Who was "Cathal Buí"?
When I think of Cathal Buí Mac Giolla
Ghunna (c1680--c1756) I think of an Irish-speaking Christy
Moore, an incisive ballad-singing entertainer for a totally
Irish-speaking community of poor people living at or below subsistence
in the early 18th Century. Not that Cathal is remembered for
playing a musical instrument but in folklore all the stereotypical
characteristics of the wandering dispossessed Gaelic poet are attributed to him, perhaps
unfairly. It is certain that he is remembered with affection
for his poem on his own drinking "An Bonnán Buí"
where he laments in comic mockheroic terms the death of a little
bird from thirst and taunts those who warn him that he himself
will die of drink. The astonishing thing is that without the
assistance of modern media his songs spread widely throughout
the country and were enjoyed and transmitted to such an extent
that some are still sung today. The scholar Breandán
Ó Buachalla published a collection of them in his
book "Cathal Buí: Amhráin" in
My own received impression of him is simply that
of a carter -- a transporter of goods with horse and cart --
throughout Bréifne, the traditional Irish name of the
area comprising Cavan, Leitrim, and south Fermanagh. Such a
travelling life was not conducive to maintaining a home and
family and it was easy for the settled community to consider
him a rake. His literary ability was attributed to his having
studied for the priesthood. Nothing is certain concerning his
life however. We are even unsure of the date and place of his
birth and those of his death.
The story of his death is frequently told. Travelling
on his own he fell ill and sought refuge in a poor woman's house.
Seeing he was near to death she left him and hurried off to
get the priest. When she returned he was already dead but scattered on the floor
beside him were the verses of his repentance, aithrí, a very fine poem in beautiful Irish full of religious sentiment,
Aithrí Chathal Buí, which is still read today.
There is a small monument to his memory on the
shore of Lake MacNean west of Blacklion.
Regarding the poet's name: the surname Mac Giolla
Ghunna (son of the gun servant) is also rendered Mac
Giolla Dhuinn (son of the brown servant) and has been
variously Anglicised as McElgun, Gilgunn, and Gunn. Cathal (pronounced
Kaw-hull, with the second syllable unstressed ) means "strong in battle".
One of the most common names in Ireland in the early middle
ages. Amongst its most famous bearers were Cathal Mac Finguine (died 742), one of the most powerful early kings of Munster
and Cathal Crobhdhearg (of the wine-red hand), king of
Connacht (died 1224). It was a favourite name among the O'Connors of Connacht throughout the medieval and early modern period
and was also much used by the MacManuses, Maguires, MacDonaghs,
and other families. It was everywhere anglicised Charles --
a name with which it has no connection whatever. (Quoted from
"Irish Names" by Donnchadh Ó Corráin and Fidelma Maguire.)
Cathal carried the nickname "Buí"
probably due to his sallow skin.