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Martha Larkin

Dr. O‟Hara
Independent Study Project
The Lament for Art O’Leary and the Expression of Personal Grief in Keening
No keening has quite captured the essence of both the formalized elements of the
traditional keen and the expression of personal grief as The Lament for Art O’Leary.
Keening is a universal phenomenon in funeral practices with generalized qualifications
that have taken place for hundreds of years. Irish keening, however, is especially noted in
the academic treatment of keening for its use of distinctive, ritualized wailing as well as
complex oral extemporized poetry that utilizes specific themes and devices. Irish keening
is also used in tandem with other funeral practices and beliefs such as the wake and the
banshee. This paper will attempt to illustrate distinct funeral practices of the Irish that
greatly differentiate their keening in the larger historical context of the practice.
Yet, when is the distinction made between the expected formal qualities of an
Irish keen steeped in historical tradition utilizing specific meter/ themes or the real
expression of personal grief? In the introduction to Three Irish Poets, Eavan Bolland
states that women‟s art often occurs in the fusion between the public and private life,
where the suggestion of “…private connections can be made into public art” (x). This
paper attempts to find the “private connections” imbibed into the “public art” of keening
in Eileen O‟Connell‟s The Lament for Art O’Leary. This paper attempts to make the
distinction between the public art form of the keen and personal grief by using a method
of analysis purposed by Angela Bourke in her article, “ The Irish Traditional Lament and
The Grieving Process.” Ultimately, this paper aspires to show how Eileen O‟Connell‟s
The Lament for Art O’Leary uniquely fits within the greater historical context of keening
due to the utilization of the common traditional/formal elements of the Irish keen to
express deeply personal grief, marking a transition from ritual craft to personal
expression.
The tradition of keening has a long and varied history in the public expression of
grief throughout the world. There is significant evidence that depicts the practice of
keening following death as a universal phenomenon occurring in widely geographically
dispersed locations during many millennia. For instance, the practice of keening is
extensively recorded in Greek, Finnish, Indian, and Scottish cultures as well as in Ireland.
Each culture has unique features distinct to location and time period, but there are many
shared similarities amongst keening practices worldwide. To “keen” often involves the
formulaic practice of crying, wailing, and/or screaming during specific ceremonies such
as marriages, deaths, and other crucial turning points in life (Lysaght “Caonineadh” 65)
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.
Many keens also involve the use of oral extemporized verses composed with particular
meter and musical qualities. These styles of keening although differentiated are often
traditionally practiced in tandem with each other and are almost never mutually
exclusive. It is important to note that the practices of keening and lamentation are
synonymous with each other and entail the same practices. Thus, lamentation and
keening are interchangeably referred to in academic research and within this paper. The
practice of keening is universally a specific female occupation.
2
Interestingly, keens were
most often performed by women for men following their deaths when the expression of

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See chapter 2 of James M. Wilce‟s “Crying Shame” for more clarification on the qualifications and
classifications of keening and lament.
2
There is evidence that men could partake in the Irish lamenting process. However, most evidence
suggests that keening was overwhelmingly a female-oriented practice and thus this paper maintains that
stance. See note #2 in Bourke‟s “More in Anger than in Sorrow” for more information.
grief was expected to be through keening Three groups of women were often involved in
the keening process although their presence and participation is dependent upon a variety
of factors. The first and most prominent group of keeners were female family members of
the deceased such as their wife(s), daughter(s), sister(s), and/or mother. The second group
was professional keeners that based their livelihoods on the performance of ritualistic
wailing and extemporized poetry. The third group is compromised of the larger
community of the deceased who would be in attendance at the funeral and expected to
participate in choral sections of the lament. The earliest written account depicting
keening dates to 1400 B.C.E. in the Papyrus of the Royal Scribe Ani, which depicts a
group of professional female mourners paid to wail and put dirt upon their heads
following Ani‟s funeral procession (Brophy 1). However, there is ample evidence that the
practice greatly predates even 1400 B.C.E. with some scholars suggesting that the Virgin
Mary keened over the body of Christ (Bourke 166).
