Brian Merriman Essay - Critical Essays

Merriman, Brian


Brian Merriman c. 1747-1805

(Bryan Merryman, Brian Mac Goilla Meidhre) Irish poet.

Although today remembered as a poet, Merriman was known during his lifetime primarily as a teacher and a farmer. As such, he provides an interesting contrast to another poet of the early Romantic "Celtic fringe," Robert Burns. Whereas Burns, the "heaven-taught plowman," became the darling of the British literati, Merriman lived in relative obscurity. This is largely due to two factors: a language barrier and the social restraints placed on Irish Catholics by the British government at that time. Burns wrote in English and Scots, and although the latter was often difficult for English speakers to understand, it was nonetheless partially comprehensible. Merriman, however, wrote in Irish Gaelic, a language virtually unintelligible to English readers. Additionally, repressive British laws of the eighteenth century made it very difficult for Irish Catholics, particularly the rural poor who spoke Gaelic, to receive an education. As a result, the literate audience for which Gaelic-language poetry such as Merriman's might be published was very small. A small audience of potential readers meant low sales; this in turn made publishers unwilling to print Gaelic texts, and without a published text there was nothing to draw the attention of the patrons and subscribers whose support was necessary to launch a poet's career.

Biographical Information

Merriman was born around 1747 in or near Ennistimon, a village in western Ireland's rural County Clare. Based partially on one of the themes of his most famous poem, "Cúirt an Mheán-Oíche" (c. 1780; "The Midnight Court"), scholars often assert that he was the illegitimate son of a local landowner, but conclusive evidence is wanting. Various accounts relate that his father (or step-father) was either a traveling mason or a farmer who eventually settled in Feakle, another village in County Clare. There, sometime in his late teens, Merriman became a teacher in a local "hedge school," an educational institution unrecognized by the government because it defied the Penal Law that forbade Catholics from teaching. It was during this time that Merriman wrote "The Midnight Court." Merriman held the position until 1785, at which time he took up full-time farming, married a local woman named Kit (Cit), and fathered two daughters, Kathleen (Caitlín) and Mary (Má ire). As a farmer, Merriman was quite successful, winning two prizes for flax growing from the Royal Dublin Society in 1797. Five or six years later, Merriman and his family moved to the city of Limerick where he took a position teaching mathematics (the Penal Laws had been relaxed in the early 1790's). Merriman died in Limerick in 1805.

Major Works

Although Merriman wrote two other short lyrics, his reputation as a poet rests solely on "The Midnight Court." A comic epic of just over 1000 lines, the poem is a burlesque variant of the Irish aisling tradition of dream-vision poetry. In it, the poet-narrator falls asleep beside the waters of Loch Gréine, a lake in County Clare, and dreams of a fairy court ruled over by a figure named Aoibheal. The court has set itself the task of trying Irish men for their crime of not populating the countryside sufficiently. Two figures, a spéirbhean—a beautiful woman who is a traditional figure in Irish Gaelic poetry—and a cuckolded old man, give evidence from their personal experiences. In the process, the man argues that bastards (such, perhaps, as Merriman himself) can grow to be healthy members of society without married parents, so illegitimacy should not be considered a blemish of one's character. In turn, the woman argues that, because there are so few eligible men in Ireland, members of the clergy should be allowed to marry. The court's judgment is to allow women to seize upon any man of age twenty one or older and beat him until he submits to being married; older unmarried men are to be treated even more harshly. The poet is summarily seized by the court's bailiff and awakens just in time to escape punishment.

Critical Reception

"The Midnight Court" did not appear in English until the very end of the nineteenth century and was not widely available until the early twentieth. So, though a product of the late 1700's, it was almost completely unrecognized by non-Gaelic speakers for two centuries. As a result, scholars have had a difficult time determining the poem's proper position in literary history. The main topic of debate concerns the extent to which Merriman's poetry was shaped by such influential Enlightenment figures as Jonathon Swift, Richard Savage, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire. A related issue is the question of how much "The Midnight Court" is the product of a native Gaelic folk tradition and of how great a debt it owes to non-Gaelic forces. Another primary area of contention is the political theme of the poem. There is no critical consensus about whether Merriman's text follows the aisling tradition in its tacit desire for Irish independence (by explicitly calling for noncelibate clergy and implicitly questioning English common law through its recognition of illegitimate children), or is primarily a burlesque of that same tradition, questioning the foundations of its genre.

