Raiftearaí (Raftery), Antaine

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Raiftearaí (Raftery), Antaine

A native of Mayo, the Irish-language poet Antaine Raiftearaí (anglicized Anthony Raftery, 1779–1835) spent most of his life in east Galway and his home county. Contemporary manuscript copies of his work and later oral tradition suggest that he was well remembered throughout Connacht. He came posthumously to national prominence in the early 1900s as one of the few nineteenth-century Gaelic composers whose output attracted scholarly notice. His first modern editor, Douglas Hyde (1903), heard Raiftearaí's verse recited in County Roscommon during his youth in the 1870s. Hyde assembled written and spoken versions of his poems, rendered them into English, and did much to shape interpretation of their author's career. Subsequent anthologization for school curricula of items like his lament for a boating tragedy in Annaghdown on the southeastern shores of Lough Corrib in 1828, when twenty-eight people were drowned, led to ongoing awareness of Raiftearaí throughout the twentieth century. In 1987 Ciarán Ó Coigligh provided the authoritative up-to-date edition of his poems, complete with critical apparatus and extensive annotation, but without English translations. Some fifty more of Raiftearaí's compositions survive, amounting to about 4,000 lines of verse. Because only one-fifth of them can be dated, editors have grouped the works thematically. The poems and extant folk memories are an impressive record of their creator's culture and community. They furnish the relatively sparse surviving details of his own life.

Raiftearaí apparently lost his sight when he was five years old. He made his living as a wandering musician and poet, traveling extensively throughout a cluster of adjacent Connacht baronies, walking mainly, as references to the appalling state of his footwear indicate. Claims of his having been in various Munster venues are probably literary inventions. His disability would appear to have prevented him from visiting locations like the pilgrimage mountain, Croagh Patrick, where he had been advised to go to atone for his sins. He was often attracted to his destinations by accounts of the hospitality that he might receive there. Minor local gentry like the Taaffes of Killeden, Co. Mayo, or the Lynches of Lavally, Co. Galway, welcomed him. Praise of their towns, villages and homes, and of the individuals themselves, is a major strand of his work. He mentions the Catholic clergy, but there is less evidence that they supported him. Raiftearaí seems to have received much assistance from successful or prosperous tradesmen whom he extolled. Some of them, such as the Galway carpenter Seán Mac Conraoi, were literate, and they may have begun writing down his output. Certain of his numerous verse portraits of women might also have been commissions. His vagrant lifestyle and evident fondness for taverns and good company may have overtaken him eventually; he already described himself as aged in a composition from 1832. A serious cholera outbreak, which lasted in the west until 1835, was possibly responsible for his demise, although the precise reasons for his death are unknown.

Raiftearaí's poetry is a rich source of information concerning those with whom he came into contact. It outlines the lives of his landowning benefactors, their estates, demesnes, livestock and fauna, houses, furnishings, tableware and other accoutrements, and their feasting and alternative pastimes. Proximity to coastal and lakeland settings is reflected in his patrons' varied marine and freshwater food supplies. The manufacturing processes and output of his tradesmen supporters—tailors, weavers, smiths, and joiners, among others— are also set out in detail. The inventory of what his carpenter friend Mac Conraoi could produce by way of farm implements, house fittings, and boating equipment amounts to over fifty items. Intellectual as well as material subjects figure in his work. Raftery shows residual familiarity with and sympathy for the revolutionary republican ideology of 1798. By the 1820s he supported Catholic Emancipation, as seen in his endorsement of the "Catholic rent" and his satisfaction at O'Connell's County Clare by-election victory in 1828. He approved of the antitithe protests in the early 1830s, having earlier been an opponent of Protestant proselytizing societies. Because of their focus on public events, these writings can be dated more accurately than his others.

Whether personal or political, a standard Raiftearaí poem has an easily recognizable configuration. Most of his works are six to eight stanzas, eight lines each, in ochtfhoclach meter, based on the stress patterns of contemporary speech. Because detailed description is such a pronounced feature of his style, incremental listing (of the contents of a patron's home, or details of a tradesman's craft, for example) is a dominant characteristic. This may have served as a mnemonic device for its unsighted author, and suggests an interaction with oral compositional techniques. In this connection his strategies deserve to be compared with those of another blind nineteenth-century composer, the Listowel-based D. C. Hennessy (de Brún 2001). Raiftearaí's efforts to secure credit as the originator of a work can be seen in first- or third-person references to his own surname at the beginning or end of many poems, in a pattern similar to a painter's signature. This device and the recitation of his poems to evocative song (amhrán) airs and melodies might have ensured accurate ascription of certain compositions to him in oral memory. His more extensive works deal with religious topics like the imminence of death, or retell the history of Ireland. The historical poems are informed by items from traditional handwritten sources, thus hinting at the presence of manuscript materials in Connacht. They also attest to the methods of assimilation and subsequent recreation of these sources.

Raiftearaí often depicts himself as a skilled composer of verse in Irish and an authoritative spokesperson for his audience (Denvir 2000). He implicitly contrasts his attainments with the artistic shortcomings (not to mention venality) of other Galway-based poets such as the Calnans, whom he criticizes in poems of considerable length and satirical invective. All of these indicators suggest that he was an active participant in a cultural community of considerable vitality, diversity, and self-awareness. Much of its vigor may have derived from the obviously enduring strength of the Irish language in the poet's day. Borrowed or adapted English terms do figure in the details of what his tradesmen patrons could produce, but even here an indigenous technical vocabulary remains prominent. Raiftearaí's own ability to generate acceptable new word formations (for instance, noun compounds) is noteworthy. This linguistic creativity mirrors his own lively intelligence, alertness, and conviviality as well as the enduring resourcefulness of his tradition. Such an image contrasts with the impression which the poem Mise Raiftearaí (doubtfully attributed to him) conveys, that of a forlorn and desolate individual. Those characteristics more accurately describe the Ireland which witnessed the collapse of Gaelic civilization in 1845, ten years after his death, rather than the dynamism of the composer's actual life and times.

SEE ALSO Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic League; Hyde, Douglas; Language and Literacy: Decline of Irish Language; Literacy and Popular Culture


de Brún, Pádraig, ed. The Lays of North Kerry & Other Poems and Sketches [by] D. C. Hennessy. 2001.

Denvir, Gearóid. "Filíocht Antaine Raiftearaí." In Saoi na hÉigse: Aistí in Ómós do Sheán Ó Tuama, edited by in Pádraigín Riggs, Breandán Ó Conchúir, and Seán Ó Coileáin. 2000.

Hyde, Douglas. Poems Ascribed to Raftery. 1903.

Ó Coigligh, Ciarán. Raiftearaí: Amhráin agus Dánta. 1987.

Neil Buttimer