Caoc O'Leary

Caoc O'Leary

In Brief

Bloom's list of literary travelers who, like Odysseus, come home after decades away (Alice Ben Bolt, Enoch Arden, Rip van Winkle) concludes with one Irish example: "does anybody hereabouts remember Caoc O'Leary, a favourite and most trying declamation piece." The work he refers to is Caoch O'Leary, often called Caoch the Piper. A simple and tenderhearted tale by County Laois poet John Keegan, it was assigned reading in primary schools for years, and is often recited even today. Judging by his description of it as "most trying," Bloom seems to have been forced to memorize at least some of it in his youth.

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First published in May 1846 in The Irish National Magazine, Keegan's ballad tells the story of a blind piper (caoch means "blind" or "one-eyed") who wanders to the door of a boy's house in the countryside with his dog Pinch. Seeking shelter for the night, he finds a warm welcome, plays his pipes for the family the next morning, bonds with the boy, and departs. Twenty years later, the grown-up speaker of the poem has lost the "happy times" of his childhood and all of his loved ones. Sitting at his door thinking "Of twenty sad things," he sees a little dog wearily leading a decrepit figure up the lane. The old man asks, "Does anybody hereabouts / Remember Caoch the piper?" The two lonely men embrace tearily and the piper asks to spends one more night in the house, saying "I'll go home tomorrow": "My peace is made, I'll calmly leave / This world so cold and dreary; / And you shall keep my pipes and dog, / And pray for Caoch O'Leary." In the morning neighbors help the speaker dig a grave "near Eily, Kate, and Mary," and now the old piper "sleeps his last sweet sleep."

Joyce ingeniously spotted the structural affinities between this simple ballad and Homer's Odyssey: a 20-year absence (amazingly, he found the same Homeric span in Ben Bolt and Rip van Winkle), a homecoming, a joyful father-son reunion, an old faithful dog. Also worth admiring is the way Bloom seems to be asking his companions in the cabman's shelter a question (Do any of you remember that old chestnut we had to memorize in school?), when in fact he is silently quoting from the poem. The phrase "Does anybody hereabouts remember" encapsulates the pathos of the old exile forgotten by the world, which is Bloom's focus in all four stories. Later in Eumaeus he will pull Charles Stewart Parnell into the same orbit.

John Keegan too has been largely forgotten. He lived a peasant's life, educated in his youth by tutors who wandered the countryside like the piper, and he died of cholera in 1849 in his thirties, having suffered through the famine years with few resources. During his short years he achieved a sizeable body of journalistic and poetic work. Caoch the Piper, his best known poem, is much more widely recognized than he is. In fact Bloom is made to participate in the erasure of the poet: he supposes that the work was written by "poor John Casey."

In recent years, though, efforts have been made to resuscitate Keegan's reputation. An 11 March 1999 article in the Irish Times notes that Tony Delaney, who was born in the same Midlands parish, edited and published his Selected Works (Galmoy Press, 1997), located his unmarked grave in the Glasnevin cemetery, and headed up efforts to have a "monumental sculptor" erect a Celtic cross over it.

JH 2020