Journal of Irish Studies: The shock of the old: translating early Irish poetry into Modern Irish

The shock of the old: translating early Irish poetry into Modern Irish – Critical Essay

Kaarina Hollo

TWENTIETH-CENTURY readers of English without a knowledge of Old Irish (ca. 600-900 A.D.) or Middle Irish (ca. 900-1200 A.D.) were given reasonably good access to early medieval Irish poetry through the medium of the translation anthology. Through the efforts of Kuno Meyer, Robin Flower, Gerard Murphy, Frank O’Connor, and others, a good amount of early Irish verse written between the seventh and twelfth centuries was made available to English-language audiences. (1)

But what of translation of this poetry into Modern Irish? Who undertook this task, for what reasons, and to what effect? From the very beginnings of the Gaelic Literary Revival, there had been calls for the translation of medieval Irish literature into Modern Irish. The ordinary reader of Modern Irish would not be able to make much sense of an early medieval Irish story or poem. Thus, at the time, in order to access a substantial portion of the medieval literary tradition, a Modern Irish speaker would generally turn to English translations provided in more or less scholarly editions or to the more literary reworkings provided, again in English, by the likes of Lady Gregory (1902, 1904) and Standish O’Grady (1878-80, 1894). Learning the earlier forms of the language was a daunting task, not one that the average reader of Irish with an interest in the earlier literature could be expected to undertake. This meant that the Irish reader’s experience of older Irish texts was essentially mediated by English.

In 1900 the perceived need for translations directly from the ancestral language into Modern Irish was formally acknowledged by the Oireachtas (2) in the institution of a prize for “the best modernized version of a tale or episode from Old or Middle Irish” (O’Leary 1994:233). Philip O’Leary has identified three main rationales for such modernization: (1) an awareness of the linguistic, historical, and cultural value of the early literature; (2) ideological grounds; and (3) a view of medieval Irish literature as providing a model for modern writing in Irish (1994:268-70). It is hard to disentangle the three, and separating them risks reductionism: for example, there is certainly an ideological element to the belief that medieval Irish literature is intrinsically valuable and that it can provide a model for contemporary authors. Speaking of the period 1922-39, O’Leary writes that

what Gaelic activists wanted was for native scholars to use their

learning to enrich contemporary Irish reality by restoring to the

nation an authentic and accessible sense of its own past. In

practical terms one of the central features of this project would

be the immediate provision of competent Modern Irish versions,

translations, of the full range of earlier Irish literature.


The translation efforts undertaken on this front were almost exclusively from the prose tradition. Until the mid-twentieth century, verse seems to have been more or less ignored. The great early Irish prose narratives such as Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cuailnge, modern “Cooley”) were seen as constitutive of and more essential to Irish national identity than were the religious, personal, and love poems from the same period. Therefore earlier translation efforts were centered on the prose, but by mid-century, with Irish political independence a reality, it was possible to turn to works that could not be so easily pressed into the mold of a heroic national ethos, such as lyric verse. (3)

We will focus here on the translations done by two men, both of them significant figures in the mid-twentieth-century Irish literary world. Tomas O Floinn published two collections of Modern Irish translations from Old and Middle Irish: Athbheo (Alive Again or Revival) (4) in 1955 and Athdhanta (Re-poems) in 1969. Sean O Riordain provided the Modern Irish translations for an edition of a collection of early medieval Irish religious verse entitled Ri na nUile (King of All Things), prepared by Sean S. O Conghaile in 1964.

Tomas O Floinn (b. 1910) had great influence as a critic of Irish poetry in the 1940s and 1950s, especially through his reviews and essays in the Irish-language journal Comhar (literally, ‘working together, cooperation’) (O Cearnaigh 1995:164). He was a professional educator, holding a master’s degree and teaching Irish, English, and history at Colaiste Mhuire (1932-44) in Dublin before becoming a schools inspector (1944-67) and then assistant secretary in the Department of Education (1967-75) (O Cearnaigh 1995:163). In addition to his two collections of translations from Old and Middle Irish, he also translated the Middle Irish prose texts Togail na Teibe (itself a translation of the Thebiad), published in 1983, and Aislinge Meic Conglinne (The Vision of Mac Conglinne), published in 1980, as well as collaborating with Proinsias Mac Cana on the earlier Scealaiocht na Rithe (Stories of the Kings), published in 1956.

