The Kiltartan Poetry Book

Prose Translations from the Irish


Lady Gregory



If in my childhood I had been asked to give the name of an Irish poem, I should certainly have said “Let Erin remember the days of old,” or “Rich and rare were the gems she wore”; for although among the ornamental books that lay on the round drawingroom table, the only one of Moore’s was Lalla Rookh, some guest would now and then sing one of his melodies at the piano; and I can remember vexing or trying to vex my governess by triumphant mention of Malachi’s collar of gold, she no doubt as well as I believing the “proud invader” it was torn from to have been, like herself, an English one. A little later I came to know other verses, ballads nearer to the tradition of the country than Moore’s faint sentiment. For a romantic love of country had awakened in me, perhaps through the wide beauty of my home, from whose hillsides I could see the mountain of Burren and Iar Connacht, and at sunset the silver western sea; or it maybe through the half revealed sympathy of my old nurse for the rebels whose cheering she remembered when the French landed at Killala in ’98; or perhaps but through the natural breaking of a younger child of the house from the conservatism of her elders. So when we were taken sometimes as a treat the five mile drive to our market town, Loughrea, I would, on tiptoe at the counter, hold up the six pence earned by saying without a mistake my Bible lesson on the Sunday, and the old stationer, looking down through his spectacles would give me what I wanted saying that I was his best customer for Fenian books; and one of my sisters, rather doubtfully consenting to my choice of The Spirit of the Nation for a birthday present, qualified the gift by copying into it “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I have some of them by me yet, the little books in gay paper or in green cloth, and some verses in them seem to me no less moving than in those early days, such as Davis’s lament.

We thought you would not die, we were sure you
        would not go
And leave us in our utmost need to Cromwell’s
        cruel blow;
Sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out
        the sky,
O why did you leave us Owen? Why did you die?

And if some others are little more than a catalogue, unmusical, as:—­

Now to begin to name them I’ll continue in a direct
There’s John Mitchell, Thomas Francis Meagher
        and also William Smith O’Brien;
John Martin and O’Donoghue, Erin sorely feels
        their loss,
And to complete their number I will include
        O’Donovan Ross—­

yet there is in them a certain dignity, an intensity born of continuity of purpose; they are roughly hammered links in a chain of unequal workmanship, but stretching back through the centuries to the Munster poets of the days of Elizabeth, advised by Spenser to harry them out of Ireland. The names change from age to age, that is all. The verses of the seventeenth century hallow those of MacCarthys and Fitzgeralds who fought for the Stuarts or “knocked obedience out of the Gall”; the eighteenth ended with the rebels of ’98; the nineteenth had Emmet and Mitchell and its Manchester martyrs. Already in these early days of the twentieth the street singers cry out:

Mac Dermott, Mallin, Hanrahan, Daly, Colbert
        and Mac Bride
All men who for our country’s cause have nobly
        bled and died.

Even Yeats, falling into the tradition, has put in a lyric the names of some of those who died in Easter week, and through whose death “a terrible beauty is born.”


I am glad to remember that through the twelve years of our married life, 1880-92, my husband and his people were able to keep their liking and respect for each other. For those were the years of the land war, tenant struggling to gain a lasting possession for his children, landlord to keep that which had been given in trust to him for his; each ready in his anger to turn the heritage of the other to desolation; while the vision of some went yet farther, through breaking to the rebuilding of a nation. The passion, the imagination of Ireland were thrown into the fight. I often thought to find some poem putting such passion into fiery or memorable lines. But the first I thought worth the keeping,—­I have it yet, was Katherine Tynan’s lament for Parnell, written two years after his death. In tearing it from the corner of some newspaper I had unwittingly taken note of almost the moment of a new impulse in literature, in poetry. For with that death, the loss of that dominant personality, and in the quarrel that followed, came the disbanding of an army, the unloosing of forces, the setting free of the imagination of Ireland.


Once in my childhood I had been eager to learn Irish; I thought to get leave to take lessons from an old Scripture-reader who spent a part of his time in the parish of Killinane, teaching such scholars as he could find to read their own language in the hope that they might turn to the only book then being printed in Irish, the Bible. But my asking, timid with the fear of mockery, was unheeded. Yet I missed but by a little an opportunity that might have made me a real Irish scholar, and not as I am, imperfect, stumbling. For a kinsman learned in the language, the translator of the wonderful Silva Gaedelica had been sometimes a guest in the house, and would still have been welcomed there but that my mother, who had a great dislike to the marriage of cousins had fancied he was taking a liking to one of my elder sisters; and with that suspicion the “winged nymph, Opportunity” had passed from my reach. After my marriage I bought a grammar and worked at it for a while with the help of a gardener. But it was difficult and my teacher was languid, suspecting it may be some hidden mockery, for those were the days before Irish became the fashion. It was not till a dozen or more years later, and after my husband’s death, that my son, having won the classical entrance scholarship at Harrow, took a fancy to learn a nearer language, and rode over to Tillyra before breakfast one morning to ask our neighbour Edward Martyn to help him to a teacher. He came back without what he had sought, but with the gift of a fine old Irish Bible, which became a help in our early lessons. For we set to work together, and I found the task a light one in comparison with those first attempts. For that young priest, Father Eugene O’Growney, sent from Ireland to look for health in California, had used the short space of life left to him in writing simple lessons in Irish grammar, that made at least the first steps easy. And another thing had happened. Dr. Douglas Hyde, An Craoibhin, had founded the Gaelic League, and through it country people were gathered together in the Irish speaking places to give the songs and poems, old and new, kept in their memory. This discovery, this disclosure of the folk learning, the folk poetry, the ancient tradition, was the small beginning of a weighty change. It was an upsetting of the table of values, an astonishing excitement. The imagination of Ireland had found a new homing place.


