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The aisling (Irish for 'dream, vision', pronounced [ˈaʃlʲɪnʲ]), or vision poem, is a poetic genre that developed during the late 17th and 18th centuries in Irish language poetry. The word may have a number of variations in pronunciation, but the 's' of the first syllable is always realised as a [ʃ] ("sh") sound.
In the aisling, Ireland appears to the poet in a vision in the form of a woman, sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. This female figure is generally referred to in the poems as a Spéirbhean (heavenly woman; pronounced 'spare van'). She laments the current state of the Irish people and predicts an imminent revival of their fortunes, usually linked to the return of the Roman Catholic House of Stuart to the thrones of Britain and Ireland.
The form developed out of an earlier, non-political genre which was essentially an Irish form of the French reverdie, in which the poet meets a beautiful, supernatural woman who symbolises the spring season, the bounty of nature, and love.
The first and greatest of the aisling poets was Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, "athair na haislinge" (i.e. father of the aisling). In his hands, the aisling is a powerful mode of political writing. Also famed for his works in the genre is Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin.
Among the most famous examples of Aisling poetry are Gile na gile by Ó Rathaille and Ceo draíochta i gcoim oíche by Ó Súilleabháin.
During the 18th century, the form became something of an empty formula and became the target of satire and parody.
In 1751, Scottish Jacobite poet Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair poked fun at the aisling genre in his Anti-Campbell polemic An Airce ("The Ark"). At the poem's beginning, the bard describes a meeting with the ghost of a beheaded Campbell Jacobite who then tells him that the Clan will soon be punished for committing high treason against their lawful King, first being visited by the Ten Plagues of Egypt and then by another Great Flood upon their lands.
The poet is instructed to emulate Noah by building another Ark for carefully selected Campbell Jacobites. The moderates will be welcomed aboard the Ark's decks after being purged of their Whiggery by swallowing a dose of seawater. Campbell redcoats are to be tied with millstones and thrown overboard. A female poet of the clan who had mocked Prince Charles and accused him of illegitimacy was to be treated to a fitting punishment before being delivered right into the poet's mercy.
During the 1780s, Munster poet Brian Merriman also parodied the Aisling genre in his comic masterpiece Cúirt An Mheán Oíche ("The Midnight Court"). In the opening section of the poem, a hideous female giant appears to the bard and drags him kicking and screaming to the court of Queen Aoibheal of the Fairies. On the way to the ruined monastery at Moinmoy, the messenger explains that the Queen, disgusted by the twin corruptions of Anglo-Irish landlords and English Law, has taken the dispensing of justice upon herself. There follows a traditional court case under the Brehon law form of a three-part debate.
In the first part, a young woman declares her case against the young men of Ireland for their refusal to marry. She complains that, despite increasingly desperate attempts to capture a husband via intensive flirtation at hurling matches, wakes, and pattern days, the young men insist on ignoring her in favour of late marriages to much older women. The young woman further bewails the contempt with which she is treated by the married women of the village.
She is answered by an old man who first denounces the wanton promiscuity of young women in general, suggesting that the young woman who spoke before was conceived by a Tinker under a cart. He vividly describes the infidelity of his own young wife. He declares his humiliation at finding her already pregnant on their wedding night and the gossip which has surrounded the "premature" birth of "his" son ever since. He disgustedly attacks the dissolute lifestyles of young women in general. Then, however, he declares that there is nothing wrong with his illegitimate children and denounces marriage as "out of date." He demands that the Queen outlaw it altogether and replace it with a system of free love.
The young woman, however, is infuriated by the old man's words and is barely restrained from physically attacking him. She mocks his inability to fulfill his marital duties with his young wife, saying that she was a homeless beggar who married him to avoid starvation. She vividly argues that if his wife has taken a lover, she well deserves one. She then calls for the abolition of priestly celibacy, alleging that priests would otherwise make wonderful husbands and fathers. In the meantime, however, she will keep trying to attract an older man in hopes that her unmarried humiliation will finally end.
Finally, in the judgement section Queen Aoibheal rules that all laymen must marry before the age of 21, on pain of corporal punishment at the hands of Ireland's women. She advises them to equally target the romantically indifferent, homosexuals, and unmarried skirt chasers who boast of the number of notches on their belts. Aoibheal tells them to be careful, however, not to leave any man unable to father children. She also states that abolishing priestly celibacy is beyond her mandate and counsels patience.
To the poet's horror, the younger woman angrily points him out as a 30-year-old bachelor and describes her many failed attempts to attract his interest in hopes of becoming his wife. She declares that he must be the first man to suffer the consequences of the new marriage law. As a crowd of infuriated women prepares to flog him into a quivering bowl of jelly, he awakens to find it was all a terrible nightmare.