The themes Aogán Ó Rathaille wrote about
It is thought that Ó Rathaille was born in Screathan an Mhil (Scrahanaveal), in the Sliabh Luachra region of County Kerry into a relatively prosperous family. Dinneen tells us that "his father died while he was still young, leaving his widow in good circumstances. She owned at one time half the townland of Scrahanaveal, which, however, under the stress of circumstances , she relinquished, and came to dwell at Cnoc an Chorrfhiaidh, also called Stagmount... Here Egan lived a long time." It may also have been here that Aodhagán was trained in the bardic arts. He acquired an excellent education in the bardic school of the Egan family (ollamhs to the Mac Cárthaigh Mór) and was taught Latin and English as well as Irish literature and history. He became a respected ollamh and traveled to the homes of the Old Irish chiefs where he was treated as an honoured guest. He also worked as a scribe.
Ó Rathaille lived through a time of major political and social upheaval in Ireland which was ultimately to result in the near abandonment of the Irish language and the death of the bardic tradition. The changes in Irish society directly impacted Ó Rathaille’s life and resulted in his social status being reduced from that of a respected ollamh to a destitute pauper. This transition was a source of huge bitterness to Aodhagán and it was this pathos that drove him to pen much of his poetry.
Aodhagán Ó Rathaille was related to the brehons to the Mac Cárthaigh Mór family and would have seen them as his chiefs and patrons). Due to the Munster plantation however, the Browne family (later known as Kenmare) had succeeded to the MacCarthy lands under English occupation. Unlike most of the English settlers, the Brownes soon reverted to their old Catholic faith and made matches with the leading Catholic families in Munster and Leinster - Ó Suilleabháin Mór (O'Sullivan Mor), Fitzgerald of Desmond, MacCarthys, Butlers, O'Briens, Plunketts and many others. Sir Valentine Browne, 3rd Baronet, 1st Viscount (1638–1694) was a supporter of James II, King of England and was given the title Viscount Kenmare by James. He was the landlord and patron of Aodhagán Ó Rathaille. However, after the fall of James in 1691, Valentine Browne became attainted for his association with James and his estates were made forfeit in 1691. His son Nicholas Browne, 4th Baronet, 2nd Viscount was also a Jacobite supporter and therefore also attainted and could not claim the estates. Nicholas Browne's children were still to inherit though, so the commissioners of the estate were instructed not to let the estate for more than 21 years. However, it was let to John Blennerhasset and George Rogers (two members of parliament) for a contract of 61 years. Attempting to retain the estate and curry favour, Blennerhasset and Rogers claimed they planned to plant the estate with Protestants when their illegal contract was questioned by the English Commission in 1699.
However, the contract was quashed and in 1703 the estate was sold to John Asgill, who had married a daughter of Nicholas Browne. Under his management, two ruthless and greed driven men, Timothy Cronin and Murtagh Griffin collected the hearth money tax from tenants and felled the woods for quick profit. Aodhagán composed a vitriol-ridden satire upon the death of Griffin, and another in “honour” of Cronin. It is likely that as a consequence of the loss of the estate by the Brownes, Ó Rathaille had to leave his native district and lived in poor circumstances close by Tonn Tóime, at the edge of Castlemaine Harbour, some twelve miles west of Killarney.
It was not until the death of Nicholas Browne in 1720, that the Kenmare estates were again placed under the ownership of a Browne – Nicholas’ son Valentine. Valentine Browne (5th Baronent, 3rd Viscount) took possession of the Kenmare estate upon the death of Nicholas Browne in 1720. Having been destitute for so long, (even composing a poem on his gratitude at receiving the gift of a pair of shoes) Ó Rathaille clearly hoped for a restoration of his position as ollamh and celebrated Valentine’s marriage to Honora Butler in 1720 in an Epithalamium.
However, society had changed vastly in the intervening time and the estates had suffered under the mismanagement of John Asgill and were taking a severely reduced income. Valentine Browne either could not or would not restore Ó Rathaille's position. It seems that the refusal of this request was sufficiently devastating for Ó Rathaille to compose the bitter and mournful poem in which he launches a vitriolic attack on the new English gentry like Valentine Browne and makes reference to the failure of the Jacobites as being a primary cause for his own situation.
Little historical biographical reference has been found concerning Ó Rathaille's personal circumstances during his life and the above details are mostly based on a literal interpretation of his surviving poems. Breandán Ó Buachalla warns against putting too much stock in literal interpretation of the poems especially regarding the death-bed poem.
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