I should explain how Ireland came to have its poetry in four languages, Irish, English, Latin, and Norman French.

The earliest Irish poem that can be dated is “Amra Choluim Chille,” an elegy on the death of St. Colum cille in 597; it is attributed to Dallán Forgaill. Much of early Irish poetry has been lost, but poems survive from every century since the sixth. Some of these were written in Latin by Irish monks from the seventh to the ninth century. There are also secular poems in Irish, love lyrics, and nature poems much instructed by Latin and Christian poetic forms.

In May 1169 Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke—nicknamed Strongbow—planned the Norman invasion of Ireland. He arrived in August 1170, and King Henry II followed in October 1172. Within a hundred years of the invasion, the Norman barons had taken possession of most of the east and south of Ireland. The invaders included Normans, Englishmen, Welshmen, and Flemings. Norman French and English established themselves as rival languages to the native Irish. A poem in Norman French has survived which celebrates the fortification of New Ross, a town in County Wexford, in 1265. Gradually, Norman French declined, and English, too, yielded to Irish. As late as the middle of the sixteenth century, English was spoken only in Dublin and the surrounding Pale.

But English began to assert itself when the Crown seized lands in Ireland and settled planters upon them. When Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553, the plantation of counties Leix and Offaly began. Under Queen Elizabeth, who succeeded Mary in 1558, Ireland was still troublesome: the natives had not yet acquired a taste for what Sir Philip Sidney in 1577 called “the sweetness of due subjection.” Much of Munster was settled in the years after 1579, but the North remained in Irish hands till 1603 when the Earls of Tyrconnell and Tyrone, leaders of a doomed revolt, took ship for the Continent. King James VI of Scotland had become King James I of England in 1603. In 1607 he started the Plantation of Ulster, dividing the lands of the Earls into settlements for his Scots and English supporters. The violence in Northern Ireland today is the direct if distant consequence of that plantation.

But the dominance of the English language over the Irish was not completed until Cromwell sailed to Dublin in August 1649 to punish those who still remained royalist after the execution of King Charles. Within three years Cromwell and his generals had arranged to pay his soldiers by giving them the best land in Ireland. The native Irish and the “Old English” who occupied the east and south of the country were sent “to Hell or to Connacht.” English became the dominant language of the three richest provinces in Ireland, and Irish was confined to the poorest. Irish persisted in remote villages along the western shores until the dreadful famine of the years 1845–1849. During those four years, one million people were lost to Ireland by death or emigration—the population before the famine was eight million. Parents knew that their emigrating children had a better chance in America if they could speak English. Irish was the language of destitution.

In 1892 a scholar, Douglas Hyde, founded the Gaelic League to foster an interest in nationality, the ancient Irish sagas and poetry, and to recognize what he called “the necessity of deanglicizing Ireland.” In 1893 he published Love Songs of Connacht, a selection of poems which he translated, some into English verse, more into English prose. He wrote the book for the benefit of “that increasing class of Irishmen who take a just pride in their native language, and of those foreigners who, great philologists and etymologists as they are, find themselves hampered in their pursuits through their unavoidable ignorance of the modern Irish idiom, an idiom which can only be correctly interpreted by native speakers, who are, alas! becoming fewer and fewer every day.” Love Songs of Connacht inspired scholars and poets to devote themselves to early Irish literature: it was one of the several books that showed Yeats what might still be done, even if one’s access to the literature were only by way of English translations and immense good will.

Hyde was not the first translator. Several Irish poets—Jeremiah J. Callanan, William Allingham, Samuel Ferguson—preceded him in listening to the early Irish poems and developing, in English, an Irish cadence or tone. Swift and Goldsmith took their formal bearings from various modes of English and Latin poetry, but many of their contemporaries—Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta, Aogán Ó Rathaille, Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill, Brian Merriman—wrote in Irish, and pursued elaborate metrical forms devised by word-loving precursors. The Irish tradition provided an alternative and in some cases an adversary recourse for such poets as Mangan, Ferguson, Davis, Yeats, Pearse, and Thomas MacDonagh. It is now a matter of choice whether an Irish poet writes in Irish or in English; There are ready traditions, either way.


