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Dé Céadaoin, 30 Eanáir 2019

By Professor Richard Sharpe

Many things await discovery in the National Library. This was an unusual find, however, a copy of one of the best-known poems in the language printed in a form to deflect the censorious attention that was thought likely to follow its publication. I knew about this first deceptive printing of Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court and had seen copies elsewhere. There are half a dozen of them in public libraries. Its false date has been well known pretty much since it was first published. I even knew what Douglas Hyde said in his Literary History of Ireland, referring to this spurious edition and the bookseller John O’Daly, ‘I found amongst some papers of his the proof-sheets corrected with his own hand!’1 Forty years later he referred to this edition again in his autobiographical Mise agus an Connradh and again mentioned his having proofs corrected by O’Daly himself.2 What neither I nor anyone else knew until one morning this summer was that these page-proofs were in the National Library, entirely uncatalogued.

I had requested to see what turned out to be a pamphlet volume, several small items bound together as NLI LO 487. The catalogue had entries for five pieces, but there were six: the fourth piece was not mentioned at all. Here were corrected page-proofs of Cúirt an Mheadhan Oidhche, falling between print and manuscript. The title is in Latin:

Mediae Noctis Consilium, auctore Briano Mac-Gilla-Meidhre, de comitatu Clarensi, in Momonia. AD MDCCLXXX. Poema heroico-comicum, quo nihil aut magis gracile aut poeticum aut magis abundans in hodierno idiomati exolescit. Curtha a gclódh le Tomás mhic Lópuis, ag Loch an Chonblaig Oghair, MDCCC.

[The Midnight Court, whose author was Brian Merriman of County Clare in Munster in the year 1780. A heroic-comic poem, than which nothing more graceful or poetic or more copious has come to maturity in today’s language. Printed by Tomás Mac Lópuis at Loch an Chonablaigh Odhair, 1800.]

On the verso of the titlepage it says, in English, ‘Printed for Private Circulation. T. Mc. L.’ The rest of the book is Merriman’s poem in Irish, printed in the Watts irish type, a type used mainly in London, with corrections in ink on almost every page. And at the foot of the last page the corrector wrote, ‘No imprint here’. It is not a comment but a command: he did not want the printer to add his usual colophon to identify where the printing was done. Here was the curious edition in the making.

The poem is notable for its ribaldry, which Victorian Ireland would have thought very improper, but back at the beginning of the century such bawdy humour was not so shocking. Hence it was misdated and produced pseudonymously. The printer’s name and the place of publication are themselves jokes for the Irish reader. Tomás Mac Lópais signified something like ‘Tommy Commoner’, for Clann Lópais, alias Clann Tomáis, are the plebeian villains of Pairlement Chloinne Tomáis, a popular tale from the seventeenth century. Oghar is no word, but odhar means ‘dun, pale, sallow’, and conablach ‘corpse’ or (in Dinneen’s phrase) ‘a trashy person’, so the place of publication was ‘At the Lake of the Sallow Corpse’: if this carries a specific allusion, it is lost on me. Printing it ‘privately’ with the date 1800 turned attention away from asking who was responsible. John O’Daly, the bookseller who sold the book, promoted it in these terms in his regular catalogues starting in 1873:3

Cuirt an Mheodhan-Oidhche, or the Midnight Court; a facetious and humorous Poem, by Bryan Merryman, a Schoolmaster of Sixmilebridge, Clare, 1780, one of 20 copies printed for private circulation, by Thomas MacLopuish, MDCCC. 7s 6d.

From 1876 the number increased to thirty copies. Inside the paper wrapper at the back of the copy in the British Library there is a handwritten note: ‘Only 30 copies printed. Merryman is now the name of the family. J. D. It is scarce and valuable’.4 Twenty or thirty copies (a very limited number), ‘private circulation’, even the Latin title and humorous imprint—this is all very knowing. He does not say that the poem is in Irish, but one may suppose that its saucy reputation was well known to the target buyer. It was probably a talking-point from its first appearance, and when Hyde said in 1899 that place and date were fictitious, he may have been passing on what was the talk among readers of Irish books. In 1911 the great collector of printed Irish, Séamus Ó Casaide (1877–1943), wrote about the edition in that wonderful magazine, The Irish Book Lover:5

Some time about 1850 John O’Daly published anonymously the first edition of Brian Merryman’s great Irish poem “The Midnight Court,” with the date MDCCC on the imprint. Owing to the peculiar vein of humour which permeates this work of the Clare poet, O’Daly was apparently shy about claiming credit for the publication.