While keening has a strong history in many countries, the Irish keening practice
has become the most widely known. The Irish keening practice is referred to as
caoineadh in the Gaelic, which means “to cry, to weep” (Brophy 1). Caoineadh was one
of the primary features of the traditional Irish wake and funeral process that began with
the discovery of the body and ended with entombment. The wake is a distinctly Irish
practice preceding the funeral that involves the practice of watching the body; the
traditional Irish wake captured the elements of carnival by embracing qualities of both
life and death. Irish wakes typically involved the visible display of the body either in the
deceased‟s residence, barn, or a communal location; the event could last upwards of three
days or longer before the religious funeral and burial. Bourke states that the Caoineadh
can be seen as “… the verbal and musical aspect of traditional “theater of death” that
occurs during the wake” (Bourke “Anger” 163).
Caoineadh involved the ritualistic wailing, crying, and/or screaming as well as
extemporized oral-formulaic poetry. The oral-formualic verse within the Irish caoineadh
is often based on the Rosc meter of prose. The Rosc meter was a popular metre predating
the traditional syllabic metres that came into vogue during the eighth and ninth centuries
and saw continued use especially for extempore lamentation (Lysaght “Caonineadh” 71).
It is inconclusive, however, as to whether all keens were consistently given in Rosc metre
or if Rosc metre served as a suggested basic form to how a keen was supposed to be
structured (Ó Coileán). Traditionally and in broad terms, however, a lament poem merely
consisted of groups of short, rhymed lines usually of two or three stresses, each group
beginning with a formulaic opening line (Irish keens tend to have several shared themes
that are both positive and negative. Some of the common positive themes in keens regard
the deceased‟s attractiveness, bravery, prosperity, generosity, and temperament; the
manner of the deceased‟s family, clothing, home, and horse are also discussed within a
specific verse of the lament (Bourke “Traditional Lament” 288). Keens were also places
to air social grievance about the deceased, their enemies, and the people or causes
responsible for their death. Keens also allowed women to articulate their grievances with
their relatives and in-laws as well as any person who had wronged the deceased or the
keener (Bourke “Anger” 160). Keeners often utilized these images through metaphor and
opposing depictions of nature as well as deliberately juxtaposing stark and shocking
images together. Most of these elements- ritualized wailing, Rosc meter, positive/
negative themes, and juxtaposition - are readily apparent in Gaelic lamentation texts from
various time periods and locations.
Female family members of the deceased were responsible for performing
caoineadhs for their deceased. Most recorded keens are performed for deceased male
relatives.
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These keeners were most often the mothers or wives of the deceased
depending upon his age and marital status. If the deceased had no female members able
to complete a keen or a stranger passed away in the community, the community would
hire professional keeners to perform the task with payment such as salt, tobacco,
whiskey, or sometimes cash (Bourke “Anger”162). One family member or professional
keener acted as the chief mourner responsible for setting the tone, rhyme, and themes
expressed in the lament beginning immediately upon death and continued for the majority
of the wake (Bourke 162). This woman, who acted as the chief mourner, was known as
the bean chaointe (Brophy 11). The bean chaointe would be chosen for the position based
on their relationship to the deceased and their ability to compose verse and their position
began as soon as news of the death arrived. The bean chaointe was meant to either travel
to the location of the death to begin her keen; she was supposed to look disheveled and to
publicly show the grief that she was going through as a result of the death. Bourke, in her
article, “More in Anger than in Sorrow: Irish Women‟s Lament Poetry” describes the
bean chaointe as such:
The Lamenter does not stop to comb her hair, put on shoes, or change her
clothes- sometimes she loosens her hair or tears her clothing, baring her breasts.
In her self-presentation she acts out the disorder brought about by death, and her

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Keens could be performed for deceased women, but these texts are almost nonexistent compared to the
sheer number of laments for deceased men. Thus, the gender of the deceased is always presumed male in
this paper.
journey takes her not along roads but across country, through wild nature. She
does not notice the stones and briars that cut her feet. (165)
This appearance of madness was maintained throughout the entire wake and also
marginalized the woman as she acted as a representative on the behalf of the deceased
and attempts to replicate the madness inherit with grief. The bean chaointe‟s behavior
during the lamentation is just as crucial to its success as the oral-formalic creation and
recitation of the keen.
