As a teacher and translator of Irish verse, Frank O’Connor brought to the world’s attention many fine poems from his native land, few as enduring—and none as controversial—as Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court.
An eighteenth-century masterpiece widely recognized as the greatest comic poem in Irish literature, The Midnight Court is a hilarious and insightful take on the battle of the sexes. In the court of a fairy queen, the men and women of Ireland air their grievances with one another. The competing lists of complaints are as long as they are uproarious, and when the queen rules in favor of the women, all young Irish bachelors are doomed to a terrible fate: marriage.
The Midnight Court has now taken its rightful place in the Irish literary canon, but when O’Connor’s English translation was first published in 1945, the Irish government banned it as obscene. In a delicious irony that might have been lifted from one of O’Connor’s short stories, the Gaelic original met with no censure. Here, as it first appeared, is Frank O’Connor’s faithful, funny, and eloquent translation of one of the most important works in Irish literature.
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The Midnight Court
By Frank O'Connor
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1945 Maurice Fridberg
All rights reserved.
The Midnight Court
'Twas my pleasure to walk in the river meadows
In the thick of the dew and the morning shadows,
At the edge of the woods in a deep defile,
At peace with myself in the first sunshine.
When I looked at Lough Graney my heart grew bright,
Ploughed lands and green in the morning light,
Mountains in ranks with crimson borders
Peering above their neighbours' shoulders.
The heart that never had known relief
In a lonesome old man distraught with grief
Without money or home or friends or ease
Would quicken to glimpse beyond the trees
The ducks sail by on a mistless bay
And a swan before them leading the way,
And a speckled trout that in their track
Splashed in the air with arching back,
The grey of the lake and the waves around
That foamed at its edge with a hollow sound.
Birds in the trees sang merry and loud,
A fawn flashed out of the shadowy wood,
Lowing horn and huntsman's cry,
Belling hounds and fox slipped by.
Yesterday morning the sky was clear,
The sun fell hot on river and mere,
Her horses fresh and with gamesome eye
Harnessed again to assail the sky;
The leaves were thick upon every bough
And ferns and grass as thick below,
Sheltering bowers of herbs and flowers
That would comfort a man in his dreariest hours.
A longing for sleep bore down my head,
And in the grass I scooped a bed
With a hollow behind to house my back,
A place for my head and my legs stretched slack.
What more could I ask? I covered my face
To keep off the flies as I slept for a space
But my mind in dream was filled with grief
And I tossed and groaned as I sought relief.
I had only dozed when I felt a shock
and all the landscape seemed to rock,
A north wind made my senses tingle
And thunder crackled along the shingle,
And as I looked up, as I thought, awake
I seemed to see at the edge of the lake
As ugly a brute as a man could see
In the shape of a woman approaching me,
For if I calculated right
She must have been twenty feet in height
With several yards of a hairy cloak
Trailing behind her in the muck.
I never beheld such a freak of nature;
She hadn't a single presentable feature,
And her grinning jaws with the fangs stuck out
Would be cause sufficient to start a rout,
And in a hand like a weaver's beam
She raised a staff that it might be seen
She was coming to me on a legal errand
For pinned to the staff was a bailiff's warrant.
And she cried in a voice with a brassy ring
'Get up out of this, you lazy thing!
That a man of your age can think 'tis fitting
To sleep in a ditch while the court is sitting!
An honester court than ever you knew
And far too good for the likes of you;
Justice and Mercy, hand in hand,
Sit in the courts of Fairyland.
Let Ireland think, when her troubles are ended
Of those by whom she was befriended.
In Moy Graney palace twelve days and nights
They've sat, discussing your wrongs and rights,
And it saddened the heart of the fairy king
And his lords and influential men
When they studied the cause of each disaster
That happened your people, man and master;
Old stock uprooted on every hand,
Without claim to their rent or laws or land;
The country waste and nothing behind
Where the flowers were plucked but the weeds and wild;
The best of your breed in foreign places,
And upstart rogues with impudent faces
Planning with all their guile and spleen
To pick the bones of the Irish clean.