The date 1850 has lingered. R. I. Best repeated it in 1913 in his Bibliography of Irish Philology.6 I have never seen it justified, though it was immediately challenged by another bookman in the Book Lover. D. J. O’Donoghue wrote:7

The late David Comyn told me that the true date of O’Daly’s issue of the “Midnight Court” was 1860, and that by selling it very secretly, and one at a time, O’Daly got as much as £1 apiece for the copies. The supercherie was only discovered after O’Daly’s death, when the sheets of the work were discovered in his stock. Messrs M. H. Gill & Son put a new title on the book (1879) and sold the remainder’.

David Comyn (1854–1907) was another collector and old enough to remember O’Daly. It is certainly correct that 210 copies were unsold when O’Daly died and his stock went to auction in 1878.8 They were bought by M. H. Gill & Son for 32 shillings. And Gill’s reissue of the same sheets can be found still in the National Library and elsewhere.9 But why did Comyn think 1860? No justification at all. Pádraig Ó Briain, who reprinted the text of the first edition in 1893, would propose a better date, between 1870 and O’Daly’s death in 1878.10 Now, the page-proofs in my hands carried evidence. The book was printed in four sheets, each forming eight pages. Clearly the printer had counted the number of lines and worked out how many lines per page would produce a convenient number of pages. Proofs were sent to the editor as each sheet was set in type. The editor corrected and returned them. And he wrote a date on the top corner at the front of the second, third, and fourth sheets. On p. 9 we can still read 20/9/72; on p. 17 we read 22/11/ but not the year; and on p. 25, we read 10/12/72. The book was typeset in the closing months of 1872. It was presumably available from early in 1873.

Something else that the proofs may tell us is who edited the poem. On p. 9, three lines are recast as two, as if from a different source of the text, but this change was not actually made. On pp. 12, 14, 15, 16, and 18, whole words are substituted, reflecting textual decisions taken at a late stage, not simply the correction of printer’s error. Many but not all of these changes were implemented, and so too some not marked on the proofs, such as carrying over the last line from pp. 13, 14, and 15.11 We could investigate the textual sources of altered readings for possible links to manuscripts from this or that context. My first thought was simpler. I have read many of John O’Daly’s letters, and his handwriting is always sprawling and hasty. The hand that corrected the proofs was perhaps not his, despite Douglas Hyde’s assuming it was. Nor are these the corrected proofs that went to the printer. It is possible that more than one person was involved. I am also inclined to think that O’Daly had not the wit to come up with such a bogus edition, still less to carry it out. And the typeface was not one regularly used by any Dublin printer. Peter Roe in 1861 and George Drought in 1863 put their names on books in Watts type, which was also used by the Achill Island press, but it was a type chiefly used by the Bible Society. I doubt whether O’Daly would have dealt with such a printer. O’Daly’s books were usually printed in the Fry type, and in 1868 for a more lavish book he went to the University Press and printed Tadhg Gaelach’s Pious Miscellany in the Petrie type. The use of Watts type points in a different direction.

My own speculative reading of the evidence is that O’Daly was no more than the front man who sold the book in Dublin, where there was a market, but it was produced by a London printer for Standish Hayes O’Grady, living in London in 1872 and 1873. He was a friend of O’Daly, and his interest in the poem was of long standing. He had acquired a copy of a supposedly authoritative manuscript from O’Daly in 1852. O’Daly reflected in a letter dated 24 February 1854 that O’Grady was translating Merriman’s poem: ‘Mr O’Grady is at 18, Clare st. at present and going on with the Cúirt; but I fear Donnchadh Ruadh will put him out of conceit only 30 copies of the whole being sold’.12 O’Grady’s translation is among his papers in CUL MS Add. 6526; O’Grady’s transcript of the poem is CUL MS Add. 6514, while MS Add. 6527 is a translation in the hand of Patrick Sullivan, 1847, which belonged to O’Grady. He came also to own the late-eighteenth-century manuscript believed to be closest to the author, now CUL MS Add. 6562. O’Grady was a great admirer of the poem and owned manuscripts from which to prepare an edition. Hyde himself had quoted O’Grady’s judgement, expressed in 1857:13

In poetry, perhaps the most tasteful piece in the language is, with all its defects, Cuirt an mheadhoin oidhche, or the Midnight Court, written in 1781 by Bryan Merryman, a country schoolmaster of Clare, who had evidently some general acquaintance with literature.

