It’s amazing to think that these poems are up to 1,200 years old, and we can still read them.
The literature of ancient Ireland is among the most primitive and original of Western Europe. It holds huge importance as the earliest voice from the dawn of West European civilisation. The poets of these ancient verses remain a mystery as many were scribed anonymously in the margins of other works. The names fell from the pages, lost and never to return to where the eyes of the reader might ever see them.
All of the poems in this article were translated from Old Irish into modern English by Kuno Meyer over one hundred years ago. Some excerpts from his book (originally published in 1911) are included below. If you’d like to read more, a free online copy can be accessed at gutenberg press. And if you want to learn more about the ancient Irish poets, we’ve got you covered here.
It was only on the outskirts of the Continental world, and beyond the sway and influence of the Roman Empire, that some vigorous nations preserved their national institutions intact, and among them there are only three whom letters reached early enough to leave behind some record of their pagan civilisation in a vernacular literature. These were the Irish, the Anglo-Saxons, and, comparative latecomers, the Icelanders.
It was during this period that the oral literature, handed down by many generations of bards and storytellers, was first written down in the monasteries. Unfortunately, not a single tale, only two or three poems, have come down to us from these early centuries in contemporary manuscripts. In Ireland nearly all old manuscripts were destroyed during the Viking terror which burst upon the island at the end of the eighth century. But, from the eleventh century onward, we have an almost unbroken series of hundreds of manuscripts in which all that had escaped destruction was collected and arranged. Many of the tales and poems thus preserved were undoubtedly originally composed in the eighth century; some few perhaps in the seventh.
The purely lyrical poetry of ancient Ireland may be roughly divided into two sections—that of the professional bard attached to the court and person of a chief; and that of the unattached poet, whether monk or itinerant bard.
Religious poetry ranges from single quatrains to lengthy compositions dealing with all the varied aspects of religious life. Many of them give us a fascinating insight into the peculiar character of the early Irish Church, which differed in so many ways from the rest of the Christian world. We see the hermit in his lonely cell, the monk at his devotions or at his work of copying in the scriptorium or under the open sky; or we hear the ascetic who, alone or with twelve chosen companions, has left one of the great monasteries in order to live in greater solitude among the woods or mountains, or on a lonely island.
In nature poetry the Gaelic muse may vie with that of any other nation. Indeed, these poems occupy a unique position in the literature of the world. To seek out and watch and love nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest, was given to no people so early and so fully as to the Celt. Many hundreds of Gaelic and Welsh poems testify to this fact. It is a characteristic of these poems that in none of them do we get an elaborate or sustained description of any scene or scenery, but rather a succession of pictures and images which the poet, like an impressionist, calls up before us by light and skillful touches.
The Hosts of Faery is from the tale called Laegaire mac Crimthainn’s Visit to the Fairy Realm of Mag Mell, the oldest copy of which is found in the Book of Leinster, of the twelfth century. To the Irish at the time, Magh Mell was one “otherworld.” It was the land of the unseen, usually separated from human life by water, a lake or an ocean, which by some means had to be crossed.
But this is not the only happy land of delight where immortally young beings could go. In tales dating from the eighth century at the very latest, a tribe of superhuman beings live in the fairy mounds. Namely, the Tuatha De Danann of the annals, the Folk of the Goddess Dana, who held the sovereignty of Ireland prior to the arrival of the sons of Mil. They are the fairies of the modern Irish, who still call them by the same name as did the story-teller of Connla a thousand years ago: the folk of the mound.
The Hosts of Faery
White shields they carry in their hands,
With emblems of pale silver;
With glittering blue swords,
With mighty stout horns.
In well-devised battle array,
Ahead of their fair chieftain
They march amid blue spears,
Pale-visaged, curly-headed bands.
They scatter the battalions of the foe,
They ravage every land they attack,
Splendidly they march to combat,
A swift, distinguished, avenging host!
No wonder though their strength be great:
Sons of queens and kings are one and all;
On their heads are Beautiful golden-yellow manes.
With smooth comely bodies,
With bright blue-starred eyes,
With pure crystal teeth, with thin red lips.
Good they are at man-slaying,
Melodious in the ale-house,
Masterly at making songs, Skilled at playing fidchell.*
*A game like draughts or chess.
Rónán mac Colmáin was an Irish poet who died 707. Rónán is said to be the author of the poem Song of the Sea, however new evidence has shown that it might to date from the 11th-century. The mystery remains…
Song of the Sea
A great tempest rages on the Plain of Ler,
bold across its high borders
Wind has arisen, fierce winter has slain us;
it has come across the sea,
It has pierced us like a spear.
