Eleanor Hull.

The poem-book of Gael. Translations from Irish Gaelic poetry into English prose and verse online

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Online LibraryEleanor HullThe poem-book of Gael. Translations from Irish Gaelic poetry into English prose and verse → online text (page 1 of 14)
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Printed bj' Ballantyne, Hanson &>» Co.
At the Uallantyne Press, Edinburgh


Translations from Irish Gaelic Poetry into
English Prose and Verse









[A// rights reservci{\


( Where not otherwise indicated, the translation or
poetic setting is by the ciithor.)


Introduction xv


I. The Creation of the Universe .
II. The Heavenly Kingdom .

III. The Forbidden Fruit

IV. The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise
V. The Penance of Adam and Eve

VI. The Death of Adam ....




The Source of Poetic Inspiration (founded on transla-
tion by Whitley Stokes) 53

Amorgen's Song (founded on translation by John

MacNeill) 57



The Song of Childbirth .

Greeting to the New-born Babe

What is Love ? . . .

Summons to Cuchulain .

Laegh's Description of Fairy-land

The Lamentation of Fand when she is

leave Cuchulain
Mider's Call to Fairy- land
The Song of the Fairies .
The great Lamentation of Deirdre


about to

A. H. Leahy
for the Sons of







First Winter-Song .
Second Winter-Song
In Praise of May
The Isle of Arran

Youth and Age

Chill Winter .

The Sleep-song of Grainne over Dermuid

The Slaying of Conbeg

The Fairies' Lullaby

Song of the Forest Trees

Alfred Per civ al Graves

his Wife

. T. W. Rolleston

Standish Hayes O'Grady







St. Patrick's Breastplate . . . Kuno Meyer 105

Patrick's Blessing on Munster A If red Perceval Graves 107

Columcille's Farewell to Aran . . Douglas Hyde 109

St. Columba in lona . . Eugene O' Curry iii

Hymn to the Dawn 113

The Song of Manchan the Hermit . . . .117

A Prayer 119

The Loves of Liadan and Curithir . . . .121

The Lay of Prince Marvan 125

The Song of Crede, daughter of Guare

A If red Perceval Graves 1 30

The Student and his Cat . . . Robin Flower 132

The Song of the Seven Archangels . Ernest Rhys 1 34

The Féilire of Adamnan

The Feathered Hermit

An Aphorism .

The Blackbird .

Deus Mens

The Soul's Desire

Tempest on the Sea

The Old Woman of Beare

Gormliath's Lament for Nial Black

P. /. McCall 136

. . . 138

. 138

. 139






George Sigersoi

Robin Flower




The Mother's Lament at the Slaughter of the

Innocents . . . Alfred Perceval Graves 153

Consecration . 156

Teach me, O Trinity 157

The Shaving of Murdoch Standish Hayes O'Grady 159

Eileen Aroon 161


The Downfall of the Gael . Sir Samuel Ferguson 165
Address to Brian O'Rourke " of the Bulwarks " to

arouse him against the English . . .169

O'Hussey's Ode to the Maguire

James Clarence Mangan 172
A Lament for the Princes of Tyrone and Tyrconnell

James Clarence Mangan 176

The County of Mayo . . . George Fox 182

The Outlaw of Loch Lene Jeremiah Joseph Callanan 1 84
The Flower of Nut-brown Maids . . . .186

Roisin Dubh 188

James Clarence Mangan 190

George Sigerson 194

. (Traditional) 196

George Sigerson 198

George Sigerson 200

My Dark Rosaleen .
The Fair Hills of Eire
Shule Aroon
Love's Despair ,
The Cruiskeen Lawn



Eamonn an Chnuic, or " Ned of the Hill "

P. H. Pearse 202

O Druimin donn dilish 204

Do you Remember that Night ? Eugene O' Curry 206

The Exile's Song 208

The Fisherman's Keen . . . (Anonymous) 210

Boatman's Hymn . . Sir Samuel Ferguson 213
Dirge on the Death of Art O'Leary . . .215

