the life of brian
We do not know very much about the life of Brian Merriman (or Bryan Merryman, as he is commonly referred to in earlier sources—seemingly, the current spelling became commonplace because of the lack of a native “y” in Irish).
It is thought that he was born around 1747 in eastern Co. Clare. There is speculation that he was born on the wrong side of the blanket, the illegitimate son of a local squire. Some see in the paean to bastardry that make’s up a considerable part of the old man’s speech in the poem evidence of Brian’s feelings about his own origins. It is also suggested that this is where his anglicized name comes from. Although in some later publications, his name is gaelicized to Brian Mac Giolla Meidhre, there is no evidence that he went by anything other than Merriman in his own lifetime.
By 1770, he was in the poverty-stricken and, at the time, backward east-county village of Feakle where he served as a schoolteacher. He was also a small farmer with a holding of twenty acres. Seemingly, he was at least an adequate farmer since there is a record of his having won two prizes from the Royal Dublin Society for his flax crop.
There was no regular schoolhouse in Feakle until 1837 and the arrangements prior to that were pretty ad hoc. In 1825, for instance, there were thirteen “schools” in the parish but a description of the arrangements from a report that year of the Commissioners on Education in Ireland shows the parlousness of the system, if such it can be called.
Four of the so-called schools met in chapels and two in the kitchen of the teacher’s dwelling. Even though the latter were probably nothing to write home about, they were hopefully better than the pitiful setup for the remaining seven, which were said to meet in:
Three schools were reported to have nineteen, twenty and twenty-nine pupils, respectively, but each of the other ten had between 51 and 128 attendees (for a total of 800), astonishing numbers given the nature of the establishments. If Merriman himself is indicative of even the most able products of such schools—and where else would he have gotten his education—we can only marvel at the ability to impart, and the desire to imbibe, knowledge in such unpromising surroundings. It is clear that, however he acquired it, Merriman had an acquaintance with contemporary English and European literature and thought.
In his description of Brian’s life as an introduction to his translation of the Cúirt, Riseárd Ó Foghlú describes the hard life of the teacher:
Bhí an saol crua go leor ar mhúinteoirí scoile i dTuamhumhain le linn Bhriain agus tamall ina dhiaidh sin: ba chaol an tuarastal do bhí ag dul dóibh ó dhaltaí bochta na háite, i dtreo go mbíodh ar an máistir bannaí, dintiúirí, srl., do scríobh do dhaoine chun cur lena fháltas, agus is minic do b’éigin don bhfear bocht ramhan agus sluasad do tharraingt chuige chun réal do thuilleamh.
As is made abundantly clear in the final section of Cúirt an Mheán Oíche, Merriman did not marry until later in life and certainly not until after he had authored his famous work. It is likely that he married in the early 1790s—his first child, a daughter named Caitlín (Kathleen), was born in 1795. He had one other child, another daughter, Máire (Mary).
His wife, whose name was Cit (Kit), was born in 1767. She was also known as Cit an Mhaighisteara (the master’s Kit) attesting to Brian’s occupation. And she was later remembered as a fine, handsome, trim woman (bean bhreá dhathúil mhaiseach).
At some stage, Brian Merriman had moved from rural Clare to Limerick City where he continued to eke out a seemingly meager existence as a teacher. He died suddenly there on July 27, 1805 as an entry in the “General Advertiser and Limerick Gazette” of Monday, 29th July, 1795 noted:
Died.—On Saturday morning, in Old Clare-street, after a few hours’ illness, Mr. Bryan Merryman, teacher of Mathematics, etc.
A few days later, on Thursday, a death notice appeared in Faulkner’s “Dublin Journal”:
At Limerick, after a few hours illness, Mr. Bryan Merryman, teacher of mathematics.
Cúirt an Mheán Oíche is essentially his sole work; only two other short lyrics are attributed to him. He composed it in 1780 and it is the great mystery of his life why he did not follow up on this opus in the twenty-five years of life remaining to him.
One tradition has it that he was laid up with a bum leg (broken or something) and that he used the enforced sojourn to write his extensive poem—a new twist on the theatrical "break a leg" wish. Upon recovery, his busy life as a farmer and teacher precluded a repeat.
We simply do not know the answer to that question. Daniel Corkery asked in “The Hidden Ireland”: “Was it the poet’s moving into Limerick City caused the havoc?”—casting an aspersion on that city three quarters of a century before Frank McCourt did it at book length.
Frank O’Connor, in the introduction to his translation of the poem, has similar views of the benighted city:
There is no tablet in Clare Street to mark where Bryan Merryman, the author of the Midnight Court died, nor is there ever likely to be, for Limerick has a reputation for piety.
But, then, O'Connor casts a no less jaundiced eye on Clare:
Merryman was born about the middle of the eighteenth century in a part of Ireland which then must have been as barbarous as any in Europe—it isn’t exactly what one would call civilised today.
PAfter he finished Cúirt an Mheán Oíche, the poet fell silent and Bryan Merryman went on his way, merry or not as the case may have been.