The Poetic Champions Compose

With a lively lover she wouldn’t have quit
Once she was lighted, you know she’d stay lit.
With the proper partner she’d never take flight
Entranced on her back with her eyes shut tight

With a lively lover she wouldn’t have quit
Once she was lighted, you know she’d stay lit.
With the proper partner she’d never take flight
Entranced on her back with her eyes shut tight
She wouldn’t jump with inappropriate fright
Attack like a cat or scratch or bite,
But lie with him in embrace combined
Side by side with legs entwined,
Exchanging sweet nothings, little white lies
Lips to lips, fingers stroking his thighs.

_The Midnight Court_, Brian Merriman, 1780
Translated by J. Noel Fahey

Limerick, Ireland is my home town, but I am most at home in the Limerick of distant literary history. In the 18th century it was the capital of a country whose national sport was competitive poetry. I’m not making it up; that’s what Van Morrison refers to the title of his album, _The Poetic Champions Compose_.

The _file_ or bard was a hero for hire who could spin verse on the spot. He recited yards of poetry, and was as famous for memory as for invention. Young bloods waited for slip to snatch their chance at greatness. (One translation of my name from the Gaelic is _dearbh fhile_, daughter of the poet. It’s the one I like best.) Poetry wasn’t the unread, starveling business it is today. I’m about to sound like a hapless English teacher in baggy, chalk-smudged tweeds, but those poets were the Eminem of their day.

Limerick was famous for champion poets, and gave its name to five-line doggerel. The greatest of all was Brian Merriman, who wrote _Cúirt an Mhean Oíche_, or _The Midnight Court_. No sunsets and daffodils for Brian. His poem describes a dream in which he is dragged to a trial where women of Ireland accuse the men of general foot-dragging and lame bedroom performance. Irish men aren’t worthy of their spirited womenfolk, they say. The population is falling. Tight-buttocked, cutie priests are unavailable, and maidens wither while single men dither. A young woman addresses the court, blasting men for waiting to marry until they are past being able to satisfy women in bed. She proposes, among other things, that priests should marry, and destroys the shrivelled old man who defends men by abusing her. Aoibheall, judge and fairy queen, delivers a verdict against the men just as Merriman, in terror, wakes up.

It is splendid stuff, rich and earthy and full of detail. Diarmuid Breathnach writes:

As well as its literary worth, _The Midnight Court_ is full of information about spells, folklore and 18th century rural life as well as matters revolving around marriage, sex, population, women’s rights, births outside marriage [and] clerical celibacy.

_The Midnight Court_ was written in 1780, but aside from the post-party texting negotiations, the complaints seem fresh to some Irish women today. Seamus Heaney translated part of the poem in _The Midnight Verdict_, which I’d love to own.

UPDATE: Noel Fahy has a terrific set of _Midnight Court_ related material here. It includes detailed translation notes, autobiographical details, and a side-by-side translation. Thanks, Noel!

O Lady of Craiglea, you must assess
The extent of Irish women’s distress,
How, if the men continue with their ways,
Alas, women will have to make the plays
By the time the men are disposed to wed
They’re no longer worth our while to bed
And it’ll be no fun to lie below
Those old men who are so weak and slow.

2 thoughts on “The Poetic Champions Compose”

  1. Thank you for the poetry link. Friends of mine have been complaining for a while the lack of available men, and the poem was quite refreshing. I sent it on to them.

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