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A Man the World Could Not Slay

It is storming rain and cracking thunder tonight in Manhattan.  It hasn’t poured like this since we won the senate back.  The rain has been falling all day and now, at 10 pm, the thunder and lightning has finally started. To get the full effect,  I opened my windows and turned off all the lights.  It’s just me, the glow of my laptop and the lightning — wonderful.

I’d like to post two emails that I received today. Judy from North Carolina asks about the epigraph to The Rum Diary and Ken Kreie sent the lyrics from this Waylon and Willie Nelson song that he attached with a dedication to our friend, Kurt Vonnegut:

 Every time I go fishin’ it’d always start me wishin’
That I could be a child again
Take my 50 cents and go down to the local picture show
To watch my heroes rope and ride.

Most times they’d win but when they’d lose
It always made me cry
Ain’t nothing quite as sad
As watching your heroes die
One by one as they fall
Soon there’ll be no heroes at all.

Well, I guess the fish just ain’t bitin’
Just as well it don’t feel like fightin’
All in all it just ain’t that great a fishin’ day
That old newspaper headline
Kind of wrapped around this old heart of mine
Another big one got away.

And I can’t count the times he’s made me laugh
But this time he’s made me cry
There ain’t nothing quite as sad
As watching your heroes die
One by one as they fall
Soon there’ll be no heroes at all…

– Waylon & Willie

 And speaking of heroes, an astute reader named Judy Robb from North Carolina has emailed me regarding the epigraph for The Rum Diary.  I think the epigraph is also fitting for Kurt Vonnegut, so I decided to post a portion of her email here tonight too.  She asks about the significance of the epigraph.  After much thought, and consultation with one of my teachers, Jon Kenneth Williams of Columbia University, whom I interrupted as he was translating a Middle Welsh poem to English (yes, seemingly unrelated), agrees with me that the epigraph perhaps signifies the mourning of lost youth. "I thought you…a man the world could not slay."  Since the only significant female in the story is Chenault, who is the wildly flawed heroine, who is not lost in the end,  it most likely does not speak to the Kemp/Yeamon/ Chenault love, but incredulity in the face of mortality. 

It was always an adventure and a pleasure to watch Hunter decide on which epigraph to use for his books, but I never actually spoke to him about the Rum Diary epigraph! But we can certainly guess what his intentions were:  Here is the email from Judy:

The English translation for the Irish lament that is quoted as the epigraph for "The Rum Diary" is lament for Art O’Leary." The opening paragraph of "The Rum Diary" refers to the street on which Al’s Backyard is located as "Calle O’Leary." When I first read the opening paragraph of "The
Rum Diary", I was immediately struck by the choice of an Irish surname as a street name in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Was the choice of O’Leary as the street name possibly intended as a cross reference to the lament used as the epigraph?


"My rider of the bright eyes,
What happened you yesterday?
I thought you in my heart,
When I bought you your fine clothes,
A man the world could not slay."

–Dark Eileen O’Connell 1773

I have translated this passage from the lament back into the original Irish to the best of my limited ability!):

Mharcaigh na suile geala,
Cad e a thainig ort inne?
Nuair a cheannaigh me duit na headai breatha,
Fear nach dtiocfadh a mharu.

The above stanza was composed by "Dark" Eileen" O’Connell (Irish name: Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill) as part of the most famous lament/eulogy in all of Irish literature, "Caoineadh Airt UÍ Laoghaire" (translation: "Lament for Art O’Leary")

Eileen composed this 390 line lament after her 26-year-old Irish Catholic husband, Art O’Leary, was shot by the sheriff of County Cork, an Englishman, Abraham Morris, in 1773. Art O’Leary had been made an outlaw for refusing to sell his prizewinning horse ("a dark white steed, the peerless, whose
forehead bore a snow-white star") to Sheriff Morris for five pounds, as the penal Laws required any Catholic to do. The anti-Catholic Penal Laws in force in Ireland during the 18th century made it impossible for Catholics, who comprised 95% of the population, to hold any property worth five
pounds or more, and also denied them the right to receive an education or have a career in their own country.

After Art O’Leary was shot dead by Morris, his horse ran into Rathleigh, riderless and soaked in blood.  Eileen O’Connell mounted her husband’s horse and galloped back to Carraig an Ime, where she found her husband’s lifeless body.

Eileen composed this lament both to mourn Art O’Leary’s death as well  as to call for his murder to be avenged. It became part of the Irish oral tradition, as it was not written down until many years after it was composed in 1773.  Some critics consider "Lament for Art O’Leary" to be the most
passionate love poem in all of Irish literature and the most remarkable set of keening verses to have survived from the oral tradition.

Art O’Leary is buried in the sacred grounds of Kilcrea Friary in County Cork.  His grave bears the following inscription:

Lo Arthur Leary
Generous Handsome Brave
Slain in His Bloom
Lies in this Humble Grave
Died May 4th 1773 Aged 26 years

Ironically, Eileen was also the aunt of Daniel O’Connell, an Irish political hero who was known as "The Liberator" for his successful efforts to repeal British laws that penalized Catholics because of their religion, including the Penal Laws that served as the legal justification to compel Eileen’s husband to sell his horse. Daniel O’Connell is beloved as a national hero throughout Ireland, and the major street in Dublin, O’Connell Street, was named to honor his memory.

Anita, thanks for letting me share this information with you.  And I have to say thank you to another "rider of the bright eyes" who first turned me on to the works of HST–I have copied him on this email.

Judy Robb, Cary, NC


Thank you Judy for sharing the magnificent story, and to Eric, for introducing you to the work of our beloved Hunter.

Until next time, your friend,

Anita Thompson




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