Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin image
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Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin

Born in 1748 / Died in June 29, 1782 / Ireland / English

Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin poet from Ireland was born in 1748, had 34 years and died on June 29, 1782. Poems were written mainly in English language. Dominant movement is political.


Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1748 - 29 June 1782), anglicized as Owen Roe O'Sullivan ("Red Owen"), was an Irish poet. Ó Súilleabháin is known as one of the last great Gaelic poets. A recent anthology of Irish-language poetry speaks of his "extremely musical" poems full of "astonishing technical virtuosity" and also notes that "Eoghan Rua is still spoken of and quoted in Irish-speaking districts in Munster as one of the great wits and playboys of the past."

Eoghan Rua was relatively unknown to English speakers until 1924, although famous among Irish-speakers, especially in Munster. In a 1903 book, Douglas Hyde, an Irish scholar from Roscommon who had learned Irish, referred to him as "a schoolmaster named O'Sullivan, in Munster" in his book The Songs of Connacht (which includes a drinking song by Ó Súilleabháin). The 1911 version of the Encyclopædia Britannica mentioned Eoghan Rua in an article on "Celtic Literature," calling him "the cleverest of the Jacobite poets" and noting that "his verses and bons mots are still well known in Munster."

In 1924, Daniel Corkery devoted a chapter of his groundbreaking book The Hidden Ireland (1924) to Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin. The book was the first comprehensive look at the world of Irish-speakers during the 18th century, a period which had been considered completely barren except for English-language literature.

Corkery writes, "'What Pindar is to Greece, what Burns is to Scotland... that and much more is Eoghan Ruadh to Ireland.' Alas! it is by no means so; but were Father Dinneen to write: "that and much more was Eoghan Ruadh to Gaelic Munster," he would have understated rather than overstated the matter." He then discussed at length the way country people came alive at the mention of Ó Súilleabháin's name, and could recite long poems and a hundred stories about him.

"Eoghan Rua's life was ... tragic, but then he was a wastrel with a loud laugh." Ó Súilleabháin is most famous for his aisling [pron. "ashling"] poems, in which the vision of a beautiful woman comes to the poet in his sleep?the woman also often symbolizing the tragic Ireland of his time. Most of the following information comes from Corkery's work. Corkery in his turn depended on a book in the Irish language, Amhráin Eoghain Ruaidh Uí Shúilleabháin, or Songs of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, written by the priest An t-Athair Pádraig Ua Duinnín (Father Dinneen).

Early life

Ó Súilleabháin was born in 1748 in Sliabh Luachra, a mountainous part of County Kerry, in southwestern Ireland. He was from a once-prominent family that like so many others gradually lost its land and its leaders in the successive British conquests of Ireland. By the time of his birth, most of the native Irish in the southwest had been reduced to landless poverty in a "houseless and unpeopled," mountainous region. But the landlord was MacCarthy Mór, one of the few native Irish Chiefs of the Name to retained some power, and a distant relative of the Ó Súilleabháin clan. Sliabh Luachra was home to one of the last "classical schools" of Irish poetry at the time, descended from the ancient, rigorous schools that had trained bards and poets in the days of Irish domination. In these last few remnants of the bardic schools, Irish poets competed for attention and rewards, and learned music, English, Latin and Greek.

Eoghan Rua (the Rua refers to his red hair) was witty and charming, but had the misfortune to live at a time when an Irish Catholic had no professional future in his own country because of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws. He also had a reckless character and threw away the few opportunities he was given. At eighteen, he opened his own school, and "all his life through, whenever his fortunes were hopeless, on this empty trade Eoghan was to fall back." But "an incident occurred, nothing to his credit, which led to the break-up of his establishment."

Eoghan Rua then became a spalpeen [Irish spailpín], or itinerant farm worker, until he was 31 years old. He then was forced to join the army under interesting circumstances. Ó Súilleabháin was then working for the Nagle family, a wealthy Anglo-Irish, but Catholic and Irish-speaking, family in Fermoy, County Cork. (The Nagles were themselves an unusual family. The mother of British politician Edmund Burke was one of these Nagles, as was Nano Nagle, the founder of the charitable Presentation order of nuns.) Corkery writes, "I have had it told to myself that one day in their farmyard he heard a woman, another farm-hand, complain that she had need to write a letter to the master of the house, and had failed to find anyone able to do so. "I can do that for you," Eoghan said, and though misdoubting, she consented that he should. Pen and paper were brought him, and he sat down and wrote the letter in four languages?in Greek, in Latin, in English, in Irish. "Who wrote this letter?" the master asked the woman in astonishment; and the red-headed young labourer was brought before him; questioned, and thereupon set to teach the children of the house....Owing to his bad behavior he had to fly the house, the master pursuing him with a gun." Legend says he was forced to flee when he got a woman pregnant-- some say it was Mrs. Nagle. (see Suantraí dá Mhac Tabhartha, which may relate to this incident).

