Friday, July 19, 2013

Saint Deirbhle, and the Power of Love

Those beautiful old photographs of Father Browne’s that were featured in last week’s paper as part of the Feile Iorrais Folk Festival are a wonderful chance to remember and celebrate one of the greatest books to ever be written about Mayo by a Mayoman.

The Mayoman in question was one Séamus Mag Uidhir, who graced these very pages in his day under the pen-name of Préachán Néfinne, the crow of Nephin. He was born in Gaoth Sáile in 1902, did his bit for freedom from 1919 to 1921 and then became a teacher. In 1938 he took it into his head to go on a cycling tour of Erris and Achill with a friend of his home from America, two men who loved folklore and folktales and the Irish language, of course.

Fánaíocht i gCondae Mhaigh Eo, published in 1944, is the result of his tour. It’s a marvellous book, and an excellent book for someone who wants to brush up on his or her Irish. It was republished recently to update the Irish to modern usage and spelling, but the original blás of the language endures.

Most Irish that is written now is written to translate dry and dusty EU tracts about how to correctly spray your potatoes, as if you’d never seen a spud before. You’d be hard put to read that in English, to say nothing of in any other language. By contrast, Mag Uidhir wrote in celebration of all that he loved, and that love shines through the prose. The difference between the civil service tract and Mag Uidhir’s beautiful Irish is the difference between tapwater and buttermilk.

The book itself, which translates as “Rambling in the County Mayo,” is a collection of folklore, stories and songs handed down through the generations when storytelling was all the people had. There are stories about 1798 and the Achill Hat, about the poet Richard Barrett and about Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen.

In 1593, having had enough of having her ships being bothered by the Royal Navy, Granuaile assembled her navy and sailed up the Thames as far as Westminster itself. She thought it best to settle her differences with Éilis, Banríon Rua na Breataine, queen-to-queen. The woman had style.

But the best story in Fánaíocht concerns Saint Deirbhle, and a man who was very bad with that most terrible, capricious and wasting of diseases – love.

Deirbhle herself was originally from Meath, then, as now, a place where very few are short of a few shillings. Deirbhle’s father was a wealthy chieftain in the area, and she herself was a great beauty. Her father looked forward to Deirbhle making a good match, and all the power that such a match would bring.

But Pappa Deirbhle was neither the first nor the last father to find out it’s very hard to tell your daughters what they’ll do. For Deirbhle had decided to dedicate her life to God, and had no interest in getting married to anybody.

This was particularly galling to her father because, as it happened, he knew just the boy who’d be a perfect son-in-law. A local prince was both hopelessly smitten and utterly rich, and every day he’d come to Deirbhle’s castle to press his suit.

Deirbhle was having none of it. She rode away in secret on a donkey, the better to know God and minister to His people by locating herself in the most isolated and lonely spot on the Earth. The County Mayo, in other words.

Deirbhle had settled in Eachléim and was getting on fine there, praying, fasting and ministering to the poor, when what does she see in the harbour only a fine ship in full sail. And who does she see coming down the gangway only himself. The man from back home who just can’t take a hint had gone and tracked her down.

He just would not leave her alone. Every day he had her pestered about how much he loveD her, how the birds didn’t sing in the trees for him any more, and if she’d only be his she’d make him the happiest man in the world.

Deirbhle tried to be nice but this old routine got tiresome fairly quickly. Eventually she turned to him and says “look, this is all very nice and it’s not that I’m not flattered, but for God’s sake, there are millions of women out there just like me. What makes me so special?”

Your man is a bit taken aback but he thinks for a minute and he says, “well, even though you’re perfect in every way, if I had to pick one feature alone – and I wouldn’t want to, because you’re so perfect in every way – but if I had to pick just one feature, it’d have to be your beautiful eyes.”

“Oh,” says Deirbhle. “Well, if that’s all you want, you can have them.” And with that, she gouged out her eyes and handed them to him.

Awkward, as the young people like saying nowadays. The folklore doesn’t record this man’s name, and only speculates that he died of a broken heart. Maybe the folklore is just being kind – your correspondent’s guess is that he ran back to the ship as fast as his legs would carry him, married some nice local girl from Skryne or Seneschalstown and counted himself as having had a lucky escape until the end of his days.

As for Deirbhle herself, it worked out surprisingly well for her too. Although blind, she continued her good works with the poor and one day, while washing her face in a stream, her sight was restored to her. Deirbhle’s well is now a place of pilgrimage, and water from that well is said to be good for eye complaints. It might have some balm for a broken heart too – the poor old eejit, he was only trying to be nice.