Edited and with translations by David Greene and Frank O'Connor. The greatest period of Irish poetry lasted from t
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Table of contents :
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS page ix
AN INTRODUCTION 1
1. Hymn to St. Colum Cille 19
2. Jesus and the Sparrows 23
3. Jesus at School 25
4. Breastplate Number One 27
5. Breastplate Number Two 33
6. The Nativity 36
7. The Crucifixion 40
8. The Two Worlds 44
9. The Nun of Beare 48
10. Invocation to the Martyrs 56
11. The Downfall of Heathendom 61
12. To St. Brigit 67
13. Líadan 72
14. The Ex-Poet 75
15. Ordeal by Cohabitation 77
16. Créd's Lament 78
17. The Scholar and his Cat 81
18. Writing Out-of-doors 84
19. The Dead Lover 86
20. Rónáns Lament 93
21. Winter 98
22. The Pity of Nature I 100
23. Ita and the Infant Jesus 102
24. Triads 104
25. Dramatis Personae 107
26. Men and Women I 111
27. Paradise Revised 115
28. Prayer for a Long Life 123
29. The Tempest 126
30. The Only Jealousy of Enter 130
31. Winter 134
32. Summer 137
33. The Four Seasons 140
34. A Prayer for Recollection 144
35. The Hermitage 148
36. The Pilgrim 151
37. Fellow Feeling 154
38. Eve 157
39. The Scribe 159
40. Faith 161
41. Hymn to St. Michael 165
42. Mael Ísu finds his Psalter again 167
43. Grace before Death 171
44. The Lament for Fer Diad 174
45. The Song of the Heads 176
46. The Pity of Nature II 179
47. Colum Cille in Exile 181
48. Lullaby of Adventurous Love 184
49. A Winter Night 189
50. Massacre of the Innocents 191
51. The Last Call-up 195
52. Medieval Diary 200
53. Men and Women II 202
54. Storm and Birdsong 205
INDEX OF TITLES 209
INDEX OF NAMES 211
The greatest period o f Irish poetry lasted from the sixth century to the twelfth and was perhaps the most important branch o f medieval poetry. In Kings, Lords, and Commons Frank O ’ Connor provided outstandingly fine translations from Old and Middle Irish, as w ell as from Classical Modern Irish, but there has been no edition for the general reader o f the Irish texts themselves. In this treasury Frank O ’ Connor and David Greene, Professor o f Irish at Trinity College, Dublin, have edited a large selection o f poems o f the period with imaginative scholarship; the Irish manuscript tradition is very bad, and an early Irish poem, to be intelligible to the general reader, must be edited, emended and sometimes cut. The editors have supplied careful and masterly prose translations o f each poem. In their introduction, they analyse the ingredients o f Early Irish Poetry, comment on individual poems and, above all, fire the reader with their own passionate enthusiasm for this great body o f literature.
