Yeats' The Celtic Twilight
THE LAST GLEEMAN
Michael Moran was born about 1794
off Black Pitts, in the Liberties of
Dublin, in Faddle Alley. A fortnight after birth he went stone blind from
illness, and became thereby a blessing to his parents, who were soon able to
send him to rhyme and beg at street corners and at the bridges over the Liffey.
They may well have wished that their quiver were full of such as he, for, free
from the interruption of sight, his mind became a perfect echoing chamber, where
every movement of the day and every change of public passion whispered itself
into rhyme or quaint saying. By the time he had grown to manhood he was the
admitted rector of all the ballad-mongers of the Liberties. Madden, the weaver,
Kearney, the blind fiddler from Wicklow, Martin from Meath, M'Bride from heaven
knows where, and that M'Grane, who in after days, when the true Moran was no
more, strutted in borrowed plumes, or rather in borrowed rags, and gave out that there had
never been any Moran but himself, and many another, did homage before him, and
held him chief of all their tribe. Nor despite his blindness did he find any
difficulty in getting a wife, but rather was able to pick and choose, for he was
just that mixture of ragamuffin and of genius which is dear to the heart of
woman, who, perhaps because she is wholly conventional herself, loves the
unexpected, the crooked, the bewildering. Nor did he lack, despite his rags,
many excellent things, for it is remembered that he ever loved caper sauce,
going so far indeed in his honest indignation at its absence upon one occasion
as to fling a leg of mutton at his wife. He was not, however, much to look at,
with his coarse frieze coat with its cape and scalloped edge, his old corduroy
trousers and great brogues, and his stout stick made fast to his wrist by a
thong of leather: and he would have been a woeful shock to the gleeman
MacConglinne, could that friend of kings have beheld him
in prophetic vision from the pillar stone at Cork. And yet though the short
cloak and the leather wallet were no more, he was a true gleeman, being alike
poet, jester, and newsman of the people. In the morning when he had finished his
breakfast, his wife or some neighbour would read the newspaper to him, and read
on and on until he interrupted with, 'That'll do--I have me meditations'; and
from these meditations would come the day's store of jest and rhyme. He had the
whole Middle Ages under his frieze coat.
He had not, however, MacConglinne's hatred of the Church and clergy, for when
the fruit of his meditations did not ripen well, or when the crowd called for
something more solid, he would recite or sing a metrical tale or ballad of saint
or martyr or of Biblical adventure. He would stand at a street comer, and when a
crowd had gathered would begin in some such fashion as follows (I copy the
record of one who knew him)--'Gather round me, boys,
gather round me. Boys, am I standin' in puddle? am I standin' in wet?' Thereon
several boys would cry, 'Ah, no! yez not! yer in a nice dry place. Go on with
St. Mary; go on with Moses'--each calling for his favourite tale.
Then Moran, with a suspicious wriggle of his body and a clutch at his rags,
would burst out with 'All me buzzim friends are turned backbiters'; and after a
final 'If yez don't drop your coddinâ and diversion I'll lave some of yez a
case,' by way of warning to the boys, begin his recitation, or perhaps still
delay, to ask, 'Is there a crowd round me now? Any blackguard heretic around
me?' The best-known of his religious tales was St. Mary of Egypt, a long
poem of exceeding solemnity, condensed from the much longer work of a certain
Bishop Coyle. It told how a fast woman of Egypt, Mary by name, followed pilgrims
to Jerusalem for no good purpose, and then, turning penitent on finding
herself withheld from entering the Temple by supernatural
interference, fled to the desert and spent the remainder of her life in solitary
penance. When at last she was at the point of death, God sent Bishop Zozimus to
hear her confession, give her the last sacrament, and with the help of a lion,
whom He sent also, dig her grave. The poem has the intolerable cadence of the
eighteenth century, but was so popular and so often called for that Moran was
soon nicknamed Zozimus, and by that name is he remembered. He had also a poem of
his own called Moses, which went a little nearer poetry without going
very near. But he could ill brook solemnity, and before long parodied his own
verses in the following ragamuffin fashion:
In Egypt's land, contagious to the Nile,
His humorous rhymes
were, however, more often quips and cranks at the expense of his contemporaries.
It was his delight, for instance, to remind a certain shoemaker, noted alike for
display of wealth and for personal uncleanness, of his inconsiderable origin in
a song of which but the first stanza has come down to us:
King Pharaoh's daughter went to bathe in style.
She tuk her dip, then walked unto the land,
To dry her royal pelt she ran along the strand.
A bulrush tripped her, whereupon she saw
A smiling babby in a wad o' straw.
She tuk it up, and said with accents mild,
'Tare-and-agers, girls, which av yez owns the child?'
