Recently I thought it would be nice to try to translate an Irish poem into English in a form that retained the Irish rhyming system and all the internal rhyme and alliteration. (I have not yet succeeded at this.) But, I went looking for a short, fun poem to try out, and found this Classical Modern Irish poem. I have found a translation of it online already, but it is quite flawed, so I decided to make it my first post on this blog. It’s entirely possible that my translation is flawed as well, but I believe it is less so, and, at the very least, it is differently flawed.
The poem is by Isibeul ní Mhic Cailín, a 15th century countess of Argyll (so the Classical Irish here is on its way to becoming Scottish Gaelic), to whom a number of poems are attributed, including this lovely one about a priest’s penis. In addition to choosing this poem for its short length, I also wanted the excuse to work on my Classical Irish, which I have only barely studied formally (usually I just triangulate between Scottish Gaelic, Modern Irish, and Old Irish, if I have to). This poem is also somewhat unusual in being written by a woman, and in being an example of personal, rather than professional, poetry. As impressive as the meters and ornamentation of the professional poems are, I get a bit bored reading about how some lord had really great hair and was just like every ancient Irish hero.
Because I haven’t managed to do a translation that incorporates the rhyming schemes of the original, explanation of that and of the grammar (as I understand it) will follow my quite literal translation.
Mairg darab galar an grádh, It’s a pity that love is sickness
gibé fath fá n-abraim é Whatever reason that I speak it
is deacair sgarthain re a pháirt; It’s difficult parting his company
truagh an cás a bhfuilim féin. ‘Tis a pitiable state that I’m in.
An grádh-soin tugas gan fhios, That love, I fell into without knowledge
ós é mo leas gan a luadh, And him my benefit without his saying
muna fhaghad furtacht tráth, If it does not get comfort soon
biaidh mo bhláth go tana truagh. My flower will be withered and pitiable.
An fear-soin dá dtugas grádh, This man with whom I fell in love
‘s nách féadaim a rádh ós aird, And cannot say aloud
dá gcuire sé mise i bpéin, If he should put me in pain
go madh dó féin bhus céad mairg! May it be to him that is a hundred sorrows!
Rhyme & Meter
The rhyming pattern in this poem is fairly simple. There is no systematic alliteration, though there are some incidental examples of it in “galar an grádh”, “fhaghad furtacht”, and “go tana truagh”. There is end rhyme between the b and d lines of each quatrain, and internal rhyme, called aicill, between ab and cd. In aicill, the final word of a line rhymes with a word internal to the next line. This can be an unspecified word, which is often the case in earlier poems, or it can be of a fixed location (usually either the second stressed word from the end or from the beginning (and both seem to be at work in this poem)). It was also standard for a poem to begin and end with the same word, as this one does with mairg. Here is the poem again, with the corresponding words in matching colors and alliteration in bold:
Mairg darab galar an grádh,
gibé fath fá n-abraim é
is deacair sgarthain re a pháirt;
truagh an cás a bhfuilim féin.
An grádh-soin tugas gan fhios,
ós é mo leas gan a luadh,
muna fhaghad furtacht tráth,
biaidh mo bhláth go tana truagh.
An fear-soin dá dtugas grádh,
‘s nách féadaim a rádh ós aird,
dá gcuire sé mise i bpéin,
go madh dó féin bhus céad mairg!
‘But wait!’, you may be saying if you’re unfamiliar with Irish rhyme, ‘”aird” and “mairg” don’t sound at all alike!’ But I assure you, this is a good rhyme by Irish standards, and their dissimilarity is the beauty of it. It is also worth mentioning that many of the final consonants would not be pronounced in speech, but were pronounced in poetry and used in making rhyme. This system will probably be the subject of a future post, as it is a topic of great interest to me these days. In the meantime, there exists already a brief, but confusing description of it. Some of the rhyme in this poem is not perfect, even by Irish standards, but the poet seems to be using consonance (matching consonants: fhios/leas) or assonance (matching vowels: pháirt/cás) in place of full rhyme in some cases.
The meter here is not complicated either. It’s what would be written as 7¹ in the standard descriptions. This means that each line has seven syllables (though if you count them, you’ll find there are a few lines with elisions) and that the last word in each line (which matters for rhyming purposes) is one syllable long. The location of stress in the line doesn’t matter at all.
