Ethnic cleansing and Tomás Rua Ó Suilleabháin

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, General, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2013), Letters, Volume 21

Sir,—In an earlier letter (HI 20.5, Sept./Oct. 2012) I suggested that the last lines of Tomás Rua Ó Suilleabháin’s praise-poem ‘Sé Domhnall Binn Ó Conaill caoin’ amounted to an unambiguous aspiration to ethnic cleansing (‘go nglanfar cruinn as Éilge iad’). In taking me to task on this (in surprisingly intemperate tones), Niall Gillespie (HI 20.6, Nov./Dec. 2012) asserts that only the oppressor parson/magistrate class is the object of the poet’s condemnation and that there is no wish expressed for ethnic cleansing.

Mr Gillespie purports to give a summary translation of ‘Domhnall Binn’: this is not only selective and defective but misunderstands the significance of the two last lines. The reference in the first verse is not, pace Gillespie, to the failed 1796 expedition but to the millennarian expectation, widespread in the popular poetry of the 1820s, of another, and this time more successful, liberation fleet in the immediate future. This is foretold, says Tomás Rua approvingly, in Pastorini’s prophecies—to which Mr Gillespie does not refer at all. Pastorini, of course, predicted the imminent overthrow of Protestantism in Ireland. Tomás hopes for a rent-free future, not simply the abolition of ‘unjust rents’, as Mr Gillespie would have it.

Moreover, it is historically naive to think of the poet as a political agitator, like his patron, content with securing ‘near-complete (?) civil rights’. In fact, Tomás Rua anticipates a visionary future of a transfer of power to the Catholic people—‘nuair a bheidh an dlí fúinn féin arís’. The English word ‘emancipation’ occurring in polemical Irish-language verse has explosive political connotations. In this connection, it should be recalled that, as long as Gaelic culture survived in Uibh Ráthach, it was customary to dance a few triumphal steps after the recital of each verse of ‘Domhnall Binn’.

The strident anti-Protestant verse of Tomás Rua, Raiftearaí, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoghaire, Diarmaid Ua Mathghamhna and others has to be understood in the passionate sectarian context of the 1820s, the result of various historical factors. We are talking here not only of socio-economic oppression but also of a visceral hatred of the Protestant religion and its founding fathers—‘sliocht Liútair an éithigh is Chalbhin chaim chraosaigh’, as Tomás Rua expresses it in ‘Cuimhnighí mar tháinig Maois’. Similar phrases occur in his ‘A Bhrasby, taoi ar buile’, where he excoriates a Catholic priest who has turned Protestant, a particularly despised category. But all this is commonplace in the popular Gaelic poetry of the 1820s.

Finally, James S. Donnelly deals in detail with this topic for the 1820s in his recent book Captain Rock (Cork, 2009), richly documenting the various English-language popular sources—threatening notices, prophecies, ballads, handbills, etc. There is overwhelming evidence here also of a widespread and vehement ‘ethnic cleansing’ mentality.—Yours etc.,



ditor’s note

An additional six letters (from Jeffery Dudgeon, Niall Meehan, Eve Morrison, Seán Kelleher, Maureen Deasy and Maura O’Donovan) arising from the ongoing controversy concerning the scholarship of Peter Hart, which we didn’t have room for here, are on open access on our website Correspondence on these issues is now closed (for the moment!).

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