Two Neglected North Kerry Poets

Jeremiah Finaghty – A Kerry Diamond


Kerry, my rugged native home,
God seems to love you best;
His smile lights up your valleys green
And your hills with towering crest –
Your glens and emerald bosom fair with
His choicest gifts are blest.


– ‘Beauty’, in praise of a lecture, ‘Every Man His Own Poet’ delivered
by Rev R J O’Sullivan, SS Peter and Paul’s, Cork, 1902


Jeremiah Finaghty was born c1871 in Cappa (or Cappagh), Kilflynn, son of Edmond Finaghty, a farmer, and his wife Margaret.1  His younger brothers were John and Edmond and his sisters Mary and Hannah. 2


In 1886, Jeremiah was a monitor at Kilflynn National School and following his examinations in that year, received a Reid Bequest of £18.3  He later attended Drumcondra Training College, c1896-97, following which he returned to Kilflynn to teach.


He was appointed principal of Kilflynn National School in 1897.


Alter Ego


Jeremiah had a great interest in the history and folklore of his area which he began recording in verse and story.  His literature began appearing in print in the closing decade of the nineteenth century, sometimes under the penname, Diarmuid Mac Finn. 4


In 1894, he composed an elegy on the death of Rev Thomas Hugh Brosnan of Dromulton, Currow, parish priest of Abbeydorney and Kilflynn for twenty-five years.Rev Brosnan was affectionately known as ‘Father Tom’, and best remembered as mediator between landlord and tenant in troubled times.6


Jeremiah’s poetic tributes, such as that paid to the memory of Mrs James King, Stacksmountain, recorded the life and times of the district.7


He contributed to local newspapers and in 1903 – the same year in which his poem, ‘Bridge of Athlone’ was regarded as ‘one of the most popular recitations at the present’ – he published a book of stories and poems entitled Kerry Diamonds, Found, Cut, and Set.8


The content was described as ‘founded on fact’; the scenes of the stories laid ‘in dear North Kerry’.  It included a tale of 1798 and one from the times of the Great Famine in Kilmoyley which involved love, betrayal and murder.9


Finaghty admitted that he had not the means of ‘commanding the lithographic art’ to give his book ‘an attractive, pictorial dress’ but reckoned that ‘a Kerryman ought prefer the native garb, however homely, to the foreign costume of tinsel and tawdriness’.


Finaghty hoped that his ‘exiled brethren with home-hunger gnawing their hearts’ would appreciate the book as a reminder of home, ‘wherein the valleys and lonely churchyards reposed the ashes and bones of their fathers’.10


Community First


Jeremiah was ensconced in the affairs of his community.  He was secretary of the Kilflynn Bee-Keepers’ Society in 1902 and a few years later, was secretary of Kilflynn Co-operative Dairy Society.11


He was a fluent Irish speaker and attended the inaugural meeting of the Kilflynn GAA on New Year’s Day 1903, following which he made ‘an energetic start’ on teaching Irish in Kilflynn National School.12


An illustration of Jeremiah’s teaching ability was recorded in 1903 when Mr J P McCormack obtained fourth place in Ireland (and the first in Cork) in the Boy Copyists examination.  McCormack received his education under Jeremiah Finaghty to whom his success was attributed.13


Jeremiah Finaghty suffered a brief illness and died at St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, on 1 March 1920.  He was laid to rest in the family burial place at Abbeydorney.


John O’Brennan – Last of the Bards


The last of all the bards was he,
Who sang of Erin’s misery,
And died forgotten and alone;
He, too, is worth a little stone.14


John O’Brennan was born in the area of Ardfert in the closing decades of the eighteenth century and flourished in the pre-famine years of the nineteenth century.


At Lerrig crossroads, about three miles north of Ardfert on the borders of three old parishes, are two neighbouring farms.  It is likely that it was on one of those farms that O’Brennan was born.  The Brennan family had been well established in Iveragh before Cromwell, moving north to Trughanacmy at the time of the Cromwellian plantation and further north to Clanmaurice by the 18th century.


