Lament For Seamus ‘Bhriain’ Mac Amhlaigh

As the French fairies were leaving Glenariffe for the last time they met a great procession with bright white lights coming down from Ballymena. When they looked back the lights had turned red. Not a fairy tale. What had passed in the night was the funeral cortege of the man on whose lips the fairies had lived so long. To us who sadly have not the Irish he was Jim McAuley, but to the wee folk he was … Séamus Bhriain Mac Amhlaigh, last native Irish speaker in the Glens of Antrim who died on the 25th February, 1983.
His tale of a troop of fairies all astride ben-weeds riding off to France every night Big Jim had learned from his father Brían Mac Amhlaigh who gave Glenarm’s Eoin MacNeill, founder of the Gaelic League, his first lesson in Irish. Thanks be to another great Glensman and collector of Irish Folk tales, Hamilton Delargy who had beaten the reaper to Brian’s door, for the old man is nigh forty five years dead. We in turn are indebted to Alex McMullan of Glenariffe for having recorded Big Jim’s retelling of his fathers stories: of Stilkin the gruagagh, of the péiste who carried off a baby boy to his nest near Killarney, of the enchanted town at Coill Bheag, of the man who shod the devil’s horse for a bottomless hat of gold, and so on.
The old tongue is hushed now in a glen where one hundred and fifty years ago numberless legendary and fabulous tales and songs were recited and sung in the Irish round the fire and where "many neither spoke nor understood English but all spoke the Irish.”
The last Irish story-teller in the Glens is stilled. For some a statistic, for us a reminder that we scarce paused in our pursuit of pence to mark the passing of a centuries old tradition, or long enough to realise that the man laid to rest was the last of the people from whom we got our family names, the name of our townlands and every field that’s in them.
I have no words to properly express my sense of loss for I have not the tongue. Let this translation from the Irish say it for me: ‘What shall we do for timber? The last of the woods is down . . .’

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