The Midnight Court.

Ciarán Lenoach, an editor with Nuacht RTÉ who has a PhD in sociolinguistics, writes for RTÉ about a wonderful discovery; there are so many interesting features to the story that all I can do is quote a few bits and send you to the full article for the rest:

A version of the wildly licentious 18th century comic poem Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) adapted to a dialect of Irish no longer spoken has been discovered in a manuscript by a linguist in Dublin. The manuscript is held in the Royal Irish Academy Library, but up until now there was no record of it containing a version of The Midnight Court in the Connacht Irish of Roscommon rather than the Munster Irish of Clare poet Brian Merriman’s original. Clare Irish survived longer than Roscommon Irish, but both are now extinct.

The Roscommon Irish version of the poem was discovered by dialectologist and sociolinguist Prof Brian Ó Curnáin of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. It was written by scribe Éamann Ó hOrchaidh (anglicised as Hore or Hoare) and is being made available to the public for the first time here.

The Midnight Court by Brian Merriman is the greatest comic dramatic poem of the Irish literary canon. The poem is just over 1,000 lines long and was composed by Merriman in his native Clare Irish around the year 1780. […] The Roscommon version, written in 1817, is unique because it is the only known Connacht version of the Midnight Court. All other extant versions from the late 18th century and early 19th century are in Munster Irish, reflecting Merriman’s original idiom. Furthermore, Ó hOrchaidh’s manuscript is one of the last in the Connacht tradition written down in Irish script and spelling. […] Connacht Irish is in general linguistically quite conservative. It does not share in many of the provincial innovations of Munster or Ulster and it has relatively few independent innovations of its own.

Prof Ó Curnáin says that Merriman’s spellings deviate deliberately from the normal use of the time and are in many cases more dialectal and modern than the Irish spelling we use today. “Merriman provides a very clear indication of how to pronounce Clare Irish through his amazing four rhyming words per line. This provides us with the metrically assured pronunciations of over 4,000 words in Merriman’s own mixture of Clare vernacular and poetic register. In other words, we can tell how Merriman intended practically every syllable to be pronounced.”

Visit the link for examples of dialect words, video clips, photos, and a description of what sounds like a thoroughly delightful piece of ribaldry. Many thanks to faithful correspondent (and fine poet) Trevor Joyce for yet another great link!


  1. Wildly licentious, indeed.

    Brief excerpt:

    Ní deacair a mheas nach spreas gan bhrí
    It would be such a farce to tie for life

    Bheadh ceangailte ar nasc ar tasc ag bean,
    This sire of his to only one wife

    Gan chnámh gan chumas gan chuma gan chom,
    Shapeless, spineless, waistless, sexless

    Gan ghrá gan chumann gan fuinneamh gan fonn,
    Friendless, mindless, loveless, listless

    Do scaipfeadh i mbronn d’aon mhaighre mná
    To use his seed for only one womb

    Le catachas draighin an graíre bhreá
    When he could be in many a bedroom.

  2. Not quite the Irish Ivan Barkov, but to be fair that would be hard to achieve in a language with as few obscenities as Irish.

  3. At one point the narrator goes on a rant about (male) masturbation that sounds positively modern in its sense of entitlement to men, as in all the “Where are all the good men???” and anti-fat-shaming articles that have become such a staple.

  4. The group at the Motherfoclóir podcast just did an episode talking about the presidents of Ireland. The first of which was Douglas Hyde, who was the only one who spoke Roscommon Irish.

  5. This website has a bilingual text of the poem.

  6. It is well remembered in Ireland that Frank O’Connor’s English translation was banned by the Censorship of Publications Board while the original text Irish never was. To the enlightened, this reflects Official Ireland’s implicit assumption that Irish speakers had stronger morals.

    The history is a smidgin less straightforward. O’Connor’s text was published in The Bell in 1941 and as a separate text in 1945 by Maurice Fridberg. The Fridberg edition was submitted to the censors by a concerned citizen in 1946 and they duly banned it as obscene. Other translations were published before and after that and not submitted or banned. In 1961 an anthology which included O’Connor’s translation was banned but the ban was overturned on appeal. Thus the O’Connor text was now publishable, although technically the Fridberg edition remained banned until a change in the censorship legislation in 1967.


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