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Keltria Journal

Issue 35 - Lughnasadh/Fall 1997

Labara 5

a taste of Irish verse

by Meredith Richard

Before we start looking at this taste of Celtic verse, I'd like to tell you about something that happened to me recently. A friend had lent me a tape of a well-known storyteller reciting selections of Celtic poetry in translation, and I put it on to listen. The performer's voice was lovely, his accompaniment skilled and charming, and it was clear that he wanted to share with the listener the beauty and meaning that he'd found in the poetry. The translations were reasonably good, and some of the poems were among my favourites. Yet at the end of the tape, I felt irritated. I sensed a certain pretentiousness in the performance. I felt especially irked when upon a second hearing, I couldn't put a finger on anything that was seriously pompous in this particular recording.

A couple of days later, while working on this article, I opened a book of early Irish poetry right to the page of one of the poems I'd heard, and the reason for my earlier dissatisfaction came clear. As I read the Irish poem, its striking images danced in my mind as they had before -- but also the beautiful, musical syllables chimed together with alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm, and the power of the words themselves shone like sun on running water.

That beauty and power is what was lost in translation. I'm sure the performer on the tape knew or instinctively sensed that this poetry had to be aurally powerful. But the translation into English stripped away the verses' unique sound patterns. Since the performer wanted to re-create the sense of aural power, he tried to compensate by superimposing vocal techniques on the poem -- which unfortunately created a slightly tooo draMAHtic and [pause] preTENtious impression, which is what I'd sensed. It wasn't really his fault -- it was an inherent limitation of working with translations.

Now, if Celtic poetry and literature were never translated into English or other widely-spoken languages, the world would be a poorer place; certainly very few American Druids and Pagans would otherwise have known about its existence. But nevertheless, we only see crumbs and fragments through the medium of English -- and far more than just sound patterns are lost. [This is addressed in more detail in Labara 2, Issue 31.]

Hearing and understanding the full beauty and meaning of Celtic poetry is one reason why working with original, Celtic-language texts is so important to us, who wish to make the Celtic spirit central to our lives and our lives central to the Celtic spirit. Working deeply with Celtic texts on several levels -- see the sidebox for suggested ways to do so -- is the start of a path into the heart of the Celtic experience, even before starting general study of a Celtic language (which I highly recommend).

Some recommended ways to work with Celtic-language verse, in order to help you experience the poetry on as many levels as possible [see Labara 4, Issue 34 for a more detailed list]:

Sound: Learn the verses by heart, paying careful attention to the sound patterns and rhythms, and the energies they create. The pronunciations given are approximate, so get experienced help if possible!

Meaning: Learn the meanings of each word and phrase, well enough so that you know what you are saying as you say it. Celtic language learners should keep an eye out for cognate words and familiar grammatical constructions.

Visualisation: Practice sensing the images of the verses as you recite them, turning your mind away from mental translation in English. Conversely, meditate on key images, using only Celtic-language words for any mental or physical verbalisation.

Background: Read up on the major images and/or personages mentioned in the verses, -- original tales and sources if at all possible.

Associations and correspondences: Explore key words and images: what are the Celtic etymological, historical, literary, mythological, folkloric associations of the word?

Integrate all you've learned, using the verses as meditation poetry or in an appropriate ritual.

The following verses are attributed to Fionn, who gained imbas, poetic intuition, by tasting of the Salmon of Wisdom; they are found in two twelfth century manuscripts, but its date of composition is thought to be around the ninth or tenth century, possibly earlier1. It is a wonderful example of the compactly elegant and exact evocation of a natural scene that is Celtic nature poetry at its best.

Scél lemm dúib:
dordaid dam,
snigid gaim,
ro-fáith sam;

gáeth ard úar,
ísel grían
gair a rith
ruirthech rían;

ro-rúad rath,
ro-cleth cruth,
ro-gab gnáth
giugrann guth;

ro-gab úacht
etti én
aigre ré
é mo scél.

Working with the Sounds

You may be surprised to learn that Irish is a highly phonetic language. The spelling of an Irish word is a rather reliable guide to its pronunciation; the key is that the letters and combinations of letters in Irish spelling are pronounced very differently from in English2. There are also pronunciation differences from dialect to dialect and from century to century, so learners of modern Irish should not be surprised to see unexpected pronunciations and spellings.3 SHGYALE lYem DUEEV
DOR-dhidh DAHV