Sean O Riordain (1916-77) is arguably the greatest twentieth-century Irish-language poet and indisputably among the most important four or five. His first published poem appeared in the March 1944 issue of Comhar. His first collection of poetry, Eireaball Spideoige (A Robin’s Tail), appeared in 1952, followed by Brosna (Kindling, but also a place name) in 1964, and Linte Liombo (Limbo Lines) in 1971. Tar Eis mo Bhais (After my Death), which contains work never before published as well as poems previously published in periodicals, appeared posthumously in 1978. O Riordain’s work is noted for its philosophical introspection and the keenness of its psychological observation. It is distinguished by a love of paradox and the “word,” and by a preoccupation, especially in the later work, with questions of the integrity of the self and of form.

O Riordain and O Floinn have in common their contributions to the enterprise of bringing early medieval Irish verse into the world of Modern Irish. The relationship between the two, however, is more complex than that. As noted above, O Floinn was one of the most influential critics of contemporary Irish poetry at mid-century. Sean O Riordain, six or seven years his junior, was establishing himself as a poet at the same time. We gain insight into their relationship by examining O Floinn’s review of O Riordain’s first collection of poems. (5) Although this may seem, at first glance, to have nothing to do with the question of translation, it has a lot to do with notions about the poet’s proper relationship to the Irish literary tradition which, we shall see, is the broader context within which translation from earlier forms of Irish to Modern Irish is best viewed.

In his review of Eireaball Spideoige, O Floinn remarks on the author’s use of Munster stressed final syllables as part of rhyming schemes. He considers this revolutionary if intended (in this he is mistaken), but suspects that it is more a result of influence from the stress patterns of English verse. Speaking of stress in Irish poetry, he makes the astonishing statement that

sa bhfiliocht Ghaeilge o thus aimsire no gur stad si den bhfas b’e

an gnas, an munla, an caighdean an t-aiceann bheith roinnte go

cothrom ar na siollai sa bhfocal. (1953a:5)

In Irish poetry from the beginning of time until it ceased to

develop, it was the custom, the pattern, and the standard for the

stress to be divided equally among the syllables of the word. (6)

This statement is patently untrue. Someone must have mentioned the fact to O Floinn before the second part of the review came out, for there he has emended his views and he states that

is chun tosaigh san fhocal a caitear beim an ghotha–se sin is ar

chead shiolla an fhocail a bhionn an bheim i gconai. (1953b:5)

it is to the front of the word that the vocal stress is

placed–that is, it is on the first syllable of the word

that the stress is always.

This is closer to the truth, although there are exceptions to the rule of initial stress.

Despite his less than perfect understanding of the Irish language, O Floinn feels qualified to pontificate on matters of metrics and to criticize O Riordain on metrical grounds:

Is beag staidear a deineadh riamh ar mheadracht na ar rithim

fhiliocht na Gaeilge, rud a fhagann nua-fhili na linne seo ar

easpa treorach. Ta se antabhachtach go mbeadh an file lan-eolach

ar an mhunla ata a usaid aige…. I gcas seo filiocht Sheain Ui

Riordain is rud buntabhachtach e duinne agus don fhile fein an i

bhfios no i nganfhios do fein ata rithim a chuid filiochta go

minic munlaithe ar rithim an Bhearla. Mas i bhfios do fein e,

dushlan e, innovation, reabhloid. Mas i nganfhios do fein e,

d’fheadfadh gur locht an-mhor e, sa mheid gur cruthu e na fuil

se abalta rithim seantraidisiunta na Gaeilge d’aithint thar rithim

an Bhearla. (1953b:5)

Very little study has ever been made of the metrics or the rhythm

of Irish poetry, which leaves the new poets of this era with a lack

of guidance. It is very important that the poet should be fully

cognizant of the model that he is using…. In this case of Sean

O Riordain’s poetry it is of fundamental importance to us and to

the poet himself whether it is consciously or unconsciously that

the rhythm of his poetry is often modeled on that of English. If he

does it knowingly, it is a challenge, an innovation, a revolution.

If it is unwittingly, it could be a very great fault, insofar as

it is a proof that he is not able to distinguish the ancient

traditional rhythm of Irish from the rhythm of English.

O Floinn then proceeds to indicate where he feels the stresses must fall in certain lines of O Riordain’s poetry and concludes that it is the English trochee that lies behind it all. It is all in all an indefensible piece, but no doubt contributed to the despair O Riordain felt at the critical reception of his book, as reflected in his diaries (O Coileain 1982:255-59).