The Midnight Court {Prologue) .... 224


Hymn to the Virgin Mary 229

Christmas Hymn .... Douglas Hyde 231

O Mary of Graces .... Douglas Hyde 232

The Cattle-shed 233

Hail to Thee, O Mary 234

Mary, O blessed Mother 235

1 rest ynth Thee, O Jesus 236

Thanksgiving after Food 236

The Sacred Trinity 237

King of the Wounds 237

Prayer before going to Sleep 238

1 lie down with God 239

The White Paternoster .,..., 240



Another Version 241

A Night Prayer 243

Mary's Vision 243

The Safe-guarding of my Soul be Thine . . . 244
Another Version . . . . . . -244

The Straying Sheep . . . . . . 246

Before Communion 246

May the sweet Name of Jesus 247

O Blessed Jesus 248

Another Version 248

Morning Wish 249

On Covering the Fire for the Night . . . 249

The Man who Stands Stiff . . Douglas Hyde 250

Charm against Enemies , . . Lady Wilde 252

Charm for a Pain in the Side . . Lady Wilde 252

Charm against Sorrow . . . Lady Wilde 253

The Keening of Mary . . . P. H. Pearse 254


Cushla ma Chree . . . Edward Walsh 259

The Blackthorn 260

Pastheen Finn . . . Sir Samuel Ferguson 263

She 265

Hopeless Love 266

The Girl I Love . Jeremiah Joseph Callanan 267



Would God I were . Katharine Tynan-Hinkson 268
Branch of the Sweet and Early Rose

William Drennan 269

Is truagh gan mise I Sasana Thomas MacDonagh 270

The Yellow Bittern . . . Thomas MacDonagh 271

Have you been at Carrack ? . . Edward Walsh 273

Cashel of Munster . . Sir Samuel Ferguson 275

The Snowy-breasted Pearl . . George Petrie 277

The Dark Maid of the Valley . . P. J. McCall 279

The Coolun . . . Sir Samuel Ferguson 281

Ceann dubh dhileas . . Sir Samuel Ferguson 283

Ringleted Youth of my Love . . Douglas Hyde 284

I shall not Die for You . . . Padraic Colum 286

Donall Oge 288

The Grief of a Girl's Heart 291

Death the Comrade 294

Muimeen of the Fair Hair . . Robin Flower 296

The Red Man's Wife . . . Douglas Hyde 298

Another Version 299

My Grief on the Sea ... Douglas Hyde 302

Oró Mhór, a Mhóirín . . . P. J. McCall 304

The httle Yellow Road Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil 306

Reproach to the Pipe 308

Lament of Morian Shehone for Miss Mary Bourke

{Anonymous) 311



Modereen Rue . Katherinc Tynan-Hinkson 314

The Stars Stand Up 316

The Love-smart . . . . . - • 31S

Well for Thee 319

I am Raftery Douglas Hyde 320

Dust hath Closed Helen's Eye . Lady Gregory 321

The Shining Posy 324

Love is a Mortal Disease 326

I am Watching my Young Calves Sucking . . 328

The Narrow Road 329

Forsaken . 332

I Follow a Star . Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil 334


Nurse's Song {rraditional) 337

A Sleep Song P. H. Pearse 339

The Cradle of Gold . . Alfred Perceval Graves 340

Rural Song 34i

Ploughing Song 342

A Spinning-wheel Ditty 344

NOTES ,,.,,,,,. 349


"An air is more lasting than the voice of the birds,
A word is more lasting than the riches of the world.'

The truth of this Irish proverb strikes us forcibly as we
glance through any such collection of Gaelic poetry as this,
and consider how these lays, the dates of whose composi-
tion extend from the eighth to the present century, have
been preserved to us.

On the border of some grave manuscript, such as a Latin
copy of St. Paul's Epistles or a transcript of Priscian, a stray
quatrain may be found jotted down by the tired scribe,
recording in impromptu verse his delight at the note of a
blackbird whose song has penetrated his cell, his amuse-
ment at the gambols of his cat watching a mouse, or his
reflections on a piece of news brought to him by some
wandering monk, about the terror of the viking raids, or a
change of dynasty " at home in Ireland."

Several of our Ossianic poems are taken from a manu-
script of lays collected in 1626-27 i^ ^^^ about the Glens
of Antrim, and sent out to while away the tedium of
camp life to an Irish officer serving in the Low Countries,
who wearied for the poems and stories of his youth. The
religious hymns of Murdoch O'Daly (Muredach Alba-
nach), called " the Scot " on account of his affection for
his adopted country, though he was born in Connaught,


are preserved in a collection of poems gathered in the
Western Highlands, many Irish poems, even from so
great a distance as Munster, being found in it.

The Saltair na Rann or " Psalter of the Verses," the
most important religious poem of ancient Ireland, is
preserved in one copy only. It seems as though a
miracle had sometimes intervened to guard for later
generations some single version of a valuable tract at
home or abroad ; but it is a miracle vi^hich we could
have wished to have taken place more often, when we
reflect upon the large number of manuscripts forever lost
to us.

