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Ancient Irish Poetry &
early Christian Verse

Selection of Poems

The Mystery (first ancient Irish verse attributed to Amergin)
Deer's Cry or Patrick's Breastplate (5th- 7th century)
From East to West (by Caelius Sedulius, 5th century)
Invocation (by Caelius Sedulius, 5th century)
Why,Impious Herod Vainly Fear (by Caelius Sedulius 5c)
O Son of God(attributed to Colm Cille, 6th century)
God's Praises (anonymous 8th century verse)
Christ's Bounty (anonymous 8th century verse)
Be Though My Vision (anonymous 9th century verse)
The Blackbird by Belfast Lough (anonymous 8th c.) 
The Good Man (anonymous 8th-10th  centuries)
The Scribe (anonymous 8th-10th  centuries)
The White Lake (anonymous 8th-10th  centuries)
The Lark (anonymous 8th-10th  centuries)
The Soul's Desire (anonymous 11th  century)
Hospitality in Ancient Ireland (anonymous 13th  c.)
A strong characteristic feature of early Irish verse is its passionate love of nature and its religious intensity.  Sometimes these qualities merge with each other, such as in the 'Deer's Cry':

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Slendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

This feature can also be traced in modern poets as well, such as the following verse from Patrick Kavanagh's 'The Great Hunger' (1942):

Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap
These men know God the Father in a tree:
The Holy Spirit is the rising sap
And Crist will be the green leaves that will come
At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.

An Introduction

Irish verse in one of the most ancient in Europe.  A sense of natural beauty characterizes Celtic Ireland's poetry and prose.  Kuno Meyer, in his introduction to 'Ancient Irish Poetry' comments on the uniqueness of Irish verse. "In Nature Poetry the Gaelic muse may vie with that of any other nation.  Indeed, these poems occupy a unique position in the literature of the world.  To seek out and watch and love Nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest, was given to no people so early and so fully as to the Celt." 

Brendan Kennelly, in his introduction to the 'Penguine Book of Irish Verse', defines the single quality of the Irish poets:  'I would say that a hard, simple, virile, rhetorical clarity is its most memorable characteristic. The Irish mind has never taken kindly to obscurity.  It delights in simple, direct, lively expression.  Among the virtues of early Irish poetry are accurate observation and precise diction.  Those early poets said exactly what they meant, and meant (for the most part) exactly what they said. ..Two other strongly characteristic features of early Irish poetry are its passionate love of nature and its religious intensity.' [see insert in box on left]

In ancient Gaelic Ireland the poet was a powerful figure, often held in high regard and estimation.  The File, or official poet, was second only to the king himself.  The names of the earliest Irish poets, such as Amergin and Torna, the last great bard of 5th century pagan Ireland, are shrouded with majesty and power. 

The first Irish poem, "The Mystery", is attributed to Amergin, a Milesian prince or druid who settled in Ireland hundreds of years before Christ and is from the "Leabhar Gabhala", or "Book of Invasions". Douglas Hyde, in his 'Story of Early Gaelic Literature' says of these verses: 'The three short pieces of verse ascribed to Amergin are certainly very ancient and very strange.  But as the whole story of the Milesian Invasion is wrapped in mystery and is quite possibly a rationalized account of early Irish mythology no faith can be placed in the alleged date or genuineness of Amergin's verses.  They are of interest, because as Irish tradition has them as being the first verses made in Ireland, so it may very well be they actually do present the oldest surviving lines of any vernacular tongue in Europe except Greece.' 

Aodh de Blacam, in his 'Gaelic Literature Surveyed', also comments: 'At whatever time it was composed [referring to 'The Mystery'], it is equally significant to us.  It shows us the conception cherished by old Irish writers of the first poet of the race.  The poem, as we see, is charged with that natural magic that always is the most fascinating quality of Irish verse; and the legendary Amergin is the prototype of those poets down the ages who, in their poetry, have mixed their souls with Ireland's mountains and waters, her woods, and her tribal hostings on the hilly places.'  

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(c) 2001 Don Schwager