I have considered this review in some detail because of its relevance to the opinions expressed by O Floinn in the introduction to Athbheo, his first collection of translations from Old and Middle Irish. He returns in the introduction to the point that modern poets have much to learn from the reading of medieval Irish verse:

[M]easaim go bhfuil moran le foghlaim ag nuafhili na Gaeilge fa

cheird na cumadoireachta o na seandanta so. Ceann de na rudai is

mo ata in easnamh ar chumadoiri na nualitriochta sa nGaeilge na

easpa tuisceana don rud is foirm ann … is feidir foghlaim astu

[i.e. na seandanta so] cen bealach is simpli, is diri, is teinne

agus is greanta le rud a ra i bhfoirm filiochta. (1955:18)

I think that there is a lot to be learned by the new Irish poets

concerning the craft of composition from these old poems. Lack of

understanding of what form consists of is one of the greatest

lacks of the composers of this new literature in Irish…. It is

possible to learn from them (i.e. the old poems) how to say

something in poetical form in the simplest, most direct, most

terse, and most clear-cut fashion.

In this statement we hear an echo of concerns voiced earlier in the century and a reiteration of the notion that medieval Irish literature can provide a model for modern writing in Irish.

As O Floinn explains in the introduction, his approach to the translation of the poems from Old Irish to Modern Irish is based on the perception that many Old Irish poems, very simple in theme, rely to a great extent for their effect on stylistic, metrical, and rhythmic features that cannot be translated into another language. Translate an Old Irish poem into English and a huge amount is lost. Translation into Modern Irish, however, he considers another matter: athru, ‘change’, rather than aistriu, ‘translation’ (as in movement from one place to another) (O Floinn 1955:8). O Floinn does not elaborate on his athru/aistriu distinction, because the words in Irish explain themselves, as it were. The verb aistrigh means ‘to move from one place to another, to transfer’, and, in a linguistic sense, ‘to translate’. Aistriu denotes the act of translation, and aistriuchan is the noun commonly used for the translation itself or the abstract notion of translation. Athru, on the other hand, has a primary meaning of ‘change’ or ‘alteration’. By using this term in preference to aistriu with reference to translation from Old and Middle Irish to Modern Irish, O Floinn is claiming that such a process is not really translation per se, but rather a natural development or change in the trajectory of the poem in situ. In O Floinn’s translations he attempts to maintain the meter insofar as the number of syllables and the primary rhymes are concerned. His stated aim is to provide both readers and writers of Modern Irish with versions of the medieval material that will free them from dependence on translations into other languages (O Floinn 1955:18). This intention is based on a notion of the intrinsic worth of the material, and it is consistent with the ideology of the Gaelic Revival as it continued in the early years of the Free State.

O Floinn’s idea of his translation enterprise thus is based on a notion of growth rather than transplantation. O Floinn sees the transformation of a poem from Old or Middle Irish to Modern Irish as a process distinct from that of translation of the poem into any other language. In terms of Roman Jakobson’s (1959) tripartite scheme of intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic translation, translation from Old and Middle Irish to Modern Irish could then be seen as intralingual in nature. However, as Maria Tymoczko has pointed out,

Old Irish is not simply a difficult and complex language

(though it is that). It is also a very dead language. The last

native speakers have been dust for centuries. Although Old Irish

has living descendants-Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and

Manx–the modern languages represent the parent language in

considerably evolved forms. (Tymoczko 1999:151-52)

It could be argued that translating from Old Irish to Modern Irish is qualitatively no different from translating between any pair of languages. There may be greater lexical, morphological, and syntactic similarities between these two than between any two randomly chosen languages, but the differences are nonetheless substantial. These differences are not only linguistic, of course, but also cultural.

Thus, O Floinn’s aistriu/athru distinction elides some of the serious difficulties faced by the translator of an Old Irish text. It rests on a belief in the cultural and linguistic continuity of the Irish literary tradition. This belief, however, is belied by the fact that O Floinn is engaged in an explicit attempt to reestablish that continuity through translation. The ambiguity of the situation is further highlighted by the translator’s dependence, which he acknowledges, on translations into English and German in the preparation of his Modern Irish texts (O Floinn 1955:6).

The translations of Sean O Riordain stand in clear contrast to those of O Floinn and illuminate the debate about the identity of the Modern Irish poet at mid-century. Published in 1964, Ri na nUile is an edition by Father Sean S. O Conghaile of fifteen Old and Middle Irish religious poems, with translations by Sean O Riordain. O Riordain was not the originator of the project that culminated in the publication of Ri na nUile, and there is no translator’s note in the introduction. It seems likely that O Riordain was approached by his publishers, Sairseal agus Dill, with an invitation to provide literary translations for the poems. The editor’s preface is dated 1956 and makes reference to O Riordain’s translations; it is likely that O Riordain was working on these translations during the period after the publication of Eireaball Spideoige and had them finished by 1956. We do know that he took the project seriously enough to ask Seamus O Coigligh for the loan of Rudolf Thurneyen’s Grammar of Old Irish, the standard reference grammar for the early language, while he was working on the translations (O Coigligh 1980:50).