Classical Irish is hard to learn. My overly simplified version of the history of written Irish (excluding Ogam) is that you had in Old Irish (6th-10th centuries, about) this hideously complicated, but ultimately sensible language, which the monks decided they would continue writing despite not speaking anything like it. This is Middle Irish (10th-12th centuries). It was a (beautiful) mess. Then eventually people decided to just start writing basically how they spoke, so you get a sudden explosion of dialects and some really exciting spelling in Classical Irish (12th-16th centuries). Because of the huge amount of variation they show, Middle Irish and Classical Irish have no written grammars or dedicated dictionaries. eDIL will have Middle and Classical forms and is amazingly useful, and the best grammatical descriptions for these periods of the language can be found in the introductions to specific edited texts from that time. For Classical Irish, the best of these are in Desiderius and Stories from Keating’s.
The way not to translate Classical Irish is to have a bit of Modern Irish (enough to know how to look up lenited/eclipsed words in a dictionary) and assume that putting nouns and verbs in some kind of order in English will be a translation. To take an example from the other translation of this poem, although bhfuilim could come from an eclipsed fuilim, and fuil means blood, and –im looks like a first person singular marker of some kind, that does not mean that this means “my blood”. It is in fact the substantive verb (in a nasalizing relative clause), which Modern Irish speakers will recognise in forms such as an bhfuil?, ‘is (it)?’. The existing online translation seems to have several problems of this sort with grammar. The thing about grammar is that when you get it right, it generally makes sense and you don’t have to worry about why the writer has bhfuilim for “my blood” when you would expect something like m’fhuil at any stage of the language. Poets do play with grammar in a variety of ways, but there are still limits.
The first quatrain
The first line of this poem is a copular construction with a null copula. So, it can be thought of as something like: (Is) mairg darab galar an grádh. Darab is a relativizing particle which follows the phrase “is mairg”, meaning “it’s a pity that….” A source I found breaks it into “do+ba” as a past tense relativizer. What this line is saying is something like “It is a sorrow that love was sickness”.
In the second line, gibé fath fá n-abraim é, fá is a form of the copula, not a variant of faoi ‘about’, as one sees in Munster Irish. The n- marks a relative clause.
In the third line, re could either be ‘before’ (M.Ir. roimh), but it makes more sense to treat it as related to Old Irish fri ‘against’, which typically introduces the argument of a verb of leaving. Checking a Scottish Gaelic dictionary was helpful in this line as well, because there I learned that while párt means ‘part’ or ‘role’ in Irish, páirt means ‘company’ or ‘companionship’ in Scottish Gaelic.
The fourth line contains the bhfuilim example I’ve already complained about, and is another example of a copular sentence with a null copula. The (usually) reflexive féin here is for emphasis, and provides assonance with é two lines above.
The second quatrain
In the first line, there is another example of a verb being conjugated for person rather than having overt pronouns as is more common in many modern dialects. Tugas means “I brought/gave”, and even in Old Irish, the phrase tuc grad means “fall in love”.
There are a few things I’m not sure about in the second line. The word ós can mean, as the other translation has it, ‘above’ (though we would expect the preposition to show up in its 3rd person form, rather than with the independent pronoun é). However, it can also be a contraction of ocus ‘and’, or mean something along the lines of ‘because’. The use of ‘and’ which we see here also sometimes comes up in Hiberno-English, where it means something like ‘while’ or ‘with’. Leas means something like benefit or improvement, and luadh has a variety of possible meanings, all to do with speaking (though the most ‘exciting’ of these meanings is ‘betrothal’). So this line seems to mean something like “I got some good out of him/it without any acknowledgment from him”.
In the third line, there is another verb conjugated for person: faghad is the third singular of the verb ‘to get/find’. Tráth means ‘time’ or ‘a period of time’, but can also mean ‘soon’.
Biaidh is the third person singular of the future tense of the substantive verb, and the subject is mo bhláth, ‘my flower’. This could be some abstract representation of her feelings, or, assuming the penis poem is really hers, this might be about wanting to have sex with the guy. Go tana means ‘narrow’ and truagh means pitiable, so I’m guessing this is something to do with her “flower” wilting.
The third quatrain
There is another relative clause here in the first line, again nasalizing. Dá dtugas grádh means ‘with whom I fell in love’ here.
In the second line, féadaim is the first person form of a verb meaning ‘to be able to’, which is in Modern Irish as a noun(-like thing) in a copular construction with the same meaning: is féidir liom. The phrase ós aird means ‘aloud’, like Modern Irish as ard.
The third line has the conditional form of the verb ‘to put’, cuire, which is nasalized because of dá, ‘if’.
The last line has two forms of the copula: go madh, which is conditional, and bhus, which is relative. So this line would be “May it be to himself which is a hundred sorrows”. And, thanks to the fact that in Celtic languages one uses the singular form of a noun after a number, the poet is able to end on the same word she began with — a task which might be difficult to pull off in English.