Friday, July 17, 2015

Three of Amergin's four poems explained.

In the mythological history of Ireland, Amergin, from Amhairghin - which Ireland's most prolific Irish language poet, Gabriel Rosenstock, in his book, Beginner's Irish, defines as: 'born of song' - is the druid poet of the seventh and final otherworldly race of people that took possession of the island. The Milesians, or Sons of Mil Espaine. He is the last of the otherworldly poets of ancient myth and considered the founding poet of the modern day Gaels.

The annals accord to Amergin's voice, 172 lines of poetry, spread over four texts.

His most well known of these lines is a twenty line riddling poem and 7C text written in the drudic form of 'rosc', Song of Amergin/Duan Amhairghine.

It is considered to be the oldest and first poem written in Ireland, and the one Amergin text of the four that Irish poets know of and give themselves license to sound lala about when responding to.

Aul Plumdoon Paul Muldoon himself spends an entire Oxford Poetry Professor lecture allusively punning on it in a speculative experimental discourse, that, if any of us had written and published on social media, it would, perhaps, as recently happened to me, have garnered what Amergin calls in a different, and longest of the four texts: 'the abundance of goading one receives when they take up the prosperity of bardcraft.'

The coming of the Milesians is dated in the the early 17C Annals of the Four Masters, as 1286/7 BC.

And in 1700 BC, in Seathrún Céitinn/Geoffrey Keating's: Foras Feasa ar Éirinn/Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland; more usually translated History of Ireland.

Whilst the 17C Galway noble Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh/Roderic O'Flaherty, in his own history of Ireland, puts the date at 1000 BC.

In the pseudohistorical High Kings list of Ireland, believed to be a construct of the eighth century AD; the first Milesian king comes after eight Fir Bolg, and seven Tuatha De Danann high kings.


As already stated, the annals accord to this mythical figure, Amergin, 172 lines of poetry spread over four texts.

Three of the texts (poems 7, 8 & 9 at the link) are virtually impenetrable riddling poems of the most metrically ancient 'rosc' variety. Old alliterative druidic blessing and battle-magic spells written in the most archaic 3-/5C Goidelic text, originating in the very first Irish letters, Ogham. A singularly interesting two to three hundred year reality that represents the transition period from oral druidry to literate bardic Old Irish letters of the 5C.

In the Medieval prose narratives these are the most metrically ancient alliterative verses, that are set apart from the prose, punctuating it as direct speech from the mythological poets' mouths. And signifying by the verse that what is being spoken is the most profoundly antique and eloquent words, that come out from the mouths of the numerous poet-characters, as spontaneously spoken poems - at the most significant parts of the tales they appear in.

Of which we have one hundred and ninety-eight remaining primary tales, of the 250 prim-scéla 'primary tales' we know where the number taught, and learned by rote and heart, and that made up a very large part of the Gaelic poet's education, on the seven step, twelve to fourteen year, bardic filidh poet-training curriculum.

When metrical poems are recorded directly from the mouths of the character, they are usually serving the purpose of changing the narrative entirely by means of spoken magic.

However, the fourth of Amergin's four pieces, appears in the Trinity College Dublin manuscript 1337 (formerly H 3.18); and though it is untitled, it is the most important, by far, imo, of the four texts traditionally attributed to the founding poet of the Gaels. And it is a very different, far less densely riddled poetic text.

That the student poet at grade one, foclo, was, I suspect, introduced to during their first Halloween to May Day semester, in the poet-training schools, that taught the art and trade of fíliocht / poetry - in one form or another (fíliocht originated in druidry, then evolved into literate bardic, before filidh 'poets' practice) - for twelve hundred years; to forty generations of poets.

The untitled text (link to Eryn Rowan Laurie's most recent scholarly translation.), that has no title, I suspect, because it didn't need one, as everyone knew it; is a mixture of short alliterative-lines of rosc, and longer lines of hybrid prose-poetry. It spells out in black and white the earliest verbal druidic ars poetica. The purest bardic voice on record, telling the reader exactly what poetry is, and how it works in a person, 'body and soul'.

It is an extremely fascinating document that very few readers, and even less poets, are aware exists. Because it was only first translated in 1979, by the late (2011) Professor Emeritus, N.U.I. Galway, Patrick L. Henry.

Who birthed it into English as the subject of a specialist scholarly article in Studia Celtica #14/15, 1979/1980, pp. 114-128, 'The Cauldron of Poesy'.

The second translation was by co-editor of the annual Royal Irish Academy journal Ériu, and Ireland's preeminent Old Irish expert on Early Irish law texts, poets, poetry and metrics; School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Professor Liam Breathnach.'The Cauldron of Poesy,' Ériu #32, 1981, pp. 45-93.

In my opinion this ancient rosc and prose-poem text is a/the holy grail of (Irish) poetry. Clearly detailing the most brilliantly simple yet also most authentic and most ancient poetic we have with which to understand what it is we are doing in letters. That only a handful of people have ever read.