O’Brennan, a deeply religious man who ‘never wrote a licentious line’ and who was an intimate of Tomas Ruad, declined the livelihood of singing the praise of the ruling class and chose to work as a hedge schoolmaster in Ardfert village, his school situated near the site of the fountain.15


His school prospered until the advent of the National School system of 1831 which ‘sounded the death knell of poor Brennan’.16


On one occasion, while crippled in bed with rheumatism, the tithe proctors seized all his goods.  ‘Bereft of health and means, he was miraculously healed at Wether’s Well, Tubrid, Ardfert – the scene of the baptism of Saint Brendan.’17


It is thought O’Brennan died a pauper c1845.


Worthy to rank with the Four Kerry Poets


Many years later, a writer for the Kerryman considered that O’Brennan was worthy to rank with the quartette of Gaelic poets.  He wrote:


John Brennan from Ballymacandrew, Kilmoily is the great Gaelic versifier of North Kerry. His songs were as the breath of life to the despairing peasant through the encircling gloom of the later penal decades; his life one long martyrdom with sickness, disease and wrong.  He is almost an unknown quantity – his name but a legend, an echo, even amongst his own.18


As long ago as the end of the nineteenth century, efforts were being made to record O’Brennan’s literature.  In 1893, Father Donncha O Donnchadha, parish priest of Ardfert, was approached about the task, ‘Should you decide to publish’ he was advised, ‘for goodness sake collect and publish all that may be known about the poet himself.’19


The work was not undertaken but the poet was rescued from obscurity in 1972 when a collection of his literature, Filíocht Sheáin Uí Bhraonáin, was presented by Pádraig de Brún.20


Parnassian youth whose laurels you can claim
as poetic lays will gain immortal fame,
in your native tongue what rhyme and metre flows
soft as the fleecy showers of northern snows.


He researched the poet’s relationship with Michael Og O Longain from Carraig na bhFear and documented O’Brennan’s praise of Fr Michael Breathnach, for whom Percival Graves wrote his well-known song Father O’Flynn.21


Pádraig de Brún’s publication was reviewed by the late playwright and novelist, Bryan MacMahon (1909-1998) who remarked that the collection had been brought to fruition by a scholar ‘from the plain which O’Brennan knew and loved so well’.22


Indeed, MacMahon commented on the fertility of literary research in North Kerry in general:


One of my rarest possessions is a manuscript by Seamus Neamhurchoideach O Cathain (James Harmless Keane) of Brosna written in scribal Irish and which again forms another link with the language Pádraig de Brún has so powerfully revealed to us.  I hope that he will place us further in his debt by research among the work of other poets of the area … I list them as they were given to me by my late brother, and published in the Kerryman about forty years ago:


Padraig Liath O Conchuir of Lisselton

Riobeard O Maolmhichil of Scralin on the southern slope of Knockanore Hill

Tiarna Barry of Listowel

Donncha Kerin of Duagh and perhaps also of Castleisland

Ulick Kerin of Glensharoon, Castleisland

Liam Casey of Tralee

Donncha Buckley of Lisselton

Simon O Fiachtain of Gortcreen Listowel

Micheal O Mathuna of Asdee

Sean O Ceerbhaill and Donal O Leighin of Glenalappa

Tadhg Rua O Conchuir of Castleisland

Fr Diarmuid O’Shea, one time parish priest of Ballylongford.23


In June 2011, a plaque to the memory of John O’Brennan was erected in Kilmoyley by his descendants.24


1 Margaret Finaghty died at Kilflynn on 23 October 1913. Jeremiah composed an elegy in 15 stanzas published in the Kerryman, 11 April 1914.  It also paid tribute to Robert Finaghty who died at Untalai, Rhodesia, South Africa on 20 May 1908 and to Mrs Maria McQuinn, Laccamore, O’Dorney, who died on 9 March 1913 (Jeremiah also published an elegy on the death of Mrs McQuinn in the Kerry Weekly Reporter, 22 March 1913).

