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A passionate story of what might have been

Cerbhi Meg Russell?

Maire Mhac an tSaoi with Maire Mac Conghail and Lis O Droma

Leabhar Breac, €15

This is an Irish-language book about a remarkable Irish woman written by a remarkable Irish woman. And if anyone should feel the need to ask "Who is Maire Mhac an tSaoi?", it might be because we aren't always as conscious of the role and power of the fair sex in history. But more on that anon. A third question has to be asked before the first two can be attempted, "Just who was Piaras Feiritear?" and, more the point, what is his connection with a young noble Kerrywoman of the 1640s and one of Ireland's most illustrious women?

Feiritear, or Ferriter in its anglicised form, was a poet, a soldier and a courtier in the romantic, dangerous and passionate times in the Ireland of the 1640s. A swashbuckling hero of Ireland's resistance to Cromwell's invasion, he stands between Meg Russell and Maire Mhac an tSaoi. Meg Russell is the young woman who stares out at us enigmatically from the cover of a book the title of which is Cerbhi Meg Russell?. She is the subject of Ferriter's admiration, as expressed in Ferriter's courtly poetry. And Ferriter is the subject of Maire Mhac an tSaoi's admiration, as expressed in this book of which she is the author.

For any man, dead or living, to find himself in this triangle of admiration is a bit of an ego trip. Ferriter, it seems, was a man who deserved it. Maire Mhac an tSaoi -- a scion of the Irish-language elite, daughter of one of the state's founding fathers (Sean MacEntee) and widow of Conor Cruise O'Brien -- learned to admire Ferriter despite the fact that she was separated from him by the span of time. What three centuries of distance set apart, Maire Mhac an tSaoi's upbringing in "Ferriter country" has brought together and she speaks of the man with the familiarity of a next-door neighbour. "He's a very attractive character, very romantic and a serious soldier in the 1641 rebellion. Someone who was absolutely bilingual in English and Irish and so many places were called after him -- Ballyferriter, Ferriter's castle, Ferriters ditch -- that you couldn't have grown up in Dunquin without knowing about him."

Initially Norman conquerors in the 12th Century, the Ferriters were, half a millennium after their arrival in Ireland, in the same position as the Gaelic chieftains they had originally displaced, victims of Cromwell's hateful and bigoted aggression. Piaras Ferriter was a cosmopolitan of his day; as well as being fluent in Irish and English, he also had a smattering of Spanish and French. A Catholic by religion, he was tolerant of Protestants, but his loyalty to his native country saw him spring to the defence of Kerry against the roundheads. He took Tralee town for the Irish, only to end up being defeated. Disgracefully, Cromwell's forces promised him his life if he surrendered. Trusting the honour of his adversary, Ferriter surrendered, but was hanged by Cromwell. It was a case of the native Irish having better values and more class than the invading "civilisers".

But we haven't addressed the opening question. Just who was Meg Russell?

In 1639, the Earl of Cork -- the wealthy inheritor of the Elizabethan conquest -- was in London looking for a wife for one of his sons. The object of his travels and travails was the daughter of the Earl of Bedford, a rare breed of royalist and puritan. Meg Russell was the elegant young woman who became the subject of the Earl of Cork's negotiations, but her mother to rejected the match as too dangerous. To London opinion of the 1630s and 1640s, Ireland was like Afghanistan today: a place no mother would send her daughter for marriage. But before the matriarchal ruling, Piaras Ferriter was to find himself in the very same house while the negotiations were in train. Maire Mhac an tSaoi explains how it might have happened, "The Earl of Cork tended to make pets of Irish families who survived the Desmond rebellion. He loved the old Irish harp but was very much a new man and liked people like the Ferriters whose genealogy went back to the Norman invasion."

Although she has no hard evidence, the best fit for the facts appears to be this: two years before the Irish rose up in revolt against British rule in 1641, Ferriter was to find himself in the employ of the Earl of Cork as he travelled to London to visit the Earl of Bedford. Although dispossessed by Cork's forbears, such was the Ireland of the early 17th Century that a sort of confused tolerance and ambiguity had broken out, by which former enemies were coming to terms with living with one another on decent, albeit sometimes tense, terms.

The Earl of Bedford -- Meg Russell's father -- was one of those people who might have turned that confused tolerance into something more permanent and positive and, in doing so, could have created a very different history of Ireland and England. A royalist and puritan, he was capable of reconciling the forces whose rupture, once it happened, created legacies of hatred that have lasted until this day. Like the portrait of that young, elegant lady on the cover of Maire Mhac an tSaoi's book, a different, better story of what might have been stares at us from the darkness.

Marc Coleman is economics editor of Newstalk 106 to 108FM. www.marccoleman.ie

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