The classical culture of old Connemara

The classical culture of old Connemara
The World of Books by the books editor


A bout in bed with one of those picked-up bugs that linger on, has allowed me to read some books that I ought to have read, or reread, ages ago. I can leave the rereads for now, for one the reads was extraordinarily interesting and revealing.

This is James Berry’s Tales of the West of Ireland. I was aware of the book for it was originally published by Liam Miller at the Dolmen Press in 1966, and every Irish bookman is familiar with that press and its output.

Now James Berry may well not be a familiar name (though copies of the earlier editions can be bought on line). His book certainly had a strange history. He was a traditional story teller of a unique kind. During the last years of his life he wrote a long series of partly interlinked recitals of his stock of tales for the readers of The Mayo News. He spent his entire life in Connacht, dying at the age of 72 in 1914.

An American academic who taught literature at Aquinas College in Michigan, while leading groups of her students on stays in the west of Ireland in1964-1965, discovered the tales in a family records and set about, not only recovering them, but in getting them back into print.


The stories reveal a rip-roaring world of peddlers, shanachies, smugglers, poteen makers, pirates, revenue-men and peasants that is filled with vigour, romance and appreciation of a well-turned tale of adventure and intrigue. It is the story of  a world that Jack Yeats could have  illustrated.

But here I have only space for only one passage in the book that struck me particularly.  In one tale he is speaking of a poet Michael Sweeny, ‘the Robert Burns of Connacht’ (with all that implies).

This leads into praise of the hedge school: “The peasantry of Sweeny’s day who could read and write were far and away the best and cleverest men Ireland has produced since, or ever will again.”

Be that as it maybe, this rich store of literature was down to the work of the hedge schoolmasters of the 18th Century. He goes on:

“The hedge schoolmaster was not the sort of man Carleton and Lever have lampooned, no such thing; he was generally a well-informed stranger, the scion perhaps of some noble family who had been disinherited by Elizabeth, or by James the First, or by the inhuman Cromwell.

“The school boys carried with them these masters Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, the History of Greece and Rome, the Arabian Nights, Thomas-a-Kempis, Dr Gallagher and Keating, the Old Testament, Sallust in English, Ovid, Ward’s Cantos, McGeoghegan’s History of Ireland, and a hundred and one other books.

“Where they all came from is one of the things that now astonishes me, for these books were in every peasant’s cottage on the little loft over the fireplace, along with the wool-cards, the balls of yarn, and the spindles; there the books nested, some without covers, and all of them stained with smoke. When a boy had his Odyssey read, he exchanged it with another chap for his Iliad, and so on. They spent seven or eight years at this kind of work, and got them off by heart, as we called it.”


I have said and quoted enough to give readers a notion of the good stuff to be found in this book. But on the classical tradition among the peasantry I was reminded of Padraic Colum’s once well-known poem (now I  suspect, like the poet himself, almost forgotten), ‘A Poor Scholar of the Forties’, a man of a later generation: of whom the Younger Irelander of 1818 asked “What good to us your wisdom-store,/ Your Latin verse, your Grecian lore?’ To which the scholar replied, as many might in all ages:

And what to me is Gael or Gall?

Less than the Latin or the Greek

I teach these by the dim rush-light

In smoky cabins night and week.

But what avail my teaching slight?

Years hence, in rustic speech, a phrase,

As in wild earth a Grecian vase!”

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