Many of the most beautiful of the ancient poems, as
well as of the popular songs, are anonymous; they are
frequently found mixed up with material of the most
arid description, genealogies, annals, or miscellaneous
matter. It is easier to guess from the tone of the poems
under what mood of mind they were composed than to
tell exactly who wrote them. Even when they come
down to us adorned with the name of some well-known
saint or poet, we have an uncertain feeling about the
accuracy of the ascription, when we find a poem whose
language cannot be earlier than the tenth or eleventh
century confidently connected with a writer who lived
two or three centuries earlier. In some cases, no doubt,
the versions we possess, though modernised in language
and rhythm, are in reality old ; in others the ascription
probably bears witness to the desire of the author or his
public to win esteem for his work by adorning it with
some famous name. Some of these poems, of which only
one copy has come down to us, were, however, well
known in an earlier day, and are quoted in old tracts on
Irish metric as examples of the metres used in the bardic


schools. It is evident that though standards of taste
may change, the recognition of what is really beautiful
in poetry remains as a settled instinct in man's nature.
Many of those poems which now appeal most strongly
to ourselves took rank as verses of acknowledged merit
nearer to the time of their composition. This we can
deduce from their use as examples worthy of imitation
in these mediaeval Irish text-books, where the names of
songs we still admire are quoted as specimens of good

It is remarkable that a very large proportion of fine
poetry comes to us from the period of the Norse invasions,
a time which we are accustomed to think of as one con-
tinuous series of wars, raids, and burnings ; but which,
if we may judge by what has come down to us of its verse,
shows us that the Irish gentleman of that day had ideas
of refinement that raise him far above the mere fighting
clansman ; his critical view of literature was a severe one.
The fine freedom shown in many of these poems is sur-
prising, both as regards the sentiments and the metres.
They possess a mastery of form that argues a high culti-
vation, not only of the special art of poetry, but of the
whole intellectual faculties of the writers.

Some of these poems are strangely modern, even fin
de siecle in their tone. The poem of the " Old Woman
of Beare " has often been compared to Villon's " Regrets
de la Belle Heaulmiére ja parvenue a viellesse," or to
Béranger's " Grand'mere." But the Irish poem is far
more artistically wrought than either of these compara-
tively modern poems. For in the ancient verses, the old
woman is set, a lonely and forsaken figure, against the
background of the ebbing tide, and the slow throbs of
her heart, worn with age and sin, beat in unison with the



retreating motion of the wave. There is also a further
significance in the poem which we must not miss. It is
the earliest of the long series of allegorical songs in which
Ireland is depicted under the form of a woman ; though,
unlike her successors of a later day, she is here represented,
not as a fair maiden, a Grainne Mhaol, or Kathleen ni
Houlahan, or Little Mary Cuillenan, but as an aged joy-
less hag, forlorn and censorious, bemoaning the loss of
bygone pleasures, and the gravity of her nun's veil. The
" Cailleach Bheara," the ^' Hag " or " Nun of Beare " is
known in many place-names in Ireland. It is on Slieve
na CalHghe, or the " Hill of the Hag " or " Nun," in
Co. Meath that the great cairns and tumuli of Lough
Crew are found ; it was evidently, like the neighbour-
hood of the Boyne, a place of pagan sanctity ; and such
names as Tober na Callighe Bheara, the " Well of the Hag
of Beare," are found in different parts of the country.
The " Hag of Beare " seems to be symbolic of pagan
Ireland, regretting the stricter regime of Christianity,
and the changes that time had brought about. The
curious legend which prefaces the poem suggests the
same idea. She is said to have seen seven periods of
youth, and to have outlived tribes and races descended
-^from her. For a hundred years of old age she wore the
veil of a nun. " Thereupon old age and infirmity came
upon her." We catch the same note of regret for the
days of paganism through many legends and poems. It
is mystical and veiled in such stories as that of " King
Murtough and the Witch-woman " ; it is fierce, but also
often touched by the grotesque, in the innumerable
colloquies between Patrick and Oisin (Ossian), the last
of the ancient pagan heroes. But in all this there is a
note of apology. It is not so outspoken in its revolt


