people…’

Well, he is entitled to his opinion, but Maurice O’Sullivan in his loveable Twenty Years A-Growing (Fiche Blian ag Fás), Oxford Univ. Press, 1966 ed. shows how greatly loved was the great Egan O’Rahilly from his own province: “‘It happened there was a farmer’s house by the roadside which had a very bad name, for the farmer had a heart as hard as a stone and the world knew it as a house where no man ever got food to eat or drink to drink. But, if so, the barony that time was trembling in fear of the poets.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Arra, man, wouldn’t they shame you alive in those days with the satires they would write! Anyone who displeased them they would cover him with abuse to be read by the big world.’

Soon they were approaching the farm- house. ‘Let us go in here now and I tell you we’ll get food and drink,’ said Egan. My great-grandfather looked at him. ‘Arra, man, isn’t it time you should know that house where no man ever got either?’ ‘Don’t mind that,’ said the poet, ‘he is the devil himself if I can’t manage him.’ ‘They went inside dripping with water. The farmer was seated at the hearth. My great-grandfather stood in the doorway. ‘God bless all here,’ said Egan, walking over and giving his heels to the fire. The farmer did not speak a word at first or ask if they had a mouth on them.

Then at last he spoke: ‘Should you not know your manners not to be wetting the floor that way?’ Egan gave no answer, but after a while when he saw the churlishness there was in his heart he winked at my great-grandfather and gave a shout of laughter. ‘God give us cause to laugh,’ said the farmer, with a start, ‘what is amusing you, you buffoon?’ ‘Musha, I am thinking of the crow I came across today on my road from the west and what it said.’ ‘And what did it say?’said the farmer, sticking out his lip. ‘It came over my head, following me for a quarter of a mile, and this is what it was saying: ‘Egan, Egan, Egan O’Rahilly!’ Look how the crows themselves do know me.”

‘Ara, Tomás,’ when the farmer knew whom he had in the house he leapt from his chair. ‘A hundred thousand welcomes to you! Maura!’ he shouted to his wife, come in here. Musha, isn’t it God who guided you to us?’ ‘Who?’ said she. ‘Arra, the noble Egan O’Rahilly!’ She ran up to him with outstretched hands: ‘A thousand welcomes to you!’

The farmer gave the same welcome to my great-grandfather and led him up to the fire. He went down to the room and brought out a couple of chairs. Neither he nor his wife could do enough for them; they got the choice of all food and a bed to sleep in, for the farmer would not let them go without spending the night in his company, a thing he had never done before. ‘Wasn’t Egan very cunning?’ said Tomas.