A GOLDEN TREASURY OF IRISH POETRY
Also by Frank O’Connor G U E S T S OF T H E N A T I O N THE SAIN T AND M A R Y K A TE B O N E S OF C O N T E N T I O N THE BIG FELLO W D U TCH IN TERIO R CRAB APPLE JE L L Y IRISH MILES THE CO M M O N
T R A V ELLER ’ S SAMPLES LEINSTER, M U N STER, AND C O N N A U G H T T H B S T O R I E S OF F R A N K O ’ C O N N O R M O R E S T O R I E S OF F R A N K O ’ C O N N O R DO M ESTIC RELATIO N S CO LLECTIO N TWO KIN GS, LORDS, &
M IR RO R IN THB R O A D W A Y THB L O N E L Y V O IC E THB R O A D TO S T R A T F O R D AN O N LY CHILD
Also by David Greene FINGAL RÓ N ÁIN AND
A GOLDEN TREASURY OF
IR ISH POETRY A.D. 600 to 12OO EDITED AND W ITH TRAN SLATIO N S BY
DAVID GREENE & FRANK O’CONNOR
M A C M IL L A N L O N D O N • M E L B O U R N E • T O R ONT O
© Introduction« commentaries, and translations David Greene and Frank O ’Connor 1967
MACMILLAN AND COMPANY LIMITED Little Essex Street London W C 2 also Bombay Calcutta M adras M elbourne THE MACMILLAN COMPANY OF CANADA LIMITED 70 Bond Street Toronto 2
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN
TO H IL A R Y A N D H A R R IE T W H O SE T A C T F U L A B S E N C E S FRO M T H E S C E N E A L O N E M A D E T H IS B O O K P O S S IB L E
CONTENTS L I S T OF A B B R E V I A T I O N S AN I N T R O D U C T I O N
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26
Hymn to St. Colum Cille Jesus and the Sparrows Jesus at School Breastplate Number One Breastplate Number Two The Nativity The Crucifixion The Two Worlds The Nun o f Beare Invocation to the Martyrs The Downfall o f Heathendom To St. Brigit Ltadan The Ex-Poet Ordeal by Cohabitation Créd's Lament The Scholar and his Cat Writing Out-of-doors The Dead Lover Rénáns Lament Winter The Pity o f Nature — I Ita and the InfantJesus Triads Dramatis Personae Men and Women — I vii
19 23 25 27 33 36 40 44 48 56 61 67 72 75 77 78 81 84 86 93 98 100 102 104 107 h i
2j 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 30 51 52 53 54
Paradise Revised Prayer for a Long Life The Tempest The Only Jealousy o f Enter Winter Summer The Four Seasons A Prayer for Recollection The Hermitage The Pilgrim Fellow Feeling Eve The Scribe Faith Hymn to St. Michael Mael ísu finds his Psalter again Grace before Death The Lament for Fer Diad The Song o f the Heads The Pity o f Nature — I I Colum Cille in Exile Lullaby o f Adventurous Love A Winter Night Massacre o f the Innocents The Last Call-up Medieval Diary Men and Women — I I Storm and Birdsong
115 123 126 130 134 137 140 144 148 15 1 154 157 159 16 1 165 167 17 1 174 176 179 18 1 184 189 19 1 195 200 202 205
IN D EX OF TITLES
IN D EX OF NAM ES
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS AU
Annals of Ulster (W. M. Hennessey and B . MacCarthy, eds.; Dublin, (vol. n) 1893, (vol. m) 1895).
Auraicept na nÉces (George Calder, ed.; Edinburgh, 1917).
Book o f Ballymote.
Bruchstücke der älteren Lyrik Irlands (Kuno M eyer; Berlin 1919).
Dictionary o f the Irish Language (Royal Irish Academy; in course o f publica tion).
Early Irish Lyrics (GerardMurphy, London, 1956).
Félire Óengusso Félire óengusso Céli D é (W. Stokes, ed.; for the Henry Bradshaw Society, 1905). FM
Annals o f the Four Masters (J. O’Donovan, ed.; Dublin, 1851).
Irische Texte (W. Stokes andE. Windisch; Leipzig, 1880-1909).
An Introduction to Irish Syllabic Poetry o f the Period 1200-1600 (Eleanor Knott; Cork, 1924).
Irish Texts Society. ix
LIST OF A BB RE V IA T IO N S
Book o f Leinster.
Lebor na hUidre (Book o f the Dun Cow) (printed edition cited is that o f R . I. Best and O. Bergin; Dublin, 1929).
National Library o f Ireland.
P R IA
Proceedings o f the Royal Irish Academy.
Thesaurus Palaeohibemicus (W . Stokes and J. Strachan, eds.; Cambridge, 1901).
Zeitschriftfür celtische Philologie.
