Many decades ago, my brother Jesse took a beginners’ course in the Irish language. Out of that experience, he memorized a short, beautiful poem by Anthony Raftery, usually called “Mise Raifteirí.” When we were last in Ireland, in October of 2016, he suggested that we visit Raftery’s grave, which turns out to be in the vicinity of the town of Loughrea, in county Galway, the same area where our mother was from. So, with our cousin Martin Flynn and our good friend Dominick Murray, we took the short ride from the Flynn household in Cahercrea to the Reilig na Bhfilí (Cemetery of the Poets) in Killeeneen where Raftery is buried.
As Wikipedia informs us, Raftery (30 March 1779–25 December 1835), who composed in Irish, is often called the last of the wandering bards. He lived almost exactly a century later than the great Turlough O' Carolan, the itinerant harper who composed hundreds of gorgeous musical pieces that are still widely played today, just as Raftery's poems, which were never written down in his lifetime, are taught today in Irish schools. Raftery also played the fiddle, and I have a special affection for musician-poets. Both men were blind, a misfortune that had no apparent negative effect on their creative abilities.
I thought I had taken a photo of the signage regarding the other poets buried in the Reilig na Bhfilí, but if I did I can’t find it. One Internet source gives their names as Marcus and Peatsaí Ó Callanáin. I believe the signage stated that they were brothers and both rivals of Raftery. I don’t know if any of their poems are extant. [Please see the comment below by my old friend Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, who provides some invaluable information on Peatsaí Ó Callanáin.] In any case, Raftery is without question the top dog in this beautiful, serene little graveyard. (photo of Terence Winch, Oct. 2016, by Jesse Winch)
There we were in this place to which the paths of glory but lead, caught up in its eerie, decaying beauty, when my cousin Martin gathers us to show us something. He holds up a white envelope sealed in a plastic cover. “Someone has left me a check!” he jokes. We all laugh. We debate the propriety of opening this mystery letter, but really there is no other choice but to do so. This place is nearly abandoned, with no office or staff or any other visitors. So Martin opens the envelope. Inside is a card showing a photo of children playing with a homemade little plane, with a real plane in the background, ca. 1940, and a caption reading, “ YOU WILL NOT DO INCREDIBLE THINGS WITHOUT AN INCREDIBLE DREAM.” There’s also an indecipherable message in longhand. But here’s the kicker: folded in the card is a 20 Euro bill. Money, after all. Graveyard money! We spent it all on caffeine and cake in a coffee shop in Galway City. Thank you, Mr. Raftery.
photo of Martin Flynn by Dominick Murray; photo of Raftery's grave by T. Winch)
Here is his poem, with an English translation:
Mise Raifteirí, an file,
I am Raftery, the poet,
And, finally, Raftery's work continues to make its way into the world, as this lovely song inspired by his poem---and performed here by Eleanor Shanley and John McCartin---attests. (I'm not sure at this point if they are the composers).