My own imagination was aroused. I was becoming conscious of a world close to me and that I had been ignorant of. It was not now in the corners of newspapers I looked for poetic emotion, nor even to the singers in the streets. It was among farmers and potato diggers and old men in workhouses and beggars at my own door that I found what was beyond these and yet farther beyond that drawingroom poet of my childhood in the expression of love, and grief, and the pain of parting, that are the disclosure of the individual soul.

An Aran man, repeating to me The Grief of a Girl’s Heart in Irish told me it was with that song his mother had often sung him to sleep as a child. It was from an old woman who had known Mary Hynes and who said of her “The sun and the moon never shone upon anything so handsome” that I first heard Raftery’s song of praise of her, “The pearl that was at Ballylee,” a song “that has gone around the world & as far as America.” It was in a stonecutter’s house where I went to have a headstone made for Raftery’s grave that I found a manuscript book of his poems, written out in the clear beautiful Irish characters. It was to a working farmer’s house I walked on many a moonlit evening with the manuscript that his greater knowledge helped me to understand and by his hearth that I read for the first time the Vision of Death and the Lament for O’Daly. After that I met with many old people who had in the days before the Famine seen or talked with the wandering poet who was in the succession of those who had made and recited their lyrics on the Irish roads before Chaucer wrote.


And so I came by the road nearest me to the old legends, the old heroic poems. It was a man of a hundred years who told me the story of Cuchulain’s fight with his own son, the son of Aoife, and how the young man as he lay dying had reproached him and said “Did you not see how I threw every spear fair and easy at you, and you threw your spear hard and wicked at me? And I did not come out to tell my name to one or to two but if I had told it to anyone in the whole world, I would soonest tell it to your pale face.” Deirdre’s beauty “that brought the Sons of Usnach to their death” comes into many of the country songs. Grania of the yet earlier poems is not so well thought of. An old basket-maker said scornfully “Many would tell you she slept under the cromlechs but I don’t believe that, and she a king’s daughter. And I don’t believe she was handsome, either. If she was, why would she have run away?” And another said “Finn had more wisdom than all the men of the world, but he wasn’t wise enough to put a bar on Grania.” I was told in many places of Osgar’s bravery and Goll’s strength and Conan’s bitter tongue, and the arguments of Oisin and Patrick. And I have often been given the story of Oisin’s journey to Tir-nan-Og, the Country of the Young, that is, as I am told, “a fine place and everything that is good is in it. And if anyone is sent there for a minute he will want to stop in it, and twenty years will seem to him like one half hour;” and “they say Tir-nan-Og is there yet, and so it may be in any place.”


In the ancient times the poets told of this Country of the Young, with its trees bearing fruit and blossom at the one time; its golden apples that gave lasting life; its armies “that go out in good order, ahead of their beautiful king, marching among blue spears scattering their enemies, an army with high looks, rushing, avenging;” before news had come to Ireland, of the Evangelist’s vision of the Tree of Life and of the “white horse, and he that sat on him had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer.” They had told of the place “where delight is common, and music” before saintly Columcille on the night of the Sabbath of rest “reached to the troops of the archangels and the plain where music has not to be born.” But in later days religion, while offering abundant pictures of an after world of punishment, “the flagstone of pain,” “the cauldron that is boiling for ever,” the fire the least flame of which is “bigger than fifteen hundred of turf,” so that Oisin listening to St. Patrick demands a familiar weapon, an iron flail, to beat down such familiar terrors, has left Heaven itself far off, mysterious, intangible, without earthly similes or foreshadowings. I think it is perhaps because of this that the country poets of to-day and yesterday have put their dream, their vision of the Delectable Mountains, of the Land of Promise, into exaggerated praise of places dear to them. Raftery sees something beyond the barren Mayo bogs when he tells of that “fine place without fog falling, a blessed place that the sun shines on, and the wind does not rise there or anything of the sort,” and where as he says in another poem “logwood and mahogany” grow in company “vith its wind twisted beech and storm bent sycamore. Even my own home “sweet Coole demesne” has been transfigured in songs of the neighbourhood; and a while ago an old woman asking alms at the door while speaking of a monastery near Athenry broke into a chant of praise that has in it perhaps some memory of the Well of Healing at the world’s end that helped the gods to new strength in their great battle at Moytura. “Three barrels there are with water, and to see the first barrel boiling it is certain you will get a cure. Water there does be rushing down; you to stop you could hear it talking; to go there you would get cured of anything unless it might be the stroke of the Fool.”


In translating these poems I have chosen to do so in the speech of the thatched houses where I have heard and gathered them. An Craoibhin had already used this Gaelic construction, these Elizabethan phrases, in translating the Love Songs of Connacht, as I have used it even in my creative work. Synge had not yet used it when he found in my Cuchulain of Muirthemne “the dialect he had been trying to master,” and of which he afterwards made such splendid use. Most of the translations in this book have already been printed in Cuchulain of Muirthemne, Gods and Fighting Men, Saints and Wonders, and Poets and Dreamers. When in the first month of the new year I began to choose from among them, it seemed strange to me that the laments so far outnumbered any songs of joy. But before that month was out news was brought to me that made the keening of women for the brave and of those who are left lonely after the young seem to be but the natural outcome and expression of human life.

Augusta Gregory.
Coole, May, 1918.