AN INTRODUCTION i There are four distinct periods o f poetry in Irish: from the sixth to the twelfth century, from the twelfth to the six teenth, from the sixteenth to the decline o f Irish as a written language at the beginning o f the nineteenth, and the revival period from the end o f the nineteenth to the present day. These periods correspond fairly close with linguistic phases: the first with Old and Middle Irish, the second with Classical Modem Irish, and the third and fourth with Modem Irish proper. In each period the status and training o f the poet are different. In the first he is a product o f the fusion o f the old learning with that o f the monastic schools and is usually a cleric himself; in the second he belongs to the lay and heredi tary professional class usually, though w rongly, called the bardic; in the third he is little more than a peasant who has preserved some fragments o f the older tradition, meeting with his colleagues at an inn to hold a poetic court; in the fourth he is, like so many elsewhere, merely a part-time poet. Only during the first o f these periods was Ireland an independent country, and only then did the Irish have an indigenous prose literature; the poetry o f this period is easily the most important o f the four, and in our opinion the most important branch o f medieval poetry. Unfortunately the manuscript tradition is very bad indeed; for the greater part o f our period we depend on late copies o f the poems, botched by antiquarians and modernized by scribes. Perhaps the outstanding example is the fact that the first poem w e print here, which we ascribe to the seventh century, exists
A G O LD BN T R E A S U R Y OF I R IS H PO E T R Y
only in a seventeenth-century manuscript, though here die text is in fact fairly well preserved. T o present an early Irish poem to the general reader demands editing and emending, and this we have done; when verses, or whole poems, were unintelligible to us, we have simply left diem out. The ingredients o f Irish literature when it first appears are traditional — genealogy, history, and law ; it has much more in common with the Pentateuch than with the urbanized literatures o f Greece and Rome. Its original custodians were the filid , or ‘ seers’, who passed on the tradition, orally, in the form o f alliterative verse. The earliest composition to which we can attach a date is an elegy on St. Colum Cille composed at the time o f his death in 597 by D allin Forgaill; it is mainly in alliterative chant. For the actual transmission o f information there was also a number o f metres o f a more practical kind; notably a seven-syllable line with a caesura after the fourth syllable. This continued to be used even after the early period; a beautiful Middle Irish pastiche w ill be found in the four poems on the seasons. These poems close with the word that begins th an ; two words in each line alliterate, and alliterate again with the first stressed word o f the next line. The poetic phrase, which may be o f any length, is terminated by a line o f five syllables. Thus: The heavy ground is filled with fruit, And by the fort hardfrom their height Hazelnuts break andfall.
The metrical system was based on mnemonic patterns; it gave the reciter a valuable check on the accuracy o f his per formance, and is o f considerable help to the modem editor in restoring corrupt texts. In the second half o f the sixth century rhyme began to
AN I N T R O D U C T I O N
find its w ay into the metres. W e see this process at work in a few fragments by Colmán mac Léníni, who died in the year 604 as Abbot o f Cloyne in County Cork. St. Colmán began his life as a professional poet, and the seven fragments o f his verse that have been collected by R udolf Thumeysen are both religious and secular; except from the historical point o f view they are o f no great interest, and a single frag ment w ill serve as an example o f his work. It is from a poem in praise o f the sword given him as a fee by a prince called Domnall who later became King o f Tara: Luitt oc elaib, ungi oc dirnaib, drecha ban n-aithech oc ródaib rtgnaib; rig oc Domnall dord oc aidbse adand oc caindil, calg oc mo chailgse.1
Blackbirds compared with swans, ounces with hundredweights, peasant womens faces with great queens; kings compared with Domnall, yodelling with a choir, a spark compared with a candle, is every sword compared with my sword. This derives from an oral tradition, with chain alliteration — the last word o f each line alliterating with the first word in the next. It also contains rhyme, o f the kind Irish used from this period up to the end o f the Classical Modem period. Since in Irish, as in English, there are few perfect rhymes for words o f more than one syllable, it is permitted to rhyme consonants that are similar phonetically, just as Shakespeare does when he rhymes ‘ token' with ‘ open*. W e 1 ZCP, xix, 198.