Amergin's first (and his most famous) poem, Song of Amergin, is commonly accepted as the earliest Irish poem ever written, in the 6/7C AD.

It is twenty lines, that in the tale it appears in, The Coming of the Miliseans, Amergin spontaneously recites as he steps off - with his eight brothers and a large group of warriors - one of the thirty-six Milesian ships that arrived and set anchor in Kerry, at the mouth of the Kenmare river, around Beltaine/The first of May.

We're told, in an eleventh century Clonmacnoise annal, Chronicon Scotorum: 'On Thursday, the Kalends of May, on the l7th of the Moon'; 'the Year of the World 3500'.

There to face-off with the Tuatha De Danann, for killing their uncle, Ith, whose death at the hands of the De Danann occured after he'd spied the island with Mil his brother, from the Bregon tower in Northern Spain, and had gone to the island on a reconnaissance mission with a handful of relatives and retainers. Ith's enthusiasm for what he found on the island concerned the De Danann as a threat to their own possession of it and so they killed him rather then let him leave and possibly come back with an invasion force.

The Tuatha De Danann had been in possession of the island for three hundred years, after seizing it themselves in the two Battles of Moytura/Magh Tuireadh, 'plain of pillars'. Keating dating their arrival to 1477 BC, and the Four Masters dating it 1897 BC.

The First battle of Moytura was in Cong, Mayo, when they defeated the Fir Bolg, and the Second Battle of Moytura was by Lough Arrow, in Sligo, when the Formorians were vanquished.


The act of speaking this ancient alliterative riddling poem, Song of Amergin, that there's is no agreed set translated text of (tho there are numerous translated versions by various Celticists and poets) is traditionally interpreted as 'born of song', Amergin himself, as he steps ashore, claiming and taking possession of the island for this seventh and final mythological race.

That forty generations of poets traced their own existence to and wrote of for 1200 years in their own literate vernacular language.

And immediately after Amergin speaks aloud his most famous Song, our mythical druid then spontaneously recites the second of the texts attributed to him.

A short eleven line poem-blessing titled, Bríocht Baile Fharraige/Bounty of the Ocean (poem number nine at the link.).

After this blessing poem the eight Milisean brothers and their forces wade ashore. Where they briefly skirmish with Tuatha De Danann forces in the Slieve Mish mountains as they make their way to Tara.

At which point in the narrative they parlay with the De Danann chiefs, and with Amergin the mediator-poet negotiating between the two sides a battle plan is agreed by both the mythological races. The events at which become the next part in the tale, The Coming of the Milesians.

It is agreed that the Milesians will return from the middle of the island to their ships, and set sail over nine waves out. Then, if they can make it back ashore, the island is there's to fight the Tuatha De Danann for the possession of. 

However, a trick up their sleeves, the De Danann druids magically speak some roscanna (rosc pl.) to conjure up a storm that sinks five of the Milisean ships; that triggers the third of Amergin's texts, a twenty-one alliteratively lined rosc poem titled, Invocation of Ireland (Professor Eoin MacNeill's 1922 translation), that is spoken as the druidic counter-spell spontaneously recited by Amergin onboard one of the surviving three ships the storm does not sink. And that beats the magic of the De Danann druids and quells the storm.

The three surviving brothers; Amergin, Eber and Eremon, make it ashore and then take the island when they beat the Tuatha in battle three days later, in the Battle of Tailtin, modern day Teltown between Navan and Kells in Meath.

After which Amergin, in his mediator-poet-judge-druid role, divides the island between his two surviving brothers, Eremon taking the North and Eber the South.

There's a dedicatory poem written by Padraic Colum, which prefaces one of his editorial masterworks, Anthology of Irish Verse (1922), that recounts this incident.

To George Sigerson, Poet and Scholar

Two men of art, they say, were with the sons   
Of Milé,—a poet and a harp player,   
When Milé, having taken Ireland, left   
The land to his sons’ rule; the poet was   
Cir, and fair Cendfind was the harp player.          

The sons of Milé for the kingship fought—   
(Blithely, with merry sounds, the old poem says)   
Eber and Eremon, the sons of Milé   
And when division of the land was made   
They drew a lot for the two men of art.           

With Eber who had won the Northern half   
The Harper Cendfind went, and with Eremon   
The Northerner, Cir the poet stayed;   
And so, the old Book of the Conquests says,   
The South has music and the North has lore.           

To you who are both of the North and South,   
To you who have the music and the lore,   
To you in whom Cir and Cendfind are met,   
To you I bring the tale of poetry   
Left by the sons of Eber and of Eremon.           

  A leabhráin, gabh amach fá’n saoghal,   
  Is do gach n-aon dá mbuaileann leat   
  Aithris cruinn go maireann Gaedhil,   
  T’réis cleasa claon nan Gall ar fad.

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