Principal Works

*"Cúirt an Mheán Oíche" ["The Midnight Court"] (poetry) c. 1780

"An Macalla" ["The Echo"] (poetry) n.d.

"An Poitín" ["The Poteen"] (poetry) n.d.

*None of Merriman's poems appeared in print during his lifetime; the date given for "The Midnight Court" is the date of composition. Reliable information on the other two poems' dates of composition is not available.

Principal English Translations

The Midnight Court (translated by and privately printed for Michael C. O'Shea) 1897

Cúirt an Mheadoin OidhcheThe Midnight Court (translated, annotated, and edited for schools by F. W. O'Connell) 1909

The Midnight Court and The Adventures of a Luckless Fellow (translated by Percy Arland Ussher) 1926

The Midnight Court: A Rhythmical Bacchanalia (translated by Frank O'Connor) 1945

The Midnight CourtCúirt an Mheadhon Oídhche (translated by David Marcus) 1953

Cúirt an Mhean-OícheThe Midnight Court (translated by Patrick C. Power) 1971

The Penguin Book of Irish Verse (includes the O'Connor translation) 1979

The Midnight Court (translated by Cosslett Ó Cuinn) 1982


W. B. Yeats (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Midnight Court and The Adventures of a Luckless Fellow, by Brian Merriman and Denis Fellow, translated by Percy Arland Ussher, Jonathan Cape, 1926, pp. 5-12.

[In this essay, Yeats, perhaps the most famous of Ireland's poets, connects "The Midnight Court" with Jonathan Swift's Cadenus and Vanessa.]

Months ago Mr. Ussher asked me to introduce his translation of The Midnight Court. I had seen a few pages in an Irish magazine; praised its vitality; my words had been repeated; and because I could discover no reason for refusal that did not make me a little ashamed, I consented. Yet I could wish that a Gaelic scholar had been...

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Frank O'Connor (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: A preface to The Midnight Court: A Rhythmical Bacchanalia from the Irish of Bryan Merryman, translated by Frank O'Connor, Maurice Fridberg, 1945, pp. 5-11.

[In the following essay, O'Connor suggests that the humor of "The Midnight Court" conveys a social message in line with the theories of such contemporaries as Rousseau and Savage.]

Architecturally, the little city of Limerick is one of the pleasantest spots in Ireland. The Georgian town stands at the other side of the river from the mediaeval town which has a castle with drum towers and a cathedral with a Transitional Cistercian core and a fifteenth century shell, all in curling papers of battlements. Across...

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R. A. Breatnach (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: ''Ad 'Cúirt an Mheadhoin Oidhche' ll. 597-8," in Eigse: A Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1956, pp. 140-43.

[In the following essay, Breatnach demonstrates that traditional English translations of two lines of Merriman's "The Midnight Court" lead to misunderstandings about the poem's theme.]

The lines in question have been seriously misunderstood.1 In Stern's edition, CZ v. 220, they are as follows:—

Ó d'aibig an tadhbhar do bhronn mac Dé
Gan sagart ar domhan dá dtabhairt dá chéile.

The lines are metrically correct, because unstressed...

(The entire section is 1574 words.)

Patrick C. Power (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: An introduction to Cúirt an Mhea-Oíche: The Midnight Court by Brian Merriman, translated by Patrick C. Power, The Mercier Press, 1971, pp. 6-8.

[In the following essay, Power examines the structure of "The Midnight Court" and connects it with other examples of Irish poetry.]

Cúirt an Mhean-oíeheThe Midnight Court—written by Brian Merriman in 1780 is considered one of the most important contributions to Gaelic literature in the eighteenth century. The treatment of the theme, the richness of the diction and the length at which the poet successfully sustains his work, entitle it to the fame it has gained since it was composed....

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Margaret MacCurtain (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Pre-Famine Peasantry in Ireland: Definition and Theme," in Irish University Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, Autumn, 1974, pp. 190-92.