A G O L D E N T R E A S U R Y OF I R IS H F O B T R Y
have already arrived at the kind o f metre in which nearly all the poems we deal with are written; its characteristics are alliteration, fixed number o f syllables in a line, and rhyme o f the Irish kind. Chain alliteration, however, becomes less and less common in the later part o f our period. The first poem we print belongs to the early type; it is part o f a hymn to St. Colum Cille, written less than a cen tury after his death. There is the same sort o f rhyming system that we find in Colmán’s verses, but there the simi larity ends, for the author o f the Columban hymn — a pro fessional poet like Colm in — has also mastered the secret o f Virgilian rhetoric, and the third and fourth lines are some thing entirely new in Irish poetry and indicate that it has come o f age. S it Jri úathu áair no tias ni cen toísech, táthum nert. But this poem is exceptional — it would be exceptional in any language. The literary w ork o f the early monastic schools is better represented in the eighth-century Biblical poems discovered and edited by Professor James Carney. Neither o f the authors whose work he has printed was a professional poet in the manner o f St. Colmán or the seventh-century hymn-writer. Their aim was instruction and edification, and the literary beauty which they so often achieved might almost be described as accidental. The author o f the versified ‘Apocryphal Gospel o f St. Thomas*, for example, was unaware o f the stupidity o f the text on which he was working, but he wrote with die freshness and charm we associate with the beginning o f literature in any country. His verse falls naturally into the rhythms o f the early English carols.
AN IN T R O D U C T IO N
When he was only five years old Jesus, son of God, Made twelve little waterholes In the wet mud. Then he made twelve little birds — Passeres as they say; He made them on the Sabbath Faultlessly of clay. A certain Jew denounced him For what he had done, And by the hand to Joseph He took God’s only son. ‘ Correct your son, Joseph, For on the Sabbath day He made graven images From the wet clay.’ Jesus clapped his hands; His voice was clear and bright; Before their eyes, a marvel, The little birds took flight. And then the voice o f Jesus Was heard to proclaim: * To show you know who made you Go back whence you cameV Another Jew reported Without a word o f lie Thatfar in the distance He heard the birds ay. The inspiration o f the early Irish Church had been the Bible and the Psalms. W e see this in the contemporary description o f the Irish monks by Bede, who, while admiring
A G O LD BN T R E A SU R Y OF IR IS H PO E T R Y
their sanctity, deplored their intellectual limitations. B y the beginning o f the eighth century the monasteries had changed considerably. The greater ones, such as Armagh and Clonmacnois, had begun to turn into towns, and the abbots who ruled them were already beginning to be described as prittcipes. They were wealthy, worldly, scholarly men who lived in comfortable houses, with libraries and wine cellars, and their sons and daughters, who would also find careers in the Church, studied Irish as well as Latin. A vast secular litera ture had grown up within the monasteries, based on the traditional material o f die professional poets, whose version o f history was exceedingly popular with the monks; in die twelfth-century satire ‘ The Vision o f Mac Con Glinne’ there is a delightful description o f an abbot, his W ellington boots stuffed with manuscripts — in one ‘ The Catde Raid o f Cooley* and ‘ The Destruction o f Dá Derga’s Hostel’ and in the other ‘ The W ooing o f Étaín’ and ‘ The W ooing o f Emer*. This developed far beyond the preservation o f the tradition; by the end o f the Old Irish period we begin to find stories that, although told about historical personages, conflict completely with the evidence available in the annals and genealogies. Stories are now being told for their own sake, and creative literature appears. This imaginative literature had a strange ecclesiastical counterpart — Church history written in the manner o f the old sagas. The saints — heroes o f these pseudo-sagas — were conceded conceptions, births, and childhood adventures far more extraordinary than those o f Cú Chulainn and his kind, and were recorded as destroying more enemies with their prayers and curses than the true saga heroes destroyed with their swords. A t its crudest the pseudo-saga deals with the life o f a saint who is obstructed or insulted by a king, and brings
AN IN T R O D U C T IO N