The appearance and behavior of the bean chaointe can be compared to a “living”
banshee in both manner and appearance. The banshee is a supernatural female figure in
Irish mythology whose screams, cries, and wailings supposedly predict death of those
who hear them; the banshee is also known to have a wild, crazed appearance. Besides the
apparent similarities between the actions of the banshee and the bean chaointe, the
linguistic origins of the Gaelic forms of the Anglicized “banshee” show striking
similarities to that of bean chaointe. The most common Gaelic form is an bean sì while
locational terms such as adhbh chaointe, badhbh chaointeachdin, an bhean chaointe, and
an bhean cháinte (Lysaght “Banshee” 94). In her article, “Irish Banshee Traditions,”
Patricia Lysaght also reveals that professional keeners were most likely to report
becoming banshees upon death and the correlation between lamenters and banshees (95).
The banshee plays a transcendental role between the living and dead, so does the bean
chaointe in her position as grief counselor and tragic hero. The bean chaointe‟s behavior
is justified by the grief death has caused while simultaneously justifying what she says
free of consequence due to “her madness” (Bourke “Anger” 166). Ultimately, the
successful bean chaointe must have the knowledge of both the elements that compromise
traditional keens and the expected behaviors associated with it to perform lamentation.
The bean chaointe was also responsible for leading the other groups of women
known as the mná caointe (Brophy 11). The mná caointe was compromised of family
members, paid keeners, and women from the larger community of the deceased. The mná
caointe played a crucial role in the keen during the Irish wake as the “active” inner
audience who would participate in the ritualized choruses of sobbing, crying, and wailing
while some may actively add to the caoineadh with verses and lines (Bourke “Anger”
164). The bean chaointe was never supposed to be fully alone during her lament, which
required the presence of the mná caointe during the entire grieving process. These women
were required to be constantly attentive to perform their duties of joining into the chorus;
the mná caointe faced the possibility of being reprimanded by the bean chaointe in the
form of a vocal reprimand and curse those who were inattentive. According to Bourke,
there are surviving lament texts and songs that have verses begin with “Woman over
there that laughed!” and proceed to wish misfortune upon them ( “Anger” 167).
Meanwhile, the “inactive” audiences at the wakes while caoineadhs were held would be
men, young girls, and children who would be merely observers at the wake. One of the
most famous accounts of an Irish keening is transcribed in Vona Goarke’s Lament for Art
O’Leary from Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Hall‟s Ireland: Its Scenery and Character:
The women of the household arrange themselves at either side, and the keen at
once commences. They rise with one accord, and, moving their bodies with slow
motion to and fro, their arms apart they continue to keep up a heart-rending cry.
This cry is interrupted for a while to give the ban caointhe (the leading keener), an
opportunity of commencing. At the close of every stanza, the cry is repeated…
and then dropped; the woman then again proceeds with the dirge, and so on to the
close. (13)
The caoineadh was a prominent feature of the Irish funeral practice for centuries,
ranging from the eighth to the twentieth century. The earliest written documentation of
caoineadh by an Irishman dates back to the eighth century in a poem to the Virgin Mary
by a monk named Blathmac Son of Cù Brettan; this poem is important to the study of
Irish keening because it assumes the reader has knowledge regarding the lamentation
process with specific reference to the use of combined hand motions and words that are
characteristic of the improvised ritual lament (Lysight “Caoineadh”66). Another written
document- an Irish penitential- from the ninth century reveals that keening women were
active during this time period because keening was provided to members of all social
classes due to its significance as a funeral practice. In the twelfth century, Giraldus
Cambrensis, in his guide to Ireland titled Topographia Hibernica, produced the first
description of Irish keening by a foreigner (Lysight “Caoineadh”66). Cambrensis and
other later foreigners to Ireland gave vivid descriptions of the barbaric nature of Irish
wakes and keening. One such foreigner, Englishman Edmund Spenser wrote this of
keening: “theire Lamentacions at theire buriallas, with dispareful outcryes, and
ymoderate waylinges” (qtd.in Boruke “Anger” 167). However, despite the protest of
foreigners and the Catholic Church, the practice of the Irish wake and keening were still
widely performed throughout the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century and
considered significant to the burial of the dead.
