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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Two Nov-Dec 2023.
The Poet Líadan, poems and essay by John W. Sexton.
Pale, grey-eyed Líadan, was born
on a night when the moon was bright
with all of its pieces. For some,
therefore, it was moonlight
they saw in those pearl eyes. Others
glimpsed the ocean, flecked with its troubles,
gulls defiant of its boisterous
whims. But for many who held her gaze
it was the subtle shadow a star cast
against the night that they beheld.
Thus, they felt ill luck in her presence.
Yet these conjectures were not hers to hold
blame for. For colour claims no sense
but what you bring to it. Her tone
was mystery, impenetrable
to those blinded by assumption.
None guessed what her eyes were able
to apprehend, that they were bright
with knowing. For the moon observes
all of the world; the ocean eavesdrops
all secrets; and the stars in night serve
the night. And so it was the hopes
of expanding existence that poured
into her. As she grew, she grew revered.
And those who dared the icy mirror
of her stare, came to love her.
At the age of twelve, Líadan had informed her father, the chief Ollamh, that she was to be a poet, and sought to formally train.
“Being my daughter grants you the exemption from the bar of being a female. But first you must bring a poem. Only a poet can be a poet.”
That night a woman came to Líadan in a dream. The woman was in a place of darkness, but her countenance was bright; the woman was in a place of light, but her countenance was dark.
“Líadan, wake up. It is my daughter that you are.”
“Mother, before I wake, where is the place that I will find you?”
“Come into your father’s courtyard now. I am there. You must kiss me on the mouth.”
Not a creature stirred in the courtyard. Moonlight pooled on every surface, but the brightest part of the courtyard was the well. Líadan approached the shining water. Beyond its glaring surface Líadan knew that all was darkness, unfathomable in the cold depths. So Líadan knelt, and pushed her face into the waters. The Mother’s lips met hers; then the Mother’s tongue touched hers.
Líadan found herself in an immense, darkened meadow, the moon a dull tincture of grey. But Líadan was not there as herself, but as an enormous shadow of herself, stretched across the meadow. And the meadow was not of wild flowers, but of the wavering shadows of flowers.
“Líadan, this is the vestibule of the dead, the storehouse of memory and spirit. This is the True Poet’s Mind.”
Líadan awoke then, and her body floated up and broke the surface of the well. She took her breath.
When Líadan stood before her father in his night quarters, she was still wet to the bone.
“Daughter, where were you?”
“Father, I was taken into the Vessel of Duibhne.”
“And what did you see?”
“Shadows of thistles / touch the dead in sleep; / our world too solid / O you dead to keep.”
After that, Líadan was given leave to undertake the poet’s training.
Sounding through her, her own name
struck from the tongues of others:
Night’s fine stitches of stars, sewn
firmly to the cloth of night:
May’s loud blossom of hawthorn
freeing the hedgerows of fog:
Time never undone by time,
but deepened in its fathoms:
Under the grey milk of the stars
her tears have leavened the heavens.
Her knees are grazed raw as the night,
ceaseless nought in the high distance.
She listens with the empty bell
of her heart, dull now of clamour.
Only emptiness replaces
emptiness, replaced in its turn
by the need for starlight; for night
is increased by the thing not it.
Under the grey milk of the stars
her tears have leavened the heavens.
Finding Her Voice:
Reclaiming the Poet Líadan from
Patriarchal and Christian Agendas
In my mother’s county of Kerry, the county in which I live, we have one ancient female poet, locatable in the 7th century, and associated with the historical Saint Cumméne. Her name is Líadan (which in modern Irish spelling would be Liadhain), and which can be interpreted as Grey; and we have not only a prosimetric Romance about her, but also a few verses attributed to her. This is perhaps more significant than many might realise, for early poetry by Irish women was rarely recorded, and in later centuries was actively discouraged. We have documented folkloric traditions expressing the belief that if a female poet appeared in a family, then that particular line would bear no more male poets for anything from a further four, seven or nine generations.