the king to ruin and death by his miracles. In one story Aed mac Ainmire, King o f Tara, asks his half-brother, the Abbot o f Glendalough, to swear in the heathen w ay by his testicles, and the abbot prophesies that a w o lf w ill soon eat the king’s own testicles, which it does. In another story an Ulster king called Suibne quarrels with a saint named Rónán, is driven mad, and dies a horrible death. The new ‘ literary’ saga, whether lay or ecclesiastical, is o f considerable interest to us, for much good verse appears in it. Although prose — and usually excellent prose — is the true medium o f die saga proper, it was customary to use heightened language at dramatic moments — often for a dialogue between two characters — and in die later sagas this heightened language takes die form o f verse. A w ellknown example is CÚ Chulainn’s lament over Fer D iad; others are the poems which terminate* Fingal Rónáin’, and the fine nature poetry put into the mouth o f Suibne in the story mentioned above. Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether the prose and poetry are really by the same hand; the situation is even worse when the prose has been lost, or is reduced to a cryptic and garbled introduction to the poem. This is precisely our situation with some o f the finest poems in our collection, which seem to derive from a group o f pseudo-sagas, most o f which is lost, dealing with St. Cum mine the Tall, a Kerry man; his friend Guaire, King o f Aidne, whose capital was Gort in County G alw ay; Guaire’s brother, Mongán, a hermit m onk; his daughter Créd and her W est Limerick lover, Dinertach; his friend Mac Dá Cerda, a H oly Fool; Lladan, the Cork poetess, and her poet lover from Connacht, Cuirithir; and last, and most important, the Nun o f Beare, subject o f the greatest o f Irish poems. Some o f these characters are probably historical. Cummine B
A G O LD E N T R E A SU R Y OF IR IS H PO E T R Y
certainly did write the penitential ascribed to him, but since he turns up in Munster legends as the child o f an incestuous union it would seem that he was already turning into folk-lore. Liadan may be the St. Liadan who gave her name to a County Limerick church. Guaire, too, may be historical; his brother is probably a fiction, and his daughter was originally probably intended to represent his wife. W e have had to omit ‘ King and Herm it’, the beautiful poem in which Mongán expounds to Guaire die charms o f the hermit’s life, because the text is simply too bad to extract a version that would at the same time satisfy ourselves and interest the general reader whom we have in mind. But we have printed Créd’s lament for the death o f Dinertach; verses from the story o f Liadan and Cuirithir in which St. Cummine intervenes disastrously in a love affair between two poets, and ‘ The Nun o f Beare’, in which he appears as spiritual director o f an ex-mistress o f the kings o f Munster. W hat makes these pseudo-sagas so remarkable is that die conflict between the secular and the religious approach is treated with such extraordinary gravity and maturity. Guaire, the king, does not meet with a horrible end because o f some disagreement with St. Cummine, though in the matter o f maturity readers may consult another pseudo-saga from M ayo, ‘ The Life o f Cellach’, in which he appears as the villain; Cuirithir does not go to Hell because he w ill not accept the rude sexual discipline o f Clonfert, and even the Nun o f Beare is politely permitted her great song in praise o f worldly jo y . It may be that this maturity can be explained in terms o f a common authorship; certainly there is a common tradition o f authorship. ‘ Créd’ is clearly intended to be spoken by a married woman, for no unmarried girl in an Irish story
AN I N T R O D U C T I O N
would describe herself as being ‘ in the instability o f age’, nor would she say o f her father, ‘ I have every good with Guaire, the King o f cold Aidne \ Possibly it is a lyric from a romance which described the moral problem o f a passionate woman married to a kind and generous husband. Tw o o f the twentyfour lines echo lines from ‘ The Nun o f Beare’ : ‘ m y mind seeks to go* and ‘ m y wantonness has begun to deceive m e’. The curious and beautiful lines ‘ sweeter than all songs was his speech, except for holy adoration o f the King o f Heaven’ are also reminiscent o f lines in ‘ Liadan and Cuirithir’ : ‘ It would be madness not to do his pleasure i f it were not for fear o f the King o f Heaven’. More than anything else in Irish these lines define precisely the conflict between the saga and the pseudo-saga, the secular and religious, but they define it in human terms. ‘ The Nun o f Beare’ is the most difficult text we have had to tackle, and we are far from satisfied with the result. A t one point we attempted a complete textual rearrangement, and abandoned it only because it was impossible to discover what the original prose context o f the pseudo-saga was. The first verse requires a setting by the sea with the Nun old and poor, but the third, fourth, and fifth show her in a midland plain riding in a chariot and speaking to a group o f young men whom we have not met before and shall not meet again, and whom she describes as useless lovers. Some o f the verses are clearly spoken by a man, presumably St. Cummine, mentioned in the brief prose introduction as having consecrated the Nun. That a dotty eleventh-century editor has been at work, obliterating die prose framework and making a single poem out o f what in effect were probably half a dozen poems, is suggested by the first verse —
A G O LD E N T R E A SU R Y OP IR IS H PO E T R Y
Ebbtide is all my grief, Old age has sucked my blood, But, though I get no relief, Merrily returns its flood. Clearly, this verse has been misplaced to provide a first word that can be echoed as the last, and its real place is immediately before the verse that runs: Happy island o f the main, To you the tide returns again, Though to me it comes no more Over the deserted shore.