EE-shel GREEaN
RUHR-thekh REEaN



One important element of Irish pronunciation is that all consonants except h have two pronunciations, 'broad' and 'slender'. Broad consonants sound rather as if they are followed by a gentle 'oo' or 'w' sound, most obvious when the next vowel is e or i, the slender vowels. Slender consonants sound as if they are followed by a gentle 'y' or 'i' sound, most obvious when the next letter is a, o or u, the 'broad' vowels. Phonetically speaking, slender consonants are generally palatalised, and broad consonants are velarised. Orthographically speaking, it is a rule of Irish spelling that broad consonants must be flanked by broad vowels, and slender consonants by slender vowels; Irish spelling will start to make much more sense when you remember this. The superscripts U and Y here indicate where the broad or slender quality of a consonant is most critical to approximate pronunciation. Also marked by italics or bold are slender r, slender n and broad l. Main STRESSES are marked in capitals.

dh: 'voiced th' as in breathe, as distinct from
th: 'unvoiced th' as in breath
kh: as in loch or Bach
gh: a soft, voiced version of gutteral 'kh' above; comparable to German Magen or Spanish agua
OOa: a diphthong, similar to English boor
EEa: another diphthong, similar to English pianist
r: is trilled, but
r: slender r is like a single trill pronounced very far forward in the mouth
n: slender n is palatalised, producing a sound much like gn in French agneau, or as in English canyon
l: broad l is velarised, much like the second l sound in English little

Working with the Words

Use the following glossary to help you enjoy and work with the verses: it includes enough information to understand all the words and grammar, plus some examples and suggestions for working with other levels of meaning.

Remember that in Irish and other Celtic languages, the standard order of words in a sentence is verb first, then subject. Here, the literal translation is 'Bells [a] stag', which translates as '[A] stag bells' in colloquial English. Most of the lines in this poem follow the verb-subject pattern.

Scél: 'story, tale, account, news'; cf. modern Irish scéal; cognate with Welsh chwedl4
lemm: 'with me'; cf. modern Irish liom
dúib: 'to you (plural)'; cf. modern Irish daoibh. In previous articles, we have looked at how Celtic languages tend to use noun-preposition constructions to express ideas that in English are verbs. This usage is a good example: the literal translation is '[There-is] news with-me to-you', but in colloquial English means ôI have [a] scél for you.ö
dordaid: 'bells, roars'; belling is the noisemaking of a stag in rut, which takes place in late fall. If you've never heard it, try to find a recording or rent a nature video about deer.
dam: In modern Irish, damh is 'ox', but in early Irish, it means 'stag' or 'bull' (as in the ôSong of Amairgenö, Am dam secht nd'rend, ôI am a stag of seven fightsö). Bulls and oxen don't bell, so the meaning here is clearly 'stag'. Dam was a common epithet used for warriors. An Damhair, the stag-rut, is a traditional season-word in Scottish Gaelic.
snigid: 'drops, pours, snows'
gaim: 'winter', modern Irish geimhreadh, cognate with Welsh gaeaf
ro-: ro-, which is used several times in this poem, is a preverbal particle that indicates the perfect tense -- that is, it refers an action that has been completed. This corresponds to the use of 'have' as a helping verb in English: 'I have arrived', 'You had read'
ro-fáith: ro- + third person singular past tense of of feithid, 'goes'; so ro-fáith means 'has gone'
sam: 'summer', related to modern Irish samradh, Welsh haf, Gaulish Samonios, and of course, Samhain ('summer's end'), all of which originate with Common Celtic *samo-, from Indo-European *sem-. English summer is also cognate.
gáeth: 'wind' (noun)
ard: 'high'; also 'loud'. Remember that adjectives usually come after the noun in Irish.
úar: 'cold' (adjective)
ísel: 'low'
grían: 'sun'. Note that this is a feminine noun in Irish.
gair: 'short'
a: 'its'
rith: 'run, running, course' (noun)
ruirthech: 'strong-running'
rían: 'the (flowing) sea, ocean'; its principal meanings include 'course, path, track, vigour, power of movement' -- generally, the concept of coursing energy
ro-rúad: ro- + 'reddened'
rath: 'bracken, ferns'. Bracken grows widely on the hills and on untilled land in Britain and Ireland, and turns a browny-red when it withers in the autumn.
ro-cleth: ro- + past tense of ceilid 'hide, conceal'
cruth: 'shape, appearance' (i.e., the bracken's shape)
gab: ro- + past tense of 'to hold, to grasp, to take hold of' gaibid. In Celtic languages, emotions, characteristics and other states are often said to 'take hold' of someone or something
gnáth: 'usual, customary'
giugrann: the genitive case of gigrainn, 'barnacle goose, wild goose' -- the change to the genitive case indicates a possessive meaning: 'of, of the'
guth: 'cry, call'

These last two lines can be expressed quasi-literally as: 'usualness has taken hold of the barnacle goose call'; that is, the wild goose's cry has now become a usual thing.

ro-gab: as above
úacht: 'cold' (noun)
etti: 'wings'
én: genitive case of éan 'bird'
aigre: 'icy'
ré: 'season, quarter-year, time' (related to the second element in modern Irish samradh, geimhreadh above)
é: 'he, it, this'
mo: 'my'
scél: see above. Note that there is an implied 'is' in this line, ôThis [is] my scélö.

