Ó Súilleabháin, Eoghan ‘Rua’ (c.1748–1784), poet, was born in Meentoges, some 12 km east of Killarney in the parish of Kilcummin, Co. Kerry, one of three or four sons of Parthalón Ó Súilleabháin, tenant farmer, and his wife, whose surname may have been Ní Scannail. Any account of Ó Súilleabháin's life must be tentative because of the dearth of contemporary evidence and the mixture of fact and fancy found in the folklore concerning him. Literate in both Irish and English, he appears to have begun writing poetry at a young age and probably attended a hedge school in Annaghily More, a townland adjoining Meentoges. There is a tradition that the young poet established a school at Gneevgullia in his native parish but was obliged to close it because of clerical opposition occasioned by his sexual misconduct. He then appears to have spent several years as a migrant labourer, mainly in Co. Cork and Co. Limerick, while working as a teacher or scribe when the opportunity presented and returning at intervals to his native locality. He had strong associations with the Blackwater valley of Co. Cork and spent periods in the Doneraile, Mitchelstown, and Fermoy areas.
Ó Súilleabháin was arguably the most popular poet in eighteenth-century Munster, and his rakish lifestyle secured him a lasting place in the folk memory. His reputation as a philanderer is corroborated by a contemporary barántas (literary warrant) addressed to him by the poet Muiris Ó Gríofa and also by a work of his own beginning ‘Sin agaibh mo theastas ar bheatha gach réice’. Several romantic compositions addressed to women whom he admired have survived, and some of his bawdier works remain unpublished. Poems such as ‘Is mithid dom féin mo thréithe i gceart do scrúdú’ and ‘Gach tinneas is galar’ testify to his intemperance. However, the Jacobite aisling was the genre in which Ó Súilleabháin excelled and on which his literary reputation rests. He composed at least a dozen such works, several of which achieved considerable popularity. This success can be attributed not only to his mastery of language, but also to his ability to furnish new and metrically flawless lyrics for favourite tunes. In Ó Súilleabháin's hands the aisling became a predictable formula in which an allegorical figure of Ireland appeared to the poet and announced the imminent arrival of a French or Spanish fleet to restore the Stuart pretender. His aislingí, with their unchanging prophetic message, have sometimes been represented as literary exercises devoid of political content, but some contain reactions to contemporary developments: the advance of an American army into Canada in 1775 was applauded in ‘Tráth inné is mé tnáite i bpéin’, and ‘Tá an cruatan ar Sheoirse’ celebrated France's entry into the American war in 1778.
Ó Súilleabháin composed at least twenty-two political poems. His use of this genre of poetry was remarkable. The lexicographical range and general linguistic style and metre of these poems exemplify the internal linguistic and metrical requirements of eighteenth-century Irish political poetry. Although generally regarded as a Jacobite poet (given the prevalence of Jacobite rhetoric in his poetry), Eoghan Rua differed from his predecessors in his non-adherence to the messianic political prophecy, manifest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Irish verse, in a number of his aislingí. In ‘I Saxaibh na séad’ (‘In England of the treasures’), for example, he diminishes the prophetic aspect of earlier Jacobite verse with regard to the future restoration of the exiled Stuart King, Charles Edward Stuart, whilst communicating a more realistic expectation of future deliverance from oppression. Ó Súilleabháin's creative handling of further types of post-classical Irish poetry can be seen clearly in the poems he wrote pertaining to events happening in his own short life. These poems include: two elegies, four poetical ‘warrants’, seven songs in praise of women, eleven satires and a dozen or so occasional songs – five of which are considered to be rakish in content and have yet to be published. These poems provide us with an opportunity to partake of contemporary, literary and cultural life in rural Ireland during the eighteenth century. A number of short extempore humorous stanzas have survived in the oral tradition.
Necessity dictated that Ó Súilleabháin supplement his small, seasonal income as a spailpín fánach (itinerant labourer). It is suggested that a number of the poet's poems in English were conceived at the request of individual patrons in return for payment. It is also possible that Ó Súilleabháin bestowed poems as gifts upon patrons who maintained him. Poems written in his hand would have undoubtedly been prized. A number of advertisements written by Ó Súilleabháin illustrate the poet's own awareness of the growing importance of the English language in Munster in the eighteenth century and also point to the cultural and socio-economic circumstances in which eighteenth century Irish literature in English was written. Ó Súilleabháin's undoubted familiarity with the English language and culture, including printed sources, is exhibited in eight panegyric poems and a number of prose articles. These English compositions include five romantic poems in praise of individual women and also a poem comprising an announcement of Eoghan Rua's various talents as poet, teacher and scholar, which he sent to Fr Ned Fitzgerald, a local parish priest, prior to opening a school at Knocknagree Cross, Co. Cork.
