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In praise of Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill, by Declan Kiberd


Irish Women Writers: ‘She invents a new tense, neither past nor present, which is a kind of “women’s time”, rejecting all ideas of authority, power and deference’
The tomb of Art Ó Laoghaire: If ever a woman spoke across the centuries in tones of authentic love, that is Eibhlin Dubh in her lament for her murdered husband Art Ó Laoghaire in 1773. We know little enough about Eibhlín – almost as little as we do about Homer. It seems somehow appropriate that we have no picture of her.
If ever a woman spoke across the centuries in tones of authentic love, that is Eibhlín Dubh in her lament for her murdered husband Art Ó Laoghaire in 1773. Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire is rightly regarded as one of the great elegies of European culture, an amazing combination of tradition and the individual talent – moving through moods of shock, tenderness, nostalgic reverie, personal outrage, vengeance and (in the end) immense dignity.
It is a cry of passion by a woman who is before and beyond “gentility”, a true aristocrat of the emotions. The ferocity of her language is exceeded only by the awesome control of language, every word etched, indelible, incontrovertible. The lines are spoken in a rhythm of such throbbing intensity as to suggest that a culture capable of this utterance can never die. And how right Eibhlín Dhubh was – her tribute has called forth some amazing translations, none better than that by Eilís Dillon.
We know little enough about Eibhlín – almost as little as we do about Homer. She is believed to have spoken some of the lines over the dead body of her slain husband, whose blood she symbolically drank. After expressing her great pain, a formal feeling comes – and she invents a new tense, neither past nor present, which is a kind of “women’s time”, rejecting all ideas of authority, power and deference. In doing as much, she generates what Peter Levi has called “the greatest poem written in these islands in the whole eighteenth century”. It seems somehow appropriate that we have no picture of her.
Declan Kiberd is Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of English and Irish Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Synge and the Irish Language, Men and Feminism in Irish Literature, Irish Classics, The Irish Writer and the World, Inventing Ireland, and Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece.