Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin - Kilcash

Kilcash is a translation of an early 19th century ballad called Caoine Cill Chaise. It recounts the tale of the death of Margaret Butler, Vicountess Iveagh (d. 1744) and the subsequent decline of Kilcash castle and estate in Tipperary.

Margaret Butler (Lady Iveagh) had been sympathetic to the plight of Catholics under the oppressive Penal Laws and sheltered many priests, bishops and a number of Gaelic poets. In the ballad her death moves the writer to lament her tolerance and to compare the cutting down of the woods of Kilcash with the destruction of the Gaelic way of life under English rule.

Stanza by Stanza

The tone of lament fills this ballad from the very first line as the poet mourns ‘the last of the woods laid low’.  The once rich forests of Kilcash have been sold and the source of timber for the local community (a daily necessity at this time) is gone. Kilcash castle is empty: ‘Their bell is silenced now’ and the figure missed most by the local community is Lady Iveagh:

Where the lady lived with such honour,
No woman so heaped with praise,

That ‘the sweet words of Mass’ could be heard in her home at a time when Mass was illegal shows her sympathy for the Catholic community. Her loss, and the crumbling of the castle, is symbolic of the destruction of the last shelter of the ordinary people against colonial oppression.

The poet proceeds, in traditional ballad fashion, to list examples of the decay of Kilcash. He mourns the  neat gates knocked down’, ‘the avenue overgrown’, ‘The smooth wide lawn…all broken’ and the paddock ‘turned to a dairy’.  This once well-managed, thriving estate is desolate and eerily silent:

The roar of the bees gone silent…
The musical birds are stilled

In the absence of Lady Iveagh’s protection the local people have been ‘depressed and tamed’ by colonial forces: ‘Even the deer and the hunter…Look down upon us with pity’.  The place appears cursed, with nature itself appearing to mourn the loss of Lady Iveagh:

Mist hangs low on the branches
No sunlight can sweep aside,
Darkness falls among daylight
And the streams are all run dry;

In the penultimate stanza the poet laments the wider problem of the loss of Irish freedom personified as a female figure who is exiled ‘to France and to Spain’.  From the Flight of the Earls in 1607 onwards many generations of Gaelic and Norman chieftains fled to the continent after defeat to the English.

And now the worst of our troubles:
She has followed the prince of the Gaels –
He has borne off the gentle maiden,
Summoned to France and to Spain.

The final stanza strikes a more optimistic note looking forward to a future when the Irish might be free once more.  This freedom will be greeted with great celebrations and rejoicing:

She may come safe home to us here
To dancing and rejoicing
To fiddling and bonfire

He also hopes that Kilcash may be ‘built up anew’ and last till the end of time: ‘May it never again be laid low.’


Ballad Form:

As a translation of a 19th century Irish ballad this poem is intensely musical and features many of the elements we would associate with ballads.

1.    8 line stanzas
2.    Regular rhyming scheme: ABCBDEFE
3.    Regular metre – lilting iambic rhythm.
4.    Lists: The list of decaying aspects of Kilcash is a common element of ballads.
5.    Hyperbole: Descriptions are exaggerated for emphasis


Half-rhyme is a rhyme in which the stressed syllables of ending consonants match, however the preceding vowel sounds do not match ie a ‘sort of rhyme’. Ní Chuilleanáin makes extensive use of half-rhymes in this poem and examples include:
‘praise’ and ‘Mass’
‘down’ and ‘overgrown’
‘Gaels’ and ‘Spain’
‘here’ and ‘bonfire’

‘The musical birds are stilled’
‘May it never again be laid low.’

‘lady lived’
‘game gone wild’
‘preyed on the people’

This poem is full of strong images of desolation and destruction. Beautiful natural images are contrasted with pictures of a barren landscape to highlight the loss:

No hazel, no holly or berry,
Bare naked rocks and cold;
The forest park is leafless
And all the game gone wild.

The poet also contrast the noisy ‘commotion’ of the animals with the eerie silence that accompanies their absence:

The geese and the ducks’ commotion,
The eagle’s shout, are no more,
The roar of the bees gone silent,


A sense of doom pervades Kilcash and poet’s description of the haunted landscape of the ruined castle creates a bleak atmosphere in the poem.


The tone throughout is one of bitter lament as the poet mourns the decline of Kilcash and the loss of Irish liberty.  It lifts briefly in the final stanza with the picture of a better future where Kilcash is restored and Ireland regains its lost freedom.

Cathleen Ni Houlihan - a female figure
who symbolized Irish Nationalism.


The poet personifies Ireland’s freedom as an idealised young woman, ‘the gentle maiden’, who sought to look after her people as best she could:

Her company laments her
That she fed with silver and gold:
One who never preyed on the people
But was the poor man’s friend.

This shows the poets attitude that Ireland prospered prior to English rule and he hopes that this lady or symbol of Irish freedom ‘may come safe home to us here’.

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