Week 72: Emer’s Lament for Cuchulain, translated by Lady Gregory

One of the more valued though probably not valuable items on my shelves is a rather battered copy of Lady Gregory’s retelling of the Irish Ulster cycle, ‘Cuchulain of Muirthemne’, that I picked up long ago in a second-hand bookshop. W.B.Yeats called this ‘the best book that has ever come out of Ireland’. This would be a little worrying if true: they are great stories, but the Celtic love of repetition, ornamentation and exaggeration can grow tiresome, and to pass from the wild flights of Irish legend to the sober chronicling of the great Icelandic sagas is to go from the childlike to the adult. Be that as it may, the cadences of Lady Gregory’s prose do have a hypnotic and often moving quality, as here in Emer’s lament over the dead Cuchulain, even if one may feel in the end that its rhetoric compares unfavourably with the terse words of Bergthora choosing to die with her husband in the burning house: ‘I was given young in marriage to Njal, and I made him my promise that we should share the same end’.

‘And oh! my love’, she said, ‘we were often in one another’s company, and it was happy for us; for if the world had been searched from the rising of the sun to sunset the like would never have been found in one place, of the Black Sainglain and the Grey of Macha, and Laeg the chariot-driver, and myself and Cuchulain’….. And after that Emer bade Conall to make a wide, very deep grave for Cuchulain; and she laid herself down beside her gentle comrade, and she put her mouth to his mouth and said: ‘Love of my life, my friend, my sweetheart, many is the woman, wed or unwed, envied me till today: and now I will not stay living after you’.

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