About the year 800, on the eve o f the first Viking raids,
AN I N T R O D U C T IO N
Óengus believed that he was writing about a state o f affairs that would endure for ever, but within a few years all the great monasteries, which were built o f timber and wattle and daub, were in ashes. It was fully a hundred years before they could be rebuilt; and then the work was usually carried out in stone — stone churches, towers, and crosses. A t the same time there was a vast increase in the influence o f the professional poets with their antiquarian lore. Óengus him self was a professional poet, but, like his pre decessor Bláthmacc, he was interested primarily in edifica tion. His immediate successor, another Leinsterman, who was Bishop o f Kildare, Orthanach, had no such prejudice. In a fine poem on Kildare he attempted, like Óengus, to con trast the glory o f the Christian settlement with the deserted state o f the old pagan forts, but got completely lost in the process because the Leinster capital, Alenn, appealed far more to him than Kildare itself. Though this reversion to antiquarianism began before the invasions, its strength must be due to a certain decline in the monastic schools themselves, which were now being attacked by Irishmen as well as Norsemen and offered only a precarious shelter for humanists. W e gather as much from a bitter little fragment o f a poem on the plundering o f Clonmacnois, the metre o f which is probably eleventh century. ‘ Whence are you, learning’s son?’ ‘ From Clonmacnois I come; M y course o f studies done, I am off to Swords again.’ *How are things shaping there?’ ‘ Oh, things are keeping fair; Foxes round churchyards bare Gnawing the guts o f men.’
A G O L D E N T R E A S U R Y OF IR IS H P O B TR Y
Even so, Kildare itself seems to have managed to keep up a considerable classical school, for a group o f Leinster scholars seems to have passed through Wales to the Conti nent during Orthanach’s own lifetime, one o f whom was Sedulius o f Liege. During the reign o f Charlemagne, Europe ceased to ask for missionaries from Ireland and asked instead for schoolmasters, and this is marked in Irish literature by a switch in significance from the Bible to the classics. One o f those travelling scholars picked up a pet cat called Pangur in Wales, and Pangur became the subject o f one o f the most beautiful o f medieval lyrics, the author o f which certainly knew his Horace. In spite o f the often demented antiquarianism, the old spirit o f the literature was very much alive and renewing itself in all sorts o f odd ways. In a poem like ‘ The Dead Lover’ the poet’s task was to list the treasures o f a dead mer cenary chieftain, but in doing so he also produced one o f the most beautiful poems in any language. The attention that professional poets were devoting to metrical experiment is another positive aspect o f the literary scholarship that would eventually drag them down. W e have three handbooks o f prosody still unedited; one from the ninth, another from the tenth, and a third from the late eleventh century, and though the metres become progressively more complicated, new metres like that o f the poem on the plundering o f Clonmacnois were being introduced from Latin. Besides, there seems to have been a revival o f interest in the old alliterative metres, and in two scenes in ‘ Bricriu’s Feast* and ‘ The Sick-bed o f Cú Chulainn* some poet tried to revive the old dramatic form o f story-telling as w e find it in the earliest strata o f die sagas. Some other metrist, as skilful as Robert Bridges, wrote a group o f poems on the