Later years

Ó Súilleabháin escaped to the British military barracks in Fermoy. The British Empire was then in the midst of the American Revolutionary War, using impressment to fill its dire need for sailors. Ó Súilleabháin soon found himself aboard a British ship in the West Indies, "one of those thousands of barbarously mistreated seamen." He sailed under Admiral Sir George Rodney and took part in the famous 1782 sea Battle of the Saintes, against the French admiral Comte de Grasse. The British won. To ingratiate himself with the Admiral, Ó Súilleabháin wrote an English-language poem called Rodney's Glory about the battle and presented it to the Admiral, who offered to promote him. Ó Súilleabháin asked to be set free from service, but "an officer named MacCarthy, a Kerryman...interposed and said: 'Anything but that; we would not part from you for love or money.' Ó Súilleabháin turned away, saying, "Imireaochaimíd beart eigin eile oraibh ('I will play some other trick upon you')." MacCarthy, who understood his remark, replied: 'I'll take good care, Sullivan, you will not.'"

Corkery writes of the odd contrast between the English view of Eoghan Rua, who must have seemed an awkward, rascally fellow to the Admiral, and the Irish author of "perfect lyrics, with the intuitional poet in every line of them!"

Much of Eoghan Rua's life is unknown. He returned after the wars to Kerry and opened a school again. Soon afterwards, aged 35, he died from fever that set in after he was struck by a pair of tongs in an alehouse quarrel, by a servant of a local Anglo-Irish family. "The story of how, after the fracas in Knocknagree in which he was killed, a young woman lay down with him and tempted him to make sure he was really dead, was passed on with relish." He was buried in midsummer, 1784, near or possibly in Muckross Abbey.

Memorial to Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin at Knocknagree, County Cork, Ireland. The Irish words above the English are the last poem of Eoghan Rua on his deathbed. "Weak indeed is the poet when the pen falls out of his hand."

Long-lived reputation

In spite of his luckless life, Eoghan Rua was well-beloved and legendary in his own time, and his songs and poems have passed down in the Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking regions, of Munster, by word of mouth right up until the present day. Yeats used aspects of Ó Súilleabháin's reputation in his stories of Red Hanrahan, his invented alter ego, whose given name is "Owen," who carries a copy of Virgil in his pocket, "the hedge schoolmaster, a tall, strong, red-haired young man." John Millington Synge mentions Owen Roe in his famous play The Playboy of the Western World: the heroine Pegeen compares the Playboy, Christy, to him:

"If you weren't destroyed travelling, you'd have as much talk and streeleen, I'm thinking, as Owen Roe O'Sullivan or the poets of the Dingle Bay, and I've heard all times it's the poets are your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages when their temper's roused."

Synge had spent much time in West Kerry and spoke Irish, so he had certainly heard the legends of Owen Roe; Christy's character resembles that of Owen Roe in many points.

Thanks in part to Corkery's book, Ó Súilleabháin has become more widely known in English over the years. The Irish musician Seán Ó Riada wrote a play based on the life of Owen Roe, called A Spailpín a Rún (My Darling Spalpeen). The song of the same name is part of the "Lament" in the music of the Titanic (1997 film). There is a memorial to him at Knocknagree, County Cork.

According to the Irish writer Frank O'Connor, Eoghan Rua's songs are as popular among Irish-speakers as those of Robert Burns are in Scotland. One of the most popular drinking songs in Ireland today is attributed to him: Bímíd ag ól is ag pógadh na mBan (Let us be drinking and kissing the women"). Translated into English in a book by Petrie (1855)[21], one of its verses goes:

My name is Ó Súilleabháin, a most eminent teacher;
My qualifications will ne'er be extinct;
I'd write as good Latin as any in the nation;
No doubt I'm experienced in arithmetic.

"Owen Roe lived at the worst time in history for an Irish poet, when the Penal Laws were killing the ancient way of life and when Catholics had no legal way to make a professional living. He was a brilliant, red-haired, hard-living brawler, called "Owen of the Sweet Mouth" [Eoghan an Bhéil Bhinn], and in Munster I have myself still met Irish speakers who passed down the folk memory of his great charm. ..