But the worst of all these bad reports
Was that truth was darkened in their courts,
And nothing to back a poor man's case
But whispers, intrigue and the lust for place;
The lawyer's craft and the rich man's might,
Cozening, favour, greed and spite;
Maddened with jobs and bribes and malice,
Anarchy loose on cot and palace.
'Twas all discussed, and along with the rest
There were women in scores who came to attest
A plea that concerns yourself as well,
That the youth of the country's gone to hell,
And the population in decline
As only happened within your time;
Nothing but weeds for the want of tillage
Since famine and war have struck the village
And a flighty king and the emigration—
And what have you done to restore the nation?
Shame on you there without chick nor child
With women in thousands running wild;
The blossoming tree and the young green shoot,
The strap that would sleep with any old root,
The little white saint at the altar rail
And the proud cold girl like a ship in sail—
What matter to you if their beauty founder,
If belly and breast will never be rounder,
If ready and glad to be mother and wife
They drop, unplucked, from the boughs of life?
'And, having considered all reports,
'Twas agreed that in place of the English courts
They should select a judge by lot
Who would hold enquiry on the spot.
Then Eevul, Queen of the Grey Rock,
That rules all Munster, herd and flock,
Arose and offered to do her share
By putting an end to injustice there,
And the great council swore her in
To judge the women and the men,
Stand by the poor though all ignore them
And humble the pride of the rich before them,
Make might without right conceal its face
And use her might to give right its place.
Her favour money will not buy,
No lawyer will pull the truth awry;
The smartest perjurer will not dare
To make a show of falsehood there
Her court is sitting today in Feakle,
So off with you now as quick as you're able.
Come on, I say, and give no back chat
Or I'll use my powers and knock you flat.'
With the crook of her staff she hooked my cape
And away we went at a terrible rate
Off through the glens in one wild rush
Till we stood at Moinmoy by the ruined church.
Then I saw with an awesome feeling
A building ablaze from floor to ceiling,
Lighted within by guttering torches
Among massive walls and echoing arches,
And the Queen of the Fairies sat alone
At the end of the hall on a gilded throne,
And keeping back the thronged beholders
A great array of guns and soldiers.
I stared at it all, the lighted hall,
Crammed with faces from wall to wall,
And a young woman with downcast eye,
Attractive, good-looking and shy,
With long and sweeping golden locks
Who was standing alone in the witness box;
But the cut of her spoke of some disgrace,
I saw misfortune on her face;
Her tearful eyes were red and hot
And her passions bubbled as in a pot,
But whatever the devil it was provoked her
She was silent, all but the sobs that choked her.
You could see from the way the speaking failed her
That she'd sooner her death than the thing that ailed her.
But unable to express her meaning
She wrung her hands and continued her grieving,
And all we could do was stand and gaze
Till her sobs gave place to a broken phrase,
And little by little she mastered her sorrows,
And dried her eyes and spoke as follows—
'Yourself is the woman we're glad to see
Eevul, Queen of Carriglee,
Our moon at night, our morning light,
Our comfort in the teeth of spite,
Mistress of the host of delight,
Munster and Ireland stand in your sight.
My chief complaint and principal grief
The thing that gives me no relief,
Sweeps me from harbour in my mind
And blows me like smoke upon every wind
Is all the women whose charms miscarry
All over the land and who'll never marry;
Bitter old maids without house or home,
Put on one side through no fault of their own.
I know myself from the little I've seen
Enough and to spare of the sort I mean,
And to give an example, here am I
While the tide is flowing left high and dry.
Wouldn't you think I must be a fright
From the way I'm left at the start of life,
Heartsick, bitter, dour and wan,
Unable to sleep for the want of a man,
But how can I lie in a lukewarm bed
With all the thoughts that come into my head?
Indeed, 'tis time that somebody stated
The way that women are situated,
For if men go on their path to destruction
There will nothing be left to us but abduction.
Their appetite wakes with age and blindness
When you'd let them cover you only from kindness
And offer it up for the wrongs you'd done
In hopes of reward in the life to come;
And if one of them weds in the heat of youth
When the first down is on his mouth
It isn't some woman of his own sort,
Well-shaped, well-mannered or well-taught,
Some mettlesome girl that studied behaviour,
To sit and stand and amuse a neighbour,
But some pious old prude or sour defamer
Who sweated the couple of pounds that shame her.