In 1969 the poet Thomas Kinsella translated from a late-fourteenth-century manuscript Táin Bó Cuailnge, the central saga of the Ulster cycle and, in one of its several versions, the oldest vernacular epic in Western literature. In 1981 he collaborated with Sean Ó’Tuama in publishing An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed, 1600–1900, giving the texts in Irish and verse translations in English. Kinsella has now fulfilled the logic of these transactions by compiling the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse in which the choice poems in Irish, English, Latin, and Norman French find their historical places. Halfway into the book, the Latin and the Norman French have receded, and Irish and English poems continue together, step by step if not cheek by jowl.

The two traditions are as different as the two languages. Some of the Irish poems—Mac Cuarta’s “Tithe Chorr an Chait,” Ó Rathaille’s “Gile na Gile,” Mac Giolla Ghunna’s “An Bonnan Bui”—are heartbreaking, but they break one’s heart upon the same loss. They tell one story and one story only, the defeat of old Ireland, the destruction of a high civilization, the scattering of the earls. After a while, one is nearly ready to tolerate Joyce’s saying that the Celts contributed to Europe nothing but a whine. The poets who write in English—even Yeats—are not superior to the Irish poets in talent or genius, but luckier in their opportunities—they need not pluck the same strings of the harp.

When the English edition of Kinsella’s book appeared a few months ago, some reviewers charged him with vanity for using, in virtually every Irish poem, his own translations. As translator, he occupies half the book, and turns up again in his own right as a poet writing in English. Vanity, my own or another’s, has never troubled me. But there is an aspect of Kinsella’s decision which is a worry.

By choosing to use his own translations, Kinsella has suppressed the record of a period—roughly between 1850 and 1930—in which Anglo-Irish translations of the Irish poems were virtually the only form of life the poems had. Only a handful of scholars had access to the poems before the nineteenth-century poets had translated them into English. Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Moore, and their colleagues were not scholars; they depended upon translations, versions, imitations—call them what you like—for their sense of a poetic tradition different from England’s tradition. The common reader’s dependence upon the translators was even more extreme. If Kinsella’s translations were the answer to my every prayer, I would still feel that they had deleted a crucial phase in the historical life of the poetry.

Kinsella has defended his procedure by saying that “there is a great unevenness in the range covered” by earlier translations, “and no agreement on accuracy.” On that second point: it is true that modern scholars have brought textual learning to bear upon some of the chosen poems, and that some changes are definitive. The researches of Thurneysen, Kuno Meyer, Osborn Bergin, and other scholars have been furthered by such work as Eleanor Knott’s edition of Tadhg Óg Ó hUigínn, Robin Flower’s The Irish Tradition, T.F.O’Rahilly’s Dànta Gràdha, Gerard Murphy’s Early Irish Lyrics, and James Carney’s Medieval Irish Lyrics. Sometimes the results are decisive. Kinsella couldn’t very well have used, say, Hyde’s translation of “Ni Bhfuighe mise bas duit,” now that the penultimate line reads “aithne dhamh, mar bhid na mna”—“I know well how women are”—rather than “A bhos thana, a bhraighe bhain”—“Little palm, white neck, bright eye,” as Hyde’s coy version goes.

But there are only a few such instances. Even in that case Kinsella could have used Frank O’Connor’s translation, which takes account of the emended text:

O woman though you shame the swan A wise man taught me all he knew,
I know the crooked ways of love, I shall not die because of you.

Perhaps it is too Tennysonian for our ears, but Tennyson’s music was one of the categories by which Frank O’Connor and other readers construed the poems: it is part of the record of reception. As it happens, Kinsella’s version misses by just as much the subtle music of the original:

Lady with swanlike body, I was reared by a cunning hand!
I know well how women are. I will not die for you.

This is too laconic, too Dublinesque; it is a style which, to escape Yeats’s clamor, has settled into a worldly, no-nonsense tone which some speakers in Joyce’s Dubliners also exemplify.


Kinsella is devoted to this tone, I infer from his own poems, because it is a well-tempered version of the sounds he heard in his father’s house and the streets that surrounded it. But it makes the Irish poems he translates sound abrupt, as if he found their rhymes too measured to be borne. He translates “An Cuimhin Leat an Oiche Ud”:

Remember that night and you at the window
with no hat or glove or coat to cover you?

It is handsome in its way, but the way is far more rapid than the original:

An cuimhin leat an oiche ud a bhi tu ag an bhfuinneog,
gan hata gan laimhne dod dhion, gan chasog?