Ó Súilleabháin was still in Ireland when he issued a barántas against Muiris Ó Gríofa, but within a short time he was serving as a marine with the Royal Navy and was present at the battle of the Saints (12 April 1782) when Adm. Rodney defeated the French fleet in the West Indies – a victory which he extolled in the ode ‘Rodney's glory’. The contrast between the views expressed by Ó Súilleabháin in this English-language composition and in his aislingí reflects the very different audiences for which they were intended, but it is unclear how he came to be serving in the navy. A tradition that he enlisted in order to evade the relatives of a woman whom he had seduced cannot be dismissed entirely, but in ‘I Saxaibh na séad’ he described himself as a feeble traveller ‘do stracadh i gcéin ar urla’ (‘who was dragged away by the forelock’) to assist his enemies – an image which suggests that he was impressed into the service.
On his return to Ireland Ó Súilleabháin opened a school at Knocknagree, close to his native district but on the Cork side of the county border. He composed a song in English entitled ‘Colonel Cronin's cohorts’ in praise of Daniel Cronin, commander of the Killarney Independent Light Horse, a short-lived and exclusively catholic Volunteer corps. The poet's expectation of payment was disappointed and he is said to have vented his anger by satirising Cronin and the local Volunteers in verse. In a subsequent brawl with some of Cronin's associates in a Killarney tavern, Ó Súilleabháin received a heavy blow which may have fractured his skull. He returned to Knocknagree and died there 28 June 1784, a few weeks after being injured. Traditions concerning his interment differ, with both Nohaval cemetery, near Knocknagree, and Muckross abbey, near Killarney, being mentioned as burial places. He was lamented in verse by his literary sparring partner, Muiris Ó Gríofa (1710?–1778).
More than seventy of Ó Súilleabháin's poems and songs have survived. These include over sixty poems in Irish, eight English compositions and also a song in the macaronic style, i.e. verse involving a combination of Irish and English. Evidence of the popularity of Ó Súilleabháin's poetry is found in the numerous copies of his poems now extant in manuscript sources. These demonstrate the diachronic transmission and reception of copies of his poems within the scribal tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Only two eighteenth-century manuscripts containing autographed copies of a number of Ó Súilleabháin's poems have survived. The earliest of these manuscripts was written in 1772–1773 for the use of Lúcás Ó Floinn at Dún ar Aill (Doneraile, Co. Cork). This manuscript is held in the RIA (RIA 23 N 18). It contains three of Ó Súilleabháin's own compositions – a satire and two poems relating to his own life. The later eighteenth-century manuscript was written by Ó Súilleabháin in 1773 and is now held in UCC (UCC MS 124). This manuscript contains only a single poem written by Ó Súilleabháin – a warrant against Diarmaid Ó hIonmhanáin. Both of these manuscripts also contain similar examples of the poet's scribal work which include Ossianic poems, tales in prose and songs. A third manuscript, however, contains a note allegedly signed by Eoghan Rua. Written by a young scribe named Conchúr Ó Coileáin of Kanturk, Co. Cork, who was only thirteen years old at the time, it bears the date November 1770 and is held in the RIA (RIA 23 I 39).
A macaronic song which begins ‘Under an arbour of a wide-spreading fagus’ is attributed to Ó Súilleabháin and derives from an oral account recorded in 1906 by Séamus Ua Gríofa (James Griffin), then ninety years of age. Ua Gríofa related that it constituted Ó Súilleabháin's first attempt at poetry while still a young schoolboy. Other accounts claim that he composed his first quatrain beginning: ‘A Uncail Eoghan, is brón's is díth liom’ (‘Uncle Owen, I think it is a sorrow and a loss’) at the age of ten and a manuscript written by John O'Daly (qv) in 1845 contains a note stating that the poem: ‘Ar drúcht na maidne is mé taisteal go ró-mhoch’ was his first attempt at verse.
Copies of six of Ó Súilleabháin's songs rendered into English are found in a nineteenth-century manuscript in the hand of the scribe Mícheál Ó hAnnracháin of Kilrush, Co. Clare (RIA 24 L 12). These translations include five aislingí and an occasional song and each translation is preceded by a copy of Ó Súilleabháin's own verse in Irish. At least four of his poems in English are found in print: ‘Rodney's glory’ (1901); ‘Please to publish from the altar of your holy mass’ (1901); ‘Thalia, the muse of mirth’ (1916) and ‘Fond muse now exhale a prosperous gale’ (1926). A number of other copies of Ó Súilleabháin's poems which are held in the British Library were transcribed from further books of his poetry – one of these was written in 1776 – of which there is now no account. Published editions of the main corpus of Ó Súilleabháin's poetry were edited by Patrick Dinneen (qv) in 1901 and 1923, and by Risteard Ó Foghludha (qv) in 1937, all of which have been out of print for some time.
Ó Súilleabháin's poetry, as it occurs in the manuscript sources, constitutes a valuable part of the surviving body of Gaelic literature of the eighteenth century. It serves as an important historical and literary source for those who wish to gain a greater understanding of the complex response of the subjugated Gaelic population to the experience of repeated conquest and colonisation. It provides more refined insights into the social, literary and cultural milieus of eighteenth-century Ireland, which produced a poet who was an astute social commentator on contemporary issues.