There you have it. It has me melted,
And makes me feel that the world's demented:
A county's choice for brains and muscle,
Fond of a lark and not scared of a tussle,
Decent and merry and sober and steady,
Good-looking, gamesome and rakish and ready,
A boy in the blush of his youthful vigour
With a gracious flush and a passable figure
Finds a fortune the best attraction
And sires himself off on some bitter extraction,
Some fretful old maid with her heels in the dung
And pious airs and venomous tongue,
Vicious and envious, nagging and whining,
Snoozing and snivelling, plotting, contriving—
Hell to her soul, an unmannerly sow
With a pair of bow legs and hair like tow
Went off this morning to the altar
And here am I still without hope of the halter!
Couldn't some man love me as well?
Amn't I plump and sound as a bell,
Lips for kissing and teeth for smiling,
Blossomy skin and forehead shining?
My eyes are blue and my hair is thick
And coils in streams about my neck—
A man that's looking for a wife,
Here's a face that will keep for life!
Hand and arm and neck and breast,
Each is better than the rest.
Look at my waist! My legs are long,
Limber as willows and light and strong,
There's bottom and belly that claim attention
And the best concealed that I needn't mention.
I'm the sort that a natural man desires,
Not a freak or a death-on-wires,
A sloven that comes to life in flashes,
A creature of moods with her heels in the ashes,
Or a sluggard stewing in her own grease,
But a good-looking girl that's bound to please.
If I was as slow as some I know,
To stand up for my rights and my dress a show,
Some brainless, ill-bred country mope,
You could understand if I lost hope;
But ask the first you meet by chance,
Hurling match or race or dance,
Pattern or party, market or fair,
Whatever it was, was I not there?
Didn't I make a good impression,
Turning up in the height of fashion,
My hair was washed and combed and powdered,
My coif like snow and stiffly laundered;
I'd a little white hood with ribbon and ruff
On a spotty dress of the finest stuff
With facings to show off the line
Of a cardinal cloak the colour of wine,
A cambric apron filled with showers
Of fruit and birds and trees and flowers,
Neatly fitting, expensive shoes
And the highest of heels pegged up with screws,
Silken gloves and all in spangles
Of brooches, buckles, rings and bangles.
And you musn't imagine I've been shy,
The sort that slinks with a downcast eye,
Solitary, lonesome, cold and wild,
Like a mountainy girl or an only child.
I tossed my cap at the crowds of the races
And kept my head in the toughest places;
Amn't I always on the watch,
At bonfire, dance or hurling match
Or outside the chapel after Mass
To coax a smile from the fellows that pass?
But I'm wasting my time on a wild-goose chase,
And my spirit is gone—and that's my case!
After all my hopes and sulks and passions,
All my aping of styles and fashions,
All the times that my cards were spread
And my hands were read and my cups were read,
Every old rhyme, pisherogue and rune,
Crescent, full moon and harvest moon,
Whit and All Souls and the First of May,
I've nothing to show for all they say.
Every night as I went to bed
I'd a stocking of apples under my head,
I fasted three canonical hours
To try and come round the heavenly powers,
I washed my shift where the stream ran deep
To hear my lover's voice in sleep;
Often I swept the woodstack bare,
Burned bits of my frock, my nails, my hair,
Up the chimney stuck the flail,
Slept with a spade without avail;
Hid my wool in the limekiln late
And my distaff behind the churchyard gate;
Flax in the road to halt coach and carriage,
And haycocks stuffed with heads of cabbage,
And night and day on the proper occasions
Invoked Old Nick and all his legions,
But 'twas all no good and I'm broken-hearted
For here I am at the place I started,
And that is the cause of all my tears,
Fast in the rope of the rushing years
With age and want in lessening span
And death at the end and no hopes of a man.
But whatever misfortunes God may send,
Spare me at least that lonesome end!