It is during this time period, in the year 1773, that Eileen O‟Connell composed
and recited the most famous surviving Irish lament for her husband, Art O‟Leary
(Lysaght “Caoineadh” 65). Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonall‟s lament became known as
Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, which was later translated into English as The Lament for
Art O’Leary; both Airt Uí Laoghaire and Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonall‟s names have been
angelicized to Art O‟Leary and Eileen O‟Connell respectively. To understand both the
formal elements of the keen and the personal grief expressed within, it is important to
understand the context in which The Lament for Art O’Leary reflects his life, death, and
significance to Eileen O‟Connell.
Art O‟Leary was a charismatic Catholic man who had served as a captain in the Austro-
Hungarian Hussar army before returning to Ireland and his home, Rathleigh House, in
Macroom Co. Cork with his most prized possession: a fine chestnut mare. Art O‟Leary
eloped with Eileen O‟Connell in 1767 (Groarke 16). O‟Leary later entered into a bitter
feud with a local English man named Abraham Morris in 1771 when O‟Leary refused to
sell his mare to Morris. Morris‟s request was in accordance to the Irish Penal Laws that
stated a Catholic was not allowed to own a horse worth more than £5 and could be
forcibly demanded to sell a more valuable horse to a Protestant at this price. Art O‟Leary,
headstrong and stubborn, refused this request and Morris, as a Protestant and a sheriff,
had him charged as an outlaw. Intent to end the feud and his outlaw status, Art O‟Leary
tells to a local farmer, Seán Cooney, that he is going to kill Morris (Groarke 17). Cooney
informs Morris and his men about Art O‟Leary‟s intentions to receive the reward Morris
offered for O‟Leary‟s capture. The feud finally concludes on May 4, 1773 when Morris
and his men shoot Art O‟Leary in a field in Carringnanimma, Co. Cork (following a
narrow escape) and left to die. His beloved brown mare gallops the seven miles home
where Eileen O‟Connell mounts her and returns to the scene. Eileen O‟Connell finds
O‟Leary‟s bleeding body upon the ground and begins the keen upon her discovery.
Eileen O‟Connell formed and created The Lament for Art O’Leary over an
extended period of time in the oral-formulaic tradition of caoineadh; Eileen O’Connell’s
lament ends when Art O’Leary’s body is re-interred in the O’Leary plot at Kilcrea Friary
(Groarke 17). All of O‟Connell‟s verses were extemporized and recited with no prior
planning; she provided no written script of her performance. Yet, interaction with this
text is made possible with various written translations. The earliest written record of The
Lament for Art O’Leary was luckily given by a professional bean chaointe named Norrie
Singleton written in 1800 and 1870. Singleton‟s version has served as the basis for most
of the English translations in existence today (Groarke 17).
However, it is important to discuss the issue of translation in its effectiveness to
express these qualities outside of the original context and language. As a dead art form,
keening is no longer a lived experience wherein a group would vocally recite the
extemporized verses. Ultimately, the act of reading lamentation has a very different affect
than its experience firsthand. The interaction with the material is drastically impacted by
the removal of the context in which caoineadh was meant to be experienced; it is
impossible to hear the ritualized crying, screaming, and sobbing of the original context or
witness the performance of Eileen O‟Connell as the bean chaointe. Additionally, the
issue of translation from Gaelic to English furthers the challenge of the removed context.
Some poets, scholars, and writers have chosen to translate the original Gaelic of The
Lament of Art O’Leary in either direct translation or based on the poetic form of the Rosc
meter in the English. Yet, these types of translation are problematic because they
eliminate the artistic rendering of personal grief within the piece. While both direct
translation and form are important aspects of The Lament for Art O’Leary, they are not
suitable or particularly relevant to the purpose and aim of this paper. This is ultimately
why Vona Groarke‟s 2006 translation of The Lament for Art O’Leary is used in place of
previous Gaelic to English translations. Groarke captures the uniqueness of O‟Connell‟s
lament and solidifies the use of her translation for this paper in this statement: “ I think
the power of Eileen‟s proclamation lies in the high-wire tension between the music of its
art, the unrelenting steady nerve of it, and the extremes of passion contained therein”
(15).
