Dispossession, desolation, and disaffection overtook the “native Irish” after their defeat by the English at Kinsale (1601), and literature in Gaelic went underground, as its audience shifted gradually from one end of the social scale to the other. The old noble Irish families, who were exiled or down-graded themselves, were no longer able to act as patrons of the arts as they had done previously. Bardic schools, with their fourteen-year apprenticeships, were soon disestablished; and verse composition was freed—to its great benefit, in fact—from the strict metrical rules which had governed it.

A new type of poetry, livelier and more lyrical in style, known as amhran (song) began to flourish. After a time it flourished secretly, in opposition to the culture imposed from outside—in “bogs and hills, far into the mountains,” all remote and infertile areas. The term coined by Daniel Corkery to denote the culture of the unregenerate Irish (and the title of a book he published in 1925) was the “Hidden Ireland.”

The introduction to An Duanaire points out, in a footnote, that the state of oppression in eighteenth-century Munster was perhaps not quite so dire as Daniel Corkery envisaged it—though rigorous enough to justify his astonishment at the literature produced within it. At best, this was rich, subtle, sophisticated—qualities not often associated with material deprivation. Dispossession itself was a common theme in poetry—indeed, it had been for some time:

From Boyne to the Linn Has the Mandate been given
That the children of Finn From their country be driven,

wrote Fearflatha Ó Gnimh (this translation is by Samuel Ferguson) slightly before the period covered by An Duanaire, the first comprehensive collection of translated Gaelic poetry to appear in this century.

The anthology begins with a section devoted to anonymous seventeenth-century verse in syllabic meters: transitional poems. Among these are a number of Fenian lays, all of them spoken by the mythical hero Oisín, who might be considered the earliest exponent of what Frank O’Connor has labeled “the backward look.” Oisín, as every admirer of W.B. Yeats knows, spent three hundred enchanted years in the Land of Youth and returned to a country sadly diminished in grace and enterprise. Ireland, once plentiful in heroes and high deeds, has been converted to Christianity; insipid clerics have taken the place of Oisín’s beloved warrior band, and the countryside resounds with the noise of pious bells:

When Fionn and the Fianna lived they loved the hills, not hermit- cells.
Blackbird speech is what they loved—not the sound, unlovely, of your bells.

The past always seemed brighter, too, to those poets of the seventeenth century and later who looked back regretfully at the Gaelic ascendancy and the social arrangements it fostered, in particular the system of poetic patronage which ensured a proper degree of respect and remuneration for the bards. Among the eighteenth-century voices raised in outrage or bafflement, the most distinctive is Aogán Ó Rathaille’s:

You wave down there, lifting your loudest roar,
the wits in my head are worsted by your wails.
If help ever came to lovely Ireland again
I’d wedge your ugly howling down your throat!

Ó Rathaille (c. 1675-1729), raging against his impoverishment and political impotence, is forced to address his petitions for help, not to one of the magnificent McCarthys, his family’s traditional overlords, but to an English upstart—in the poet’s view at least—by the name of Valentine Browne. He reflects on this circumstance with great bitterness and irony:

A mist of pain has covered my dour old heart
since the alien devils entered the land of Conn;
our Western Sun, Munster’s right ruler, clouded
—there’s the reason I’d ever to call on you,
Valentine Browne.

In his last poem, a masterpiece of distress and defiance, probably written on his deathbed, Ó Rathaille is still energetically repudiating the Brownes and all they stand for (“a crew from the land of Dover,” he calls them) and glorying in the greatness of the McCarthys:

I will stop now—my death is hurry- ing near
now the dragons of the Leamhan, Loch Léin and the Laoi are destroyed.
In the grave with this cherished chief I’ll join those kings
my people served before the death of Christ.

Even when he writes a line like this one: “Pain, disaster, downfall, sorrow and loss!” Ó Rathaille’s tone is more willful than wailful; neither servility nor vapid lamentation gets into his diatribes. He gives disaffection—always a rich theme in Irish verse—a new vigor. The sense of national wrong found a productive outlet in insurgent poetry (“Saxons I’d clout as I’d clout an old shoe”) and in the enumeration of injustices. After 1691, for instance, the clearance of the woodlands (which had sheltered the disbanded soldiers of Sarsfield’s armies) gave rise to a number of fairly restrained laments: “Now what will we do for timber, / with the last of the woods laid low?” These are the opening lines of the rather uninspired “Cill Chais” (Kilcash), with its stock images and easy rhythms, which An Duanaire includes, oddly enough, in preference to a more interesting exercise in the same mode—“Sean O’Dwyer of the Valley,” which is as much a poem of renunciation as of regret, and therefore sharper in feeling.