In the 1937 Irish Folklore Commission’s National Schools Project, we have two separate Kerry documents from the Castleisland area that relate the memory of the poet Ulick Kerins. One refers to his sister being a poet, and how this broke the possibility of any more male poets in their foreseeable family for generations. And the second refers to his own daughter, Joan Kerins, growing up to become a poet and outdoing her father in a poetry recitation. On the conclusion of her poem her father was said to have uttered the following curse upon her, “Loisceadh an Toirc ort”, which translates into English as “May you roast like a pig!” (The Schools Collection, Volume 0446, Page 224, from School Na Corráin.) Such viciousness indicates the power of this belief, which was obviously sprung from a misogynistic strategy to discourage women from following the Poet’s path. And, like everything else, such male ploys were perfected as part of the controlling arsenals of the Roman Catholic Church.
It must be noted that in most modern anthologies of translations of Irish language poetry from the Medieval period to the 1890’s, that only two named female poets figure, and they are Líadan from the 7th century and Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, who flourished in the 1700s. It is also not insignificant that their poems that have come down to us from the oral tradition are laments, of two different kinds, over men. But we will examine this specific aspect in terms of Líadan a bit more closely further on.
The evidence we have of Líadan is gathered in the Medieval Irish romance, Comrac Líadaine ocus Cuirithir, written down in Old Irish in the late ninth to early tenth century. But the details of the tale, especially the significant inclusion of Saint Cumméne, date the work in its original orally transmitted form to the earlier seventh century. There is also evidence, first noted by Kuno Meyer, who translated and edited the tale in 1902, that Líadan was known as a poet of renown from that earlier period, and her fame is referenced in the introduction of an early text of The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare. Irish literary materials lived in, and were passed on, through oral transfer for centuries, so it is not uncommon to find something only being written down a century or two later by monastic writers.
The version of Comrac Líadaine ocus Cuirithir that we have was recorded by an anonymous cleric, and can essentially be divided into two distinct stylistic halves. Being in a prosimetrum form it contains both poetry and prose, something common in the Old Irish tradition. The poetry, relayed in quatrains and tercets, is regarded largely and essentially as the work of Líadan herself, while the surrounding prose structure, put in place to provide a coherent narrative context for the poetry, is evidently the hand of the male cleric. In content, the poetry is swift, pure, utterly poignant, while the prose is somewhat typical of the moral adventure. However, it must never be forgotten, that if not for this monastic scribe and editor, all trace of Líadan and anything of her work would have been totally lost to us. One should also realise that although loyal adherents to Christianity, that the monks from the early Irish period were in fact from the Irish ruling families, and would themselves have undergone the Poet’s training and the committing to memory of sagas and genealogies. They were from the educated elite of Irish society. This is the very reason that what we have left from our earlier tradition was actually written up by these monastic hands. They already had the work in their prodigious stores of memory as a result of their training, and all that was left to them was to record it in such a way as to be useful to the current Christian dispensation.
A brief aside here on some of the significant English translations, before we look at the content itself. The first translation, and by far the best, is the previously mentioned work published by Kuno Meyer, Liadain and Curithir: an Irish Love-Story of the Ninth Century, published in London in 1902 by D. Nutt. This is a thirty-three page book containing the Old Irish and Meyer’s translations on facing pages, with an Introduction, footnotes and a Glossary. There is also a book by the Irish poet and playwright Moireen Fox (1883 – 1972), Liadain and Curithir, published in 1917 by Blackwell in Oxford, that is often cited by online sources as a “translation”. It should be clearly stated that it is nothing of the sort, and certainly wasn’t purported to be by the author herself. This particular book is simply an epic imaginative verse romance, inspired by and acknowledging Meyer’s earlier pioneering translation, many of the verses of which had previously appeared in very early issues of Poetry (Chicago). It is essentially a rather extended
adventure romance relayed in verse.
Those who have mistaken it for a translation have perhaps been confused by various
elements of Moireen Fox’s own Foreword, which possibly they have misread, but which is indeed quite clear. A few words should also be said here of the notes and literal translations that appear in A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry AD 600 to 1200 (MacMillan, London, 1967), edited and translated by David Greene and Frank O’Connor, published a year after O’Connor’s death. Firstly, the footnotes to some of the translations are highly informative, and even in some instances correct Kuno Meyer’s few misreadings of the Old Irish, and O’Connor’s translations that appear in this volume are spare and literal, and are helpful in cutting to the sense directly. However, O’Connor had produced earlier English version translations of the Líadan poems which often crop up in anthologies, including Séan Lucy’s Love Poems of the Irish (Mercier Press, Cork, 1967) and these are somewhat more problematical. Beyond argument, they are beautiful as English verse, and as Séan Lucy attests in his notes, O’Connor continued to work and tweak his translations throughout his life; but in becoming distinct artifices in English, these particular versions stray from the clear beauty and metric precision of the original Old Irish.