This serious interest in the source text is, of course, not surprising. O Riordain may have been involved in a difficult relationship with the Irish literary tradition, perhaps accurately characterized as a love/hate relationship, but both his love and his hate were based on intimate knowledge, not ignorance. There are references in his diary and letters to his reading early works such as the Annals of the Four Masters, Lebor Gabala Erenn (commonly known in English as The Book of Invasions), and the prose of Maghnus O Domhnaill and Geoffrey Keating (Seathrun Ceitinn), as well as the poetry of Aogan O Rathaille and the Damhscoil Mhuscrai (the Muskerry bardic school). Among the books he was reading shortly before his death were Charles Plummer’s Bethada Naem nErenn: Lives of the Irish Saints, Cecile O’Rahillly’s edition of the first recension of Tain Bo Cuailnge, and Kuno Meyer’s edition of Aislinge Meic Conglinne (O Coileain 1982:400). In an essay published in Scriobb in 1975, O Riordain describes his early immersion in the Gaelic literary tradition in his teens and twenties, his struggles to then free himself from it, to get “cead cainte” (‘permission to speak’), and his subsequent desire to return to it (O Riordain 1975:73).

In a diary entry for 7 September 1947, O Riordain contemplates the options facing Irish-language authors as he sees it. (7) One option is

… sinn fein do thumadh sa tseanlitriocht? Ach ta clumh liath ar

Mhac an Bhaird. Bhuel, deinimis sinn fein do thriomu fe ghrein na

beatha tar eis ah fholcaidh. (qtd. in O Coileain 1982:219)

… to plunge ourselves into the old literature? But there’s mold

on Macan Bhaird. Well, we’ll dry ourselves off under the sun of

life after the dip.

This entry may well be in response to oran unconscious echo of a review of Liam Gogan’s (1891-1979) Danta Eile (Other Poetas), which appeared in March of the same year. The reviewer was O Floinn and the piece is headed “File a Rothumadh i dTobar na hEigse” (“A Poet Who Has Been Too Immersed in the Fount of Inspiration”). In it O Floinn writes, “ta Liam Gogan tumtha sa seandacht” (“Liam Gogan is immersed in antiquity”; qtd. in Prut 1997:25). This is in reference to Gogan’s tendency to use traditional verse forms and a plethora of archaic words in his poetry. (8)

Six years later, inspired by his reading of Maghnus O Domhnaill’s Betba Coluim ChilIe (Life of Colum Cille), O Riordain takes a more positive approach to the question of the balance between tradition and the contemporary, as he writes in a letter to Donncha O Laoghaire on 17 March 1953:

… is i dteangain na haimsire sin agus roimis sin ata fairsingeacht

le fail againn, measaim, agus is i nGaeilge na haimsire seo a gheofar

nadurthacht agus beatha a thabharfaidh cumas duinn teacht i dtir sa


(qtd. in O Coileain 1982:206)

… it is in the language of that time [the sixteenth century] and

earlier that breadth and scope is to be had by us, I think; and it

is in the Irish of this present era that the naturalness and life

will be found that will enable us to make use of that breadth and


In a diary entry of 8 August 1967, however, O Riordain expresses doubt concerning the success of his endeavor:

b’fheidir go rabhas riamh a d’iarraidh an duchas a phosadh leis

an iasacht agus b’fheidir nar eirigh liom…. Arbh fhusa fanuint

laistigh de fhramai an duchais idir mheadaracht is eile?

(qtd. in O Coileain 1982:205)

perhaps I was always trying to marry heritage with the foreign and

perhaps I didn’t succeed…. Would it be easier to stay inside the

framework of tradition as regards meter and the rest?

The attraction for O Riordain of translating from Sean O Conghaile’s editions of Old and Middle Irish poems is easily understood in the context of O Riordain’s continous reevaluation of himself, his identity as a poet, and his work in relation to the Irish literary tradition. Material written prior to 1200 A.D. is generally not included in the readings mentioned in his diaries and elsewhere at this point in his life, and he must have welcomed the opportunity to come to close grips with these texts in the original. He was no doubt assured of the scholarly solidity of the project by O Conghaile’s professional credentials and by the fact that his editions had been adopted by the department of Old and Middle Irish at University College Galway as classroom texts. O Floinn’s Athbheo had been reviewed harshly by Professor David Greene (O hUaithne 1955), and chief among the defects identified by Greene were the poor condition of the texts of the original poems and the lack of any scholarly apparatus; Greene also expressed a very low opinion of the quality of the translations as independent poems in Modern Irish as well. This particular sort of hostile reception was not likely with O Conghaile as editor.

