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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
Open, commended

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Margot Harrison

From The Lament for Art O’Leary


Eileen
Son of Conor of Ceadach and Laoiseach O’Leary
of the noble line stretching west to Geeragh
east into the hills of Keelrock and out past Ballingeary
where wild berries and nuts stud the branches
and apples cluster, ripen and fall in harvest light.
Art's sister

*******

If it weren't for the fever and plague
that have the country destroyed
you'd hear the horsemen
from heaven
thundering hooves
stamping our lament into the landscape
grieving riders allowing no second wind.

But it's the vision I had last night
that's iced my bones.
The house of our centuries
now home to a single robin
the crumbled walls of our childhood gone
our kin dandelion seeds to the four directions.
Even the pups are silent all because our little scut
met his maker by a thorny gorse
where there was no holy man, just a wise-woman
shrouding the crushed berries of his heart.

*******

Eileen
As you strolled through
fortressed towns
the shopkeepers' wives
would bend like reeds in the water
knowing – with your whip in hand –
what a lusty rider you were
and how you would, with one flick
take them to the hill places
they could never find alone.

Jesus Christ alone knows, I'd beggar myself
sell everything belonging to us,
the clothes off my back,
even down to my shift,
to petition the King of England
and avenge us both.
For there's vengeance gripping my heart
for the black-blooded thief
who stole my soul's gift.

The women still cry the depth of our loss
but I tell them that you'll walk
through the door soon and buy your round.
Then we'll return home with our smiling sons
to the harvest and nuts and berries
and honey
we will gaze at the holly trees
we planted for our saplings
the days were born.

Beloved husband
your corn stooks are standing
and your cows still need milking.
But Art, there's flint where my heart should be
that only you can render to dust
and my loneliness is lying in a chest
not even the locksmiths of Fionn Island can open.
How could they when the lock is twisted
and the only key
lies under clay and stones
in the bones of my beloved.

Translated from the Irish by Margot Harrison
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Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire


Mo chara is mo lao thu!
A Airt Uí Laoghaire
Mhic Conchúir, Mhic Céadaigh,
Mhic Laoisigh Uí Laoghaire,
aniar ón nGaortha
is anoir ón gCaolchnoc,
mar a bhfásaid caora
is cnó bui ar ghéagaibh
is úlla 'na slaodaibh
na n-am féinig.

Deirfiúr Airt:

Mo ghrá is mo rún tu!
's mo ghra mo cholúr geal!
Cé ná tánag-sa chúghat-sa
is nár thugas mo thrúip liom,
nior chúis náire siúd liom
mar bhíodar i gcúngrach
i seomraí dúnta
is i gcomhraí cúnga,
is i gcodladh gan mhúscailt.

Mura mbeadh an bholgach
is an bás dorcha
is an fiabhras spotaitheach,
bheadh an marc-shlua borb san
is a srianta á gcroitheadh acu
ag déanamh fothraim
ag teacht dod shochraid
a Airt an bhrollaigh ghil...

Mo chara is mo lao thu!
Is aisling tri néallaibh
do deineadh aréir dom
i gCorcaigh go déanach
ar leaba im aonar:
gur thit ár gcúirt aolda,
cur chríon an Gaortha,
nár fhan friotal id chaol-choin
ná binneas ag éanaibh,
nuair fuaradh tu traochta
ar lár an tslé' arnuigh,
gan sagart, gan cléireach,
ach seanbhean aosta
do leath binn dá bréid ort
nuair fuadh den chré thu,
a Airt Uí Laoghaire,
is do chuid fola 'na slaodaibh
i mbrollach do léine.

Eibhlín Dhubh:

Mo ghrá go daingean tu!
's nuair théitheá sna cathracha
daora, daingeana,
biodh mná na gceannaithe
ag umhlú go talamh duit,
óir do thuigidís 'na n-aigne
gur bhreá an leath leaba tu,
nó an bhéalóg chapaill tu,
nó an t-athair leanbh tu.

Tá fhios ag losa Criost
ná beidh caidhp ar bhaitheas mo chinn,
ná léine chnis lem thaoibh,
ná bróg ar thrácht mo bhoinn,
ná trioscán ar fuaid mo thí,
ná srian leis an láir ndoinn,
ná caithfidh mé le dlí,
's go raghad anonn thar toinn
ag comhrá leis an rá,
's mura gcuirfidh ionam aon tsuim
go dtiocfad ar ais arís
go bodach na fola duibhe
a bhain diom féin mo mhaoin.

Mó ghrá thu agus mo rún!
Tá do stácaí ar a mbonn,
tá do bha buí á gcrú;
is ar mo chroí atá do chumha
ná leigheasfadh Cúige Mumhan
ná Gaibhne Oileáin na bhFionn.
Go dtiocfaidh Art Ó Laoghaire chúgham
ní scaipfidh ar mo chumha
atá i lár mo chroí á bhrú,
dúnta suas go dlúth
mar a bheadh glas a bheadh ar thrúnc
's go raghadh an eochair amú.

A mhná so amach ag gol
stadaidh ar bhur gcois
go nglaofaidh Art Mhac Conchúir deoch,
agus tuilleadh thar cheann na mbocht,
sula dtéann isteach don scoil –
ní ag foghlaim léinn ná port,
ach ag iompar cré agus cloch.

Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill
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Translation commentary


The Lament for Art O'Leary is a late eighteenth-century epic poem, renowned as one of the greatest traditional laments in the Irish language, capturing the life and death of Art O'Leary in 1773. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford Peter Levi describes the lament as 'the greatest poem written in these islands in the whole eighteenth century'.

In attempting to translate the lament I first of all had to find an Irish version to work with. Sean O'Tuama's version in Irish seemed as good a place as any to start. Once I started to translate, the subtlety of the words and language in the original Irish was apparent. For instance, in the first stanza the word 'ealaios' could mean escape, evasion or elopement, all of which can have a slightly different emphasis depending on the context and how the translator wants to convey Eileen's instant attraction to Art.

I first came across the poem at school as a fifteen year old. When I re-visited it a few years ago it revealed itself to me in a totally different way. I now understood the emotion behind the Lament and how the cultural mores and political situation of the time provided a background for Eileen's grief and loss. While there are many excellent translations out there I wanted to attempt my version to see if I could add anything new by way of imagery and rhythm.

Eileen was from an old Irish family. The tradition then would have been to pay professional keening women at funerals whose task was to extol the virtues of the dead and make a great show of grieving over the loss. What Eileen did was to use the caoin as a vehicle for something something altogether more intimate and personal, what she wove into the caoin was a love poem.

What did I learn from translating and researching the lament? I have attempted to capture the tone of the poem without losing the immediacy of Eileen's grief and anger by using current language and imagery that's also appropriate to when the piece was written. I initially thought it would be difficult to come up with anything new and fresh by way of imagery while staying within the confines of the original language but this got easier the further I got into the translation. As I got more adept I re-visited what I had done as I wanted to keep the flow and tone consistent.

The poem for me is about thresholds: grief to acceptance, the shift away from oral tradition, change in the political landscape, movement in the culture of the time, masculine to feminine, and finally and most inevitable from life into death.

Margot Harrison