It should also be stated that Greene and O’Connor, in the first mentioned book, bizarrely refer to Líadan as “the Cork poetess”, and mistakenly conflate her with Saint Líadan. This Saint Líadan, however, was a different person, was married in her younger days, and belonged to a completely different tribe, the Corcu Loígde.
In the opening sentence of Comrac Líadaine ocus Cuirithir, Líadan steps out from the murk of Medieval history: “Líadain of the Corco Dubne, a poetess, went visiting into the country of Connaught.” We are told that during this poetry tour another poet, Cuirithir mac Doborchon, arranges an ale-feast in her honour, and then promptly proposes a union, saying “A son of us two would be famous”. Straight away, Líadan rebuffs him, on the grounds that her rounds as a visiting poet would “be ruined for me”. She tells him though, that if he calls on her at her home after the tour, then “I shall go with you”.
The striking thing here is that for a woman in that culture to be a poet engaged on a tour, indicates that she would have to be both high-born and also have undergone a poet’s training of some degree. For a woman to be thus privileged, to have studied poetry in a deep way, we may speculate that her father would have had to have been either a king or a chief poet. Or that at the very least, we can conjecture that she learnt from her mother, who would have perhaps had that same background of Poet’s descent. A tour of this type would have been to the dwellings of similar high-born families and kings, and the fact that she was received would indicate the esteem in which she must have been held. Furthermore, the detail that she prioritises her poetry tour over marriage to a man of equal social rank indicates how seriously she took her position as poet. None of the poetry that she composed prior to the events relayed in this tale has ever been recovered from the oral tradition, but the fact that she was engaged on a series of poetry readings indicates that a body of work must have been in place by that time. So already we can see the tragedy of this disappearance alone, of that lost work. But, unlike the other characters in the tale, Líadan is given no immediate genealogy and no surname to indicate any, so we have no idea of her parentage. In contrast to the parentage declared for the other characters, one might begin to suspect a deliberate strategy of disappearance at work in the narrative framework itself.
I will pause here to go back to the beginning of that opening sentence, “Líadain of the Corco Dubne”. Corca Dhuibhne, often anglicised as Corkaguiny, is the ancient name of the northernmost of the major peninsulas in County Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula. But Corca Dhuibhne is not simply a place, it is a people – the “seed or tribe of Dhuibhne”, a major Goddess, equated by some with both Dovinia and even the Great Mother Goddess Herself, Danu. Immediately we have a cultural conflict, for we have a Pagan background in what is largely, as we shall see, a Christian foreground. Later in the text she says of herself, “I from Kil-Conchinn”. In a footnote to this reference, Kuno Meyer states: “The Ui Maic Iar-Conchinn are mentioned as a tribe in Corkaguiney.” But Kil-Conchinn might also reasonably refer to the early Medieval Christian Ecclesiastical Settlement of Cell Achid Conchinn, which is said to have been founded by Saint Abban, but which was on the grounds of an earlier place of veneration for the holy virgin Saint Conchenna. This settlement fell within the major diocese of Ardfert and was well inside the encroaching regions of the Corca Dhuibhne.
After Líadan returns to Corca Dhuibhne, and the timeframes are somewhat obscured in the fragmentary text, she takes the veil and becomes a nun. There has been some speculation as to why Líadan took such a drastic step after declaring an interest in Cuirithir. Was it purely a religious decision made from spiritual conflict, or was it a desperate strategy to keep herself free from childbirth in order to still pursue the intellectual and poetic life of learning; in short, the inner life? One can also speculate quite reasonably, that a proposal made by a man of high birth from another powerful family would be attractive to both Líadan’s parents and tribe, in terms of the alliances of wealth and political power that he would bring with him. Was it under such pressure of an inevitable future as wife and mother, that Líadan put herself aside for the Church? Robert Graves, in The White Goddess (expanded edition, Faber and Faber, 1961), expresses a more robustly misogynistic theory, but more of that in due course. What must be stressed here, however, is that it is a paradox of the text that Líadan is also deeply in love with Cuirithir. She is inescapably conflicted.
