To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a bouquet of Irish poetry. Possibly the first known poem was by Amergin, a druid and bard accompanying the Milesians (sons of Mil) who were Gaels from south-eastern Europe before Christ, or so the story goes. They sailed from Spain and encountered the people of the goddess Danu. A challenge was set: if the Milesians stayed away for three days, the De Dananns would decide whether to retire, submit, or fight. Amergin decided the island was not the Milesians by right, and they should withdraw “over nine green waves” and if they could land again, the island would be theirs by right of conquest. At sea, the Milesian ships were hit by strong winds created by “the Druids and poets of Erinn. Their incantations raised so violent a storm that the vessels were driven westward and separated.”
Amergin countered with his own incantation, a poem with a strange rhyme sequence. “It is composed in “Conaclon,” the end word of one line rimes to the first word of the line following, and indeed the rime is sometimes secured by repeating the word.” Alliteration is also used.
Ailim iath n ereann, Ermac muir motach, Motach sliab sreatach Sreatach coill ciotach. FAIN we ask Erinn, Faring o'er ocean's Motions to mountains, Fountains and bowers
The incantation worked and the Milesians settled in Ireland. Amergin composed two “Songs of Triumph” in which he invoked the power and spirit of the natural world and his prowess.
"I, the poet, prophet, pray'rful, Weapons wield for warriors' slaying: Tell of triumph, laud forthcoming Future fame in soaring story!
Medieval Irish poetry survives in marginalia on manuscripts as they were worked on by monks and scribes. One of the most famous is “Pangur Bán,” a 9th Century poem about a monk and his cat. Seamus Heaney’s translation is one I like best. It begins with:
Pangur Bán and I at work, Adepts, equals, cat and clerk: His whole instinct is to hunt, Mine to free the meaning pent.
Another Old Irish poem (blended with Latin) is The Scribe in the Woods.
‘Over me green branches hang A blackbird leads the loud song Above my pen-lined booklet I hear a fluting bird-throng
The cuckoo pipes a clear call Its dun cloak hid in deep dell: Praise to God for his goodness That in woodland I write well’
(translated by Maire Mac Neill)
Modern Irish poets include Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats, and Eavan Boland. Boland’s “Mother Ireland” is on the Poetry Foundation website. And finally, “Sailing to Byzantium,” a poem about growing old by William Butler Yeats. The poet along with William and Elizabeth Sharp (author of Lyra Celtica) endeavored to keep alive the legacy of Irish poetry.