At the dirty end of Dirty Lane,
He had troubles of
divers kinds, and numerous interlopers to face and put down. Once an officious
peeler arrested him as a vagabond, but was triumphantly routed amid the laughter of the court, when
Moran reminded his worship of the precedent set by Homer, who was also, he
declared, a poet, and a blind man, and a beggarman. He had to face a more
serious difficulty as his fame grew. Various imitators started up upon all
sides. A certain actor, for instance, made as many guineas as Moran did
shillings by mimicking his sayings and his songs and his getup upon the stage.
One night this actor was at supper with some friends, when dispute arose as to
whether his mimicry was overdone or not. It was agreed to settle it by an appeal
to the mob. A forty-shilling supper at a famous coffeehouse was to be the wager.
The actor took up his station at Essex Bridge, a great haunt of Moran's, and
soon gathered a small crowd. He had scarce got through 'In Egypt's land,
contagious to the Nile,' when Moran himself came up, followed by another crowd.
The crowds met in great excitement and laughter. 'Good Christians,' cried the pretender, 'is it
possible that any man would mock the poor dark man like that?'
Liv'd a dirty cobbler, Dick Maclane;
His wife was in the old king's reign
A stout brave orange-woman.
On Essex Bridge she strained her throat,
And six-a-penny was her note.
But Dickey wore a bran-new coat,
He got among the yeomen.
He was a bigot, like his clan,
And in the streets he wildly sang,
O Roly, toly, toly raid, with his old jade.
'Who's that? It's some imposhterer,' replied Moran.
'Begone, you wretch! it's you'ze the imposhterer. Don't you fear the light of
heaven being struck from your eyes for mocking the poor dark man?'
'Saints and angels, is there no protection against this? You're a most
inhuman blaguard to try to deprive me of my honest bread this way,' replied poor
'And you, you wretch, won't let me go on with the beautiful poem. Christian
people, in your charity won't you beat this man away? he's taking advantage of
The pretender, seeing that he was having the best of it, thanked the people
for their sympathy and protection, and went on with the poem, Moran listening
for a time in bewildered silence. After a while Moran protested again with:
'Is it possible that none of yez can know me? Don't yez see it's myself; and
that's some one else?'
'Before I can proceed any further in this lovely story,' interrupted the
pretender, 'I call on yez to contribute your charitable donations to help me to
'Have you no sowl to be saved, you mocker of heaven?' cried Moran, Put
completely beside himself by this last injury. 'Would you rob the poor as well
as desave the world? O, was ever such wickedness known?'
'I leave it to yourselves, my friends,' said the pretender, 'to give to the
real dark man, that you all know so well, and save me from that schemer,' and
with that he collected some pennies and half-pence. While he was doing so, Moran
started his Mary of Egypt, but the indignant crowd seizing his stick were
about to belabour him, when they fell back bewildered anew by his close
resemblance to himself. The pretender now called to them to
'just give him a grip of that villain, and he'd soon let him know who the
imposhterer was!' They led him over to Moran, but instead of closing with him he
thrust a few shillings into his hand, and turning to the crowd explained to them
he was indeed but an actor, and that he had just gained a wager, and so departed
amid much enthusiasm, to eat the supper he had won.
In April 1846 word was sent to the priest that Michael Moran was dying. He
found him at 15 (now 14 ½) Patrick Street, on a straw bed, in a room full of
ragged ballad-singers come to cheer his last moments. After his death the
ballad-singers, with many fiddles and the like, came again and gave him a fine
wake, each adding to the merriment whatever he knew in the way of rann, tale,
old saw, or quaint rhyme. He had had his day, had said his prayers and made his
confession, and why should they not give him a hearty send-off? The funeral
took place the next day. A good party of his admirers
and friends got into the hearse with the coffin, for the day was wet and nasty.
They had not gone far when one of them burst out with 'It's cruel cowld, isn't
it?' 'Garraâ,' replied another, 'we'll all be as stiff as the corpse when we get
to the berrin-ground.' 'Bad cess to him,' said a third; 'I wish he'd held out
another month until the weather got dacent.' A man called Carroll thereupon
produced a half-pint of whiskey, and they all drank to the soul of the departed.
Unhappily, however, the hearse was over-weighted, and they had not reached the
cemetery before the spring broke, and the bottle with it.
Moran must have felt strange and out of place in that other kingdom he was
entering, perhaps while his friends were drinking in his honour. Let us hope
that some kindly middle region was found for him, where he can call
dishevelled angels about him with some new and more rhythmical form of his old
Gather round me, boys, will yez
and fling outrageous quips and cranks at cherubim and seraphim. Perhaps he
may have found and gathered, ragamuffin though he be, the Lily of High Truth,
the Rose of Far-sought Beauty, for whose lack so many of the writers of Ireland,
whether famous or forgotten, have been futile as the blown froth upon the
Gather round me?
And hear what I have to say
Before ould Salley brings me
My bread and jug of tay;