AN I N T R O D U C T I O N
seasons as though to show how the alliterative metres could be used in a contemporary w ay. Fall is no mans travelling time; Tasks are heavy; husbandmen Need horses as the light grows less; Lightly their young drop from the deer, Dandled in thefaded fern; Fiercely the stag stalks from the hill, Hearing the herd in clamorous call. Cobbled the mast in windless woods; Weary the corn upon its canes, Colouring the brown earth. Endless the thorns thatfoul the fence Thatframes the hollow o f some house; The heavy ground is filled with fruit, And by the fort, hardfrom their height, Hazelnuts break andfall. As one sees from this, nature poetry was very much alive, and nature poetry is the most extraordinary feature o f early Irish literature and by far the hardest to explain. That it was o f native origin we are compelled to believe i f we accept Gerard M urphy’s theory that it originated with the hermits o f the sixth and seventh centuries, or Kenneth Jackson’s that it originated in pagan seasonal songs. Either is hard to justify, because nature poetry disappeared completely in the twelfth century, and it is difficult to see how this could happen to a native form. A number o f the poems and fragments are demonstrably o f a late date. One o f the best known is a fragment from a poem about the sea in flood. ‘ See away to the north-east, the majestic whale-haunted sea; the abode o f seals, playful and splendid, is in full flood.’ The verse form is in eight lines, and the eight-line verse does not come into Irish until about
A G O LD E N T R E A S U R Y OF IR ISH P O E T R Y
the eleventh century. Besides, though the syllables have been counted, the poem itself is stressed. Except for the un stressed syllable at the beginning o f die third and seventh lines, the metre is identical with that o f a twelfth-century French love song. Le jalous Envious De cor rous Morra; Et li dous Savourous Amourous M ’aura. Unless we are prepared to believe that die French trouba dours studied metrics in Clonmacnois and Armagh, w e are bound to assume that both poems are based on some late Latin metre. The same holds true o f the other equally admired fragment about the blackbird by Belfast Lough. Professor Murphy attributes a very early date to two poems, ‘ King and Herm it’ and ‘ M ay D ay’, which have defeated us, but in both poems the metrical system seems later than eighth or ninth century. ‘ M ay D ay’ is clearly linked with another poem on summer, which we have printed, and this contains an echo o f some dance rhythm with three strong beats at the end o f a line. Fúam ngáeth mbáeth i mbruig Dairi duib Druim Daill; Rethidgraig mdel múad Diambi din Cúan Caill. This seems to be varied by verses with an extra syllable in each line so as to produce a waltz-like rhythm.
AN IN T R O D U C T IO N
Wanton winds blow shrill In the Drumdell trees; Bald stags skip round Through the woods with ease. Green bursts out everywhere; Oakwoods are fu ll o f leaf; Summers comey winter sgone; Stags find the briers' grief And the woods' wise lord, The bold blackbird sings; Weary, wild, water rests And the salmon springs. Sunlight all round proclaims Goodbye to seasons drear; Hounds call and deer in pack; Ravens thrive, summer's here! On the evidence, it would seem that nature poetry de veloped at some time about the tenth century as a result o f hints in contemporary Latin verse, and was fostered by literary scholars who delighted in the metrical games it enabled them to play.