2 Another brother may have been Robert; see note above.  Hannah died in 1938.

3 Scoil Treasa Naofa (St Teresa’s NS, Kilflynn).  Finaghty received a further gratuity of £20 following the examinations of 1888.  See page for further information on the Reid Bequest.

4 His stories included the serialised Fenian story, Around the Kerry Firesides (Jan-Aug 1897) published in The Shamrock5 Finaghty also composed an elegy on the death of Rev Francis Crimmins, parish priest of Abbeydorney, who died on 22 April 1912 (see Killarney Echo, 15 June 1912).

6 Kerry Weekly Reporter, 10 March 1894.  Rev Thomas Hugh Brosnan was born at Dromulton, Currow in 1833, educated at the Irish College, Paris, and Maynooth, and ordained in 1857.  His first curacy was Ballybunion; he was transferred to Causeway in 1861, parish priest of Tuosist 1868, parish priest of Abbeydorney and Kilflynn 1869 where he remained for twenty-five years until his death at age 60 on 1 March 1894.  His brother, Patrick Brosnan from Castleisland, was present at his death.  He built schools in Cappa, Ardrahan and carried out improvements to the churches of Abbeydorney and Kilflynn.  He built the parochial house in Abbeydorney.  See ‘The Priest who was buried three times’, Kerryman, 7 December 1984.

7 ‘In Memoriam:On the Death of Mrs James King, Stacksmountain, who died 6 July 1903’ by Jeremiah Finaghty, Kerry Sentinel, 18 July 1903.

8 The Bridge of Athlone was published in St Patrick’s, 23 February 1901 for which Finaghty was awarded a prize for best poem.  Composed of 19 verses, it was reproduced in the Kerry Sentinel, 25 May 1904, the first line of which begins: ‘All day long the English cannon have sent forth their iron shower’. Finaghty also composed a parody, ‘The Bridge of Kilflynn’ a bridge in the locality he described as ‘monstrous’.  It was published in the Kerry Sentinel on 17 March 1906. 

9  Finaghty published Kerry Diamonds under his pseudonym, Diarmuid MacFinn. The contents of the book are as follows:

Short Stories: The Tragedy of Phoul-na-Pooka; Or, The Rival Lovers, a tale about betrayal and murder in Kilmoyley; United in Death, a ghost story from Clahane, near Tralee;  The Banna Pearl, a tale about a girl who discovers her paternity in Captain Vane, from which the book appears to take its title; The Pride of the Cashen, a tale about the Staunton family; The Abduction of Aileen Stack, a tale about the wooing of a girl from Stacksmountain;  What Came of a Faction Fight, a tale from Kilfeighney; The Fate of Nora O’Donnell, a tale about the ill fortunes of the O’Donnell family told by a servant boy from Tipperary;  A Coal o’ Fire, a tale from Kilflynn; The Charge for the Guns, a tale of the 1798 period from schoolmaster, Michael McCarthy from Ballymascarty, Co Cork, whose father was a blacksmith; The Lily of Kilborna, a tale related by an 88-year-old man which bears echoes of Griffin’s Colleen Bawn.

Poetry: The Bridge of Finnea, with note on the heroics of Myles O’Reilly of Cavan in holding the bridge against 3,000 Scotch and English troops until the arrival of Castlehaven, the Irish Commander; The Kerry Colleen; Barrett of Oulane;  O’Dorney;  The Kerry Boy; Lines respectfully inscribed to J E J Julian, BL, on receiving a Copy of The Spirit of the Nation (includes author’s note on his two trips to Glasnevin in 1896 in search of the grave of James Clarence Mangan); The Return of Tone (October, 1798); O’Sullivan’s Retreat (historic march of 1603 that began in Glengarriffe);  The Exodus.

A copy of Kerry Diamonds is held in the National Library of Ireland.  My thanks to James Harte for assisting in identifying the contents of this book.

10 Kerry Sentinel, 7 October 1903.

11 In 1904, Jeremiah welcomed Professor Mason of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction to Kilflynn and introduced the professor’s lecture about diseases in cattle and horses.

