banner












  • Subscribe to our e-letters



  • Facebook_icon


The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
Open, first prize

Read the judges’ comments
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years


Kaarina Hollo

Stillborn 1943: Calling Limbo

(for Nuala McCarthy)

You were born dead
and your blue limbs were folded
on the living bier of your mother
the umbilical cord unbroken between you
like an out-of-service phone line.
The priest said it was too late
for the blessed baptismal water
that arose from Lough Bofinne
and cleansed the elect of Bantry.
So you were cut from her
and wrapped, unwashed,
in a copy of The Southern Star,
a headline about the War across your mouth.
An orange box would serve as coffin
and, as requiem, your mother listened
to hammering out in the hallway,
and the nurse saying to her
that you'd make Limbo without any trouble.
Out of the Mercy Hospital
the gardener carried you under his arm
with barking of dogs for a funeral oration
to a nettle-covered field
that they still call the little churchyard.

You were buried there
without cross or prayer
your grave a shallow hole;
one of a thousand without names
with only the hungry dogs for visitors.
Today, forty years on
I read in The Southern Star
theologians have stopped believing
in Limbo.

But I'm telling you, little brother
whose eyes never opened
that I've stopped believing in them.
For Limbo is as real as Lough Bofinne:
Limbo is the place your mother never left,
where her thoughts lash her like nettles
and The Southern Star in her lap is an unread breviary;
where she strains to hear the names of nameless children
in the barking of dogs, each and every afternoon.

Translated from the Irish by Kaarina Hollo
top


Marbhghin 1943: Glaoch ar Liombó

(do Nuala McCarthy)

Saolaíodh id bhás thú
is cóiríodh do ghéaga gorma
ar chróchar beo do mháthar
sreang an imleacáin slán eadraibh
amhail line ghutháin as ord.
Dúirt an sagart go rabhais ródhéanach
don uisce baiste rónaofa
a d'éirigh i Loch Bó Finne
is a ghlanadh fíréin Bheanntraí.
Gearradh uaithi thú
is filleadh thú gan ní
i bpáipéar Réalt an Deiscirt
cinnlínte faoin gCogadh Domhanda le do bhéal.
Deineadh comhrainn duit de bhosca oráistí
is mar requiem d'éist do mháthair
le casúireacht amuigh sa phasáiste
is an bhanaltra á rá léi
go raghfá gan stró go Liombó.
Amach as Ospidéal na Trócaire
d'iompair an garraíodóir faoina ascaill thú
i dtafann gadhar de shocraid
go gort neantógach
ar an dtugtar fós an Coiníneach.

Is ann a cuireadh thú
gan phaidir, gan chloch, gan chrois
i bpoll éadoimhin i dteannta
míle marbhghin gan ainm
gan de chuairteoirí chugat ach na madraí ocracha.
Inniu, daichead bliain níos faide anall,
léas i Réalt an Deiscirt
nach gcreideann diagairí a thuilleadh
gur ann do Liombó.

Ach geallaimse duit, a dheartháirín
nach bhfaca éinne dath do shúl
nach gcreidfead choice iontu arís:
tá Liombó ann chomh cinnte is atá Loch Bó Finne
agus is ann ó shin a mhaireann do mhathair,
a smaointe amhail neantóga á dó,
gach nuachtán ina leabhar urnaí,
ag éisteacht le leanaí neamhnite
i dtafann tráthnóna na madraí.

Derry O'Sullivan
top


Translation commentary


I translated 'Marbhghin 1943' because I wanted to enter as fully as possible into the universe that it creates and share it with others.

O'Sullivan (b. Rochestown, Co. Cork, 1944) lives in Paris. He writes poetry in Irish and Latin, and translates from Irish into English and French. His first language was English, the language in which the Bantry of 1943 was experienced by the mother of the poem. The world in which he grew up, however, was permeated with Irish, in particular through place names and their associations. This linguistic layering challenges the translator. Two examples: Loch Bó Finne is the Irish name of a small lake a short distance from Bantry. It is transparent to someone with some knowledge of Irish as meaning 'The lake of the White Cow'. One of the many associations with white bovines this raises is Bealach na Bó Finne, the Milky Way (lit. 'The Way of the White Cow'). These milky associations in a poem about lost maternity are compelling. They could be brought into English with a literal translation – 'White Cow Lake'; this I dismissed as too exoticising. Michael Davitt gives us 'Milky Way Lake', which seems whimsical and at odds with the overall tone. I decided to sacrifice that particular emotional charge and recoup it elsewhere.

How to translate coiníneach? This is a deformation of cillíneach, a variant of cillín, 'little church/churchyard'. Unbaptised infants were buried in cillíní located at liminal sites – crossroads, cliff-edges, abandoned churches. The form coiníneach complicates matters further, as it seems to contain coinín ('rabbit'), well suiting a waste area left to the poem's feral dogs. I could have left it untranslated, or alternatively interpreted (eg 'limbo-land'). However, I decided on 'little churchyard' as evocative enough (and short enough to fit the line).

Kaarina Hollo