Ill Literary scholarship eventually resulted in the arid correct ness o f classical Irish poetry, but in the work o f the eleventh and twelfth centuries the tradition is still very much alive. The tradition was that o f the amateur. To the Irish monks, even when they were professional poets, as many o f them were, poetry was an amateur occupation, as it became again
A G O L D E N T R E A S U R Y OF I R I S H P O E T R Y
in the sixteenth century among members o f the aristocracy. Again and again that amateur, personal note rings out even in highly polished professional verse, and a poem like ‘ The Blackbird’, which must have been written so very late in our period that it could be regarded as classical verse is as much an early Irish poem as ‘ The Scholar and his C at’. One can find this note even in the poems o f Mael ísu Ó Brolchán, the best-known religious poet o f the eleventh century. Except for one fine hymn to St. Michael, most o f his verse is tedious enough, but Professor Carney has identi fied him as the author o f two poems written in some Munster monastery by an Ulster poet who had retired there to die. Mael ísu, in fact, did die in Lismore in the year 1086. The first is a brilliant poem on the rediscovery there o f the Psalm-book he had used as a boy; the other a ‘ Grace before Death’ written after he had suffered six months o f torment. Nevertheless the letter killed. One o f the best-known o f twelfth-century poems is Grania’s ‘ Lullaby’ for her lover, Diarmait, which Yeats turned into a beautiful lullaby o f his own. Nature poetry here, as in another famous poem, *A W inter N ight’, has become merely a background, but what indicates that this is a poetic tradition nearing its end is the historical litany o f the great lovers o f Irish history. This was to become a standard convention o f classical poetry. In another twelfth-century poem, Cormac mac Cuileannáin, the scholarly king o f Munster, is described as rejecting his w ife because o f his supposed connection with die Church, and he solemnly lists the saints who came chaste from their encounters with women — John, Finnbarr, Cíarán, Scuithin, Colum Cille, M o Laise, and Patrick. In a still sillier poem a girl is comforted for the loss o f her pet goose by a list o f great Irish heroes who had also died, and w e find a seven
AN IN T R O D U C T IO N
teenth-century version o f the same theme in the poem translated by Mangan, ‘ The W oman o f Three Cow s’. The antiquarianism which was at the same time the theme and the plague o f Irish literature had reasserted itself, and by the beginning o f the twelfth century we are intellectually back at the end o f the sixth.
IV These poems we have edited for the general reader only, and consulted only our own pleasure in the poetry when deciding which poems to include and which verses to omit. The Irish text has been normalized into a form appropriate to the date o f each poem; it should not present too much difficulty to the student equipped with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary o f the Irish Language, whose system o f abbreviations we have used in the short references we have given. A ll but one o f the poems have been edited elsewhere — the majority by Kuno Meyer, whose combination o f flair and scholarship first brought early Irish poetry to the notice o f the outside world — and this has allowed us a freedom in emendation that would be inappropriate in a purely scholarly work.
I HYMN TO ST. COLUM CILLE It is just over fourteen hundred years since Colum Cille set sail for Scotland, and it seems likely that this noble hymn, from which we have selected some verses, was writ ten in the following century, since it mentions Mo Chumma, or To Chumma, as Abbot o f Iona; this kinsman o f the saint returned to Ireland about 661. Note the indignant way in which the hymn-writer repudiates the charge that the saint exiled him self as penance for his part in the battle o f Cúl Dremne. As well as a strict rhyme scheme the hymn has chain alliteration o f an archaic kind — that is to say, the last word o f each line alliterates with the first stressed word (or, occasionally, simply with the first word) o f the following one. The hymn w ill repay patient reading, because it contains some o f the greatest lines in Irish poetry: Let me, while in Colum’s care, B e guarded by the heavenly throng; W hen I tread the path o f fear, I have a leader, I am strong.
Fo réir Choluim céin ad-fias find for nime snáidsium secht; sét fri úathu uair no tias ní cen toísech, táthum nert. 19
A GOLD EN T RE AS U RY OF IRISH POE TRY
Nipu fri coilcthi tincha tindscain aimaidi cassa; crochais, nipu i cinta, a chorp for tonna glassa. Gabais a adamrae ae, is coir M u Chumma i n í; is mó imrádud cech ai ando-rigeni in R i . . . . Do-ell Érinn, ind-ell cor, cechuing noib nemed bled; brisis tólae tendas for, fairrge al druim dánae fer. Fich fri colainn catha liuin, légais la suíthi ecnae n-óg; úagais, brigais benna siuil; sruth tar fairrge, flaith a log. Lessach línmar, slán co céill, curchaib tar sál sephtus cl