12 Together with Fionan MacColuim, he addressed a meeting of the O’Dorney branch of the Gaelic League in 1905.  A biographical sketch of Mac Coluim is contained in Beans My Dear Woman, Gaelic Songs and Ballads translated by Sean Looney (2018).

13 See Kerry People, 3 January 1903.

14 Notes from Ardfert by ‘The Trapper’, Kerry News, 22 March 1929.

15 Ibid. O’Brennan met Tomas Ruad at the home of Fr O’Connell, Cahernead, Abbeydorney, a clergyman regarded as a patron of Gaelic literature.

16 Ibid. ‘… and sent him gravitating to a pauper’s grave’.

17 Ibid.  ‘The Trapper’ added, ‘His greatest poem was a thanksgiving for the restoration of his health at St Brendan’s shrine and was a sublime effort akin to Milton’s Hymn to the Nativity.  It is completely lost, except a brief stanza I rescued 35 years ago from one of his relatives.  I also salved a few fugitive pieces attributed to him and famous for their wit.  His sole title to fame rests on a solitary manuscript of his in the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin.  It is a poem, in Gaelic, of course, of one hundred lines and is signed Seagan Ua Breannain, Baile Mac Aindris.  This information will assist any voluntary Gaelic scholar who may be kind enough to copy and print it as evidence of the genius of the poet.’ 

18 Ibid.

19 Review of Filíocht Sheáin Uí Bhraonáin by P O Maiden, Cork Examiner, 25 May 1972. ‘What Father Donncha O Donnchadha failed to do in 1893 – the rescue of an important poet from oblivion – has now been done by de Brun’.

20 Filíocht Sheáin Uí Bhraonáin (The Poetry of John O’Brennan) edited by Pádraig de Brún and published in 1972 (207 pages).

21 Review of Filíocht Sheáin Uí Bhraonáin by P O Maiden, Cork Examiner, 25 May 1972. ‘Padraig de Brun’s research into the life and work of a poet whose name had almost disappeared from tradition is shown here to have been not only wide-ranging and deep but it has a quality of intensity which catches the reader and engages him in the search and the examination of the faint clues still surviving …The preface of 70 pages is a major work in itself … The correspondence between O Braonain and Michael Og O Longain is preserved in eight poems, three by Michael Og and five by Sean.  The poems were preserved by O Longain and his songs otherwise there would be no knowledge at all of any contact between the poets.  The poems were carried by messengers between Ballymacandrew and Blarney where Michael Og had settled for a time after a few years wandering through Kerry and Limerick.  It is likely that the poems were carried by the cart drivers bringing butter from Kerry to the Cork butter market … that the butter trail from Kerry to Cork was also the road of cultural contacts is but one of the thought-provoking asides in this work’.

22 Review, ‘North Kerry should be proud of this book’, Kerryman, 1 July 1972.  MacMahon described the dialect of the Irish language in the book as ‘the identical vernacular in use during countless centuries in the area from the Maine to the Shannon’.  He also observed that his late brother, Jack MacMahon of Clontarf, Dublin, had discovered the manuscripts of Sean O Braonain in the Royal Irish Academy and elsewhere in the early 1930s and had asked him to research if the memory of O Braonain still lived on in the neighbourhood of Ardfert, ‘I gained more from this field work than I had anticipated for I found that the memory of Sean O Braonain was indeed very much alive having been treasured not only by such scholars as Tomas O Ciarba of Tubrid and Micheal O Riordain of Abbeydorney – authors of Twixt Skellig and Scattery (1932) – but by the ordinary people of the countryside who spoke of the poet with affection and pride.’ 

23 Ibid.  MacMahon also mentioned ‘the late Tom Hennessy’ of Gleann an Phuca, Listowel, ‘one of the last seanchuithe of the area who delighted us as children with wondertales that were ours since the beginning of time’ and whose tale, Jack O’Moora, he ‘caught by the coattails as it had almost vanished and with the aid of old people in the Gleann fitted it together again and later published it under the name of Jack O’Moora and the King of Ireland’s Son’. 

24 Kerryman, 22 June 2011. ‘History comes to life as Kilmoyley honours bard’.