Sky Woman
"A celestial spirit said to inspire poets and artists."

Compiled by Dan Mahony, M.Phil.













Thursday, August 17, 1995Killarney. Gathering at the Sky Woman
memorial to the four great Kerry poets:

Ferriter, O'Donoghue, O'Rahilly and O'Sullivan.


August 17, 1995. Conradh na Gaeilge members from all over the county gathered at the Speirbhean monument on Fair Hill on Thursday to commemorate four of the great Kerry poets: Pierce Ferriter, Geoffrey O'Donoghue, Aodhagán O Rathaile and Owen Roe O’Suilleabháin.

Driven by the politics of the day when the old ways were under threat by the Cromwellites, and finally defeated, they wrote of matters of nationhood and of the tragedy of oppression.

To his misfortune, Pierce Ferriter (1600-1653) an aristocrat, musician and scholar from Ballyferriter, was hanged for his part in the resistance against the Cromwellian order.

Also known as "The Gentleman harper of Kerry," Ferriter was a keen harpist. Appropriately, Killarney harpist. Marina Cassidy played at the commemoration while Killarney Conradh member, Bernard Long remembered the man through his poetry and life.

The celebration was then followed up at Muckross Abbey where the other three poets are buried.

With the death of Ferriter, it was Ieft to Geoffrey O'Donoghue of the Glens―also a Prince―to carry on the fine tradition of poetry in the Kingdom until his death in 1677.

John O'Donoghue, principal of the Glenflesk National School paid tribute to him at the Muckross Abbey commemoration while Fr. Tom Looney paid his dues to Aodhagán Rathaile, the Sliabh Luchra poet, born in 1675 at the close of the old order. The Wild Geese had flown, The Penal Laws had come into being.


Out of this misery, O Rathaile devised a new poetic form called the Aisling, meaning vision. In the Aisling, Ireland comes to the poet as a woman―a Speirbhean―in which she bemoans her state.

Owen Roe O'Suilleabháin was the "last of the four". Also from Sliabh Luachra, he was a poor peasant's son and a wild roving, drinking and wenching fellow to boot. A complete contrast to the three who went before him he was, however, a classical scholar, born in 1748 who opened a school at the age of 18 and who became a household name.

His early songs about pretty women and merry making were later over-shadowed by his laments for the still exiled Stuarts; his songs of hope were to bring solace to his people as John Stephen O'Sullivan, secondary teacher in Rathmore explained during Thursday's commemoration.

The first such gathering in Killarney, Conradh now plan to plan to make it a yearly event; perhaps focusing on a different "great" poet each year.

Local Performance Arts company, Bricriu performed at the commemoration as did Uileann Pipe player, Dave Hegarty and fiddle player, Sean Bradley.

The contingent of about 60, including a plethora of contemporary Killarney and Tralee poets later retired to Molly Darcy to continue the reminiscences―in true Owen Roe O Suilleabháin style, no doubt.

The Kingdom, Tuesday, 22 August, 1995, p. 13.


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           Fifty-five years ago, the following appeared in The Kerryman: "Killarney, August 17, 1940. Four Kerry Poets Memorial unveiled at Killarney on Lady Day in the presence of a huge concourse of Gaels. Mural plaque at Muckross Abbey."

         Seamus Fenton, retired Deputy Chief Inspector, National Schools, delivered an oration, a short summary of which follows.

           "This splendid commemoration is the culmination of the work we began many years ago, an attempt to keep the poetic children of the Motherland (the Speirbhean) fresh in the memory of the passing generation. We published a booklet, written in his best style by the learned Father Dineen, with a historical and geographical 'setting' by myself. We also emphasised the hope that the great songs, properly taught in the schools, would become a strong force in reviving the disappearing Irish speech.

          "The poets symbolised the Motherland as the Speirbhean to whom all owed homage as ordained in the Fourth great commandment of the Law. The Motherland is our Church temporal, just as the Church is our Motherland for all eternity. Both have the same centre which is God, the same interest which is justice, the same citizenschildren with bodies and souls. Our Motherland, which the foreigner taught us to be ashamed of, is the soil which nurtured us, the homes of our ancestors, the souvenirs of our school period, our tradition, our lives, our manners, our liberties, our history and family. A government is not the Motherland. It is only the organisation for conserving in order and security these blessings."

