The Luck of the Irish

The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse

edited by Thomas Kinsella
Oxford University Press, 423 pp., $18.95

The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry

edited by Paul Muldoon
Faber and Faber, 415 pp., $13.95 (paper)

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…

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