Before we start looking at this taste of Celtic verse, I’d like to tell you about something that happened to me recently. A friend had lent me a tape of a well-known storyteller reciting selections of Celtic poetry in translation, and I put it on to listen. The performer’s voice was lovely, his accompaniment skilled and charming, and it was clear that he wanted to share with the listener the beauty and meaning that he’d found in the poetry. The translations were reasonably good, and some of the poems were among my favorites. Yet at the end of the tape, I felt irritated. I sensed a certain pretentiousness in the performance. I felt especially irked when upon a second hearing, I couldn’t put a finger on anything that was seriously pompous in this particular recording.
A couple of days later, while working on this article, I opened a book of early Irish poetry right to the page of one of the poems I’d heard, and the reason for my earlier dissatisfaction came clear. As I read the Irish poem, its striking images danced in my mind as they had before – but also the beautiful, musical syllables chimed together with alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm, and the power of the words themselves shone like sun on running water.
That beauty and power is what was lost in translation. I’m sure the performer on the tape knew or instinctively sensed that this poetry had to be aurally powerful. But the translation into English stripped away the verses’ unique sound patterns. Since the performer wanted to re-create the sense of aural power, he tried to compensate by superimposing vocal techniques on the poem – which unfortunately created a slightly tooo draMAHtic and [pause] preTENtious impression, which is what I’d sensed. It wasn’t really his fault – it was an inherent limitation of working with translations.
Now, if Celtic poetry and literature were never translated into English or other widely-spoken languages, the world would be a poorer place; certainly very few American Druids and Pagans would otherwise have known about its existence. But nevertheless, we only see crumbs and
|fragments through the medium of English – and far more than
just sound patterns are lost (this is addressed in more detail in Labara
Hearing and understanding the full beauty and meaning of Celtic poetry is one reason why working with original, Celtic-language texts is so important to us, who wish to make the Celtic spirit central to our lives and our lives central to the Celtic spirit. Working deeply with Celtic texts on several levels – see the sidebox for suggested ways to do so – is the start of a path into the heart of the Celtic experience, even before starting general study of a Celtic language (which I highly recommend).
The following verses are attributed to Fionn, who gained imbas, poetic intuition, by tasting of the Salmon of Wisdom; they are found in two twelfth century manuscripts, but its date of composition is thought to be around the ninth or tenth century, possibly earlier. It is a wonderful example of the compactly elegant and exact evocation of a natural scene that is Celtic nature poetry at its best.
Working with the Sounds
You may be surprised to learn that Irish is a highly phonetic language. The spelling of an Irish word is a rather reliable guide to its pronunciation; the key is that the letters and combinations of letters in Irish spelling are pronounced very differently from in English. There are also pronuniation differences from dialect to dialect and from century to century, so learners of modern Irish should not be surprised to see unexpected pronunciations and spellings.
SHGYALE lYem DUEEV
GUEETH ard OOaR
GUEER uh RITH
AY muh SHGYALE
One important element of Irish pronunciation is that all consonants except h have two pronunciations, ‘broad’ and ‘slender’. Broad consonants sound rather as if they are followed by a gentle ‘oo’ or ‘w’ sound, most obvious when the next vowel is e or i, the slender vowels. Slender consonants sound as if they are followed by a gentle ‘y’ or ‘i’ sound, most obvious when the next letter is a, o or u, the ‘broad’ vowels. (Phonetically speaking, slender consonants are generally palatalised, and broad consonants are velarised. Orthographically speaking, it is a rule of Irish spelling that broad consonants must be flanked by broad vowels, and slender consonants by slender vowels; Irish spelling will start to make much more sense when you remember this.) The superscripts U and Y here indicate where the broad or slender quality of a consonant is most critical to approximate pronunciation. Also marked by italics or bold are slender r, slender n and broad l. Main STRESSES are marked in capitals.
lemm: ‘with me’; cf. modern Irish liom
dúib: ‘to you (plural)’; cf. modern Irish daoibh. In previous articles, we have looked at how Celtic languages tend to use noun-preposition constructions to express ideas that in English are verbs. This usage is a good example: the literal translation is ‘[There-is] news with-me to-you’, but in colloquial English means "I have [a] scél for you."
dordaid ‘bells, roars’; belling is the noisemaking of a stag in rut, which takes place in late fall. If you’ve never heard it, try to find a recording or rent a nature video about deer.
