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O’Neill’s verse, Anglo-Irish in sensibility, reflecting a complex and often paradoxical equation of cultural, social and political sentiments, has excited both adulation and opprobrium from the critical fraternity during this century. Some such as Douglas Hyde (Ireland’s first President) felt that it was necessary to read Anglo-Irish literature if only to understand how Ireland’s culture could be de-Anglicised, a pronouncement later echoed, with more extremism, by Daniel Corkery in Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature of 1931, where such literature (which included Yeats, Lady Gregory, Somerville and Ross) was considered fundamentally foreign to Irish society. Contemporary verdicts have reached similar conclusions of condescension and quaintness. Yet, conversely, Thomas MacDonagh, a signatory to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic (and executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising), contended in his Literature in Ireland: Studies Irish and Anglo-Irish (1916) that Anglo-Irish literature had a place within the Irish cultural identity distinct from its English cousin. Moreover, MacDonagh argued that the use of Hiberno-English, often cited by its detractors as a pejorative characteristic, was an illuminating feature of this identity and its world. For its time, O’Neill’s Songs of the Glens of Antrim were hugely popular and were praised by Ernest Boyd in Ireland’s Literary Renaissance (1916; rev. 1922), notably for the poet’s understanding of localised speech and the Antrim dialect. This aesthetic criterion – the use of Hiberno-English (which was itself invariably influenced by Irish in terms of its vocabulary, grammar and syntax) – was close to many proponents of the Irish literary cause, as can be seen in Hyde’s folksong translations in The Love Songs of Connacht (1893). This relationship to the spoken language, to story-telling, the love of conversation, and to the oral tradition in general, was further highlighted by Stephen Gwynn, MP and man of letters, who considered O’Neill’s slender volume to be ‘one of the very few books which … could probably be reproduced from oral tradition.’
Firmly ensconced within the Anglo-Irish tradition, Stanford responded with alacrity to the poetry of O’Neill, Winifred M Letts, and the Ulster poet, John Stevenson. ‘Such poets are rare birds,’ he wrote to Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1917, ‘and the ones which smell of the real genuine turf are rarer still.’ For Stanford their words evoked an Irish landscape, in part remembered from his youth, and part imagined through years of absence. In later life this impression combined with the trauma of summoning the courage one day to visit his native soil once, a trauma imbued with a genuine fear of witnessing the disappearance, through rapid social and political change, of the world he had once known. ‘I shall see ghosts,’ he confessed to Mahaffy, ‘all day and every day.’ This complex admixture of nostalgia, homesickness, humour, folklore, a deep love of the Irish countryside, passion, tragedy and genuine personal trauma are explored in Stanford’s Irish cycles, a genre which, judging by its prominence in his later output, meant a great deal to him emotionally.
Denny’s Daughter, the first of Six Songs from the Glens of Antrim, is a deeply moving lament and serves to illustrate a remarkable conjunction of economy and sophistication. One dimension of the song is extraordinary simplicity – a syllabic folksong-influenced vocal line, fluctuating between the tragedy of the minor and the happy reminiscences of the relative major; yet, thrown into relief are those moments of emotional fantasy, where ‘the look of her’ is transformed, via the flat mediant, into the ecstasy of ‘the eyes of her’, executed by the simplest of means. The lack of a convincing cadence carries us into the second verse where the same music is rendered more intensely poignant by the sense of loss and premature death. The closing bars in particular sound a chilling note of tragedy using the slenderest of means.
The text of the next four songs focuses on a central theme in O’Neill’s poetry, that of exile and return, one with which Stanford readily identified. The Sailor Man, a patter song with the energy of a jig, cast in strophic variation form, sings the praises of Dublin’s young females. Lookin’ Back, a more contemplative essay, ponders on thoughts of Ireland from a distant life in Canada, while At Sea, fashioned entirely over a tonic pedal and a tribute to Stanford’s fertile diatonic imagination, dwells on the sentiments of regret and optimism as the ship sails away from Ireland to the New World. Similarly, I Mind the Day, reflects on the mixed emotions of loved ones parted by the ocean (symbolised on the one hand by the austerity of the minor key and on the other by the greater buoyancy of the relative major) and, in the final verse, on a sense of stoical contentment, as both lovers look to the life beyond.
The final song of the set, The Boy from Ballytearim, is a narrative, playing on the traditional archetypal story of the young unemployed, disillusioned lad who journeys away to seek his fortune, leaves his girl behind, then returns with the fruits of his success only to find his love is dead, causing him to leave for good. The folk influence of this song is self-evident, but it is the lyrical images of the lonely girl ‘sighing long for sorrow’ that are most memorable.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2000