Week 347: Donal Og, by Anon, translated by Lady Gregory

This is part translation, part adaptation by Lady Augusta Gregory of an anonymous Irish ballad. You will find the date of the original quoted in various places online as 8th century, but I am sceptical: that’s very early, earlier even than poems like ‘Pangur Ban’ and ‘Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’, and it just doesn’t have the feel of Old Irish to me, so I suspect that a typo somewhere, possibly for 18th century, has become perpetuated. Any Celtic scholars among us who can cast light on the matter? But whatever the date of the original, I think it’s a remarkable piece of translation/recreation. 

Donal Og

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

Anon, translated by Lady Gregory

Week 254: The Death of Osgar, by Lady Gregory

One of the problems we have in relating to the poetry of the past is the fact that so much of it is concerned with celebrating the violent deeds of martial men. Indeed, it was pretty much part of  a poet’s contract that he should do this. ‘Beird byt barnant wyr o gallon’, says the old Welsh poem ‘Y Gododin’, ‘the poets of the world judge the men of valour’. I guess that this ethos suffered badly in the slaughter of the Great War and finally expired at Hiroshima, and it would be an unusual poet now who felt able to celebrate unreservedly the exploits of some latterday Achilles or Cuchulain.

Yet the old heroic tales can still exert a pull, and if we accept that the past was another country, yet still want to understand it, passages like the following, from Lady Gregory’s rendering of Irish myth and saga, ‘Gods and Fighting Men’, may help us to do so. The Fianna have just fought their last battle, and the young Osgar, Finn’s grandson, lies mortally wounded. This hard unlovely man, with his stoical pride and his desire to die in battle rather than suffer what the Vikings called a ‘straw death’, seems to distil for us the whole eternal warrior’s creed.

The Death of Osgar

And after a while, at noonday, they saw Finn coming towards them, and what was left of the Sun-banner raised on a spear-shaft. And all of them saluted Finn, but he made no answer, and he came up to the hill where Osgar was. And when Osgar saw him coming he saluted him, and he said: ‘I have got my desire in death, Finn of the sharp arms’. And Finn said: ‘It is worse the way you were, my son, on the day of the battle at Beinn Edair when the wild geese could swim on your breast, and it was my hand that gave you healing’. ‘There can be no healing done for me now for ever’, said Osgar, ‘since the King of Ireland put the spear of seven spells through my body’. And Finn said: ‘It is a pity it was not I myself fell in sunny scarce Gabhra, and you going east and west at the head of the Fianna’. ‘And if it was yourself fell in the battle’, said Osgar, ‘you would not hear me keening after you; for no man ever knew any heart in me’, he said, ‘but a heart of twisted horn, and it covered with iron. But the howling of the dogs beside me’, he said, ‘and the keening of the old fighting men, and the crying of the women one after another, those are the thing that are vexing me’. And Finn said: ‘Child of my child, calf of my calf, white and slender, it is a pity the way you are. And my heart is starting like a deer’, he said, ‘and I am weak after you and after the Fianna of Ireland. And misfortune has followed us’, he said, ‘and farewell now to battles and a great name, and farewell to taking tributes; for every good thing I ever had is gone from me now’, he said.

And when Osgar heard those words he stretched out his hands, and his eyelids closed. And Finn turned away from the rest, and he cried tears down; and he never shed a tear through the whole length of his lifetime but only for Osgar and Bran.

And all that was left of the Fianna gave three sorrowful cries after Osgar, for there was not one of the Fianna beyond him, unless it might be Finn or Oisin.

And it is many of the Fianna were left dead in Gabhra, and graves were made for them. And as to Lugaidh’s Son, that was so tall a man and so good a fighter, they made a very wide grave for him, as was fitting for a king. And the whole length of the rath at Gabhra, from end to end, it is that was the grave of Osgar, son of Oisin, son of Finn.

Note: Bran was Finn’s favourite hound.

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’.