While Líadan is under the veil, but still apparently with her family, Cuirithir unwarily travels south to continue his courtship. He arrives outside the family court and meets up with another traveller, Mac Da Cherda of the Dessi of Munster. He is described here as, “Chief poet he was and the fool of all Ireland”. This probably indicates that he is the hereditary poet of his people, but of a lesser rank, that perhaps of Bard, and something of an entertainer. He crops up in other Old Irish texts and was called “Boy of the Two Arts”. His appearance in the story here is an interesting intervention, as he occupies the role of both Trickster and essential intermediary. Himself and Cuirithir make a bond, and Cuirithir asks Mac Da Cherda to relay his presence to Líadan. Mac Da Cherda accepts, and Líadan is made aware of Cuirithir’s entreaties.
It is at this point that Líadan is reunited with Cuirithir, and to salve the implications of their dilemma they put themselves under the spiritual direction of “Cummaine Fota, son of Fiachna”. And it is at this point, sadly, that their joint tragedies become sealed. Cumméne Fota or Fada, Cummine the Tall, who flourished circa 591 to 662, was an Irish Bishop of Clonfert, later canonised, and an important theological writer of the mid-7th century. Despite his great learning, a more deranged, po-faced fanatic our two lovers could not have found to appoint as their spiritual guide. His Paschal letter, De controversia paschali, was a catalyst in swaying the Pictish and Irish Churches towards Rome in synchronising the celebration of Easter, and his alliance and heart was very much with the Roman Church. One can only speculate as to what a Celtic Church we might have had, had not the eloquent likes of Saint Cummine persuaded our Churches to hold sway to the Roman Pope. We know certainly that he had foundations in Kerry. Kilcummin Strand in Dingle, close to where Líadan had her residence, was an early settlement under his leadership, and he also established a church and community just outside Killarney, in a Parish that now also bears his name, Kilcummin (from the Irish Chill Chuimín, the founding Church of Saint Cumméne).
Coincident with the appearance of Cumméne Fota, Cuirithir has now also taken a monastic vow, and the two surrender to Cumméne’s direction in a bond of anamchairde or “soul-friendship”, a form of chaste spiritual marriage.
It will be noted at this juncture, as many commentators have pointed out, that there is a similarity here with other narratives, dated to the 12th century; from elements of Marie de France’s Eliduc, to the end parts of the Arthurian cycle where both Guinevere and Lancelot take up the religious life, to the historical figures of Abelard and Heloise. But the tale of Líadan and Cuirithir is much older. This is not to impute, however, any definitive literary influence on the others, or even a historical context for the decisions of Abelard and Heloise, but simply to indicate some succession perhaps, of tradition or contextual social behaviour.
Cumméne first offers the couple a choice: to be able to see each other without speaking, or to speak to each other without seeing. Being poets, perhaps indicating the primacy of their craft of language, they choose to speak without seeing. When Cuirithir is abroad the settlement grounds, Líadan is locked in her cell; and when she does her rounds he is cloistered in his. At this period in Irish ecclesiastical history there are no stone churches. All church buildings and monasteries are made of timber, usually always an oak frame and roof, with daub and wattle sealing walls and partitions. It is at this very instant in the tale when the exchanges between Líadan and Cuirithir are first delivered to us in verse. The resulting poetry, in short dialogic stanzas, is increasingly heart-breaking, swerving through regretful longing to remorse and, on the part of Líadan, self-reproach. This tortuous, sadistic imposition by Cumméne becomes increasingly intolerable to Líadan, speaking as she must through wattle walls, and she pleads for a respite. Cumméne complies, and allows them to sleep one night together in each other’s company, but with the proviso that a young postulant sleeps between them for the duration of the night. The following morning, the overzealous Cumméne questions the postulant, making it clear that he will be satisfied with no answer. The result of Cumméne’s self-righteous enquiry is that he banishes Cuirithir to another monastery, and Líadan is left to drift alone, hopelessly inside her loss. The resultant lament for her exiled love is a jewel of Old Irish prosody, often anthologized in Kuno Meyer’s English translation, a sequence of ten tercets in the syllabic metre known as treochair. In these and the other verses of the story, Líadan has immortalised herself in poetry. As will be seen, however, Christian agendas would be at odds with such a reading.