Let us now turn to a consideration of O Riordain’s work as a translator as evidenced in Ri na nUile. As stated before, there are no translator’s notes, so we will have to depend entirely upon a consideration of the texts themselves to surmise O Riordain’s attitude toward his originals and toward translation in general. Unlike O Floinn, O Riordain does not place a high value on preserving in his translations the number of syllables in the lines of the original. If, however, the lines in a stanza are of unequal length, he does preserve that relationship. He also pays attention to the number of accented words in the original line and tends to preserve the same number in his translation. In this respect he is responding to a nonstructural element of the original prosody–in other words, stress patterning does occur in the medieval Irish poems, but such patterning is not fixed (except for final rhyming cadences) and is not constitutive of the meters in which the poems are written. In reading the poems accentually rather than syllabically, O Riordain is perhaps seeing them through the lens of post-Classical accentual traditional verse. Overall, O Raordain generally substitutes an effective equivalent Modern Irish structure for the syllabic verse forms of the early verse.

Rhyme, a feature of O Riordain’s own poetry as well, is carried over from the medieval originals into his modern versions. The type of rhyme is, of course, quite different, as the requirements for the matching of consonants are ignored. (9) That is, O Riordain employs Modern Irish rhyme rather than the form of rhyme used in learned Irish poetry from the seventh to the mid-seventeenth century. His maintenance of the rhyming schemes per se, however, is skillful and unforced.

O Riordain is also willing to entertain certain features of Old and Middle Irish that would be considered odd or archaic by the average reader or speaker of Modern Irish. Among these features is the use of a range of nominal and adjectival compounds, an aspect of the Irish language that is far more restricted in its scope now than it was during the early medieval period. This is a feature of the medieval language that had been noted in 1929 by the critic Liam O Rinn:

If the ancient language is given to us–in close translation that

retains the ancient flavor of the nobility of the Middle Ages–the

influence of the ancient literature will work on the new literature

in such a way that … our writers will be moved to use concise and

incisive language and to fashion powerful and illuminating compound

words, each one of which will be almost a picture in itself.

(trans. O’Leary 1998:208)

Numerous compound words are to be found in the poems translated by O Riordain in Ri na nUile. For example, in the tenth-century “Is mebul dom imradud” (“Shame to my thoughts”), the following types of compounds are found: adjective plus noun (cloencheim, ‘crooked step’; lomdaingen, ‘bare stronghold’); adjective plus adjective (cromdaingen, ‘bent and firm’; chertgenmnaid, ‘truly chaste’; sechtdelbach, ‘sevenformed’); noun plus noun (flescbuille [sic], ‘whip-blow’). Adjective-noun compounds are on the whole not favored in Modern Irish–it is generally preferred simply to modify the noun with a following adjective. (10) Nonetheless, O Riordain incorporates the two adjective-noun compounds in “Is mebul doro imradud” wholesale into his version of the poem. Adjective-adjective compounds of the type cromdaingen would also be unusual in Modern Irish; O Riordain adopts this compound as well in his translation. Noun-noun compounds would generally be avoided in Modern Irish in favor of phrases in which one noun depends in genitival relationship from the other, but nonetheless O Riordain adopts flescbuille, giving the modern equivalent lascbhuille (rather than buille laisc, ‘a blow of a whip’, or the like).

On the basis of the translator’s practice in his own poetry, one could argue that the compounding tendency of early medieval Irish poetry was one that he found congenial, for his own work is peppered with such noun-noun compounds as geit-luchair, ‘leap-exultation’ (1952:30), or scamall-sparan, ‘cloud-purse’ (1952:41), as well as adjective-noun compounds such as bui-ghealach, ‘yellow-moon’ (1952:32), or fiain-mhian, ‘wild-inclination’ (1952:34). Adjective-adjective compounds in which one adjective is not modifying the other do not seem to be part of O Riordain’s repertory in his own poetry. The compounds that O Riordain takes over into his translations are all composed of easily recognizable elements. Therefore, although the compounding itself might seem exotic or defamiliarized to the Modern Irish listener or reader, the meaning would be clear. (11) O Riordain’s hyphenation of his words also dilutes the shock of these novel compounds.

