Week 81: The Broken Girth, by Robert Graves

My birthday this week, and to adapt Housman slightly, now of my threescore years and ten, seventy will not come again. I’ve done the math and it doesn’t look good, nor am I entirely convinced by reassurances that seventy is the new twenty. So I thought I’d mark the occasion with one of my favourite poems by Robert Graves, which begins to take on a very personal note.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the legend, Oisin was the son of the Irish hero Finn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna. He was lured away to Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, by the beautiful Niamh, daughter of its king, but eventually wanted to see his own land and people again: he was given leave to do this, but warned he must on no account get down from his horse. But time passes differently in that country, and he returned to find a diminished Ireland and all the Fianna long dead.

The Broken Girth

Bravely from Fairyland he rode, on furlough,
Astride a tall bay given him by the Queen
From whose couch he had leaped not a half-hour since,
Whose lilies-of-the-valley shone from his helm.

But alas, as he paused to assist five Ulstermen
Sweating to raise a recumbent Ogham pillar,
Breach of a saddle-girth tumbled Oisin
To common Irish earth. And at once, it is said,
Old age came on him with grief and frailty.

St Patrick asked: would he not confess the Christ? –
Which for that Lady’s sake he loathed to do,
But northward loyally turned his eyes in death.
It was Fenians bore the unshriven corpse away
For burial, keening.

Curse me all squint-eyed monks
Who misconstrue the passing of Finn’s son:
Old age, not Fairyland, was his delusion.

Robert Graves

5 thoughts on “Week 81: The Broken Girth, by Robert Graves

    • Thanks Thom. You’ll be pleased to know I listen to a lot of Irish folk music, including your favourite Paul Brady, and I took Old Irish as part of my degree, though I don’t think I’d get far now with the Táin Bó Cúailnge in the original – definitely the hardest language I’ve ever tackled!

  1. Hi David, I don’t understand the last line. His greater delusion was believing in Ireland (and old age), not his delusion of believing in Fairyland?

    • Yes, to give a bit more background to the last line, after the events of the poem the now aged and decrepit Oisin is taken in and cared for by Christian monks. He tells them tales from his heroic past, and they are fascinated but cannot of course approve of his paganism and urge him to embrace Christ. Oisin rejects their attempts at conversion, refusing to renounce either the Fianna or Fairyland, so dies unshriven. As the last two lines make clear, Graves is on his side, and the poet is saying that the monks were wrong to dismiss his tales as a pagan delusion: the heroic past and Fairyland were his true reality, and the frailty of old age the real illusion.

      The story is covered in an early poem by W.B.Yeats, ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’. It’s a bit dreamy and Celtic twilighty, and not much in spirit like the exuberantly colourful original texts. Early Irish literature is way over the top compared, say with the sober realism of the Icelandic sagas – Fergus mac Roich slices off the tops of three hills with one blow of his sword, Osgar the grandson of Finn kills nine hundred men in one battle – but still good fun if you like that sort of thing.

      • Hi David, thanks for your reply. It’s useful. I understand the last section better now. Eg Oisin just before death stays loyal to the Queen and as you say refuses to convert to Christianity.

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