The dominant verse form to emerge in the second half of the seventeenth century was aisling (vision) poetry, which produced some extremely complex and mellifluous evocations of the nationalist mood before lapsing into repetition and triteness. It is a purely escapist genre which follows a set pattern: the poet falls asleep in some appropriately romantic spot, and in the dream that ensues he is visited by a fairy prophetess of Gaelic resurgence. The central image of the aisling is the spéirbhean or “sky-woman” (usually a personification of Ireland), a vision conjured up out of the poet’s need to envisage a sudden reversal of fortunes on a national scale.

Because of the delicacy and intricacy of their language, a number of aisling poems are simply not amenable to translation. Ó Rathaille’s “Brightness Most Bright,” for example: Mangan made a hash of it in the nineteenth century, Frank O’Connor failed to get it right in the twentieth (“In Irish the poem is pure music,” he observed ruefully, admitting as much), and Thomas Kinsella hasn’t come up with a satisfactory version either: “Heart pounding, I ran, with a frantic haste in my race….” Literal, yes, but not lyrical. Eoghan Rua (red-haired Owen) Ó Súilleabháin’s “A Magic Mist” is another aisling whose assonantal rhymes are impossible to duplicate in English; and once the seductive, spell-binding quality of the original is lost, Ó Súilleabháin’s descriptions begin to seem overblown and showy:

Furrowed thick, yellow-twisting and golden was the lady’s hair down to her shoes,
her brows without flaw, and like amber her luring eye, death to the brave.

In English, you might say, the “sky-woman” is more lurid than alluring.

Outside Ulster, the aislingi were imbued with a Jacobite spirit: “If our Stuart returned o’er the ocean…” is the standard nationalist daydream. The Stuart pretender, with his roots in Celtic clans, is the hero whose triumphs are anticipated in poem after poem. In the North, however, it was still left to the old Gaelic families to fulfill this symbolic function; the historic name of O’Neill, for instance, obsessed the poet Art Mac Cumhaigh (1738-1773) throughout his life. In reality, the O’Neills of the Fews and other branches of that family were no longer at the top of a Gaelic hierarchy but lived as undistinguished farmers, owning land if they were lucky. To hark back to the days of Gaelic ascendancy was rather unprofitable, since it could lead to a state of mind at once dreamy and peevish. No one doubted that a different social order would have suited the poets and many of the people better. But when rebellion broke out—in 1798—it was not Gaelic but Presbyterian Ulster that took the lead.

During Mac Cumhaigh’s time the destruction of the Irish language and culture by the English occupiers was well under way, and naturally it was a point of honor for remaining Irish-speakers to resist adjustment to the new conditions.* But it was futile for the poets to frame rhetorical questions wondering if Eoghan Ó’Neill, son of Art Óg, was coming to the rescue when they knew perfectly well that he was not.

Not all the vision-poems are written to this formula, of course. In Mac Cumhaigh’s “The Churchyard of Creggán” (once so popular among the “common people” that it was known as the national anthem of South Armagh) a means of escape is offered to the poet-narrator alone and he takes it, after some scrupulous hesitation while he considers the plight of his relatives, particularly his wife, whom he is going to abandon. He is in a state of willing enchantment: a “síogaí beag linbh,” a little fairy child, has appeared among the gravestones to beguile him with promises of a land of honey “where no foreigner has ever held sway.”

It is fitting that the last great poem written in Irish (c. 1790) should parody the aisling genre, which was always in danger of taking itself too seriously. This is Brian Merriman’s “The Midnight Court”—a bawdy, and gaudy, extravaganza which owes as much to medieval European traditions of burlesque as it does to the Irish Jacobite songs that inspired it. “The Midnight Court” is an indictment of the peculiar Irish customs of celibacy and late marriage; the poet, in a deceptively undistinguished opening, falls asleep and begins to dream, but instead of the usual ethereal vision-woman, he sees approaching “a frightful, fierce, fat, full-bummed female” whose intentions clearly are not benign. (The belle dame sans merci has been transformed into a beldam.) Some rumbustious sessions follow, with a voluble young coquette and an old cuckold in vigorous disagreement. A number of spirited translations of Merriman’s poem already exist (Arland Ussher’s, Frank O’Connor’s, and David Marcus’s among them); but Kinsella’s excerpts get closest, perhaps, to the bold, sometimes awkward, discursiveness of the original.


What handsome woman would not go grey
at the thought of being wed to a bundle of bones
that wouldn’t inquire, not twice in the year,
was she half-grown boy or meat or fish?
—this dry cold thing stretched out across her
surly and spent, without power or bounce.

