Brian Merriman Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.