On a bitterly cold weekend in March 2018, I was at the Kanturk Arts Festival where I listened to the impressive prizewinners in the poetry competition. The major winner was the poem by Ashley O’Neal which is now the first item in this remarkable collection, The Wren is Near. The book is an extensive series of poems which locate surviving local myths in Sliabh Luachra and beyond it in a long legendary history, starting with an imaginative extension of the familiar lore of the fate of the wren. So it belongs in a distinguished heritage from the Middle Ages to the present day, including for example Seamus Heaney’s Sweeney Astray which draws on the medieval Irish Buile Suibhne which also inspired Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. What O’Neal does so impressively though is to weave the characters and subjects of the mythological tradition – Cuchulainn, the lore of trees and birds, the first-person litany of Amergin – into the world around us in modern Sliabh Luachra.
The product is a compelling combination of the medieval legendary of gods and myths as they are celebrated by writers like Heaney, Ciarán Carson and Thomas Kinsella, with the lyric grace and evocativeness of writers like Michael Hartnett (in his books in both Irish and English, like Adharca Broic and A Necklace of Wrens. Although O’Neal says she does not know the Irish language fully, the spirit – and sometimes the letter – of the language pervades the book. The book’s nine sections have headings in both Irish and English: terms like Laoch (warrior), Wise Woman (Bean feasa), Caoineadh (Lament), Sovereignty (Flaitheas), and Lily in the Ruins (Lily ’ sna Fothracha).
Even these titles illustrate the great attraction of the book: the lyricism that it shares with – or derives from – the Irish Bardic tradition:
Stay where the kingfisher dwells...
Stay by the willow and weep
For the swans and their majesty.
The blackbird is dancing in the yews
Next to the stone graves.
It is perhaps putting it too strongly to say that the poems are informed by a kind of animism that links the worlds of nature and society together – the way the stillness of the heron or ‘the salmon of silence’ are figures for the quietness and acceptance of the wise and the aged. e book is firmly founded in the here and now as well: Sétanta is found in an empty parking lot; and we are urged to ‘let the cold in the soles be a reminder of what was’. What the book demonstrates so beautifully is that the modern natural world of Sliabh Luachra still maintains the atmosphere and the elements of its long history. The book argues too that the function of poetry is to illustrate such continuity, and that it is only poetry that can do that. O’Neal is a naturally gifted lyrical poet who is perfectly equipped to prove the point. And, for all the ruins and cabinet we have encountered along the way, the book ends with a ringing, positive declaration in ‘M’aisling’: I have a vision’:
For there is a dawn
Th at comes when
The wren sings to the lily once again.
The moral is (though moral is too crude a term) the one raised in Heaney’s ‘Badgers’:
How perilous is it to choose
Not to love the life we’re shown?
O’Neal answers eloquently that we must indeed love the life around us: as it is now and as it has always been. And this wonderful, sustained lyrical fantasia shows us why on every page.
Professor Bernard O’Donoghue
Lecturer in English
Wadham College Oxford University