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Amergin, Iveragh and the beginnings of Irish Poetry

About Amergin’s poem, Paul Muldoon has written “I’d like to suggest that the figure of Amergin is crucial to any understanding of the role of the Irish writer as it has evolved over the centuries”. This is a big claim. But Robert Graves went even further: “English poetic education should, really, begin not with the Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin”. Seamus Heaney has written about “the ancient correspondence between the nation’s possibilities and the imagination of its poet, represented originally by the Milesian bard Amergin”. So when we at The Amergin Solstice Poetry Gathering say that we are celebrating contemporary poetry in the place that Irish poetry began, our claim is well-founded.

But first let us look at Amergin’s poem. Here are modern translations, in English and Irish.

The Claim

Am wind on sea
Am wave swelling
Am ocean’s voice
Am stag of seven clashes
Am falcon on cliff
Am sunlit dewdrop
Am rarest of herbs
Am boar enraged
Am salmon in pool
Am lake in plain
Am fortified hilltop
Am learning’s essence
Am sharpened spear dealing death
Am god who kindles fire in the head.

Who makes smooth the stony mountain?
Who elucidates the lives of the moon?
Who proclaims where the sun will rest?
Who leads the waves like cattle from the ocean?
On whom do those waves smile?
What troop, what god edges blades in a plague-struck fortress?
Keening of weapons. Keening of wind.

Mé gaoth ar muir

Mé gaoth ar muir
Mé tonn díleann
Mé glór mara
Mé damh seacht gcomhrac
Me fiolar ar fhaill
Mé deor drúchta faoin ngréin
Me áilleacht fáis
Mé torc ar ghail
Me bradán sa linn
Mé loch ar mhá
Mé dún sléibhe
Mé suí eagna
Mé ga faoi bhua ag slaí sa chath
Mé dia a adhnann tine sa cheann

Cé a dheineann réidh clochán sléibhe?
Cé a chaitheann solas ar chruthanna na gealaí?
Cé fhógraíonn cá luífidh an ghrian?
Cé a threoraíonn na tonnta mar bha na mara?
Cé air a shoilsíonn na tonnta sin?
Cen dream, cén dia a dheineann faobhar i ndún ailse?
Caoineadh na nga. Caoineadh na gaoithe.

It was on the shoreline where Waterville is today, on Ballinskelligs Bay in Iveragh in South Kerry, that Amergin came ashore and uttered his words. This is attested in the Leabhar Gabhála or Book of Invasions, the source of the poem, as well as in other literary narratives, folklore, placenames and tradition. So it can be said that poetry in Ireland began here, and there is therefore no better place in which to celebrate and present the best of contemporary Irish and international poetry.

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