In Irish folklore, the leannán sí or ‘fairy-lover’ is a beautiful female member of the Aos Sí or Aes Sídhe, the people of the barrows, who takes a human lover. These chosen men are permitted to live brief but inspired lives and their interactions with their supernatural muse results in the creation of great works of art.
While it seems unlikely that our great poets, painters and writers have benefitted from productive liaisons with beautiful mythical beings, what is certain is that Ireland’s foremost artists have long been inspired by the real women who inhabit their lives. These women are often lovers, but they are also mothers, sisters, cousins and friends.
When Oscar Wilde, aged twenty-seven, embarked on a lecture tour of America, he was introduced in Minnesota as ‘a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters’. In an interview with journalist Mary Watson, Wilde described how ‘his mother, of whom he is very proud, inspired him with the desire to become a poet’. As Speranza, Jane Wilde emboldened a nation to challenge the authority of her colonizer.
Wilde wrote poetry throughout his life. His most moving and beautiful poem, ‘Requiescat,’ was written in memory of his beloved little sister, Isola, who died when she was nine and he, twelve. When W.B. Yeats included ‘Requiescat’ in A Book of Irish Verse (1900), it was hailed as ‘the brightest gem’ in the collection. The first four lines are inscribed on Isola’s tombstone:
Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.
Yeats himself is most closely associated with fiery Maud Gonne, revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). He called her ‘the new Speranza,’ not least because she stood over six feet tall as Jane Wilde did. Among many poems, she inspired his magnificent ‘No Second Troy’:
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Yet Yeats’s early plays – Time and the Witch Vivien, The Island of the Statues, and Mosada – were inspired by Laura Armstrong, an earlier target of his infatuation. A lesser-known muse was fellow poet Katharine Tynan with whom Yeats collaborated on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888).
Iseult, Maud Gonne’s beautiful daughter, played muse not only to Yeats but also to Ezra Pound, American poet and critic. Pound’s great friend James Joyce was inspired by lifelong partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle: ‘I love you deeply and truly, Nora,’ he wrote. ‘I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours’. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘On Raglan Road’ was written for Hilda Moriarty, a raven-haired medical student from Kerry who was two decades his junior.
Two women who inspired each other were Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote as Somerville and Ross, and gave us The Irish R.M. By the time Martin died in 1915, they had completed fourteen books together. Insisting that she retained a spiritual connection to her partner, Somerville continued to write and publish stories under their joint names. The women are buried side by side at St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.
Ireland has a proud tradition of producing inspirational women, all of them highly accomplished in their own right of course. Without their influence, we would be deprived of many of our finest literary masterpieces.
International Literature Festival Dublin 2017 presents Herstory Salon: Ireland’s Lost Muses in Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday 25 May at 6p.m., followed by a reception at The Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay. Speakers include Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at UCD, and author Eleanor Fitzsimons, with poetry by Dani Gill and Maria Bourke. The event marks the first anniversary of Herstory, Ireland’s new cultural movement created to tell the life stories of historical, contemporary and mythological women.