After composing her lament, Líadan leaves the ecclesiastical enclosure in search of Cuirithir. But, on hearing that she has gone in search of him, he crosses the sea in a coracle to seek the solace of pilgrimage. When Líadan in turn learns of this, she knows that she will set eyes upon him no longer. Vulnerable and in despair she returns to the monastic enclosure, and sets to stay upon the flagstone where he often knelt in prayer. In remorse and utter heartbreak she remains, dying some short time afterwards on this same kneeling-stone. But the text assures us that “her soul went to heaven”. The final sentence of the tale, however, is Líadan’s literal final sentence, for we are told: “And that flagstone was put over her face.”
So Líadan ends this ecclesiastical romance with her face, her mouth and tongue, and essentially her mind, sealed under a symbol of penance. And her destination of Heaven, it is inescapably implied, is through that instrument of penance. Reducing women, especially strong-willed women, to the role of penitents has long been a cultural strategy of the male-dominated Catholic Church. Another great Old Irish poem that emerged in the written literature at the same time as Líadan and Cuirithir, was The Hag of Beare, which comes down to us in several versions and fragments. Similarly to the tale of Líadan, for the Christian agenda was the same, the Hag of Beare is portrayed as a penitent woman, now in her aged, regretful and remorseful years. And in Frank O’Connor’s translation, the poem is actually called The Nun of Beare. Of course, this is propagandist nonsense. The Hag of Beare was neither a penitent nor a mortal woman. And neither was she a negative entity. The Hag of Beare, also called the Cailleach, is the Winter Aspect of the Eternal Pagan Goddess. I live on the Kerry side of the Beare Peninsula, on a mountain called Carn Mór, and all the land around here is suffused with Her mythic memory, and has two localised Hag myths associated with it, one with the mountain itself, and one with a small lake in the vicinity. There was, no doubt, a great poem or chant of the Hag of Beare, existent in Ireland in Pagan times, but it has been bowdlerised and co-opted into its current Christian propagandist form. So too with Líadan’s story.
Beyond argument, Líadan was a Christian. And beyond argument she was invested in the Christian faith. By the 7th century Christianity had been established here for two centuries. But to argue further that Ireland was an island without a pervasive Pagan microwave background, would be naïve. Faith in this island did not begin with Christianity, and due to the deep oral tradition in a culture that was only recently emerging with a written literature, Christianity here would have been deeply layered with an underlying Paganism. Even as recently as the early 2000s, before its lessening grip on the population, Irish Catholicism was heavily ingrained with superstition and pagan practices. Líadan and her people, certainly in the 7th century, would not yet have fully divested themselves of their Pagan traditions. In their less dogmatic mind-set there was room for both Paganism and Christianity, and both were still in tension. In fact, Christianity in the beginning may have offered the Irish a unifying purpose. Instead of learning only the genealogies of one’s particular tribe, now the endless and ancient genealogies of the God-chosen Judaic people of the Old Testament may have seemed neutral and removed from the immediate politics, conflicts and agendas of the Celtic present.
Here I must state plainly my principal motive for delving into the history of Líadan. I am a Pagan, and as an Irish poet of Munster, with deep family connections in Kerry and Limerick, I identify with the Aisling Poetry Tradition, a form of Vision Poetry, and have done so, openly, for several decades. But in my own interpretation of Muse Poetry, the point for me is never the gratuitous concerns of a male poet, but rather a core belief in the pre-eminence of Woman as a creative force, and the inviolability of female artistic example. In my personal interpretation of the Muse or Goddess-centred Tradition, the notion that this form of poetry revolves around male poets is a corruption, a late-imposed heresy. In more ancient times women were actually at the centre of Goddess reception, and their position was gradually and fatally usurped. The concept of Muse Poetry is open to all genders, but it should never be forgotten that it is essentially Goddess-derived. My wish for Líadan, without denying her Christian background and struggling spirituality, is not to deny her Pagan faith and background.