against the new system of life and thought as are the
Norse chronicles and the Icelandic Sagas. After all,
Christianity was an accomplished thing ; quietly but
persistently it toolt its place, sweeping into its fold chiefs
and common folk ahke. No resistance could stop this
universal progress. And the literary man or the peasant,
dwelling on his early legends, the outcome of a state of
thought passed or passing away, dared only half-heartedly
bemoan the former days, when wars and raids, the
" Creach " and the "" Tain " were the highest way of
life for a brave man, and no Christian doctrine of forgive-
ness of enemies and charity to foes had come in to perplex
his thoughts and confuse their issues. The Raid re-
mained, it was an essential part of actual life ; and
burnings and wars went on as before, but they were
no longer, theoretically, at least, matters to win praise
and honour, they were condemned beforehand by the
Christian ethic. A chief, to hold his own, must still
throw open doors of hospitality to his tribe, must dispense
largesse to all-comers, must gather about his board the
neighbours and dependents in riotous assemblies and
festivals. But all this the Christian monk and priest
looked upon with suspicion ; they bade him fill his
thoughts with a future Kingdom, rather than with the
earthly one to which he had been born, and to keep his
soul in humble readiness by prayers and fastings, by
seclusion and self-sacrifice. The great dis jointure is
everywhere apparent ; chiefs are seen flying from their
plain duties to their clans in order to win a heavenly
chiefdom, not of this world ; kings retire into hermitages,
and whole villages take on the aspect and system of life
of the monastery. To escape a network of religious
service so closely spread throughout the country was


impossible ; all that the half- convinced could do was to
relieve his soul in legend and song and jest. Hence the
large amount of this literature of protest, coming to us
curiously side by side with poems breathing the very-
spirit of religious devotion, the work of peaceful recluse
or retired monk.

For the movement had its other aspect. If the warrior
or chief resigned much in becoming a Christian monk,
there is no doubt that he gained as well. Contempor-
aneous religious poetry in the Middle Ages is elsewhere
overshadowed by the cast of theologic thought. The
" world " from which the saint must flee is no mere
symbol, denoting the perils of evil courses ; it is the actual
visible earth, its hills and trees and flowers, and the beauty
of its human inhabitants that are in themselves a danger
and a snare. St. Bernard walking round the Lake of
Geneva, unconscious of its presence and Wind to its
loveliness, is a fit symbol of the tendency of the religious
mind in the Middle Ages. Sin and repentance, the fall
and redemption, hell and heaven, occupied the religious
man's every thought ; beside such weighty themes the
outward life became almost negligible. If he dared to
turn his mind towards it at all, it was in order to extract
from it some warning of peril, or some allegory of things
divine. In essence, the " world " was nothing else than a
peril to be renounced and if possible entirely abandoned.

But the Irish monk showed no such inchnation,
suffered no such terrors. His joy in nature grew with his
loving association with her moods. He refused to mingle
the idea of evil with what God had made so good. If he
sought for symbols, he found only symbols of purity and
holiness. The pool beside his hut, the rill that flowed
across his green, became to his watchful eye the mani-


festation of a divine spirit washing away sin ; if the birds
sang sweetly above his door, they were the choristers of
God ; if the wild beasts gathered to their nightly tryst,
were they not the congregation of intelligent beings
whom God Himself would most desire ? The friendly
badgers or foxes of the wood that came forth, undismayed
by the white or brown-robed figure who seemed to have
taken up his lasting abode amongst them, became to
his mind fellow-monks, authorised members of his
strange community. Amongst his feathered and furred
associates, he read his Psalms and Hours in peace ; sang
his periodic hymn to St. Hilary or St. Brigit, and per-
formed his innumerable genuflexions and " cross-vigils."
Here, from time to time, he poured forth in spontaneous
song his joy in the life that he had elected as his own.
When King Guaire of Connaught stands at the door of
the hermitage in which his brother Marvan had taken
refuge from the bustle of court life, and asks him why he
had sacrificed so much, Marvan bursts forth into a poem
in praise of his hermit life, and the King is fain to con-
fess that the choice of the recluse was the wiser one ;
when St. Cellach of Killala is dragged into the forest
by his comrades and threatened with death, not even the
sight of the four murderers lying at his feet with swords
ready drawn in their hands to slay him can prevent him
from greeting the Dawn in a beautiful song.

