Merriman, Brian (c.1749–1805), poet, was born in Ennistymon, Co. Clare. Very little is known with certainty about him. His name is more than likely a variant of the west Clare surname Marrinan. His father was a stonemason, who worked on the building of the Deer Park walls around Ennistymon House, latterly the Falls Hotel, and married a woman by the name of Quilkeen. There were three children, of whom Brian was one. When he was still quite young the family moved to the parish of Feakle in the east of the county. The family settled in Killanena overlooking Lough Graney and the surrounding countryside, the setting for Merriman's remarkable poem ‘Cúirt an mheon-oíche’ (‘The midnight court’). It was here Merriman went to school and probably acquired the skills of teaching. In the 1770s he had a school himself in the neighbouring townland of Knocknageeha. Later he rented a small farm in Derryvinna, a mile from the village of Feakle, and stayed there farming and teaching for twenty years. It was during this time he is recorded as having won two prizes for his linen crop from the linen board in 1796.
In 1787 he married Kathleen Collins; they had two daughters. In 1802/3 Merriman moved with his family to Limerick city, and taught mathematics there for two years. One of his daughters, Mary, taught mathematics there as well. There is no evidence that he wrote more poetry. His death on 27 July 1805 was reported in the General Advertiser and Limerick Gazette and in the Clare Journal and other newspapers. He was buried in Feakle.
Merriman left one long poem of note, ‘Cúirt an mheon-oíche’. Its success and lasting popularity lies in the perennial interest of its subjects and Merriman's powerful literary treatment of them: the despair of young women in failing to find suitable husbands because of their own lack of material means; the institution of marriage itself, particularly its relevance for such women; the sexual frustration of those who marry in desperation old well-off but impotent men; their impatience with the imposed celibacy of the catholic clergy, whose young priests the young women find particularly attractive; and his impassioned insistence on the dignity and worth of the illegitimate child. These are serious matters but Merriman treats them in an exuberant and exaggerated comic tone of voice and with a superb and unsurpassed use of the Irish language which is simultaneously entertaining and challenging. Merriman found the words and language to deal with these questions in a memorable way. He employed in a new and envigorating manner a traditional literary form, the caoineadh or lament, which had mainly been used since the sixteenth century to deal with elegiac and political themes. There was no intellectual environment in or around Feakle conducive to literary creativity in Irish, apart from the rich and varied oral tradition of song and story. But Merriman, as evidenced by the success of his masterpiece, had an extraordinary command of the spoken Irish language as well as a knowledge of the literary tradition, and used both of these with unequalled power to compose a unique poem of sustained energy and vitality.
The year 1780 had seen an attempt to establish a ‘court of poetry’ or convention of poets in Ennis by a contemporary poet and friend of Merriman, also a teacher of mathematics, Tomás Ó Míodhcháin (qv), along with other poets, with the intention of encouraging and facilitating the composition of poetry in Irish and of maintaining standards and providing poets with a forum to read and discuss their work with their peers. It may well have been this ‘court’ and its literati, of whom Merriman was one, which spurred him to compose or complete his long poem. The autograph copy of ‘Cúirt an mheon-oíche’ has survived in Cambridge University Library, Add. MS 6562. Among the many translators into English of the poem are Denis Woulfe ( fl. 1817–26), the earliest translator; Arland Ussher (qv); Frank O'Connor (qv); Edward Pakenham (qv), Lord Longford; David Marcus; Brendan Behan (qv); Thomas Kinsella; Patrick C. Power; Bowes Egan; and Coslett Quin (qv). It was translated into German by Ludwig Stern (ZCP, v (1905)).
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).