The Homer of the Gaels

By Liam Murphy

In the 1970s ’80s and ’90s my favourite radio programme was Mo Cheol Thú, which was broadcast after the eight o’clock news on a Sunday morning. The presenter was Ciarán Mac Mathúna, a mine of information on Irish folklore. The programme consisted of a mixture of Irish traditional music and recitation of Irish poetry. The signature tune was ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’. I was under the impression that it had been composed by Thomas Moore but in the closing programme in 2005 Ciarán revealed his love for the composer, Samuel Ferguson, the great Belfast writer, poet and antiquarian.

Now largely forgotten in his native city, Ferguson was regarded by literary figures such as Douglas Hyde  and WB Yeats as the best poet Ireland produced. The great poet was born the youngest child of John Ferguson and his wife Agnes on March 10,  1810 in the home of his maternal grandparents at 23  High Street, then a very different sort of half-urban,  half-country place from the bustling commercial business centre it is today. His grandfather owned a large estate in the Sixmilewater valley near Antrim town. The poet’s father was described as “a handsome and vigorous man” who “dissipated his fortune with amazing rapidity and left his family to fight for themselves.” His mother, on the other hand, was “prudent and self-denying and a beautiful and intellectual woman who, to some extent, neutralised the disastrous effect of her husband’s spendthrift ways, and who was loved by her family with a wondrous affection.”

On hearing Ciarán Mac Mahuna’s remarks sbout him I resolved to read some of his work. The first book I came across (I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop in South Donegal) was Corby MacGilmore. This is a tale set on Ben Madigan – or Cave Hill  – of a feud between the then outlaw MacGilmore and the Savages of Ards. The descriptions of the Cave Hill bear witness to his intimate knowledge of the district.

He received his first education at the old Belfast Academy before enrolling in the new Belfast Academic Institution, but of more importance was his acquiring a sound knowledge of the Irish language as a youth in the “then not uncongenial atmosphere of Belfast”. It was not long after the 1798 Rising that young Sam was intrigued by the Irish which he heard spoken in his native town.  He learned the language in informal evening classes from men such as George Fox and Thomas O’Hagan

And often there of quiet summer eves

We gather, Seaghan, and Seumas, Feidhlim Óg and I –

My Gaelic school – to sit  within the leaves,

And listen to the red bees’ twilight lullaby,

And Seaghan will take a poem from his breast,

Chanting it to the purple sunken sun,

Until the merging glow of day and night

And murmuring drone and singer’s voice are one,

And Dana’s secret eyes from heaven’s height

Look down on our little world at rest.

From The Garden of the Bees

He later studied Law at Trinity College in Dublin and had to support himself while he studied. He sent poems and stories to Blackwood’s Magazine, a leading literary publication produced in Edinburgh. They liked what he sent and, like Oliver Twist, asked for more. A notable early poem was The Forging of the Anchor.

He settled in Dublin, but his occupation as a barrister took him all over  Ireland. On one occasion  he was in Downpatrick for a week. He asked the keeper of the County Courthouse, a Mr Moorhead, to get someone to bring him to Struell Wells. Moorhead did his job well, for he asked Rev Seaver, a noted historian, to do the trip. Over the week they visited Inch Abbey, the cathedral and the earthwork  at Rathkelter.

In 1848 he married Mary Catherine Guinness, a grand-niece of Arthur Guinness. Appropriately, she first attracted him by her singing of old Irish airs. Like him, she was fluent in Irish and wrote in two languages. Together they explored the antiquarian sites of Ireland: Clonmacnoise, the Burren of Clare, prolonged stays on the Aran Islands. It was she who set The Lark in the Clear Air to music.

County Antrim was especially dear to the Fergusons, “the cliff of Ben Madigan, the fertile slopes of Carnmoney, the wooded hills of Lyle, the groves of Templepatrick, the vale of Glenwherry, but above all, the heights of Donegore.”

Politically, he began as a unionist but later founded the Protestant Repeal Association and sought to restore an Irish parliament. He did not join the Young Irelanders, however, concentrating on his writing. He contributed articles to their newspaper, The Nation. He was a good friend of the founder of the Young Irelanders, Thomas Davis, and on his sudden death he wrote the famous Lament for the Death of Thomas Davis.

Ferguson gave up his legal practice in 1867, becoming deputy keeper of the public records of Ireland. His thorough reorganisation of a neglected department was recognised in a knighthood in 1878. He died at Howth, Co Dublin, on August 9, 1886 and is buried at Donegore where the United Irishmen mustered for the Battle of Antrim. Until her final illness, his wife made an annual pilgrimage to his grave until she finally joined him there in 1905.

There are not many reminders of Sam Ferguson in Belfast. A plaque was unveiled in 1910 by the Mayor at his birthplace. It disappeared. A hundred years later Naomi Long unveiled a blue plaque at the same spot. She said she hoped this one might not suffer the same fate.

In 1905 Francis Joseph Biggar wrote, “yet,  no portrait or bust adorns the municipal galleries. Belted knights of the scissors and fur-bedecked ‘merchant princes’ have we in abundance, but the children of the graces are absent.”

In the last edition of Mo Cheol Thú, Ciarán MacMathúna said: “Let us end as we began 35 years ago, with our signature tune The Lark in the Clear Air composed by the Homer of the Gaels – the great Ferguson of Belfast.”

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