Of the Northern poets, Séamas Dall (blind James) Mac Cuarta (c. 1647-1733) has an acerbic little outburst directed against the people of Corr an Chait, who conspicuously vanished from sight at the approach of the wandering poet (“Not for gold or wine / would one of them come to greet you”); and an inspiriting admonition addressed to a girl whose pet has fallen into a tub of whitewash (“The Drowned Blackbird”):

The song of that swift, nimble bird is gone for good, my beauty pale.
But where’s the treasure brings no trouble? Hold a while, don’t beat your hands.

Art Mac Cumhaigh gets in, but only just, with “The Churchyard of Creggàn,” mentioned above, and Cathal Buí (yellow-haired Charles) Mac Giolla Ghunna’s celebrated poem “The Yellow Bittern” is here, but nothing else by this fluent, extroverted, wayward poet (born c. 1680) who wrote some confessional verse in a thoroughly modern manner (“I was a bad husband at cultivating land,” he says, not at all repentantly).

“The Yellow Bittern” is an assured and stylish piece of hyperbole. The poet comes upon the corpse of a bird (another one!) and, assuming the bittern has died of thirst, embarks on a tongue-in-cheek lament which quickly turns into a playful celebration of drink and conviviality. The standard English translation is Thomas MacDonagh’s, which carefully reproduces the internal rhymes of the Gaelic version:

Oh! If I had known you were near your death
While my breath held out I’d have run to you,
Till a splash from the lake of the Son of the Bird
Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.

But this creates an effect altogether too flowery and quasi-philosophical. (It also omits one of the most striking images in the poem, “The great rats travelling towards your funeral, / To make sport and pleasure there.”) Kinsella’s unembellished rendering of these four lines is truer to the authentic tone:

If only you’d sent me word in time that you were in trouble and needed a drink
I’d have dealt a blow at Vesey’s lake would have wetted your mouth and your innards too.

Like the Kerryman Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1748-1784), Mac Giolla Ghunna belongs in a group of romantic figures: feckless, reckless, dissolute, peripatetic, hard-drinking poets of the eighteenth century who earned a living wherever they could. These “merry rovers” (some of them, like Art Mac Cumhaigh, a jobbing gardener and sometime carter of manure who developed a ferocious sense of grievance, were not merry at all) were ready, in the interest of survival, to work at anything from tutoring to turf-cutting. One anonymous song, “The Rover of Cairn tSiadhail” (not in An Duanaire) lists for its hero a range of occupations including whiskey distiller, fuller, “sprightly ale-house boy,” doctor, schoolmaster, judge, “careful priest,” and soldier in the cavalry of the Prince of Wales.

The compilers of this anthology have clearly been at pains to fit in something by every Gaelic poet of note, and they have pretty well succeeded: only Peadar Ó Doirnín is unaccountably missing. Ó Doirnín (c. 1704-1769), also of the South Ulster school, wrote with almost excessive richness of love in a wilderness (“The Hill of Cein Mhic Cainte”), and with exemplary plainness about a child murdered by Cromwellian soldiers (“The Mother’s Lament”). Both these poems deserve to be better known. In “Ó Doirnín’s Desires,” too, the poet lists the ingredients of a common Gaelic idyll, a dream-world characterized by ease and abundance (poverty being high in the catalogue of Irish miseries): well-stocked trout streams, branches overloaded with fruit, and so on. I mention this somewhat unoriginal composition (which perks up only in the last verse) because it’s a good example of a type of verse An Duanaire has overlooked: the naïve pastoral fantasy.

Nor is there much place for the “poem of repentance”—the almost compulsory last work of poets so attuned to the idea of patronage, and its obligations on both sides, that they carefully abased themselves before dying. There is only one example here, and that a wishy-washy one—Tadgh Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin’s “A Poem to the Heart of Jesus.” The spoiled priest Mac Giolla Ghunna—who “lost his faith for the sake of women” and regained it on his deathbed—performs this religious exercise more thoroughly, not to say hysterically; he brings an atypical extravagance to the conventional form. An Duanaire does well by the comic or satirical malediction, though: Dàibhi Ó Bruidair (c. 1625-1698) is here, with his “Shrewish, Barren, Bony, Nosey Servant”; and so is the little-known Aodh Mac Gabhráin (early eighteenth century), who contributes a splendid piece of mock invective addressed to the horse that threw him in a heap of dung in full view of his intended:

May your right leg take out with its knob
a slice from the ball of your hip. May a thunderbolt enter your arse! Did you not see her there in the window?