In his translations O Riordain generally avoids words that have passed out of use in the modern language. This seems to indicate that he does not consider it the translator’s task to restock the word-hoard, as it were, by the reintroduction of obsolete terms into Modern Irish, in contrast to O Floinn (O Floinn 1969:xii-xiii). For example, in O Riordain’s version of “A aingil, beir (“Angel, carry”) by Mael Isu O Brolchain (ob. 1086), he translates Middle Irish comdidnad, ‘act of comforting; rescuing’, with Modern Irish tacaiocht, ‘support’. In “Beannacht ar an aistear” (“A blessing on the journey”), O Riordain’s translation of the poem beginning “Rop soraid an set-sa” (“May this path be smooth”), he renders the first line with a modern idiom: “Go n-eiri an bothar linn,” ‘may we be successful in our journey’. The contrasting pair of Old Irish adjectives, doinmech/soinmech (‘unfavorable, unlucky’ vs. ‘favorable, lucky’), is also avoided, and the lines in which they occur are rephrased as a result. (12) There is one notable exception to O Riordain’s avoidance of obsolete words, however. He preserves the early word cilic, ‘sackcloth’ (Mod. Ir. sac, saiceadach, sacan), in his version of the Old Irish poem “Brigit be bith-maith” (“Brigit eternally good woman”). He also uses do-ni (‘he/she makes/does’) for Modern Irish deineann/deanann in “Is or nglan, is nem im grein” (“He is bright gold, he is the brilliance around the sun”). Someone with a knowledge of Ulster Irish would recognize this word (because the modern form is closer to the medieval form in this dialect), but speakers of other dialects might find it opaque.

O Riordain’s translations have a slight air of strangeness about them at times. It can be argued, in the tradition of Schleiermacher (see Venuti 1995:99-118), that such strangeness is desirable. The poems come to us across a great chronological and cultural divide, and the reader is reminded of this fact by the occasional archaic word and by the unusual compounding, both of which impart a faintly disorienting tone. These reminders of cultural and chronological distance and difference incorporated in translation, however, challenge the dominant twentieth-century model of fluency in translation, which is generally expected to produce a text that will read naturally and effectively in the target language.

How did O Riordain’s involvement in this translation project and his intimate encounter with the early poetry influence his other work? It is likely that he found in some of these poems, in which the speakers’ doubts, fears, and yearnings are so strongly and effectively expressed, a kindred poetic spirit. He must have found the compactness of expression and other features of the language and structure of the poems fascinating. But it is difficult to point to any direct influence that his translation work may have had on his poetry except in one case: a parallel between O Riordain’s translation of “Is mebul dom imradud” and the title poem of Linte Liombo. We are not talking here of a thematic parallel, but rather of something that could be described as a faint harmonic echo.

Sean O Coileain has identified something similar in the first verse of “Colm,” written by O Riordain in 1960 for his infant godson (O Coileain 1982:222-23):

Buanghol, a Choilm, do cheol

Ach oireann an deor do d’aois

Taoi bliain ar an saol anocht

Is do thugais le gol tri mhi. (O Riordain 1964:31)

Your music, Colm is steady-crying

But tears are appropriate for your age

You’ve been a year in the world tonight

And you’ve spent three months crying.

This is clearly modeled on an anonymous early seventeenth-century poem beginning:

Tuar guil, a cholaim do cheol!

mo chroidhe ni beo da bhith

do bhreagais mo dheor om rosg

is truagh nach id thost do bhis. (O’Rahilly 1927:155)

Your music, dove, is an omen of tears

My heart is not alive on its account

You inveigled my tear from my eye

It’s a pity you weren’t silent.

The rhyme-scheme and rhyming sounds of the model are followed in O Riordain’s poem, as is the syllabic count (allowing for vernacular modern Munster pronunciation), in addition, of course, to the repetition of the theme of crying, as well as some of the vocabulary (gol, ‘crying’; deor, ‘tear’; ceol, ‘music’; and Colm as both a personal name and colm, ‘dove’).

