Speech by President Michael D. Higgins
Sir Samuel Ferguson
Thursday, 27th October, 2016
A Chairde, Freens, Dear Friends.
Firstly, let me thank you all for joining me here today, and for the kind invitation from Reverend Andrew Kerr, and The Dalaradia Historical Group to visit this beautiful church and the resting place of Sir Samuel Ferguson. I am so grateful to Dr. Ian Adamson and Robert Williamson for arranging this visit, of which we have spoken for many years. I would also like to thank the Right Reverend Alan Abernethy, Bishop of Connor, for his presence here today and the welcome he has extended to me and to those travelling with me.
It is 130 years since the remains of Sir Samuel Ferguson were interred here in St John’s Cemetery, but his legacy remains for those interested in Irish politics a profound and inspiring one. He has left an indelible imprint on Ireland’s literary, social and political heritage.
Samuel Ferguson was a man of quite extraordinary talent and many accomplishments, whose cultural and political sympathy continue to defy any simple categorisation. Throughout his prolific careers, of which he had many, a common thread running through was his commitment to engendering a sense of civic assurance and pride in Ireland’s image of itself during the mid-nineteenth century.
Ferguson was part of a progressive, culturally aware, middle class cadré of the Ireland of its day. This was based largely in the professions. Its members were active through bodies such as the Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College, political groupings and periodical publications dealing with politics, novel ideas and literature. These were all spheres with which Ferguson would regularly intersect.
His careers were as diverse as they were significant. He was a barrister, a poet, an antiquarian and a public servant; a writer whose work straddled several genres; an expert on subjects ranging from architecture to music to the Irish language; His book “Ogham inscriptions in Ireland, Wales and Scotland”, was seminal in recording the earliest writings in Irish and Pictish in these islands.
Ferguson was also a political activist. Ulster unionist by background but close at times to the Young Ireland movement and a founder, with Isaac Butt, of the Protestant Repeal Association, seeking the re-establishment of an Irish Parliament. This chapter of his life would seem to have been largely a reaction to the death of Thomas Davis in 1845 and the calamitous handling of the Famine by the British Authorities.
The complexity of his own political leanings are given expression in poems as distinct as ‘Lament for Thomas Davis’, where he contemplates the loss of the Young Ireland leader and its implications for Ireland, and ‘At the Polo-Ground’ a contemplative, satirical poem written in recoil at the murders in the Phoenix Park of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the Chief Secretary for Ireland and Thomas Henry Burke, the Permanent Under Secretary.
His recovery, translation and promotion of our ancient Irish literature made him an important precursor to the Irish literary revival; that great renaissance which shaped a distinctive Irish literary culture, celebrating the distinctiveness of Irish writing in the English language.
Professor Brendan Kennelly, in his essay “Irish Poetry to Yeats” wrote:
“If the eighteenth century was dominated by Merriman, O’Rahilly and Eileen O’Leary, the two leading poets of the nineteenth century are James Clarence Mangan and Sir Samuel Ferguson. Mangan is the better poet – more inspired, more passionate – But the importance of Ferguson’s contribution to Irish poetry cannot be over-emphasised. It was Ferguson, more than any other single poet, who proved that the old mythology was an almost infinite source of inspiration. In 1834, when Ferguson was twenty-four, nineteen of his translations from the Irish were published in the Dublin University Magazine”
W.B. Yeats, commenting on the poetry of Samuel Ferguson in the Dublin University Review stated that:‘the author of these poems is the greatest poet Ireland has produced, because the most central and most Celtic’.
Poets Aubrey de Vere and John Todhunter followed Ferguson’s suggestion of Irish Mythology as a source, but as previously suggested, not only Yeats but James Stephens, George Russell (AE) and Austin Clarke are all indebted to Ferguson’s work.
Yeats went on to lament that this national author was “unjustly neglected by his fellow countrymen”, and perhaps this remains the case today.
Sir Samuel Ferguson has been spoken of as a campaigner ‘for the esteem of Irish culture’. There can be no doubt that his gaze looked to an Ireland of rich Celtic myth and legend. His was not, however, simply a backward gaze, but an all encompassing one which allowed Ireland’s distinct heritage to reclaim a prominent role in the cultural and political identity of this nation, becoming re-imagined in new literary works and cultural expression.
In the century previous to Ferguson, the writing of which he was well aware the origins of the major myths of Ireland had been made a subject of contestation. Representative of a view that the Irish mind could not be the source was David Hume, who in History of Great Britain (1767) wrote: “The Irish from the beginning of time had been buried in the most profound barbarism and ignorance, and as they were never conquered or invaded by the Romans, from whom all the western world derives its civility, they continued still in the most rude state of society and were distinguished only by their vices, to which human nature, not trained by education, nor restrained by laws is forever subject.”
Thus it was suggested that the Irish were stealing the Ossianic sagas.
Ferguson’s work, a century later, would make a further powerful rebuttal to such nonsense, to which the founding of the Royal Irish Academy was part of an early response.
In his Magnum Opus ‘Congal’, Ferguson retells in verse the story of the deposed pagan under-King Congal and his rebellion against the Christian King Domnall,
“Burst, blackening cloud that hangs aloof o’er perjured Domnal’s halls!
Dash down, with all your flaming bolts, the fraud-cemented walls,
till through your thunder-rieven palls heaven’s light anew be pour’d
In law and Justice, Wealth and Song, on Congal’s throne restored!”
This powerful work entwines the Greek Homeric tradition and the rich Celtic myth to create an epic journey into our shared past. Its purpose, perhaps, indicating the intention of forging a contemporary self-confidence and distinct self-image among his fellow Irish men and women.
Ferguson has been described as a man both before and after his time but he was, indeed, a man who had much to say about the time in which he lived. The Irish settings and subjects that occupied his writings and his thoughts might perhaps have claimed, a generation before, the support of a cultured and enlightened ascendency class; and a generation later the approbation of those determined to harness Ireland’s rich cultural past to pursue the creation of new and exciting social and political dispensation.
As a bridge between those two periods, Samuel Ferguson was, as scholar and public intellectual, an Irishman whose cultural legacy was destined to be a greatly significant one. It can be suggested that it was upon such foundations as he with others laid that the literary revival was built, a revival that would have such social, cultural and political consequences.
Is mór an phribhléid dom and deis seo a thapa inniu chun omós a thabhairt do laoch na filíochata, na scríobhnóireachta agus na séirbhíse poiblí ón 9ú hAois déag. Níl aon amhras ach gur ghlac Sir Samuel Ferguson páirt rí-thábhachtach i saol na náisiún seo tríd ionspráid a thabhairt don ghlúin cruthaitheach a lean é; Glún a raibh misneach agus féin-mhuinín acu Éire nua, difriúil a shamhlú agus a lorg.
[It has been an honour to have this opportunity to pay tribute to one of 19th century Ireland’s greatest writers, poets and public servants, who played his own unique and important role in inspiring a new generation of creativity to imagine and speak of a confident and renewed Ireland.]
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
Thank you all and Fare Ye Weel.
 Kennelly, Brendan. Journey into Joy 1994 BloodAxePress, Ed. Äke Perrson