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Patrick Walsh-Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Irish Bards and “Bardspell”

In ancient Ireland, poets were revered by kings and commoners alike, their art regarded with something close to true awe: a blend of delighted wonder and fear. Many believed a well-wrought poem had the power to enchant; since much of early Irish poetry developed in an oral, or bardic, tradition, the recited poem was akin to a spell.


Today, of course, unless you can actually read verse in Erse you need a translator who wields as much magic as the original bard. Brian O’Nolan, a beloved Irish author of mine, had fierce command of the language. He wrote under several pseudonyms. For 25 years he entertained and skewered his countrymen with a column in The Irish Times under the byline Myles na Gopaleen [Myles of the Little Ponies], but he achieved worldwide fame as Flann O’Brien, author of several wildly entertaining novels, including At Swim-Two-Birds and his masterpiece The Third Policeman.


Flann did some moonlighting in other genres. One of my very favorite translations is his rendering of a 9th century poem called “Scel Lem Duib.”


      Here’s a song —

      stags give tongue

      winter snows

      summer goes


      High wind blow

      sun is low

      brief his day

      seas give spray


      Fern clumps redden

      shapes are hidden

      wildgeese raise

      wonted cries.


      Cold snow girds

      wings of birds

      icy time —

      that’s my rime.


That’s the real thing right there, my friend. I’m fond of pointing out that prose is like beer, but poetry is like whiskey–condensed, distilled, and plenty heady. O’Brien’s wonderfully bracing translation with its punning finale is a double-shot.


For my money, though, the finest translator of early Irish poetry was Frank O’Connor, better known for his superb short stories.


When I first arrived at Trinity College in Dublin as a graduate student, I crossed the street to Waterstone’s bookshop to case their titles in Anglo-Irish literature. A slim edition by Frank O’Connor called The Little Monasteries winked at me. First published in 1963 by The Dolmen Press, this wee gem–more a pamphlet than a book–contains just twenty poems but they’re all diamonds of compressed sensibilities, each one conveying a worldview. Take these eight lines of timeless street smarts:


      Advice to Lovers


      The way to get on with a girl

         Is to drift like a man in a mist,

      Happy enough to be caught,

         Happy to be dismissed.


      Glad to be out of her way,

         Glad to rejoin her in bed,

      Equally grieved or gay

         To learn that she’s living or dead.


An Irish poet penned that eye-opener sometime between the 7th and 12th centuries–quite a contrast to the chaste, ankle-length lines of Irish verse in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And here’s another example of why I carried The Little Monasteries in my overcoat pocket the whole time I lived in Ireland:


      The Old Poet


      God be praised who ne’er forgets me

         In my art so high and cold

      And still sheds upon my verses

         All the magic of red gold.


Ah yes, recited many a time over a well-earned pint after a long day contending with nib and tomes.


And while not included in The Little Monasteries, O’Connor’s version of the much-translated 9th century poem “The Blackbird by Belfast Lough” (what is it about the 9th century in Ireland?) remains, to my mind, the unparalleled jewel of both early Irish poetry and its best conversion into modern English:


      The Blackbird by Belfast Lough


      What little throat

      Has framed that note?

      What gold beak shot

         It far away?

      A blackbird on

      His leafy throne

      Tossed it alone

         Across the bay.


Here in America, April is National Poetry Month, so I offer you an incantation of my own, a poem written in the terse style of the early Irish–each line a monastically austere three syllables–in celebration of the art itself.




        Ask of me



        with my ink

        white magic.


        Transmute form,

        transmit fire —


        mental deeds

        meant to read.


        Tell the Muse

        to amaze.


        Mage to-do:

        make it new.


        Nail the word,

        name the world.

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Patrick Walsh served four years as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. His articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
More at his Website:
He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2017 Patrick Walsh
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine




April 2017

Volume 17 Issue 11

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