Caitilín Dubh (fl. 1624–9), poet, lived in Thomond (present-day Co. Clare). She is the earliest woman poet for whom texts in the Irish language survive in quantity. Five of her elegies, in accentual (or stressed) caoineadh metre, are copied into Duanaire Uí Bhriain, the O’Brien family poem-book. This manuscript was compiled for Sir Donough O’Brien (1642–1717) of Leamaneh in 1712, mainly by the professional scribe Aodh Buí Mac Cruitín (qv). This was a time of prolific manuscript compilation due to awareness of impending threats to the Gaelic social and literary order; the climate facilitated the preservation of accentual genres as well as the more elite syllabic forms of dán díreach practised by the professional poets. Duanaire Uí Bhriain contains bardic and vernacular poetry related to the O’Brien sept, including Caitilín Dubh’s elegies. Her elegiac subjects were eminent members of the family: Donnchadh Ó Briain (Donough O’Brien), fourth earl of Thomond (qv); Diarmaid Ó Briain (Dermot O’Brien), fifth Baron Inchiquin (1594–1624); Máire (née Ní Bhriain, Mary O’Brien), sister to the fourth earl of Thomond, and Máire’s husband, Toirdhealbhach Ruadh Mac Mathghamhna (Turlough Roe MacMahon) of Clonderalaw (d. 1629). The fact that two of these poems lament the loss of Toirdhealbhach Ruadh, who is addressed as ‘mo thriath’ (my lord; Maynooth MS M 107, 207, l. 3), suggests that the poet enjoyed a client/patron relationship of some kind in the MacMahon household.
Caitilín Dubh’s work displays a keen understanding of classical bardic themes and tropes such as genealogy, military valour, the caithréim (battle roll), hospitality and patronage. Her subjects are praised for their support of learning and poets, their noble Gaelic lineage, their heroism and leadership. Their deaths are presented as impacting upon all walks of life and society – local, national and international. The skill and resourcefulness with which she treated established paradigms is perhaps most evident in her eulogy of Thomond, which is striking for its accommodation in Gaelic terms of her subject’s military service of the English crown – a flexible position adopted by a number of her contemporaries. The poems are also notable for their forging of a female speaking position; the territorial figure of the bean sí (fairy woman) is co-opted in the elegies on Inchiquin and the MacMahons, as the speaker, the bean chaointe (keening woman), makes common cause to lament with them.
Little is known of the poet’s life beyond the evidence of her surviving work. However, oral traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries relate the rescue of a young man from Clíona, fairy queen of Munster, by either Caitilín Dubh or her daughter, and one of these accounts associates her with the surname Keating (Ó Cuív, 1953). A sixth poem in caoineadh metre was attributed to Caitilín Dubh; this records a cluiche caointeach (keening contest) between the female speaker and a chorus of older women, lamenting a member of the Ó Lochlainn family of the Burren, in northern Clare. Edited by Pádraig Breatnach, this text represents an extemporal form of lament very different to the group of five elegies preserved in Duanaire Uí Bhriain, and the damaged manuscript witness is no longer available to consult at the National Library of Ireland. Liam P. Ó Murchú’s translated edition of the elegies on Donnchadh and Diarmaid Ó Briain was published in the fourth volume of the Field Day anthology of Irish writing (2002); his edition of all five poems in Duanaire Uí Bhriain is to be published in Women’s poetry from Ireland, Scotland and Wales: an anthology (2023/4).