The parallel between O Riordam’s “Mo naire mo smaointe,” his translation of the Middle Irish poem “Is mebul dom imradud,” and his poem “Linte liombo” is restricted to the opening lines. The Middle Irish poem begins

Mo naire mo smaointe

a mheid ealaid uaim … (O Conghaile 1964:35)

Shame to my thoughts

How much they escape from me …

with his own poem reading

Mo ghreidhin iad na linte

a chaitheas a dhiultu … (1971:9)

My pity on the lines

that I had to deny …

The parallel lies in the exclamatory structure of the first line, the regret expressed, and the rhyme structure using i and u. Beyond those similarities the rhyme schemes do not correspond, although “Linte liombo” does maintain a consistent rhyming pattern throughout. It is twenty lines long, and, although it is presented as a single block, it falls naturally into five stanzas of four lines each (indeed, the punctuation encourages such a division). The last stressed vowel of the second line of each of these quatrains is u and that of the fourth line is a. This pattern does not reflect the pattern of the Middle Irish poem nor that of O Riordain’s translation. We really are talking here about the merest suggestion of influence. Further, it could be argued that the poems are both about misplaced abstract entities: thought running where it should not and words deprived of expression, respectively. In the eleventh-century poem and O Riordain’s translation of it, thought is uncontrolled and runs off where it will. In O Riordain’s own poem, lines of poetry eagerly present themselves for inclusion in the ordered universe of the poem, only to be turned away by the poet.

Unlike O Floinn’s Athbheo, Ri na nUile was critically well received on publication and was into its third printing by 1971. Both Gearoid Mac Eoin (later professor of Old and Middle Irish at University College Galway) and Padraig O Riain (later Professor of Old and Middle Irish at University College Cork) expressed great satisfaction with both the scholarly standard of the edition and the literary quality of the translations (Mac Eoin 1965, O Riain 1965). The contrast in the reception of the two works might have provided O Riordain some consolation for the damage inflicted by O Floinn’s review of Eireaball Spideoige. Perhaps O Riordain, characterized by O Floinn as a navel-gazer, was the more appropriate match for the intense and condensed early medieval Irish lyric than his critic.

The interest on the part of these two authors in Old and Middle Irish poetry should be seen in the context of the debates over the form of Modern Irish writing and the future of writing in Irish that were very much alive in the first half of the twentieth century. Aspects of these debates have been alluded to above. In one camp were those, such as Father Peter O’Leary (1839-1920), who held that caint na ndaoine, ‘the speech of the people’, should be taken as the model for the literature of the new Ireland. In the other camp were those who looked back to the literary language of the Classical Irish period (ca. 1200-1650 A.D.). (13) The literary language of this period was one that had been codified and described in a number of grammatical tracts, including some from the period itself. The language represented, for those promoting it as the basis for the new literary standard, the highest level that the Irish language had ever attained; all since then had been a process of degeneration. The poetry committed to manuscript during the Classical Irish period was, for the most part, addressed by the poet to a noble patron in the public context of the nobleman’s court. Many of those writing in Irish in the first half of the twentieth century, such as Tadhg O Donnchadha (“Torna,” 1874-1949), used the conventions and a version of the language of this Classical poetry to write nationalistic and patriotic verse. Torna’s Bhearsaidheacht Ghaeilge (Irish Versification, 1936), intended asa primer for those writing poetry in Modern Irish, was based to a large extent upon the conventions of Classical Irish poetry.

Classical Irish, then, stood for the literary tradition in this debate and caint na ndaoine for the living language. As early as 1923, however, the poet and civil servant Liam Gogan had suggested in the journal Fainne an Lae (Daybreak) that only Old Irish could form the basis for a meaningful national standard literary language (O’Leary 1995:42). The attractions of Old Irish to a mid-twentieth-century poet with modernist leanings, such as Gogan, are obvious. (14) In contrast to the poetry of the later Classical period, much of that preserved from the Old and Middle Irish periods is intensely personal in tone and somewhat less complex metrically. To poets such as Gogan and O Riordain, the public rhetoric of Classical Irish verse and of those twentieth-century authors who imitated it could seem a dead end, and its perceived metrical rigidity an empty shell. Here O Riordain’s 1947 reference to the “mold on Mac An Bhaird” is relevant. (15) Perhaps the interest in translations from Old and Middle Irish religious and personal poetry at mid-century can be seen as a way out of the enforced choice between spoken Modern Irish and Classical Irish as models for literature. It was a way of connecting with the linguistic and literary tradition that was consistent with the contemporary turn to the personal, the simplified, the antibombastic, the modern: translation of the early literature provided a poet with an alternative genealogy and poetic identity.