The saint who, like St. Finan, lived shut up within
his cell, in many cases lost his mental balance, and de-
generated into a mere Fakir, winning heaven by the
miseries of his self-imposed mortifications ; but the
monk who trusted himself to untrammelled intercourse
with nature, preserved his underlying sanity. For
whether or no the hundreds of daily genuflexions were


performed, the patch of ground around the solitary's
cell must be ploughed or sown or reaped ; the apples
must be gathered or the honeysuckles twined. The
salmon or herring must be netted or angled for. Thus
nature and its needs kept the hermit on the straight and
simple paths of physical and mental healthfulness, how-
ever he might try to escape into a wilderness of his own

The early poetry, we feel, is on the whole joyous ;
whether pagan or Christian in tone, it arises from a happy
heart. The pagan is more robust, more vigorous ; the
Christian gentler and more reflective ; but alike they are
free from the mournful note of despair that throws a
settled gloom over much of the later literature.
, The Ossianic poems have quite a distinctive tone ;
/in them we catch the abounding energy belonging to the
■ days of the hunt of the wild native boar or stag, when all
the country was one open hunting-ground, fit for men
whose ideal was that of the sportsman and the warrior.
Besides romantic tales, we have a whole body of poetry,
loosely strung together under the covering name of
Oisin, or Ossian, and usually ascribed to him or to
Fionn mac Cumhall, his father and chief, dealing with the
themes of war and of the chase. They are often in the
nature of the protest of the fighting and hunting-man
against the claims of religion. He is perpetually proclaim-
ing that the sounds and sights of the forest and sea-
shore are more dear to him than any others, and when he is
called upon to give the first place to the duties of religion,
placed before him, as it usually is, in its most enfeebling
aspect, he raises the stout protest that the hunting-
horn has greater attractions for him than the tinkling
bell which calls to prayer.


I have heard music sweeter far
Than hymns and psalms of clerics are ;
The blackbird's pipe on Letterlea,
The Dord Finn's wailing melody.

The thrush's song of Glenna-Scál,
The hound's deep bay at twilight's fall,
The barque's sharp grating on the shore.
Than cleric's chants delight me more."

There is the ring of the obstinate pagan about such
verses ; and many poems are wholly occupied by an un-
holy wrangling between the representative of the old
order, Oisin, and the representative of the new, St.
Patrick. The poems themselves probably date from a
far later period than either.

More healthy are the true hunting songs. Many of
these are in praise of the Isle of Arran, in the Clyde, a
favourite resort during the sporting-season both for the
Scottish and Irish huntsman. In the poem we have
called " The Isle of Arran," from the " Colloquy of the
Ancient Men," the charm of the Isle is well described.
We have in it the same pure joy in natural scenery that
we find in the poems of the religious hermits, but the
tone is manlier and more emphatic.

Occasionally a fiercer note creeps into the hunter's
mood. The chase of the boar and deer was not without
its dangers. Winter, and the unfriendly clan hard by,
or the lean prowling wolf at night, were real terrors to
the small companies encamped on the open hill-side or
in the forest. Though the warrior in peaceful times
loved the chase of swine and stag, his hand had done and
was always ready to do sterner work when opportunity
offered. The poem " Chill Winter " has a note of almost


savage exultation ; the old fighter turns from his present
perils and discomforts to remember the warrior on-
slaughts which had left the glen below him silent, and its
once happy inhabitants cold in death ; colder, as he
gladly reflects, than even he himself feels on this chill
winter's night. It is the voice of the ancient warrior,
who thought no shame of slaying, but thanked God when
he had knocked down his fellow. Whether he, in his
turn, were the undermost man, or whether he escaped,
he cared not at all.

Two difficulties face the modern reader in coming for
the first time upon genuine Irish literature, whether
poetry or prose. The first is the curious feeling that we
are hung between two worlds, the seen and the unseen ;
that we are not quite among actualities, or rather that we
do not know where the actual begins or where it ends.
Even in deaHng with history we may find ourselves
suddenly wafted away into some illusory spirit-world with
which the historian seems to deal with the same sober
exactness as in detailing any fact of ordinary life. The
faculty of discerning between the actual and the imagi-
nary is absent, as it is absent in imaginative children ;
often, indeed, the illusory quite overpowers the real, as
it does in the life of the Irish peasant to-day.

There is, in most literatures, a meeting-place where the
Mythological and the Historic stand in close conjunction,
the one dying out as the other takes its place. Only in
Ireland we never seem to reach this point ; we can never
anywhere say, " Here ends legend, here begins history."
In all Irish writing we find poetry and fact, dreams and
realities, exact detail and wild imagination, linked closely
hand in hand. This is the Gael as revealed in his litera-
ture. At first we are inclined to doubt the accuracy of


any part of the story ; but, as we continue our examina-

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Online LibraryEleanor HullThe poem-book of Gael. Translations from Irish Gaelic poetry into English prose and verse → online text (page 1 of 14)