Yet, it is difficult to terse out the distinctions between the formal traditional
elements of keening from the personal expression of grief. Interestingly, Angela Bourke
suggested in her article, “The Irish Traditional Lament and the Grieving Process” that
successful caoineadhs can illustrate the grieving process outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-
Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. Bourke believes that a traditional caoineadh
follows the five-step process outlined by Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness,
and acceptance (288). Bourke argues that the use of these elements- ritualized
wailing/crying/sobbing, Rosc meter, positive/ negative themes, and juxtaposition - were
used to illustrate each necessary step of grieving process for both the individual and the
community in traditional caoineadhs. Thus, based on this theory, the distinction between
the keening and the expression of personal grief by Eileen O‟Connell in The Lament for
Art O’Leary can be illustrated in the use of the aforementioned formal elements to
exemplify each stage of the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and
acceptance.
Eileen O‟Connell begins her lament with many of the positive themes associated
with traditional keening but also expresses her denial of Art‟s death. In the original
Gaelic, The Lament begins with the line: “Mo ghrá go daingean tú” which can be
translated into a variety of different ways including “ “My love and my delight,” “My
love forever!,” “My firm friend,” and others (Groarke 14). Groarke‟s translation
ultimately uses “Husband,” but the use of such lines in the Gaelic is a common feature of
the Rosc metre and used to begin each stanza (Bourke “Anger” 168). O‟Connell
expresses her husband‟s kindness towards her as well as describes his economic
prosperity, stating:
[…]
You had mackerel hooked for me,
lambs fattened on silky grass for me,
loave shaped like the sun and moon for me,
and women on hand to see it all,
to pour and kneed and clean.
All I had to do was turn over
in my hand-spun nets of sleep. (Groarke 21)
O‟Connell‟s descriptions of O‟Leary fall very much into line with the adoration of the
deceased‟s wealth, physical appearance, generosity, and overall positive nature at the
beginning of her first in line with traditional keens (Bourke 288). Yet, Eileen O‟Connell‟s
personal grief is expressed in a series of stanza where she describes finding Art
O‟Leary‟s body. The first stanza to introduce O‟Connell‟s denial of Art‟s death occurs
when his mare returns home without him, which reads:
“ My Art,
I wouldn‟t give the time of day
to rumour of your death
until that selfsame mare of yours
came to me with her bridle awry. (Groake 23)
This stanza is subsequently followed with Eileen O‟Connell‟s further grief and denial as
she realizes that something is wrong and drinks his blood upon the discovery of his body,
ascending into the mad behavior of the bean chaionte. O‟Connell‟s denial is best
expressed in this stanza:
Husband,
get up and follow me home.
I‟ll have dinner made for you
of vension and claret.
I‟ll fill the house
with your admirers.
I‟ll have music played for you.
When you‟ve had your fill of that
I will turn down a bed for you
of cashmere blankets and speckled quilts
to draw the cold out of your bones
that this north wind has frozen. (Groarke 24)
O‟Connell calls to O‟Leary to return home and remain alive is exemplified in her use of
the juxtaposition of lying him to bed instead of him lying at his wake. O‟Connell states
that she would “draw the cold out” of his bones, attempting to bring life back into his
body in her denial of his death. In her call to him to come home, O‟Connell illustrates
that she is still in the denial stage of her personal grieving process and attempting to
convince her self that O‟Leary‟s death has not happened (Bourke “Anger”169).