In sum O’Grady had the wit, the skill, the motive, and the means to produce this edition. This is an idea already aired on line by Proinsias Ó Drisceoil, who knows more about O’Daly than anyone else. In an essay in Comhar Taighde from November 2015, ‘Mediae Noctis Consilium—céadfoilsiú Cúirt an Mheán Oíche le Brian Merriman’, § 24, he says, ‘Ní éadóigh gurbh é Standish Hayes O’Grady a chuir an téacs ar fáil agus gur réitigh an Dálach don chló é’. In § 30, he finds no one more likely as editor than O’Grady. I do not think it plausible that O’Grady did it at O’Daly’s behest. He did it because he wanted to, and the wit behind it is his. But he needed a friendly bookseller, willing to play the game and market it to readers of Irish poetry, and O’Daly was the man for that. These page proofs, evidently not the ones returned to the printer, ended up at O’Daly’s shop in Anglesea Street. Where they were in the two years after O’Daly’s death we do not know. Hyde only said, ‘I found among some papers of his’. But at the front of the book of six items bound together he wrote: ‘Fuair me na “brochuras” so ceangailte mur so air scillin. Mi Meadhon-Shamhraidh 1880. D. H.’ Now June 1880 was nearly two years after the auction of O’Daly’s stock on 19 August 1878, which we have reason to think Hyde attended.14

These six items remained in Hyde’s possession for 69 years. After his death an auction was held at his house, Little Ratra in Phoenix Park, starting 10 October 1949. Lot 603 comprised these six titles, and the sale number is still pasted on the front of NLI LO 487. Inside there is the recent ownership label of Fr J. Senan Moynihan, Saint Anne’s Hospital, Mount Lawley, Western Australia. I presume this was the same Fr Senan Moynihan who edited the Capuchin Annual in Dublin from 1930 until 1954. Hyde’s book appears to have reached the National Library as recently as 1979. The evidence to show for certain when Cuirt an Mheadhon Oidhche was first printed has lain hid among Hyde’s books and Moynihan’s and in the National Library for nearly 140 years. Brought to light, the page-proofs still tell the book’s own story.

* Grateful thanks to Mícheál Hoyne for his embellishments to this note.

  • 1 a b  D. Hyde, Literary History of Ireland (London, 1899), 602.
  • 2 a b  D. de hÍde, Mise agus an Connradh (Baile Átha Cliath, 1937), 18–19.
  • 3 a b  1873 O’Daly 42/510. It was still one of twenty copies in 1875 O’Daly 44/562; in his later catalogues, 1876 O’Daly 45/922, 1877 O’Daly 46/680, the number had grown to thirty. In a special catalogue of Irish-language books, Bibliotheca Hibernica, or, A Catalogue of Irish language books now on sale by J. O’Daly (1876), item 21 [copy in NLI A28398], it is described as ‘a humorous and sarcastic poem’.
  • 4 a b   BL 11595.b.102. This copy is freely accessible via Google Books.
  • 5 a b   S. Ó Casaide, ‘Fictitious dates: John O’Daly’s fictitiously dated edition of Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court’, IBL 3 (1911–12), 13.
  • 6 a b  R. I. Best, Bibliography of Irish Philology to 1912 (Dublin, 1913), 212. He was no doubt following Ó Casaide, but his book has remained accessible and authoritative.
  • 7 a b  D. J. O’Donoghue, Irish Book Lover 3 (1911–12), 31.
  • 8 a b  Catalogue of books and manuscripts on Irish history and antiquities [. . .] collected by the late Mr John O’Daly, bookseller [. . .] to be sold by auction by John Fleming Jones, [. . .] on Monday, 19th August, and five following days (Dublin, 1878), lot 709. Hyde, Mise agus an Connradh, 18, remembered it as two or three hundred.
  • 9 a b    Pádraig Ó Briain was at the sale and wrote about it in a letter, printed An Claidheamh Soluis, 7 May 1910: ‘At that auction, the residue or remainder sales of O’Daly’s books were disposed of. M. H. Gill and Son purchased some of the remainder sales, and amongst them were copies of the Midnight Court. They got them covered, and had their own imprint on the cover with Price, Two Shillings and Sixpence’. There are copies in NLI AA10525, TCD 116.r.124.(No. 1), QUB, and NLW XBP 1398 M145.
  • 10 a b   An Claidheamh Soluis, 7 May 1910.
  • 11 a b   Oddly the single erratum printed on the last page of the book was already printed in the proofs, but the correction was not made when it obviously could have been.
  • 12 a b    NLI MS 5454, no. ??. O’Daly had himself published O’Grady’s pseudonymous edition of Adventures of Donnchadh Ruadh Mac Con-Mara, a slave of adversity, written by himself (Dublin, 1853). O’Grady used the name S. Hayes on that book.
  • 13 a b  S. H. O’Grady, Toruigheacht Dhiarmuda agus Ghrainne, Transactions of the Ossianic Society 3 (1857), 36; quoted by Hyde, Literary History of Ireland, 602.
  • 14 a b   An entry in his diary for 14 August 1878 shows him planning to go to the O’Daly sale on the Saturday (D. Ó Dálaigh, ‘Printíseacht An Chraoibhín i litríocht na Gaeilge’, Éigse 14 (1971–2), 39–51, at p. 42).