THE MOST FAMOUS IRISH POEM

THE MOST FAMOUS IRISH POEM

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A poem, written by an Irish monk abroad, has survived from the 6th Century. Yes, it is about a cat. And centuries later we are still obsessed with cats.

 

Irish poetry has always been fascinating. Over the centuries, it has often woven two or three different functions of life together. Because most early Irish people weren’t literate, it meant that things which needed to be remembered through generations were transmitted via the spoken word. Poetry was one way that helped keep oral traditions alive – when Irish people remembered poems, they could be reciting anything from old Brehon laws, medicine compositions, or instructions to the nearest well. The complex interplay between these traditions has produced a body of work that is both rich in variety and difficult to categorise.

Poetry in Irish represents the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. The earliest surviving poems in Irish date back to the 6th century, and are generally short lyrics on themes from religion or the world of nature. The fact that there are not a whole lot about wild feelings of being lovesick might be due to who was writing the poems. Monks were the usual scribes of these recovered works. So while they may have had love stories to tell, they weren’t stupid enough to jot them down in the latest vellum-covered illuminated gospel books. Many of the monks wrote their scribbles and poems in the margins of the manuscripts that they were copying.

It was practical for poems to be short because the Irish recognized that it was necessary to use any means necessary to make the poems lasting in their oral culture. To accomplish such a feat as well as they have, they used complicated rhyme schemes that would render a poem nonsensical if any of the key words were changed from the original version.

In an oral culture, Irish poetry had many uses. A poem could be used to immortalize both the poet and the subject of the poem; oftentimes kings would commission poets to create a piece about them. Such poems would be passed on to descendants so they would remember the great deeds of past generations. Kings would also commission poets to write poems of advertisement, speaking of the king’s greatness and worthiness, to attract young men to be warriors on behalf of their kingdom. Oral poetry, because it was in the vernacular, was often used for entertainment. Poems that were entertaining could also be informative, teaching people lessons or offering them wisdom of experience for dealing with situations they would encounter in their everyday lives. Finally, poems, especially those featured in the sagas, were thought to be an instrument of the supernatural: certain poems could enchant people or objects.

Early poems are linguistically archaic, so translations into modern English make their interpretation imprecise. But it does give the reader a fascinating glimpse of pre-Christian Ireland.

The best known example of one of these old Irish poems is Pangur Bán. Pangur Bán was written in about the 9th century at Reichenau Abbey. It was penned by an Irish Benedictine monk who lived in the extant St. Paul’s Monastery on Reichenau Island in Lake Constance (Bodensee), where Germany meets with Carinthia, Austria. The poem is about his cat – Pangur Bán, or “white fuller”.  In 8 verses of four lines, the author compares the cat’s activities with his own scholarly pursuits. Little did he know that 1,200 years later, others would fall in love with the poem Pangur Bán, too. I wonder if he ever thought that our 2013 eyeballs would be on it today.

 

The poem is preserved in a volume called the Reichenau Primer (pictured above), and is now kept in St. Paul’s Abbey (below) in the Lavanttal, Austria. Many people over the years have tried to translate it into modern English without losing the original meaning.

 

There are several different translations of the poem from the Old Irish. Below is a literal translation by Gerard Murphy.

 

PANGUR BÁN

 

I and white Pangur

practise each of us his special art:

his mind is set on hunting,

my mind on my special craft.

I love (it is better than all fame) to be quiet

beside my book, diligently pursuing knowledge.

White Pangur does not envy me:

he loves his childish craft.

When the two of us (this tale never wearies us) are

alone together in our house,

we have something to which we may apply our skill,

an endless sport.

It is usual, at times, as a result of warlike battlings,

for a mouse to stick in his net.

For my part, into my net

falls some difficult rule of hard meaning.

He directs his bright eye

against an enclosing wall.

Though my clear eye is very weak

I direct it against keenness of knowledge.

He is joyful with swift movement

when a mouse sticks in his sharp paw.

I too am joyful

when I understand a dearly loved difficult problem.

Thought we be thus at any time,

neither of us hinders the other:

each of us likes his craft,

severally rejoicing in them.

He it is who is master for himself

of the work which he does every day.

I can perform my own work

directed at understanding clearly what is difficult.

 

And here is a modernised translation, from the Irish by Robin Flower.

PANGUR BÁN

 

I and Pangur Ban my cat,

Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night.

 

Better far than praise of men

Tis to sit with book and pen;

Pangur bears me no ill will,

He too plies his simple skill.

 

Tis a merry thing to see

At our tasks how glad are we,

When at home we sit and find

Entertainment to our mind.

 

Oftentimes a mouse will stray

In the hero Pangur’s way;

Oftentimes my keen thought set

Takes a meaning in its net.

 

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye

Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I

All my little wisdom try.

 

When a mouse darts from its den

O how glad is Pangur then!

O what gladness do I prove

When I solve the doubts I love!

 

So in peace our tasks we ply,

Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mine and he has his.

 

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.

 

And here it is in the original language for you scholars out there:

 

PANGUR BÁN

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,

cechtar nathar fria saindan:

bíth a menmasam fri seilgg,

mu memna céin im saincheirdd.

 

Caraimse fos (ferr cach clu)

oc mu lebran, leir ingnu;

ni foirmtech frimm Pangur Bán:

caraid cesin a maccdán.

 

O ru biam (scél cen scís)

innar tegdais, ar n-oendís,

taithiunn, dichrichide clius,

ni fris tarddam ar n-áthius.

 

Gnáth, huaraib, ar gressaib gal

glenaid luch inna línsam;

os mé, du-fuit im lín chéin

dliged ndoraid cu ndronchéill.

 

Fuachaidsem fri frega fál

a rosc, a nglése comlán;

fuachimm chein fri fegi fis

mu rosc reil, cesu imdis.

Faelidsem cu ndene dul

hi nglen luch inna gerchrub;

hi tucu cheist ndoraid ndil

os me chene am faelid.

 

Cia beimmi a-min nach ré

ni derban cách a chele:

maith la cechtar nár a dán;

subaigthius a óenurán.

 

He fesin as choimsid dáu

in muid du-ngni cach oenláu;

du thabairt doraid du glé

for mu mud cein am messe.

 

As a frame from history it is fascinating. This is because we humans are all the damn same! We are obsessed with cats, the current internet star. But also, we live the same kind of life as the anonymous monk. The monks, obviously bored sometimes in their big draughty monasteries would be distracted by the cats and mice that would probably play happily at their feet. Unless someone was getting eaten. And we humans of the modern era often forget that monks weren’t just obsessed with being scribes for God. They got tired and cranky too, found their work boring, or just need a break (facebook, anyone?). And that is why this poem is so cute. It was penned by a man who needed a distraction. And a cat called Pangur Bán was just the break this monk needed. Thanks Pangur Bán. If the internet was around when you were alive, you’d have 1 billion YouTube hits. I promise.

 

Want to have your own go at translating the poem from the Irish?  Email us editor@oldmooreslamanc.com

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