O‟Connell‟s poem is particularly regarded for her personal expression of anger at
Art O‟Leary‟s death and its circumstances. Many traditional Irish keeners were known
for their expression of anger in the form of cursing the affliction, object, or person
responsible for the death as well as those who did not properly honor the deceased at their
wake/funeral and sometimes even the deceased themselves (Bourke “Traditional
Lament” 289; Bourke “Anger” 170-2). O‟Connell‟s anger, however, is palpable and raw
in her cursing of the men she finds responsible for O‟Leary‟s death: Abraham Morris, the
Protestant sheriff who issued the warrant that had O‟ Leary shot, and Seán Cooney, who
informed Morris of O‟Leary‟s intentions. Interestingly, Eileen O‟Connell does not make
the shift from denial into anger until O‟Leary‟s sister accuses her of sleeping during her
brother‟s wake. O‟Connell‟s response is particularly colorful in its description; she offers
that she only left to attend her children, further stating:
Pay no heed to lies like hers-
rain in a bucket, nothing but noise.
As if any woman who had kissed your thighs
or run her thumb between your ribs,
whose womb was honeyed
three times by your seed,
could hold back on a night like this
with Art O‟Leary‟s body laid out
since early yesterday. (Groake 26)
This passage is a very personal admittance even by traditional keen standards. Eileen
O‟Connell verbally rebuffs her sister-in-law‟s comments with an anger utterance and
explains, how having known Art as her husband, that she could not be stopped.
O‟Connell‟s expression of anger continues following this admission with verse cursing
Morris:
Morris, you treacherous lout,
I hope your body will suffer
a thousand wounds worse
than your wounding of Art.
I hope your liver shrivels
and your blood congeals,
your eyeballs itch
and your kneecaps split asunder.
You have taken my husband from me
and I see no one in Ireland
with the guts to make you pay. (Groarke 26)
Eileen O‟Connell‟s verse is very vivid in its description of how she hopes to see Morris
suffer for crimes. It is telling that O‟Connell can utilize the caoineadh of her husband to
specifically name Morris as his murderer and express her personal anger towards him in
such a descriptive manner. She similarly does this with Seán Cooney: “The curse of my
heart goes out to you,/ outlaw, Seán Cooney, who took pittance to inform on Art”
(Groarke 35). O‟Connell also insults him by saying that his “ puny, knock-kneed body”
would not have filled her husband‟s suits, juxtaposing the image of her husband and
Conney as dissimilar in appearance and character (Groarke 35). O‟Connell is only
allowed to state these angry words due to the context of the keen justified by her mad
grieving behavior free of consequence in the community (Bourke 290). However,
O‟Conell‟s anger is very poignant in the poem and truly expresses the personal deep
seeded resentment and anger she had towards these men.
Eileen O‟Connell utilizes bargaining as a method of offering alternative
circumstances instead of Art O‟Leary‟s murder. Bargaining is the hardest step to
describe because it involves the negotiation of action and consequence in exchange for
something else yet O‟Connell uses bargaining in attempt to find ways that would have
kept Art O‟Leary alive. The first bargaining that O‟Connell partakes in is her wish to be
dead instead of him. She states:
I‟d give anything
to have been beside you
when they fired the shot.
I could have smothered it
in the folds of my dress
or the folds of my breasts,
what matter, so long
as you kept going,
my fine horseman
of the lissom hands,
over the brow of the hill. (Groake 27)
In her offerance, O‟Connell exemplifies the behavior of bargaining by insisting that she
would have sacrificed herself to keep him alive. O‟Connell also exemplifies this behavior
following her cursing of Seán Cooney for turning Art O‟Leary into Morris for the reward
money. O‟Connell states:
If it was only money you wanted
you could have come to me.
I‟d have given whatever you needed-
even a study horse to bear you through
Art‟s funeral
when you had to escape.
Or a herd of cows
or ewes in lamb
or a secret for bleaching linen;
even a suit of my own Art‟s… (Groake 36)
O‟Connell offers the material goods that O‟Leary had provided for their family in
exchange for his survival. This passage is unique in that it is both a play on a negative
and positive theme found in traditional Irish keening. While O‟Connell is cursing Cooney
for his betrayal for money, she is also able to list of the economic commodities that Art
O‟Leary possessed- horses, cows, ewes, and even fine clothing. Yet, Eileen‟s personal
grief is expressed through this bargaining by her willingness to give away these items and
even provide Cooney with something she alone could give him: a secret for bleaching
linen. However, these bargains are never achieved and Eileen O‟Connell realizes that she
will not get her husband back.
