Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by William Butler Yeats
Ellen O’Leary (1831–1889)
MISS O’LEARY, the Fenian poet, belongs to a type of writers better known in Ireland than in England. Her verses are songs and ballads in the old sense of the word rather than poems and lyrics. Living in a country where the populace are strongly moved by great fundamental passions, she was able to find an audience for her tender and simple rhymes. The streets of her native Tipperary have echoed more than once to some ballad of hers about emigrants and their sorrows, or like theme, sung by the ballad-singers from their little strips of fluttering paper. The Commercial Journal, The Irishman, and the Fenian organ The Irish People helped also to spread her verse through the country. Her poetry, and the poetry of Casey, and Kickham’s “Sally Kavanagh” and his three or four ballads, made up, indeed, the whole literary product of the Fenian agitation. “Young Ireland” days had brought their reaction of silence. Simple verse could still, however, find an audience; as it, indeed, always can in Ireland, where the ballad age has not yet gone by. It may be that a troubled history and the smouldering unrest of agitation and conspiracy are good for the making of ballads. If this be so, Miss O’Leary lived amid surroundings of an ideal kind, for all her life she was deep in the councils of Fenianism. Her brother, Mr. John O’Leary, is now the most important survivor of the company of men who led the forlorn hope of 1864. O’Leary, Kickham, and Luby formed what was known as the Triumvirate under James Stephens, who bore the singular title of “Chief Executive.” In 1864 Stephens, O’Leary, Luby, and Kickham were arrested. The escape of Stephens was at once planned, and carried out successfully. Miss O’Leary was the only woman told of the project. From this on she was constantly employed by Stephens carrying messages. While her brother was awaiting trial, she obeyed without murmur a command that sent her to Paris. Her brother might have been condemned to penal servitude in her absence, but she put her cause before all else. She was back in time, however, to hear the sentence pronounced, and to listen to his characteristic speech: “I have been found guilty of treason or treason felony. Treason is a foul crime. The poet Dante consigned traitors, I believe, to the ninth circle of hell; but what kind of traitors? Traitors against king, against country, against friends, against benefactors. England is not my country, and I have betrayed no friend, no benefactors. Sidney and Emmet were legal traitors.”  1
  It is impossible to describe Miss O’Leary’s life without touching on that of her brother, for he was the most powerful influence she met with. His imprisonment did not, however, abate her political activity. She hid more than one rebel for whom the Government was searching; and when it became necessary to get James Stephens out of the country, raised £200 by a mortgage on some small property she had, to charter a vessel. In 1867, the movement having failed, she went to her native town, and lived there until her brother’s return in 1885. He had been five years in prison and fifteen in banishment, but returned still hopeful for Ireland, still waiting the day of deliverance. From 1885 until her death she lived with her brother in Dublin, and their house became a centre of literary endeavour. A little circle of writers who have sought to carry on the ballad literature of Ireland according to the tradition of 1848 drew much of their inspiration from the teaching of Mr. O’Leary and his sister, and many of their facts and legends from the books that filled every corner and crevice of Mr. O’Leary’s rooms. Indeed, no influence in modern Ireland has been more ennobling than that of these two Fenians. Driven by the force of events into hostility to all the dominant parties in Irish politics, they concentrated their influence upon giving to all they met a loftier public spirit and more devoted patriotism. Unionist or Nationalist, Conservative or Liberal, it was nearly all one to them, if they thought you loved Ireland and were ready to seek her prosperity by setting the moral law above all the counsels of expediency. On this last they ever dwelt with most uncompromising insistence.  2
  Miss O’Leary died in 1889, just when she had completed the correction of a collected edition of her poems. It is from this volume, published in 1890 by Sealey, Bryers, and Walker (Lower Abbey Street, Dublin), that the selection has been made.  3
  Poetry such as hers belongs to a primitive country and a young literature. It is exceedingly simple, both in thought and expression. Its very simplicity and sincerity have made it, like much Irish verse, unequal; for when the inspiration fails, the writer has no art to fall back upon. Nor does it know anything of studied adjective and subtle observation. To it the grass is simply green and the sea simply blue; and yet it has, in its degree, the sacred passion of true poetry.  4

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