[In the following excerpt, MacCurtain highlights the conflict between the courtly poetic genre of "The Midnight Court" and the poem's evocation of peasant culture.]

From another angle (not quite that of Daniel Corkery7), there was a hidden Ireland that belonged to the peasantry who communicated with each other in the Irish language and through Irish customs. It was the rich Gaelic culture of "The Midnight Court": passionate, earthy, explicit in its sexual imagery, belonging to a world where sexual experience was highly valued,...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Seán Ó Tuama (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Brian Merriman and His Court," in Irish University Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, Autumn, 1981, pp. 149-64.

[In the following article, Ó Tuama argues that, whereas the prologue and epilogue sections of '"The Midnight Court" are based on the Anglo-French Court of Love tradition, the monologues that form the body of the poem come from the late-medieval tradition of popular Irish folk poetry. Ó Tuama then proceeds to connect the poem's examination of illegitimacy with the presumed illegitimacy of Merriman.]

The emergence of an uniquely talented poet such as Brian Merriman in County Clare in the second half of the eighteenth century was in many ways an unlikely event....

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Cosslett Ó Cuinn (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Merriman's Court," in The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry, edited by Seá n Mac Réamoinn, Allen Lane, 1982, pp. 111-26.

[In the following essay, Ó Cuinn translates much of "The Midnight Court" into English, pointing out passages' connections to classical literature as he goes.]

'Cúirt an Mheán Oíche' does not mean 'courting at midnight' as is said to have been assumed by whoever was responsible for refusing permission to erect a monument to Brian Merriman in Feakle graveyard in 1947. Just so, in 1957, the Archbishop refused to let the body of Nikos Kazantzakis lie in state in an Athenian Church. He, among a lot of other things, had written a sequel to Homer's...

(The entire section is 3222 words.)

Gearóid Ó Crualaoich (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Vision of Liberation in Cúirt an Mheán Oíche," in Folia Gadelica: Essays Presented by Former Students to R. A Breatnach, edited by Pádraig de Brún, Seán Ó Coileáin, and P'adraig Ó Rianin, Cork University Press, 1983, pp. 95-104.

[In the following article, Ó Crualaoich systematically analyzes the major arguments of the previous sixty years regarding "The Midnight Court" and situates Merriman's poem in its Irish and European historical contexts.]

Cúirt an Mheán Oíche is surely the most genuinely popular poem in Irish known to us. Among ordinary people, of perhaps no very sophisticated literary tastes, it has been, and still is, a...

(The entire section is 5623 words.)

Kevin O'Neill (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "A Demographer Looks at Cúirt an Mheán Oíche," in Éire-Ireland, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 135-43.

[In the following essay, O'Neill uses "The Midnight Court" to show that Irish marriage patterns associated with the post-Famine era actually arose in the late eighteenth century.]

During the turbulent years of revolution and national consolidation, Daniel Corkery, novelist, literary critic and cultural historian, issued a call of central importance to the development of independent Irish intellectual life. Writing early in this century, under the influence of the Gaelic revival movement, Corkery urged a radical revaluation of intellectual perspectives....

(The entire section is 3473 words.)

Seamus Heaney (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Orpheus in Ireland: On Brian Merriman's The Midnight Court" in The Southern Review, Louisana State University, Vol. 31, No. 3, July, 1995, pp. 786-806.

[In the following essay (originally a lecture delivered at Oxford University), Heaney, the best known Irish poet of the late twentieth century, traces the political contexts of earlier interpretations of "The Midnight Court" and argues that the poem deserves greater recognition as a classic of world literature.]

Joseph Brodsky once suggested that the highest goal human beings can set themselves is the creation of civilisation. What Brodsky had in mind was much the same thing, I assume, as W. B. Yeats had...

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Further Reading

Corkery, Daniel. "Brian Merriman." In his The Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century, 2nd edition, pp. 237-56. Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1925.

Sets the little existing biographical information on Merriman in its historical context and offers a lengthy synopsis of "The Midnight Court," using lines of the Gaelic original alongside English translations.

Fahey, J. Noel. "Cúirt an Mheán Oíche—Clár Cinn [The Midnight Court—Home Page]." []. 1998.

An extensive web-site in both English and Irish Gaelic that includes a...

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