In those earlier Christian centuries the separation was less definite, and subsequent
histories and literature have been edited and redacted to give a decidedly Christian slant to works that were not originally Christian. For instance, the prayer that many know as a hymn, Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, was originally a Pagan prayer or chant, and would have been imbued with magical properties and ritual. Pagan religious and literary culture was co-opted by Christianity and then almost obliterated.
In the 7th century version of Líadan’s story, we can still see very clearly that she is a woman of independent vision and thought. She is a woman trying her utmost to navigate the male structures that obstruct her. A Christian scribe almost obliterated her, but, in thrall to the absolute beauty and purity of her verse, this learned man could not quite let that go. In keeping some of the poetry, but by placing “upon her face” the kneeling-stone of penitence, he may have hoped that he had kept the poetry without keeping the poet. But in the poetry we can still apprehend her. In her own words, in her absolute craft, she is immortal. In the resolute strength of the Feminine she has held firm for thirteen hundred years, to this time when we can comprehend her reality once more.
Before concluding, if I may, a word of caution, and a literary cautionary tale. The poet Robert Graves, in his seminal and idiosyncratic examination of Goddess Myth and its relation to Poetry, The White Goddess, makes mention of Líadan, his reading obviously founded on Kuno Meyers’ 1902 translation. Ironically, the chapter in which Graves mentions her, a late chapter called “War in Heaven”, is by far the most blatant display of misogyny and homophobia in the entire book. Graves cannot resist attempting to infect Líadan’s motives with his own deep-rooted sexism, and tries to use her to hammer down his personal theory that “the White Goddess is anti-domestic; she is the perpetual ‘other woman’, and her part is difficult indeed for a woman of sensibility to play for more than a few years, because the temptation to commit suicide in simple domesticity lurks in every maenad’s and muse’s heart”. In Graves’s toxic rewriting of everything truly Feminine, where the Muse is merely the instrument of the male poet, he decides that Liadan’s taking of the veil is a labyrinthine ploy to punish Cuirithir for proposing marriage, threatening her career as poet for his own desires, and for stealing her heart.
His final words being: “Cuirithir renounced love, became a pilgrim, and Líadan died of remorse for the barren victory that she had won over him”. Such Pagan misogyny is no different to Christian misogyny, and there should be no room for it in any re-readings
of mythology or literature.
The lack of genealogy or immediate parental attribution for Líadan has been taken in some quarters as a sign of fictionality, yet that doesn’t account for the real reverence in which she was held in earlier tradition. Yet again, it could equally be argued that her lack of genealogy is a tool for anonymising her, a device of Disappearance through narrative control, something that women poets from Irish Bardic Culture to modern times are only too familiar with. Men wrote the histories, and often portrayed women as objects of devotion, or as penitents, or as cheats or twisters, or as naïve saintly figures. The list, sadly, goes on. And in the narrative elements of Líadan’s story, she is largely regarded in relation to the two male figures, Cuirithir and Cumméne. As soon as she meets Cuirithir, her independent life as a poet becomes impossible, and Cumméne is symbolic of the death of compromise. Líadan has been trapped, not simply beneath that stone of penitence, but also under the sediment of male-dominated Christianity.
It may also be instructive to look at how she is figured with a single appellation, that name Líadan. Her name, meaning Grey, may also now be seen as a sort of cognate for Hag. When we regard it in this way, we can comprehend more clearly how her biography has been so shamefully manipulated.
In my poems dedicated to her, I am self-consciously attempting to re-evaluate and recreate a proto-Líadan of the Disappeared, retaining the memory of her tribe, the seed of the Goddess Dhuibhne or Danu. It is an attempt to reinstate her as Poet; but as a poet of herself, not as a poet to any man or to any Christ. There are those, of course, who will argue, and not unreasonably, that such Pagan reconstructionism merely adds yet another layer to the palimpsest of myth. And indeed, that may well be the case. But if it is, then let that palimpsest now read brighter, let that palimpsest read true.
© John W. Sexton
John W. Sexton’s poetry is widely published and he has been a regular contributor to Live Encounters. A collection of experimentalist poetry, The Nothingness Kit, is now out from Beir Bua. In 2007 he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry.