Buried in Oblivion: ‘Unknown Scholars’ from Castleisland 

In 1935, a youthful John Francis (‘Jack’) MacMahon (1908-1963), son of Patrick MacMahon and Kilkenny-born school teacher Joanna (née Caughlin) MacMahon, and brother of playwright Bryan MacMahon (1909-1998), sought information from the public about old Gaelic poets from Kerry.[1]


He explained that he had been studying and annotating poetry of 18th and 19th century North Kerry scribes in the Royal Irish Academy, Maynooth Library, the British Museum, Trinity College Library, University College Library and the National Library in Dublin and had experienced considerable difficulty obtaining details of the lives of some of the writers.  ‘All local knowledge seems to be buried in oblivion’ he said, ‘and only a few invaluable details have been rescued by men like Tomas O Ciaribaic of Ardfert who gave an account of John Brennan.’


He paid tribute to the poets of Sliabh Luachra:


We of North Kerry and indeed the people of Ireland as a whole have always been accustomed to looking on the hills of Iveragh as the home of Gaelic poetry but … Sliabh Luachra could scarcely be surpassed for fertility in producing poets of a very high order of merit.


He presented a lengthy list of the poets he needed help with, and among them named three scribes from Castleisland:


Tadg Ruadgh O Concubhair (Red Timothy O’Connor) of Castleisland.  Died 1691.


Donnchadh Ua Ceirin (Denis Kerins) of Duagh and Castleisland, poet and weaver.


Uilleog Ua Ceirin (Ulick Kerins) son of above, who lived at Gleann na Seathrainn (Glensharoon), Castleisland.[2]


In 1935, MacMahon had just emerged from study with an honours degree, his subject education in North Kerry 1750-1850.[3]  He was then (and had been since 1928) on the teaching staff of the Pro-Cathedral Boys’ School, Rutland Street, Dublin, one of the largest boys’ schools in Ireland.


The result of his public appeal and the number of poets he rescued from oblivion is open to research but certainly he succeeded with Grey Patrick O’Connor of Lisselton for he gave an account of this schoolmaster in the Shannonside Annual.[4]


The scholarship afforded MacMahon, however, was cut short in 1963 when he died at the young age of 55.  He had by then gained the position of Vice-Principal at the Pro-Cathedral Boys’ School:


The death took place at his residence, 103 Mount Prospect Avenue, Clontarf, Dublin of Mr John F McMahon NT, MA, HDip.ED, a member of a well-known teaching family of Listowel … The late Mr McMahon was born in Listowel and attended Listowel Boys’ National School and, subsequently, St Michael’s College where he was an exhibition student securing numerous prizes in the junior and senior grade.  Appointed a Monitor in Listowel Boys’ School, he secured first place in Ireland in the King’s Scholarship examination.  After qualifying as a National teacher in St Patrick’s Training College, Drumcondra he subsequently secured first place in Ireland with honours in the degree MA, his thesis The Hedge Schools of Kerry, pioneering the road for further study in this field.[5]


An obituary underscored his ability:


He was an authority on Gaelic literature and his work in deciphering manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy and the National Library again opened up immense avenues of scholarship for others to follow.  He was an authority on the history of Kerry, articles from his pen bore the stamp of deepest penetration and scholarship.  Classical and native music also commanded his attention and his valuable work with leading Dublin choral and musical societies bore testimony to his profound knowledge.[6]


Bryan MacMahon later publicised the same list of Gaelic poets ‘as given to me by my late brother.’[7]


Almost one century on, progress has been made with Castleisland bard, Ulicks Kerins.  Eamonn Ó Braoin has studied and lectured on the poet, and in 2009, his labours were published under title Bard an Oileáin: Uileog Ó Céirín (1791-1863) in The Kerry Magazine.[8]


The following is taken from The Schools’ Collection:


In my district there resided a man by the name of Ulick Kerins who used to compose poetry and the ruins of his house are still to be seen.  It is said that he was born and reared in the New Line, Castleisland, and there is one of his grandsons still living in Cordal.  He died where he was born and reared, and was laid to rest in Old Kilbanavin.  He was considered one of best poets who lived at that time. To his disappointment the gift broke out in his sister and when it breaks out in a woman it doesn’t break out in any of the family for four generations.  It is also related that the gift of poetry was in one of his daughters. An old man named John O’Connor of Tulliguabbeen relates how he was one day in company in a public house in Castleisland and how Ulick Kerins recited one of his own poems for the company and how his daughter, there and then, recited a poem which she composed extempore.  O’Connor says that the poet showed anger during his daughter’s recitation and that when she concluded he said to her in resentment – loisceadh an toirc ort.[9]


The following verse by Kerins was recorded by Jeremiah King in his History of Kerry:


Mount Eagle, Castleisland

Though often poets have sung in vain
To praise Killarney and fair Lough Lene
Sweet Muckross and the West Demesne,
With Cahirnane’s plantation;
But let them view that rural seat,
So rare, so rich, so nice, so neat,
So well secured from cold and heat,
So blooming bright the darkest night,
Differing radiant beams of light
Much like a constellation.[10]


As far as can be seen, further research is required to properly identify Tadg Ruadgh O Concubhair (Red Timothy O’Connor) of Castleisland who died in 1691.  If you can help, please contact Castleisland District Heritage.


It is worth noting here the work of Listowel journalist, newsagent and poet Denis C Hennessy (1840-1882) ‘The Blind Hennessy’ who published The Lays of North Kerry and Other Poems and Sketches in 1872, a work reissued by North Kerry Literary Trust in 2001.


Like matchless Milton who composed, when blind,
The greatest work of his transcendent mind,
The humble author of this little book
Has met like sad affliction and ill luck,
And being, like him, of vision quite bereft,
Without a single ray of sight being left.[11]


Hennessy was married to Honora Meehan, and their son, Company Sergeant Major John Hennessy, 2nd Leinster Regiment, was Killed in Action at Passchendaele, Belgium in July 1917 leaving a wife and six children.  One of the children was Patrick Hennessy (1915-1980), one of Ireland’s most successful post-war realist painters.[12]


[1] Kerryman, 18 May 1935.  His address then was 10 Summerhill, Sandycove, Dublin, and his letter to the newspaper dated 13 May 1935.  Information welcomed to his address in Dublin or his home address in Market Street, Listowel.

[2] The other poets were:

Roibeard O Maoilmhieil (Robert Mulvihill) of Screalm, Knocknore

An Tigherna Barraigh (Tierney Barry) poet and schoolmaster of Listowel circa 1790-1820.  Wrote a long diospoireacht with Seamus O Cathain.

Seamus O Cathain (James Keane) poet and weaver of Brosna.  He was writing about 1780.  Three pages about this poet are held in The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0449, Brosna School, https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4713225/4709212 / ‘Séamus O'Catháin, Tuirin Eochaidh, known as Seamus an Fhígheadóra.’

Uilliam O Cathasaigh (William Casey) of Tralee.  Scribe.  Died 1837.  Mason by trade.

Donnchadh O Buachalla (Denis Buckley), writing at Liselton in 1803.  Wrote a warrant for books stolen from him.

Simoin O Fiachtain (Simon Fiachtan) writing at Gurtoreen, Listowel in 178-

Michael O Mathamhna (Michael Mahony).  Scribe and teacher of Asdee.  His MSS are dated 1821-36.

Sean O Cearbhaill (John O’Carroll) poet of Glenalappa

Donal O Leighin (Daniel Lyons) scribe of Glenalappa

‘Sean O Braonain (Old Jack Brennan) poet scribe and schoolmaster of Ballymacandrew and Baltovin, Kilmoiley. I thank the descendants of this poet and Mr Thomas Kirby, one of the authors of Twixt Sceilg and Scattery for the wealth of information on John Brennan.’  See https://www.dib.ie/biography/o-braonain-sean-a6275.  Further reference, http://www.odonohoearchive.com/two-neglected-north-kerry-poets/.

Risteard O Corsain (Richard Kissane) scribe of Ballylongford circa 1780.

An t-Athair Diarmuid O Seaghdha (Fr Jeremiah O’Shea) Curate in Listowel and afterwards PP of Ballylongford.  Died 1724?

MacMahon added: ‘Above dates are very approximate and arrived at by a comparison of various MSS.’

A news item informs that Mr MacMahon made a study of A Kerry Pastoral by poet Morrough (Murroghoh) O’Connor of Aughanagraun, ‘in the Barony of Iraghty Connor, and County of Kerry, who was among other College Tenants turned out of his Farm of Ballyline.’ A Kerry Pastoral was reproduced for the Percy Society by Thomas Crofton Croker in 1843 from a 12-page original given to him by Sir William Betham in 1829, the original entitled A Pastoral in Imitation of the First Eclogue of Virgil: Inscrib’d to the Provost, Fellows, and Scholars, of Trinity College, Dublin (1719).  It was also published in Matthew Concanen’s Miscellaneous Poems original and translated by several hands (1724).  See ‘A Kerry Poet of 1740’ by J F Fuller in Kerry Archaeological Magazine, 1914 for biography.  He is also referred to as Murrough McTiege O’Connor of Aheragran.

[3] Kerryman, 3 November 1934.  ‘At the autumn examinations at the University College, Dublin, Mr John F McMahon, Listowel, who is teaching in the Pro-Cathedral Schools, Dublin, secured the Degree of MA with honours, gaining first place out of the numbers of candidates who presented themselves.  His Thesis for the examination was ‘Education in North Kerry from the period 1750 to 1850.’  In 1926 he secured first place in Ireland in the King’s Scholarship examination, and previous to his being monitor in Listowel National School he won numerous exhibitions at St Michael’s College, Listowel.  We extend heartiest congratulations to this very brilliant young Listowel man.’

[4] https://www.ainm.ie/Bio.aspx?ID=2152  Given on his list as ‘Padraig Liath O Concubhair (Grey Patrick O’Connor) 1740-1820 of Liseltin.  Wife’s name Hartnan.  Friends with another poet, Roibeard O Maoilmhieil.’  ‘The Shannonside Annual was produced by the Asdee Tostal Committee in an effort to preserve the lore and history of this area [North Kerry]’(Corkman, 12 April 1969).

[5] Evening Echo, 4 September 1963.

[6] Evening Echo, 4 September 1963.  ‘The news of his death, occasioned widespread sympathy both in Dublin and in his native Listowel.  He is survived by his wife, Mrs Ina McMahon, Sean, Donal, Colm and Mary (children); Miss Mairin McMahon (sister), Mr Bryan McMahon NT and Dr Patrick McMahon, Listowel (brothers).’ 

His marriage to Ina, only child of Mr and Mrs T Enright, Bedford, Listowel, took place on 15 July 1947 at St Joseph’s Church, Limerick. 

[7] http://www.odonohoearchive.com/two-neglected-north-kerry-poets/

[8] Issue 19, pp10-12.

[9] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0446, Page 224.

[10] Kerry Evening Post, 23 April 1913.

[11] The original pamphlet can be read here https://books.google.ie/books?redir_esc=y&id=oJ4MAAAAYAAJ&q=Hennessy#v=snippet&q=Hennessy&f=false.  Further reference ‘Hennessy’s merry song still rings soft and clear to this very day’ by John B Keane, Limerick Leader, 1 December 1979. 

[12] See obituary, Kerry Weekly Reporter, 18 August 1917.  John Hennessy was a cousin of Rev Father Jeffcott, USA.  His brother James Hennessy was also a member of the Leinsters.  Another brother, Patrick Hennessy, lived in Listowel. 

Further reference to artist Patrick Hennessy here http://www.modernirishmasters.com/artist-biography-patrick-hennessy/