When the wind sets from the east,
the spirit of the wave is roused,
It desires to rush past us westward
to the land where sets the sun,
To the wild and broad green sea.
When the wind sets from the north,
it urges the dark fierce waves
Towards the southern world, surging
in strife against the wide sky,
Listening to the witching song.
When the wind sets from the west
across the salt sea of swift currents,
It desires to go past us eastward
towards the Sun-Tree,
Into the broad long-distant sea.
When the wind sets from the south
across the land of Saxons of mighty shields,
The wave strikes the Isle of Scit,
it surges up to the summit of Caladnet,
And pounds the grey-green mouth
of the Shannon.
The ocean is in flood, the sea is full,
delightful is the home of ships,
The wind whirls the sand around the estuary,
Swiftly the rudder cleaves the broad sea.
With mighty force the wave has tumbled
across each broad river-mouth,
Wind has come, white winter has slain us,
around Cantire, around the land of Alba,
Slieve-Dremon pours forth a full stream.
Son of the God the Father, with mighty hosts,
save me from the horror of fierce tempests!
Righteous Lord of the Feast, only save me from the horrid
blast, From Hell with furious tempest!
This next poem, Summer has Come probably dates from the tenth century.
Summer Has Come
Summer has come, healthy and free,
Whence the brown wood is aslope;
The slender nimble deer leap,
And the path of seals is smooth.
The cuckoo sings sweet music,
Whence there is smooth restful sleep;
Gentle birds leap upon the hill,
And swift grey stags.
Heat has laid hold of the rest of the deer,
The lovely cry of curly packs!
The white extent of the strand smiles,
There the swift sea is.
A sound of playful breezes in the tops
Of a black oakwood is Drum Daill,
The noble hornless herd runs,
To whom Cuan-wood is a shelter.
Green bursts out on every herb,
The top of the green oakwood is bushy,
Summer has come, winter has gone,
Twisted hollies wound the hound.
The blackbird sings a loud strain,
To him the live wood is a heritage,
The sad angry sea is fallen asleep,
The speckled salmon leaps.
The sun smiles over every land,
A parting for me from the brood of cares:
Hounds bark, stags tryst, Ravens flourish,
Summer has come!
It’s thought that this poem The Deserted Home is from the eleventh century.
The Deserted Home
Sadly talks the blackbird here.
Well I know the woe he found:
No matter who cut down his nest,
For its young it was destroyed.
I myself not long ago
Found the woe he now has found.
Well I read thy song, O bird,
For the ruin of thy home.
Thy heart, O blackbird, burnt within
At the deed of reckless man:
Thy nest bereft of young and egg
The cowherd deems a trifling tale.
At thy clear notes they used to come,
Thy new-fledged children, from afar;
No bird now comes from out thy house,
Across its edge the nettle grows.
They murdered them, the cowherd lads,
All thy children in one day:
One the fate to me and thee,
My own children live no more.
There was feeding by thy side
Thy mate, a bird from o’er the sea:
Then the snare entangled her,
At the cowherds’ hands she died.
O Thou, the Shaper of the world!
Uneven hands Thou layst on us:
Our fellows at our side are spared,
Their wives and children are alive.
A fairy host came as a blast
To bring destruction to our house:
Though bloodless was their taking off,
Yet dire as slaughter by the sword.
Woe for our wife, woe for our young!
The sadness of our grief is great:
No trace of them within, without
And therefore is my heart so sad.
Summer is Gone is from the ninth century.
Summer is Gone
My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone
The wild-goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds;
Season of ice—these are my tidings.
A Song of Winter is from the story called The Hiding of the Hill of Howth and probably dates around the tenth century.
A Song of Winter
Cold, cold! Cold to-night is broad Moylurg, higher the snow
than the mountain-range,
The deer cannot get at their food. Cold till Doom! The storm has spread over all:
A river is each furrow upon the slope, each ford a full pool.
A great tidal sea is each loch, a full loch is each pool:
Horses cannot get over the ford of Ross, no more can two feet get there.
The fish of Ireland are a-roaming, there is no strand which the wave does not pound,
Not a town there is in the land, not a bell is heard, no crane talks.
The wolves of Cuan-wood get neither rest nor sleep in their lair,
The little wren cannot find shelter in her nest on the slope of Lon.
Keen wind and cold ice has burst upon the little company of birds,
The blackbird cannot get a lee to her liking,
Shelter for its side in Cuan-wood.
