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Ireland's County Cork, Word for Word

It was here in 1773 that an Irish colonel in the Austrian army named Arthur O'Leary was murdered for refusing to sell his mare to a Protestant for five pounds (by law the maximum value of any horse belonging to a Catholic). His murder inspired his widow to write a searing lament that today stands as one of the finest poems ever written in the Irish language. In "Caoineadh Art Û Laoighire" ("The Lament for Art O'Leary"), Eileen O'Leary, great-aunt of the Catholic hero Daniel O'Connell, gives form and name to her love for her slain husband, from first infatuation to final, keening grief. She tells of their families—Gaelic nobles—and where they came from. She tells of their meeting "beside the market-house" in Macroom. And she vividly describes the moment she discovered his body:

I never lingered
Till I found you lying
By a little furze-bush
Without pope or bishop
Or priest or cleric
One prayer to whisper
But an old, old woman,
And her cloak about you,
And your blood in torrents—
Art O'Leary
I did not wipe it off,
I drank it from my palms.

She goes on to give full expression to her loss:

My love and my secret,
Your corn is stacked,
Your cows are milking;
On me is a grief
There's no cure for in Munster.
Till Art O'Leary rise
This grief will never yield
That's bruising all my heart
Yet shut up fast in it,
As 'twere in a locked trunk
With the key gone astray,
And rust grown on the wards.

In Carriganimmy, we found the inn where O'Leary was last seen on the night he was killed: a low terra-cotta-colored building, now Crowley's Bar, with a Guinness sign hanging above the door. Just down the road is a nondescript pub called Walsh's, across from which we came upon the head of a footpath, leading south. Fifty or so yards along the path we passed an iron cattle gate beside a fallen stone house; not far beyond the gate was a narrow river, brilliant in sunlight. We arrived at a stone footbridge, a ruin now, unpassable. From our books we knew that the grass-covered path on the other side, running along the river, had been a coach road in O'Leary's day. And there, third to the left from the bridge, was the "furze-bush" where Eileen O'Leary had found her husband. Near it, a single cow stood, placidly grazing. It turned and regarded us, its body otherwise still. For a long time we stared back. The scene felt oddly like a painting.

It was Eileen O'Leary who wrote her husband's epitaph:

Lo Arthur O'Leary
Generous Handsome Brave
Slain In His Bloom
Lies In This Humble Grave

The grave lies in the back right corner of the nave of Kilcrea Friary (circa 1465), which stands more or less in the middle of nowhere, about three miles west of the town of Ovens. The friary is a ruin, its roof long gone. We had the place to ourselves—in late November, it often seemed we had all Ireland to ourselves. Around Art O'Leary were buried four centuries of the dead; flowers had recently been laid at the headstone of one of the graves. It was quiet enough to hear the old silence. This was one of our favorite places in Ireland.

THE IRISH HAVE A TALENT FOR PITCH-perfect epitaphs—perhaps because, in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, words on a gravestone are seen as inspiration not just for the living but for the departed: food for thought on the next journey. I know I wish Frank O'Connor could write my epitaph, the way he wrote the Tailor's.

The Tailor (1860-1945; his real name was Timothy Buckley) was a legendary storyteller, a bawdy Irish Homer who lived with his wife, Antsy, in a cottage in desolate, mountainous Gougane Barra in the 1930's and 40's. Their cottage was at the source of the river Lee, very near where St. Finbarr had lived in a stone hermitage in the sixth century—it was from there that St. Finbarr followed the river east to found the monastery that became Cork City.

Buckley's stories were collected by Eric Cross in a wonderful book called The Tailor and Antsy, which the government banned for its "sexuality" in 1943. But governments have never been very astute readers. In those days countless writers, O'Connor among them, made pilgrimages to the Tailor's remote cottage for evenings of story and drink. And it was O'Connor himself who wrote the words carved on the otherwise unremarkable headstone on Timothy Buckley's grave:

A Star Danced And
Under That I Was Born

Gougane Barra is a magical place, savage yet serene: fearsome with outcroppings of rock, coppered at that time of year with heather and bracken, and greened with the pointed pine trees of some other landscape. Two swans and several clusters of goats were our only companions that afternoon. It had rained hard earlier in the day, and a mist was lifting from the lake that sits in a shallow bowl made by the mountains. On a tiny island, reachable by a causeway, stand the crumbled stone cells of St. Finbarr's hermitage. Across the road, near the lakeshore and almost hidden by trees, is the small cemetery where the Tailor and Antsy are buried. And a very Irish place it is, as we came to know it: no pomp or circumstance, just the perfect words.

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