Eileen O‟Connell‟s sadness and depression is visible throughout The Lament for
Art O’Leary and, in effect, heightens all of the other stages of grief. O‟Connell‟s
expression of sadness, however, is best exemplified in this verse when she realizes that
Art O‟Leary will not be returning. For example, this can be illustrated by the end verse of
O‟Connell‟s first section of The Lament for Art O’Leary. It reads:
My sloe-eyed lover,
what went wrong yesterday?
I thought, when I bought
that suit for you, it would slip
between you and all harm,
so your skin bones inside it
would home to lie with me. (Groarke 31)
This particular verse contains a strong image that juxtaposes the suit O‟Leary was
wearing following his death compared to O‟Connell‟s expectations of it. The suit comes
to signify her husband‟s life and ability to return home. With the suit ruined, O‟Connell
realizes that her husband is dead. The startlingly image O‟Connell waiting for her
husband to return to come lie at home provides vivid insight to the sadness she is dealing
with from the loss of her husband.
Ultimately, one of the reasons that The Lament for Art O’Leary fits uniquely
within the Gaelic keening tradition O‟Connell‟s expression of personal grief is her
rejected acceptance of Art O‟Leary‟s death. There is a verse that makes one assume that
O‟Connell has reached acceptance with O‟Leary‟s death that is addressed to those still
mourning him:
But to all of you weeping
I say, „ Wait and see:
Art O‟Leary‟ will be along any minute.
He‟ll call down for a drink
to drown thirst and sorrow,
pay for it with his own money,
and then take himself off-
not to be learning
or trying new tunes-
but to lie down with clay
and stones and bones
in an overcome abbey.‟ (Groake 38)
This verse contains all of the elements required of acceptance in the grieving process.
Eileen O‟Connell has seemingly comes to term that O‟Leary will be laid to rest and uses
this as one last opportunity to exalt him in description. Yet, there verse is not the last.
O‟Connell goes on to reject her acceptance of O‟Leary‟s death, once again requesting
him to come back. She states:
Rise up now and come with me,
for the weight of sorrow
across my heart
will not lift
unless you pitch it off.
It is like the a chest
with stones in it
and I am very much afraid
that its rusted lock
and fastened latch
will never know a key. (Groarke 39)
Groake‟s translation of this conclusion ends with a comparison between Eileen
O‟Connell‟s heart as a chest that will never be reopened perfectly captures the grief that
differentiates her lament from the rest within the keening tradition. With her rejection of
acceptance, O‟Connell never completed the grieving process that the caoineadh was
meant to bring, choosing to end her keen with the continuation of her grief and not the
previous stanza. This is why The Lament for Art O’Leary, through her utilization of the
public “art” form of caoineadh, allows Eileen O’Connell to perfectly capture her own
personal expression of grief within it and thus marks a transition in the caoineadh from
ritualized craft to expressed personal grief.
There are several conclusions that can be reached within this paper. The first
conclusion is that the Gaelic keening practice of caoineadh is distinctive within the
universal context of the lament due to the unique formal elements such as the use of Rosc
meter, positive/ negative themes, juxtaposition, and vivid description. Yet, the
extemporized oral tradition of the caoineadh is merely one aspect of the Irish “theater of
death.” It is important to understand the role of the caoineadh within the larger context of
the Gaelic funeral that involves celebration and lamentation in its funeral practice of the
wake and its mythology of the banshee. Ultimately, the most important conclusion is
finding the distinction between the ritualized art form of the keen and the expression of
personal grief by examining Eileen O’Connell’s The Lament for Art O’Leary in terms of
the grief process outlined by Kübler-Ross. Utilizing this method, it is easy to separate the
use formal elements of the traditional caoineadh by O’Connell for the “public art” of her
personal grieving process. As its creator, Eileen O’Connell shaped The Lament as a
fusion of the conventional elements of the Irish keen to express her own personal
experience. Ultimately, in her refusal to complete the grieving process, O’Connell
transforms the historical and traditional practice of the Gaelic caoineadh into a form that
allowed her to merely express her own grief.


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