In times of growth and change, one of the most natural responses is to turn to the past to see what help or guidance it can provide. Alternatively, the past can be repudiated altogether. The poet Mairtin O Direain (1910-88) explicitly turned away from earlier literary models toward the speech of the people. Maire Mhac an tSaoi (b. 1922) embraced the poetry of the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries and the folksong tradition as fertile stimuli for her own poetry. Tomas O Floinn saw in Ireland’s earlier medieval poetry a model for modern poets. Sean O Riordain, as we have seen, struggled with the question of his relationship with the Irish literary tradition for his entire writing life. His translations from Old and Middle Irish should be seen in the larger context of this question of the identity of the Irish poet and the Irish-language writer’s relationship to tradition and to Ireland’s past that dominated so much of the twentieth-century discussion about writing in Irish.

(1) See, for example, Meyer 1911; Flower 1926; Murphy 1956; Greene and O’Connor 1967. For a thorough discussion of the ideological and political dimensions of translation from Old and Middle Irish into English, see Tymoczko 1999. I wish to thank the joint editors of this volume for their thoughtful and constructive comments on several drafts of this paper.

(2) The Oireachtas (‘assembly’), founded in 1897, is an annual competitive musical and literary festival in Ireland, at which a wide range of prizes in various musical and literary disciplines is awarded.

(3) Hermans 1982 discusses a parallel case with respect to Dutch literature.

(4) All but two of the seventeen translations in this collection had been previously published in the pages of the journal Comhar from the early 1940s onward.

(5) For a comprehensive survey of the critical reception afforded O Riordain’s Eireball Spideoige, see O Coileain 1982:234-66.

(6) All translations from Irish are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

(7) The predicament that he adumbrates here has been aptly encapsulated by Sean O Coileain (1982:220) as “ar thaobh amhain ta foirm, meadaracht, traidisiun, smacht–agus ar ah taobh eile samhlaiocht gan teorainn, an ego, ah duine guagach corrthonach …” (“on the one side there is form, meter, tradition, control–and on the other unbounded imagination, the ego, the restless wavering individual.”

(8) “… d’fheadfai a ra go bhfuil iarracht deanta aige tuiscint eigin den am ata thart a chaomhnu ina stor focal” (O’Brien 1968:105); “it could be said that he has made an attempt to preserve a certain understanding of bygone times in his vocabulary.’

(9) In Old, Middle, and Early Modern Irish, consonants are divided into groups for rhyming purposes, based on their phonemic properties (stops versus spirants and voiced versus voiceless, for example). Vowels must be identical for full rhyme, but consonants need only be from the same group. (For example, gob, ‘beak’, rhymes with bog, ‘soft’.) The rules for consonant clusters are somewhat more complex. See Knott 1957:4-10 for a brief discussion of these issues.

(10) Except in the case of a limited group of preposed adjectives, such as sean-, ‘old’; fior-, ‘true’; droch-, ‘bad’; and so forth.

(11) Maria Tymoczko has pointed out to me that O Riordain may be here following in James Joyce’s footsteps in his use of defamiliarized compounds.

(12) These adjectives are an example of contrasting pairs composed of the same stem preceded by either a positive prefix (so-) or a negative/privative (do-) one.

(13) The poetry written in the literary language of this period is often referred to as “bardic poetry.” See Bergin 1970 for examples as well as an introduction to the poetry.

(14) The attraction of the Middle Ages for modernists writing in English is a common enough phenomenon, e.g. Ezra Pound or W.B. Yeats.

(15) The poet referred to here is probably Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird (?1570-?1630).


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Mac Eoin, Gearoid. 1965. Review of Sean S. O Conghaile, ed., Ri na n Uile: Lirici Diaga a Cumadh idir an 9u agus an 12u Cead, with Modern Irish versions by Sean O Riordain and introduction by Caitilin Ni Mhaol-Chroin. Studia Hibernica 5:182-84.

Meyer, Kuno, ed. and trans. 1911. Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry. London: Constable.

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–. 1953b. “An Mheadracht i bhFiliocht Sheain Ui Riordain.” Comhar 12:6.5-6.

–. 1955. Athbheo. Dublin: Clo Morainn.

–. 1969. Athdhanta. Dublin: Clo Morainn.

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–. 1964. Brosna. Dublin: Sairseal agus Dill.

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–. 1975. “Scriobh na Filiochta. Scriobh 2:72-73.

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KAARINA HOLLO is lecturer in the Celtic Department at the University of Aberdeen, having taught at Harvard University, University College Cork, and Queen’s University, Belfast. Her research interests span Irish-language literature from the early Middle Ages to the present day. She has published on medieval Irish metrics, aspects of the Ulster Cycle, the reception of continental romance in seventeenth-century Gaelic Ireland, and translation from Irish to English in the contemporary context.

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