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Mac Dónaill, Seán Clárachlocked

(1691–1754)
  • Bernadette Cunningham

Mac Dónaill, Seán Clárach (1691–1754), Irish poet and scribe, was born near Charleville (Ráth Luirc), in northern co. Cork. The epithet ‘Clárach’ was apparently descriptive of his large forehead, and not a toponym linking him with co. Clare. In his youth he lived in the parish of Baile an Teampaill, co. Cork, moving to a farm and mill at Killtoohig (Cill Tuathaigh), south of Charleville, after his marriage. He may subsequently have lived in Charleville itself. Traditional sources record that his wife, Agnes White, was a protestant, and that the marriage was not a success. No information about his family has been traced.

Mac Dónaill himself records that he was educated alongside Richard Walsh, who later served as Catholic bishop of Cork from 1748 to 1763 and was a patron of Gaelic scholars and poets. It has been speculated that both were educated at the school established in Charleville by Roger Boyle, earl of Orrery. Mac Dónaill was certainly well educated and knew English, Latin, and Greek as well as his native Irish language. He was both a poet and a scribe. The few extant manuscripts in his hand contain historical material, including a 1720 transcript of Geoffrey Keating's Foras feasa ar Éirinn. According to Sylvester O'Halloran, his former student, Mac Dónaill was writing a history of Ireland in the Irish language towards the end of his life but illness prevented him from completing it. The bulk of his manuscripts were reputedly destroyed by the sheriff's men.

Mac Dónaill became chief of the court of poetry at Ráth Luirc and maintained contact with similar assemblies at Carraig na bhFear, co. Cork, and at Lios na Rígh in Bruree in the neighbouring county of Limerick. These assemblies were social gatherings as well as cultural and perhaps political occasions. Mac Dónaill's poetic associates included Seán Ó Tuama, Aindréas Mac Craith, Nioclás Ó Dónaill OFM, Liam Inglis, Liam Rua Mac Coitir, and Liam dall Ó hIfearnáin. Over sixty of his Irish poetic compositions survive, and he features in more than a dozen poems by his contemporaries, including songs lamenting his death written by Seán na Ráithíneach, Seán Ó Tuama, and Éamonn de bhFál. Mac Dónaill wrote political poetry in Irish in support of the Jacobite cause. Many of these poems were set to popular tunes and provided commentary, sometimes allegorical, on contemporary political developments. His vision poems continually expressed confidence in the Jacobite cause, even after the defeat at Culloden in 1746. He also used poetry to support the attempt by young Robert, earl of Clancarty, to regain the MacCarthy family's estates in 1735. He engaged in poetic controversy with Eoghan Ó Caoimh, a Cork poet many years senior to him, and later with another Munster poet, Tadhg Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin. He composed poems in praise of and laments on the deaths of prominent local clergy and fellow poets and wrote informed songs about the war in Europe in the 1740s. To the tunes of well-known Jacobite airs he rejoiced in the triumphs of Philip V, king of Spain. A satire written after the death of James Dawson drew the wrath of the Dawson family and forced Mac Dónaill to leave his home temporarily about 1737–8. Some sources suggest that he spent time overseas, but a poem composed by Seán Ó Tuama and the evidence of manuscript annotations indicate that he may simply have pretended to have left his home. Two ‘exile’ poems were composed in co. Tipperary and co. Clare respectively. His reputed role as a recruiting officer for the Jacobites would explain the need for him to be secretive about his movements.

After his death at Charleville on 7 January 1754 Mac Dónaill was buried at Holy Cross cemetery, Ballysallagh, close to Charleville, where the Latin inscription on his tombstone recorded that he had been 'a poet of no common genius'.

Sources

  • R. Ó Foghladha, Seán Clárach (1932)
  • B. Ó Conchúir, Scríobhaithe Chorcaí, 1700–1850 (1982), 17–19
  • A. Heusaff, Filí agus cléir san ochtú h-aois déag (1992)
  • P. Ua Duinnín, Amhráin Sheagháin Chláraigh Mhic Dhomhnaill (1902)
  • B. Ó Buachalla, Aisling ghéar: na Stiobhartaigh agus an t-aos léinn, 1603–1688 (1996)
  • P. Ó Héalaí, ‘Seán Clárach Mac Dónaill’, Léachtaí Cholm Cille, 4 (1975), 88–110
  • É. Ó Ciardha, Ireland and the Jacobite cause, 1685–1766: a fatal attachment (2002)

Archives

  • Royal Irish Acad., Irish MSS