Monday, October 13, 2008

An additional 900 years of the Irish poetry stuff

"Remember that book I said I was bringing you - 100 Years of Irish Poetry?" Pat Egan asked me, the first time we got together, during his most recent visit to St. Louis. "Well, I got you an additional 900 years of the stuff."

The book the Irish rover had brought me was indeed 1,000 Years of Irish Poetry, edited by some firecracker named Kathleen Hoagland. Pat handed me a beautiful, old, first-edition, 1947 hardback, but I see that a much more recent paperback edition on Amazon has the same number of pages (830), so the selection and layout of this old beauty continues to be handed down to the ages.

I had taken notes while reading the book, but now find that I've lost them, which suggests something about the precarious nature of reading books in pubs while Irish rovers play. And I don't know that I'll do those 830 pages again just to tell you all about it.

I have found one bit from Hoagland's brilliant and biting introduction that struck a chord: on the appropriation of Irish writers for "English literature."

She writes, "How many of us realize that an astonishing number of poets, novelists and essayists who were of Irish birth and education have been claimed for English literature, their Irish background and sympathies unemphasized. A natural enough state of affairs when you consider the years of propaganda by an alien Government and by political privateers who made fair prey of Ireland from the days of Strongbow."

Hoagland is a grand scourge of slanders and stereotypes on the Irish. Really, her introduction is LIV (that's 54, according to my Roman numeral converter) pages of motivation for the sons and daughters of Ireland, challenging them to take the long view of their abilities and accomplishments. Starting, I suppose, with the fact that she was able to find 1,000 years of Irish poetry, all the way back in 1947!

I'll share one poem from the 1,000 years, called "Drinking Time," but we're not in a pub, it's not happy hour, and it's not pints we're drinking.


By D. J. O'Sullivan

Two black heifers and a red
Standing on the river-bed,
Filling up their belly-tanks,
Water swirling 'round their flanks.

In the stirred-up river mud
Elvers wriggle, flat-fish scud;
Where the torrent's slow and deep
Sea-bound smolt lie half-asleep.

Buzzing flies bite bovine flesh.
Twitching tails make rainbow-splash,
One black sucks a tadpole in,
Sniffs and snorts create a din.

Now the farmer's voice is heard
Above the cymbal-tinkling ford,
'Bramble, Bluebell, Buttercup;
Hi, come out, come cow - up!'

In answer to the urging call
They leave for shelter'd byre stall,
Oaten mash and hay-strewn bed,
Two black heifers and a red.


The poet was a lighthouse keeper in Donegal - as is his son, Donal O'Sullivan, who writes in The Journal of the Irish Lighthouse Service about the passing of the beauty known in his father's day.

The image above is of the grave of Jonathan Swift, another Irish poet claimed for English literature, from somebody's Picasa site. He's buried in Saint Patrick's Cathedral, the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, in Dublin.

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