Female poets are not plentiful—though there are plenty of female voices in the anonymous folk poetry section at the end of the book—but the most impressive lament of the eighteenth century is the work of one: Eibhlín Dubh (dark Eileen) Ní Chonaill, who raised an elaborate outcry over the body of her husband. Eibhlín Dubh’s long, formal poem, both elegy and eulogy, tells of Art Ó Laoghaire, a Catholic gentleman killed at Carriginima, County Cork, in 1773, for refusing to surrender his horse for £5 to a Protestant named Morris. (So the story goes: the incident was actually the culmination of a feud between the two men, and the business about the horse a pretext.)

My friend and my treasure trove!
An ugly outfit for a warrior:
a coffin and a cap
on that great-hearted horseman
who fished in the rivers
and drank in the halls
with white-breasted women.
My thousand confusions
I have lost the use of you.

The reveries of infatuation and loss, which we find over and over among the folk poems, are often ascribed to those deluded and deserted girls of the countryside who listened too avidly to facile declarations of love:

You promised me (but you told a lie)
you’d be at the sheepfold waiting for me.
I gave a whistle, and three hundred calls,
and there was nothing but a lamb bleating.

A common predicament, presented here with uncommon poignancy. The speaker is a girl “sick from a young man’s love”; the poem is “Young Dónall,” “probably the most famous of Irish songs,” according to Frank O’Connor, who also translated it. O’Connor’s rhymed couplets, in fact, suggest the plaintive charm of the original more clearly than Kinsella’s blunter version (above):

You said you’d meet me, but you were lying,
Beside the sheepfold when the day was dying,
I whistled first, then I started hail- ing,
But all I heard was the young lamb’s wailing.

“The Dark Thorn [or blackthorn] Tree” is another impassioned love song which puts its heroine in a fine disconsolate mood: “the sea is full-tide and runs against me, and I cannot swim.” The purpose of these songs is to express a state of mind; the narrative impulse is not strong in this type of Gaelic verse (perhaps because a separate oral tradition of prose storytelling existed). As Seán Ó Tuama points out, “there are very few standard ballads to be found in Irish.” One is translated here by Thomas Kinsella: “Máire Ní Mhaoleoin,” a lyrical tale of murder and haunting (“And I drew out my knife… / and let her heart’s blood loose / to the laces of her shoes”), whose plot is not at all clear; by suppressing the first verse and the last two, Kinsella has made the story even more opaque, though no less picturesque.

The art of translating from Irish goes back to 1789, when Charlotte Brooke’s Reliques of Ancient Irish Poetry appeared. Miss Brooke was very adversely affected by the fashions of the time: this is what she makes of the simple lines “She’s the summer in the cold season / Between Christmas and Easter”:

With thee no days can winter seem,
Nor frost, nor blast can chill;
Thou the soft breeze, the cheering beam
That keeps it summer still!

Deplorably factitious, but of the greatest importance historically, as Frank O’Connor noted: the Irish (anglicized and Anglo-Irish included) “had begun to look backward again”—not wistfully or ineffectually, though, but fruitfully, with proper regard for the literary riches of the past. Other anthologies followed Miss Brooke’s; James Hardiman’s Irish Minstrelsy (1831) is another landmark, not because of its translations, which in fact are singularly inept, but because it prompted Samuel Ferguson to set out, in a review published in installments in the Dublin University Magazine, certain principles relating to Irish nationalism in general and translation from the Irish in particular.

Ferguson—we remember Yeats’s plea, “Nor may I less be counted one / With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson”—understood that the most successful translators are those who tamper least with the manner and content of the original material; false refinement, archaisms, and poetic flourishes made him very angry indeed. He undertook some translation himself to show how it should be done (it’s indicative of his success that Kinsella’s opening line for “Caiseal in Munster” should almost repeat Ferguson’s, written nearly 150 years earlier) and then went on to recast material from Old and Middle Irish sagas in longer poems which, through their influence on Yeats, affected the course of the literary revival of the 1890s and 1900s.

Thomas Kinsella is among the most self-effacing of translators; fidelity to the spirit and the literal meaning of the originals is his objective, and to achieve this he’s even prepared to sacrifice elegance and pithiness, two conspicuous qualities of his own poetry. It’s not that his translations are always lacking in verve and grace, just that he sometimes shows less flair than we might expect. And his successes in this anthology are far more striking than his failures. An Duanaire is a large and worthwhile undertaking, diligently and often triumphantly carried out. With its dual-language text, it should be invaluable to every student of Irish literature; and, with its inclusion of so much unfamiliar and fascinating material, instructive and absorbing to everyone else. One thoroughly familiar piece which does get in is Blind Raftery’s (early nineteenth-century) complaint: most versions have Raftery with his back to the wall, but Kinsella’s puts him with his face toward Balla (a town in Mayo): a more hopeful position. However he’s placed, Raftery provides the last word on the situation of the accomplished Gaelic beggar-poet: “performing music to empty pockets!”

This Issue

May 13, 1982