Do not leave me to cross alone
Without chick nor child when my beauty's gone
As an old maid counting the things I lack
Scowling thresholds that hurl me back.
God, by the lightning and the thunder,
The thought of it makes me ripe for murder.
Every idiot in the country
That marries a man has the right to insult me.
Sal has a slob with a well-stocked farm,
And Molly goes round on her husband's arm;
There's Min and Margery lepping with glee
And never done with their jokes at me.
And the bounce of Susie! and Kitty and Anne
Have children in droves and a proper man,
And all with their kind can mix and mingle
While I go savage and sour and single.
'Now I know in my heart that I've been too quiet
With the remedy there though I scorned to try it
In the matter of draughts and poisonous weeds
And medicine men and darksome deeds
That I know would fetch me a sweetheart plighted
Who'd love me, whether or not he liked it.
Oh, I see 'tis the thing that most prevails
And I'll give it a trial if all fruit fails—
A powerful aid to the making of splices
Is powdered herbs on apples in slices.
A woman I know had the neighbours hopping
When she caught the best match in the county napping,
And 'twas she that told me under a vow,
That from Shrove to All Souls, and she's married now,
She was eating hay as she said by the pail
With bog-roots burned and stuped in ale—
Now I've waited too long and was too resigned,
And nothing you say can change my mind;
I'll give you your chance to help me first
And I'm off after that to do my worst!'
Then up there jumps from a neighbouring chair
A little old man with a spiteful air,
Staggering legs and sobbing breath
And a look in his eye like poison and death,
And this apparition stumps up the hall
And says to the girl in the hearing of all
'Damnation take you, you bastard's bitch,
Got by a tinkerman under a ditch,
No wonder the seasons are all upsot
Nor every beating Ireland got,
Decline in decency and manners,
And the cows gone dry and the price of bonhams!
Mavrone, what more can we expect
With Doll and Moll and the way they're decked?
You slut of ill-fame, allow your betters
To tell the court how you learned your letters!
Your seed and breed for all your brag
Were tramps to a man with rag and bag;
I knew your da and what passed for his wife
And he shouldered his traps to the end of his life,
Without knowledge or niceness, wit or favour,
An aimless lout without friend or neighbour.
The breeches he wore were riddled with holes
And his boots without a tack of the soles.
Believe me, friends, if you sold at a fair,
Himself and his wife, his kids and gear,
When the costs were met, by the Holy Martyr,
You'd still go short for a glass of porter.
But the devil's child has the devil's cheek,
You that never owned cow nor sheep
With your buckles and brogues and rings to order—
You that were reared in the reek of solder!
However the rest of the world is cheated,
I knew you when you went half naked,
And I'd venture a guess that in what you lack
A shift would still astonish your back,
And shy as you seem, an inquisitive gent
Might study the same with your consent.
Bosom and back are tightly laced
Or is it the stays that gives you the waist?
Oh, all can see the way you shine
But your looks are no concern of mine.
Now tell us the truth and don't be shy,
How long are you eating your dinner dry?
A meal of spuds without butter or milk
And the dirt in layers beneath your silk.
Bragging and gab becomes your like
But I know just where you sleep at night,
And blanket or quilt you never saw
But a strip of old mat and a bundle of straw
In a dirty old hut without a seat
And slime that slashes about your feet,
A carpet of weeds from door to wall
And the hens inscribing their tracks on all;
The rafters in with a broken back
And the brown rain lashing through every crack—
'Twas there you learned to look so fine;
Now, may we ask, how you came by the style?
We all admired the way you spoke—
But whisper, treasure, who paid for the cloak?
A sparrow with you would die of hunger—
How did you come by all the grandeur,
All the tassels and all the lace?
Would you have us believe they were got in grace?
The frock made a hole in somebody's pocket,
And it wasn't yourself that paid for the jacket,
But leaving that and the rest aside,
Tell us, just how did the shoes arrive?
Excerpted from The Midnight Court by Frank O'Connor. Copyright © 1945 Maurice Fridberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Midnight Court,
To Tomaus Costello at the Wars,
A Girl Weeping,
To the Lady, with the Book,
About the Author,