dam In modern Irish, damh is ‘ox’, but in early Irish, it means ‘stag’ or ‘bull’ (as in the "Song of Amergin", Am dam secht ndírend, "I am a stag of seven fights"). Bulls and oxen don’t bell, so the meaning here is clearly ‘stag’. Dam was a common epithet used for warriors. An Damhair, the stag-rut, is a traditional season-word in Scottish Gaelic.
gaim ‘winter’, modern Irish geimhreadh, cognate with Welsh gaeaf
ro- ro-, which is used several times in this poem, is a preverbal particle that indicates the perfect tense – that is, it refers an action that has been completed. This corresponds to the use of ‘have’ as a helping verb in English: ‘I have arrived’, ‘You had read’
ro-fáith ro- + third person singular past tense of of feithid, ‘goes’; so ro-fáith means ‘has gone’
sam ‘summer’, related to modern Irish samradh, Welsh haf, Gaulish Samonios, and of course, Samhain (‘summer’s end’), all of which originate with Common Celtic *samo-, from Indo-European *sem-. English summer is also cognate.
gáeth: ‘wind’ (noun)
ard ‘high’; also ‘loud’. Remember that adjectives usually come after the noun in Irish.
úar ‘cold’ (adjective)
grían ‘sun’. Note that this is a feminine noun in Irish.
rith ‘run, running, course’ (noun)
rían ‘the (flowing) sea, ocean’; its principal meanings include ‘course, path, track, vigour, power of movement’ – generally, the concept of coursing energy
ro-rúad ro- + ‘reddened’
rath ‘bracken, ferns’. Bracken grows widely on the hills and on untilled land in Britain and Ireland, and turns a browny-red when it withers in the autumn.
ro-cleth ro- + past tense of ceilid ‘hide, conceal’
cruth ‘shape, appearance’ (i.e., the bracken’s shape)
gab ro- + past tense of ‘to hold, to grasp, to take hold of’ gaibid. In Celtic languages, emotions, characteristics and other states are often said to ‘take hold’ of someone or something
gnáth ‘usual, customary’
giugrann the genitive case of gigrainn, ‘barnacle goose, wild goose’ – the change to the genitive case indicates a possessive meaning: ‘of, of the’
guth ‘cry, call’
úacht ‘cold’ (noun)
én genitive case of éan ‘bird’
ré ‘season, quarter-year, time’ (related to the second element in modern Irish samradh, geimhreadh above)
é ‘he, it, this’
scél see above. Note that there is an implied ‘is’ in this line, "This [is] my scél".
In this, it is similar to Welsh cynghanedd, of which we saw an example last issue. Another way in is it like cynghanedd is that while end-rhyme plays a part in the poetic form, elements such as alliteration, internal rhyme, consonance, and the above-mentioned stress-position play at least as important a role.
Rhyme in early Irish verse is not limited the concept of ‘rhyme’ in the English sense. In English, two words rhyme if, at the end of the two words, all corresponding vowel and consonant sounds match. Early Irish poetics conceives of rhyme more subtly: two words rhyme if, at the end of the words, all corresponding vowel sounds match and all corresponding consonant sounds fall into the same class. For instance, the sounds /n/ and /l/ fall into the same class, so én and scél rhyme. Each consonant-class is made up of closely-related sounds :
|Class G||b, d, and g|
|Class K||p, t, and k|
|Class X||f, th as in thin, kh as in loch|
|Class l||l, n, r, v, dh as in those, gh as Magen or agua|
|Class L||m, ng as in sing, Irish long ll, nn, rr|
|Class S||s, sh|
Here are some elements of Irish poetics to listen for in these verses: the rhyme scheme for this metre is principally abab, although sometimes only the second and fourth line of a verse rhyme. Consonance, where end-consonants must match in class and vowels match in length frequently occurs in the last words of a verse, such as rath, cruth and guth in the third verse (an accent, or síneadh fada, marks long vowels; it also marks the first vowel in a diphthong in early Irish; short vowels are unmarked). The third verse is highly alliterative. Aicill rhyme, which is a special type of internal rhyme, occurs when the last word in one line rhymes with a word at the beginning of the next line – such as between ré and é in the last verse.