Working with Sound Patterns

This type of poetry is called dán d'reach, syllabic poetry, which was most widely practised between the seventh and sixteenth centuries CE. There are four main types of dán d'reach metre and more than eighty subtypes, which helps explain why proper Bardic training took such a long time. In general, there is a specified number of syllables in each line, and the last word of a line has a prescribed number of syllables, which in practice means that a major stress occurs in each line a prescribed number of syllables from the end (most Irish words are stressed on the first syllable). In this example, each verse has four lines, every line has three syllables, and the last word has one syllable -- these verses are a variant of the metre cethramtu rannaigechta mùire, 'one-quarter of great rannaigecht' (a technical term derived from rann, 'verse'). However, there is no steady rhythm of metrical feet through the lines, as there is in much English and modern Irish poetry.

In this, it is similar to Welsh cynghanedd, of which we saw an example last issue. Another way that is it like cynghanedd is that while end-rhyme plays a part in the poetic form, elements such as alliteration, internal rhyme, consonance, and the above-mentioned stress-position play at least as important a role.

Rhyme in early Irish verse is not limited the concept of 'rhyme' in the English sense. In English, two words rhyme if, at the end of the two words, all corresponding vowel and consonant sounds match. Early Irish poetics conceives of rhyme more subtly: two words rhyme if, at the end of the words, all corresponding vowel sounds match and all corresponding consonant sounds fall into the same class. For instance, the sounds /n/ and /l/ fall into the same class, so én and scél rhyme. Each consonant-class is made up of closely-related sounds5 :

Class G b, d, and g
Class K p, t, and k
Class X f, th as in thin, kh as in loch
Class l l, n, r, v, dh as in those, gh as
Magen or agua
Class L m, ng as in sing, Irish long ll, nn, rr
Class S s, sh

Here are some elements of Irish poetics to listen for in these verses: the rhyme scheme for this metre is principally abab, although sometimes only the second and fourth line of a verse rhyme. Consonance, where end-consonants must match in class and vowels match in length frequently occurs in the last words of a verse, such as rath, cruth and guth in the third verse (an accent, or s'neadh fada, marks long vowels; it also marks the first vowel in a diphthong in early Irish; short vowels are unmarked). The third verse is highly alliterative. Aicill rhyme, which is a special type of internal rhyme, occurs when the last word in one line rhymes with a word at the beginning of the next line -- such as between ré and é in the last verse.

Note that the first word of the poem is also its last. A closing echo or repetition of the first line, word or syllable of a poem is called a dúnad, or 'closing', and is very typical of Irish poetry in this period -- so much so that poetry of this period without a dúnad is usually assumed to be incompletely extant. The Auricept na n-âces tells us ôYe poets [æs dana] of the world, West and East / Of both Ireland and Scotland/ They deserve no lucky treasures / For every poem that is not (properly) closed [dunta].6ô

This poem is clearly specially suited to Samhain -- the images are all of that season, and the poet tells us outright, 'Summer has gone'. This gives you and it three months to get properly acquainted.

A Twentieth Century Verse

Our modern poetry taste this issue is the first verse of ôFáilte Bhéal na Sionna don Iascö (ôThe Shannon Estuary Welcomes the Fishö) by Nuala N' Dhomhnaill (1952-), who is considered one of the best poets working in Irish today.

Léim an bhradáin
Sa doircheacht
Lann lom
Sciath airgid
Mise atá fáiltiúil, líontach
Lán d'fheamnach
Go caise ciúin
Go heireaball eascon

Working with the Sounds

LYEM uhn VRAH-don
suh DOR-ukh-uckht
SHGEEah AR-uh-guhj
MEESH-uh taw FAWL-chYool, LEEN-tuhkh
LAWN d'YAHm-nuhkh
guh CAH-shuh CYOON
guh HEH-ruh-buhl AHS-cuhn