So I prefer Eugene O’Curry’s old translation, although it sins by excess as it drifts through later stanzas:

Do you remember that night
When you were at the window
With neither hat nor gloves
Nor coat to shelter you?

The difficulty of translating Irish poetry into English is notorious: it is evidently impossible to satisfy the technical complexity, the elaborate weaving of consonantal and vowel rhymes, the rhyming of an unaccented with an accented syllable, and so forth. It is a poetry predicated on the understanding that in this harsh world syllables alone are certain good.

Here is the first stanza of an anonymous poem of the eleventh century, an invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary as if spoken by Colum cille:

A Maire min, maithingen, tabair fortacht dun,
a chriol cuirp choimdeta, a chomrair na run.

Gerard Murphy translated it into prose: “Gentle Mary, good maiden, give us help, thou casket of the Lord’s body and shrine of all mysteries.” Kinsella takes care of the sense, and lets the sounds take care of themselves:

Mary mild, good maiden, grant us thine aid,
shrine of the Lord’s body, casket of mysteries.

But even a reader who lacks Irish can see and hear that Kinsella’s verse is no closer than Murphy’s prose to the murmuring of the original.

Kinsella’s principle of choice, especially among the modern poems, is clear but tendentious. He has chosen the poems which, good enough in their own right, have the further merit of illustrating the torsion of the two traditions. Sometimes the theme itself is allowed to displace a poet’s better work. Yeats, Máirtin Ó Direáin, Richard Murphy, and Michael Hartnett have written better poems than those under their names in this anthology, but Kinsella has reached for the poems in which the theme is opportune. Yeats is represented not by “Among School Children,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” or “Byzantium” but by “To Ireland in the Coming Times,” “Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland,” “On Those that Hated The Playboy of the Western World,” “Easter 1916,” “The Seven Sages,” “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931,” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” They would be the best poems of another poet, but not of Yeats. The anthology ends, too neatly, with Michael Hartnett’s “A Farewell to English.”

One omission I find bewildering: no Joyce. Without “The Holy Office” and “Gas from a Burner,” the story Kinsella offers to tell is incomplete.

As for the poets of the so-called Northern Ireland Renaissance, Kinsella has a sharp comment in his introduction:

The idea of such a renaissance has been strongly urged for some time (with the search for special antecedents usually settling on Louis MacNeice), and this idea by now has acquired an aspect of official acceptance and support. But it is largely a journalistic entity. The past, in Northern Ireland, is not.

It is, I am afraid: at least the past since 1607, which Ian Paisley can reasonably claim to speak for. I agree with Kinsella that some of the current interest in poets of the North is factitious, a function of the more pressing interest in Northern violence. But good poetry as often as bad has gratified that interest, as Paul Muldoon’s Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry shows. The title is misleading: it might just as reasonably be called Irish Poems I Happen to Like. Muldoon’s poets are Patrick Kavanagh (but not the far better Austin Clarke, who is no less contemporary than Kavanagh), Kinsella, John Montague, Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paul Durcan, Tom Paulin, and Medbh McGuckian.

Some of the poems could only have been provoked by Northern Ireland, and they may be too local to travel well without annotation. Tom Paulin’s satires can’t mean much to a foreigner or to anyone who doesn’t know that “the Cruiser” is Conor Cruise O’Brien. It may be true, as Kavanagh wrote, that Homer made the Iliad from a local row, but then he was Homer. Louis MacNeice may not be a sufficiently formidable precursor for the Northern poets to wrestle with, but he deserves the belated luck which has rescued him from playing second fiddle to Auden. I assume that the anthology is indeed a Northern poet’s attempt to take possession of the country on behalf of his Northern friends. Kinsella is included because he couldn’t be left out, and Kavanagh was nearly a Northerner. If I had to pick one poem from the entire collection, it would be Kinsella’s “Tao and Unfitness at Inistiogue on the River Nore.” Here is a bit of it:

There was a path up among bushes and nettles
over the beaten debris, then a drop, where bricks
and plaster and rafters had fallen into the kitchens.
A line of small choked arches…The pantries, possibly.

Be still, as though pure.

A brick, and its dust, fell.

But mind you, I’ve said nothing more than that, and I hasten to say that Muldoon’s crew are all genuine poets: that’s enough. There is no need to talk of a Renaissance.

This Issue

February 26, 1987