Note that the first word of the poem is also its last. A closing echo or repetition of the first line, word or syllable of a poem is called a dúnad, or ‘closing’, and is very typical of Irish poetry in this period – so much so that poetry of this period without a dúnad is usually assumed to be incompletely extant. The Auricept na n-Éces tells us "O poets [aes dána] of the east and west/ Of both Ireland and Scotland/ They deserve no lucky treasures/ For every poem that is not properly closed [dúnta]."
This poem is clearly specially suited to Samhain – the images are all
of that season, and the poet tells us outright, ‘Summer has gone’. This
gives you and it three months to get properly acquainted.
A Twentieth Century Verse
Our modern poetry taste this issue is the first verse of "Fáilte Bhéal na Sionna don Iasc" ("The Shannon Estuary Welcomes the Fish") by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (1952-), who is considered one of the best poets working in Irish today.
Léim an bhradáin
Mise atá fáiltiúil, líontach
Go caise ciúin
Go heireaball eascon
Working with the Sounds
LYEM uhn VRAH-don
MEESH-uh taw FAWL-chYool, LEEN-tuhkh
guh CAH-shuh CYOON
guh HEH-ruh-buhl AHS-cuhn
Working with the Words
an bhradáin ‘of the salmon’. This is the genitive case of an bradán, 'the salmon', which here includes the addition of a séimhiú, or lenition, of the initial b to bh. The salmon is a key creature in the Celtic mythos, and the ‘salmon leap’ is one of the hero-feats in Irish mythology. Bradán beatha (‘salmon of life’) is an idiom meaning ‘life essence’
sa 'in the'
lann multiple meanings, including ‘fishscale’, ‘blade’, 'plate, lamina'
lom 'naked, bare, thin'
sciath ‘shield, shield-shaped object’, also a figurative usage ‘wing’
airgid the genitive case of airgead, 'silver'. Airgead is also used to mean ‘money’ in Irish, like its Welsh cognate arian.
mise the emphatic form of mé, 'I, me'
atá the present relative tense of the verb 'to be'. Mise atá therefore means, 'I am', but is a special emphatic form, stressing the 'I', as opposed to the non-emphatic, 'standard' form of 'I am [adjective/state]', tá mé or taim
fáiltiúil 'joyous, glad, welcoming', adjectival form of fáilte, as in the familiar céad míle fáilte, ‘a hundred thousand welcomes'
líontach ‘netted’, an adjectival form of líon, ‘net, web’. (Other meanings of líon include ‘full number, complement’ and ‘flax, linen’)
sleamhain 'slippery, smooth, sleek'
lán d’ 'full of' (d’ a contraction of de). A little-used meaning of lán is ‘curve’.
fheamnach from feamnach, 'seaweed'; the preceding de causes lenition of the f to fh. An adjectival form of the word, feamainneach, means ‘clustered like seaweed’, and is sometimes used figuratively to describe ringleted or tressed hair.
go has several meanings and usages, including ‘to’ and ‘-ly’, but in the last two lines of this verse, we have an archaic usage, meaning ‘with, having the property of’. In this context, go puts the following words into the genitive case. For some Irish words, including the next four, the genitive plural form is the same as the nominative singular form, so only the plural English meaning is given here.
caise 'streams, currents'
ciúin 'quiet, still, calm'
heireaball h + eireaball, 'tails' – the aspiration h at the beginning is also caused by the word go.
eascon 'eels' (also sometimes 'snakes'). Eireaball eascainne ‘an eel’s tail’ is used in idioms to denote precarious, slippery things, and the Eel’s-Tail Bridge is another name for the Pupils’ Bridge that Cuchulain had to cross (using the salmon leap!) to get to the island of the woman-warrior Scathach.
Full translations of the verses have been omitted this issue, to encourage you to work out the meanings of the verses on your own, and to discourage your brain from being imprinted with an ‘official’ English translation rather than with the Celtic verses themselves. But if you get really stuck working out the meanings, the first poem is frequently anthologised in Celtic poetry collections such as A Celtic Miscellany (ed. Kenneth Jackson, Penguin Books). The complete Ní Dhomhnaill poem, with an English translation, can be found in Modern Irish Poetry: an anthology, edited by Patrick Crotty (Blackstaff Press, Belfast 1995), and her poetry has also appeared with English translations in various other collections.
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©Meredith Richard, 1998. All rights reserved.