Cosy our pot on its hook, crazy the hut on the slope of Lon:
The snow has crushed the wood here, toilsome to climb up Ben-bo.
Glenn Rye’s ancient bird from the bitter wind gets grief;
Great her misery and her pain, the ice will get into her mouth.
From flock and from down to rise
Take it to heart!—were folly for thee:
Ice in heaps on every ford— That is why I say ‘cold’!
This poem, The Monk and his Pet Cat, is very famous, and you probably already know it. The language is that of the late eighth or early ninth century.
The Monk and His Cat
I and my white Pangur
Have each his special art:
His mind is set on hunting mice,
Mine is upon my special craft.
I love to rest—better than any fame!
With close study at my little book:
White Pangur does not envy me:
He loves his childish play.
When in our house we two are all alone
A tale without tedium!
We have—sport never-ending!
Something to exercise our wit.
At times by feats of derring-do
A mouse sticks in his net,
While into my net there drops
A difficult problem of hard meaning.
He points his full shining eye
Against the fence of the wall:
I point my clear though feeble eye
Against the keenness of science.
He rejoices with quick leaps
When in his sharp claw sticks a mouse:
I too rejoice when I have grasped
A problem difficult and dearly loved.
Though we are thus at all times,
Neither hinders the other,
Each of us pleased with his own art
Amuses himself alone.
He is a master of the work
Which every day he does:
While I am at my own work
To bring difficulty to clearness.
The poem Colum Cille’s Greeting to Ireland, like most of those ascribed to this saint, was written much later than he actually lived. It’s thought to come from around the twelfth century.
Colum Cille’s Greeting to Ireland
Delightful to be on the Hill of Howth
Before going over the white-haired sea:
The dashing of the wave against its face,
The bareness of its shores and of its border.
Delightful to be on the Hill of Howth
After coming over the white-bosomed sea;
To be rowing one’s little coracle,
Ochone! on the wild-waved shore.
Great is the speed of my coracle,
And its stern turned upon Derry:
Grievous is my errand over the main,
Travelling to Alba of the beetling brows.
My foot in my tuneful coracle,
My sad heart tearful:
A man without guidance is weak,
Blind are all the ignorant.
There is a grey eye
That will look back upon Erin:
It shall never see again
The men of Erin nor her women.
I stretch my glance across the brine
From the firm oaken planks:
Many are the tears of my bright soft grey eye
As I look back upon Erin.
My mind is upon Erin,
Upon Loch Lene, upon Linny,
Upon the land where Ulstermen are,
Upon gentle Munster and upon Meath.
Many in the East are lanky chiels,
Many diseases there and distempers,
Many they with scanty dress,
Many the hard and jealous hearts.
Plentiful in the West the fruit of the apple-tree,
Many kings and princes;
Plentiful are luxurious sloes,
Plentiful oak-woods of noble mast.
Melodious her clerics, melodious her birds,
Gentle her youths, wise her elders,
Illustrious her men, famous to behold,
Illustrious her women for fond espousal.
It is in the West sweet Brendan is,
And Colum son of Criffan,
And in the West fair Baithin shall be,
And in the West shall be Adamnan.
Carry my greeting after that
To Comgall of eternal life:
Carry my greeting after that
To the stately king of fair Navan.
Carry with thee, thou fair youth,
My blessing and my benediction,
One half upon Erin, sevenfold,
And half upon Alba at the same time.
Carry my blessing with thee to the West,
My heart is broken in my breast:
Should sudden death overtake me,
It is for my great love of the Gael.
Gael! Gael! beloved name!
It gladdens the heart to invoke it:
Beloved is Cummin of the beauteous hair,
Beloved are Cainnech and Comgall.
Were all Alba mine
From its centre to its border,
I would rather have the site of a house
In the middle of fair Derry.
It is for this I love Derry,
For its smoothness, for its purity,
And for its crowd of white angels
From one end to another.
It is for this I love Derry,
For its smoothness, for its purity;
All full of angels Is every leaf on
the oaks of Derry.
My Derry, my little oak-grove,
My dwelling and my little cell,
O living God that art in Heaven above,
Woe to him who violates it!
Beloved are Durrow and Derry,
Beloved is Raphoe with purity,
Beloved Drumhome with its sweet acorns,
Beloved are Swords and Kells!
Beloved also to my heart in the West
Drumcliff on Culcinne’s strand:
To gaze upon fair Loch Foyle
The shape of its shores is delightful.
Delightful it is,
The deep-red ocean where the sea-gulls cry,
As I come from Derry afar, It is peaceful and it is delightful.