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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
Open, commended

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Seán Hewitt

A Jackeen Keens for the Blasket

Sunset, and the wide sea will be laid out like glass,
no sailing boats or signs of life, just a last
eagle that glints on the world's edge, separate,
circling over the lonely, spent Blasket...

The sun sunk down, and nightshadows scattered
over the high moon, herself scaling
the ground with bare, outstretched fingers, cold
on the broken houses, the life's scaffold...

All silent but the birds' bellies sliding
over the waves, glad to be home, head tucked
snug in breast, the wind's breath rocking the door,
and the damp hearth, fireless, heatless, unwatched.

Translated from the Irish by Seán Hewitt

Jackeen ag Caoineadh na mBlascaod

Beidh an fharraige mhór faoi luí gréine mar ghloine,
Gan bád faoi sheol ná comhartha beo ó dhuine
Ach an t-iolar órga deireanach thuas ar imeall
An domhain, thar an mBlascaod uaigneach luite...

An ghrian ina luí is scáth na hoíche á scaipeadh
Ar ardú ré is í ag taitneamh i bhfuacht trí scamaill,
A méara loma sínte ar thalamh
Ar thithe scriosta briste, truamhar folamh...

Faoi thost ach cleití na n-éan ag cuimilt thar tonna
Buíoch as a bheith fillte, ceann i mbrollach faoi shonas,
Séideadh na gaoithe ag luascadh go bog leathdhorais
Is an teallach fuar fliuch, gan tine, gan teas, gan chosaint.

Brendan Behan
Reproduced by kind permission of The Gallery Press

Translation commentary

Brendan Behan learnt Irish in prison. He was a Dubliner, a 'jackeen', chiefly remembered for his English works; but this poem shows a gentle longing for an Ireland wildly unlike the poet's own, one removed from him not simply geographically, but also culturally and linguistically. It was written, poignantly, just five years before its prediction was fulfilled: in 1953, the last Blasket islanders were evacuated, and an ancient culture was abandoned, strangled by the ever-encroaching pressures of the modern world.

Last summer, I had the privilege of continuing my study of Irish in West Kerry, thanks to a generous grant, and my visit to the Blaskets was truly haunting – I will never forget the slow backbone of land rising out of the sea-mist, the cormorants skimming the water and, most incredibly, the sheer, devastating silence.

It is this silence that the poem conveys so well. It doesn't have the sense of being stuffed full of language, and so I have tried to translate the words and syntax simply, giving an ease to the English, which was challenging considering the significant differences between the languages' structures. I have preserved the rhyme and tried to keep some of the word-sounds (such as the 'sc-' words in the second stanza) in order to replicate the aural softness of the Irish.

William Blake wrote that 'Nature without Man is barren', and Behan gives a similar sense in this poem, with the feminine moon poring gently over the 'signs of life' which are, ironically, lifeless, 'unwatched'. The importance of the personification here convinced me to preserve the moon's gender: she longs like a mother for the island's children, and Behan follows her gaze cinematically to a close-up of the hearth, the telling centrepiece of an oral culture now consigned to history, and to silence.

Seán Hewitt