Brian Merriman

An article by Diarmuid Breathnach about the life of Brian Merriman (1749 – 1805), author of the famous poem Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court).

Brian Merriman — his life

Professor Seán Ó Tuama says of Merriman’s poem: The Midnight Court is undoubtedly one of the greatest comic works of literature, and certainly the greatest comic poem ever written in Ireland (Repossessions: Selected Essays on the Irish Literary Heritage, 1995). Another critic, Professor Declan Kiberd, in Irish Classics, 2000, says: Merriman’s genius lay in his capacity to write in a language very close to the everyday speech of his Clare, and yet somehow to infuse that speech with the rhymes and assonances of poetry.

Liam P. Ó Murchú has assembled all that is known for certain about the poet in Cúirt an Mheon-Oíche, 1982, the definitive edition of the poem, based as it is on Merriman’s autograph, and has included excerpts from the accounts of 19th century scholars such as John O’Donovan (1806 – 61), Eugene O’Curry (1794 – 1862) and John O’Daly (1800 – 78). It was O’Daly who first published the poem (Mediae Noctis Concilium…, 1850). In his 1912 and 1949 editions Risteárd Ó Foghludha (1871 – 1957) added to the information about Merriman’s life. In Feakle, 1990 Kieran Sheedy has looked at whatever memories there were of the poet in that area of East Clare where he spent most of his life. Daniel Corkery (The Hidden Ireland: a Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century, 1924) and Frank O’Connor (Leinster, Munster and Connaught, n.d.) give lively accounts of poet and poem.

He is believed to have been born in Ennistymon, County Clare, about 1749. His mother’s surname was Quilkeen and after Brian’s birth she married a stone mason who was erecting the Deerpark walls in Ennistymon. It has been suggested that the natural father may have been a priest. At some point they moved to Feakle, possibly when the stepfather got employment in nearby Caher. In time Brian had a farm of 20 acres near Loch Graney and was teaching school in the townland of Kilclaren. He married Kathleen Collins about the year 1787 and they had two daughters. He seems to have been an industrious farmer; in 1797 the Royal Dublin Society awarded him two prizes for his crop of flax. Tradition has it that what prompted him to move to Limerick about 1800 was the fear, such were the times, that his daughters might be abducted on account of whatever small fortunes he had to give them. O’Connor surmises that he for some sort of intellectual society. He ran a school in the city and his death was announced in the General Advertiser and Limerick Gazette, 29 July 1805: Died on Saturday morning, in Old Clare Street, after a few hours illness, Mr Bryan Merryman, teacher of Mathematics, etc. He is buried in Feakle graveyard.

Among the more eminent of Merriman’s translators are Arland Ussher, Frank O’Connor, Edward Lord Longford, David Marcus, and Thomas Kinsella. Seamus Heaney’s translation of lines 1 – 194 and an abridged version of lines 855 – 1026 are in his The Midnight Verdict, 2000; Heaney lectured on the poet at the Merriman School in Lisdoonvarna in 1993 and read parts of his translation. Brendan Behan read his translation in McDaid’s pub in Dublin and lost the manuscript three days later; a small part is in Borstal Boy, 1958. Other translators include Patrick Power, Bowes Egan and Coslett Ó Cuinn, a Church of Ireland priest. The translation used in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 1991 is that of Dennis Woulfe, a 19th century Clareman (in full in Liam P. Ó Murchú’s 1982 edition). Frank O’Connor’s free translation captures something of the energy and vigour of Merriman’s language and is probably the one most favoured. It was banned under the Censorship of Publications Act in 1946. The Censorship Board had been told that two lines had been inaccurately translated but O’Connor wrote later: I regret to say there were at least twenty. For those, however, who would prefer a translation close to the Irish in both images and ideas, while at the same time suggesting something of the poetic qualities of the original, Thomas Kinsella’s translation in An Duanaire 1600 – 1900: Poems of the Dispossessed, 1981 by Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella, is recommended. Ussher’s version (1926) is said to be the first literary translation; it is included in Kathleen Hoagland’s 1,000 years of Irish Poetry, 1947.

A summary will not do justice to the poem. The poet on his morning’s stroll in 1780 admires the views, falls asleep and dreams. A fierce huge woman, the bailiff of the fairy host, takes him to a court of women who are discussing Ireland’s falling population and the scarcity of marriage partners. A young woman addresses the court, attacking men who delay until they are too old to satisfy a young woman. A miserable old man defends men but the young woman derides his performance as husband. Among her proposals is that priests should marry. Aoibheall, the fairy queen and the court’s justice, pronounces a verdict against the men. The bailiff calls on various women by name to chastise Merriman and to show him no mercy. The poet in terror wakes up. 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, clerical celibacy — all perennially suitable topics for a Summer School in Clare!

Source: Máire Ní Mhurchú and Diarmuid Breathnach, 1782 – 1881 Beathaisnéis (Baile Átha Cliath, An Clóchomhar Teoranta, 1999), lgh. 78 – 9. © By permission of the authors.

You can read a more detailed article on Brian Merriman, in Irish, at