          Fenton also spoke about the burning issue of his day: the gradual disappearance of the Irish language: '''The Irish speech and the Irish people,' wrote Paul Dubois, 'are fleeing the country, the speech at an even greater speed than the people.' The fleeing continues. I visited parts of Kerry recently where half a century ago I got from oral narration high Gaelic literature. Now not an Irish sentence is spoken in homes. There is no region in Ireland where the revival of Irish made such progress a generation ago as in the area with Killarney as its capital. Its annual Gaelic gatherings were a record. They brought from the darkening twilight oblivion leaders of thought like the great Kerry poets, men who sang and preached and fought at the intellectual frontiers of the Gael for hundreds of years. They preached the gospel of the imperishable world of the spirit."The Kerryman, August 17, 1940, p. 7.

          Others have described An Speirbhean in other ways. Richard Haywood in his In the Kingdom of Kerry, defined her as a "celestial spirit said to inspire poets and artists." Fenton himself in a later work defined her as a symbol with three aspects, "dignity or pride in the glorious past, mother of warriors, the nurse of culture (1950)." 

          Daniel Corkery wrote in The Hidden Ireland, "It was Aogán Ó Rathaille who first makes the vision, the Spéirbhean. The poet, weak with thinking on the woe that has overtaken the Gael, falls into a deep slumber. In his dreaming a figure of radiant beauty draws near. She is so bright, so stately, the poet imagines her one of the immortals. Is she Deirdre? or Gearnait? or is she Helen? or Venus? He questions her, and learns that she is Erin [Ireland]; and her sorrow, he is told, is for her true mate who is in exile beyond the seas."

          It is interesting to note that a sky woman is also found in the cosmologies of a number of the original nations of North America. In the tradition of the Hodenosonee (named the Iroquois by the white people), Sky Woman fell through a hole in the sky into the dark waters until the birds caught her. The Turtle consented to allow her to rest on his back. She gave birth to a daughter who later gave birth to the twins, good and evil. Meanwhile the animals piled dirt on the Turtle's back until the Earth was made. Hence, the naming of North America as Turtle Island.

          The present site of the Memorial is not the original site. The following appeared in the Cork Examiner in 1975: "Killarney's 'leading lady' was raised recently from her sandy grave across from the Franciscan Friary, where she has been buried for the past 12 months, when she had been removed from her railed­in enclosure at the bottom of the Fair Hill to make room for a new roadway. She has now been resited, only 12 yards from where she stood, at the entrance to the Great Southern Hotel and Killarney railway station."Cork Examiner, Wed., 7 May 1975.

          The events in Killarney, past and present, serve to remind us of that imperishable world.


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Chronological Bibliography

Corkery, Daniel, The Hidden Ireland. Dublin: Gill, 1925.
Dineen, Rev. P.S., Four Notable Kerry Poets. Dublin: Gill, 1929.

The Kerryman
"Kerry's Immortal Poets. The Unveiling of their Memorial on Lady Day. Record hosting of Gaels expected to attend ceremonies at Killarney." Saturday, 10 August 1940, pp.1,4.
"Four Kerry Poets Memorial Unveiled at Killarney. Mural Plaque at Muckross Abbey." Saturday, 17 August 1940, p.7.
"Honouring Irish Poets." Saturday, 24 August 1940, p. 6.
"Four Kerry Poets: Their Work for the Nation." 24 August 1940, p.6.
Fenton, Seamus: "An Speirbhean", 24 August 1940, p.6.
"Poets Dialogue of the Dead in Muckross Abbey." Sat., 31 August 1940, p4.

Haywood, Richard: In the Kingdom of Kerry. Dundalk: Tempest, 1946.
Fenton, Seamus: The Peerless Poets of the Kingdom. Tralee: The Kerryman Limited, 1950.
Cork Examiner: "'Speir Bhean' is resited. Killarney's 'leading lady' moved from her railed-in enclosure at the bottom of the Friar Hill to make room for a new roadway." Wed., 7 May 1975.


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