Working with the Words7

léim: 'leap, jump'
an bhradáin: 'of the salmon'. This is the genitive case of an bradán, 'the salmon', which here includes the addition of a séimhiú, or lenition, of the initial b to bh. The salmon is a key creature in the Celtic mythos, and the 'salmon leap' is one of the hero-feats in Irish mythology. Bradán beatha ('salmon of life') is an idiom meaning 'life essence'
sa: 'in the' doircheacht: 'darkness'
lann: multiple meanings, including 'fishscale', 'blade', 'plate, lamina'
lom: 'naked, bare, thin'
sciath: 'shield, shield-shaped object', also a figurative usage 'wing'
airgid: the genitive case of airgead, 'silver'. Airgead is also used to mean 'money' in Irish, like its Welsh cognate arian.
mise: the emphatic form of mé, 'I, me'
atá: the present relative tense of the verb 'to be'. Mise atáEtherefore means, 'I am', but is a special emphatic form, stressing the 'I', as opposed to the non-emphatic, 'standard' form of 'I am [adjective/state]', tá mé or taim
fáiltiúil: 'joyous, glad, welcoming', adjectival form of fáilte, as in the familiar céad m'le fáilte, 'a hundred thousand welcomes'
líontach: 'netted', an adjectival form of líon, 'net, web'. (Other meanings of l'on include 'full number, complement' and 'flax, linen')
sleamhain: 'slippery, smooth, sleek'
lán d': 'full of' (d' a contraction of de). A little-used meaning of lán is 'curve'.
fheamnach: from feamnach, 'seaweed'; the preceding de causes lenition of the f to fh. An adjectival form of the word, feamainneach, means 'clustered like seaweed', and is sometimes used figuratively to describe ringleted or tressed hair.
go: has several meanings and usages, including 'to' and '-ly', but in the last two lines of this verse, we have an archaic usage, meaning 'with, having the property of'. In this context, go puts the following words into the genitive case. For some Irish words, including the next four, the genitive plural form is the same as the nominative singular form, so only the plural English meaning is given here.
caise: 'streams, currents'
ciúin: 'quiet, still, calm'
heireaball: h + eireaball, 'tails' -- the aspiration h at the beginning is also caused by the word go.
eascon: 'eels' (also sometimes 'snakes'). Eireaball eascainne 'an eel's tail' is used in idioms to denote precarious, slippery things, and the Eel's-Tail Bridge is another name for the Pupils' Bridge that Cúchulainn had to cross (using the salmon leap!) to get to the island of the woman-warrior Scáthach.

"Fáilte Bhéal na Sionna don Iasc" works on several levels. On one level, it is an elegant and sparse description of a happening in the natural world, like the Celtic poetry of a thousand years ago and more. Another level is that of clear sexual symbolism and gender relationship (note, incidentally, that the principal meanings of béal in the title include 'mouth, opening, lips' as well as 'estuary'). On yet another level, there is the folkloric and mythical symbolism: the poet is speaking as the river-goddess herself. One rewarding avenue of exploration is a legend of the origin of the Shannon that parallels the better-known story of Boann and the origin of the Boyne. The story of Cúchulainn's wooing of Emer and training in arms is also well worth reading in this context. And while this is free verse -- there is no set metric that the poet is following -- she has made extensive use of alliteration, consonance and other sound-effects throughout the poem -- for instance, lann lom is both alliterative and consonant.

Full translations of the verses have been omitted this issue, to encourage you to work out the meanings of the verses on your own, and to discourage your brain from being imprinted with an 'official' English translation rather than with the Celtic verses themselves. But if you get really stuck working out the meanings, the first poem is frequently anthologised in Celtic poetry collections such as A Celtic Miscellany (ed. Kenneth Jackson, Penguin Books). The complete Ní Dhomhnaill poem, with an English translation, can be found in Modern Irish Poetry: an anthology, edited by Patrick Crotty (Blackstaff Press, Belfast 1995), and her poetry has also appeared with English translations in various other collections.


1 This version is reconstructed and normalized from the 12th century versions, as found in Early Irish Lyrics, Gerard Murphy, 1961.

2 For learners of Modern Irish, a decent guide is An Foclóir Póca, ('The Pocket Dictionary', An Gum, 1986 Baile Atha Cliath) which gives pronunciation for each entry, and a cassette tape is available; any good textbook should also have a basic guide to general pronunciation.

3 There is a very basic guide to Old/Middle Irish pronunciation in Jeffrey Gantz's Early Irish Myths and Sagas (Penguin).

4 Cognate words mentioned in this series are by no means an exhaustive list, nor are they given for every word, but are meant to give some idea of the relations between the languages. When drawing attention to the contrast between Goedelic and Brythonic, I have usually given Irish and Welsh cognates, and readers should be aware that the other Celtic languages are likely to include cognates as well

5 Note that this table is expressed in English phonetics sounds -- not Irish spelling -- unless otherwise indicated!

6Auricept na n-Éces, The Scholars' Primer, ed. George Calder, Edinburgh: John Grant 1917, pp 166-7.

7 Irish learners should be aware that some words are dialect variations, and not in the official standardised Irish spelling found in some dictionaries.


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