10: Experiencing Celtic Poetry

by Meredith Richard

Poetry has always played a central part in Celtic cultures. The earliest-known Celtic literature is poetry and, from comparisons with other cultures, it is clear that the even earlier oral traditions of the Druids would have been often couched in verse. After the coming of Christianity, the heirs of the Druids' role were the poets - the fili and bards of Irish and Welsh tradition. In the mythical tales, magic itself is often in the form of poetry, from the roscanna of the Irish epics to the Welsh englynion that Gwydion sang to the enchanted Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Prophecy, too, was framed in a poetic trance, and to the present day, prayers and charms and healing spells all take the form of poetry in the folk traditions. While language is a key to the heart of Celtic cultures, poetry is the key to its soul.

As discussed in the previous chapter, the only way to really appreciate the power and beauty of poetry is to speak it and listen to it in the original language. No matter how skilled the translation, no matter how beautiful a Celtic poem may appear to be in English, the Italian saying Traduttore, traditore is apt: the translator is a traitor. Layers of meaning, of connotation, of the inherent power of the unique sounds of a language and the poem itself are all lost. By its very nature, poetry is the most difficult of language-arts to translate. In fact, poetry has been defined as "that which is lost in translation."

This is not to devalue the worth of the translations of Celtic poetry and literature. If they had never been translated into English or other widely-spoken languages, the world would be a poorer place; certainly very few English-speakers would otherwise have known about their existence. But translations remain a shadow of reality, and those who seek to know and love the Celtic world, particularly those sensitive to the dimension of Celtic magic and myth, in which poetry plays such a central role, are doing themselves a disservice if they settle for the shadow. Fortunately, even the newest newcomers to Celtic heritage, and those who have not yet started learning any Celtic language, can take some very significant steps towards appreciating the power and beauty of Celtic poetry in the original. The tastes of Welsh, Irish, and Breton poetry in this chapter are intended as a beginning guide to this path. Working deeply with Celtic texts on several levels, as described below, is the start of a path into the heart of the Celtic experience.

Working with Celtic Poetry: Guidelines

Here are some ways to work with Celtic-language verse, in order to help you experience the poetry on as many levels as possible:

i) Sound: Learn the verses by heart

The phonetic pronunciations given below are only approximate, so if you know someone who speaks the language or is a moderately advanced learner, ask them to help you! Listen to the sounds carefully as you say the words. What are the rhythm and sound patterns? How do the sounds and rhythms feel? What type of energy is created?

ii) Meaning: Carefully review the meanings of each word and phrase

Make sure that you remember them well enough so that you know what you are saying as you say each phrase, rather than just knowing the English meaning and the Celtic sounds as separate entities. Learners of the Celtic language in question should make sure they understand the constructions, and should look out for unfamiliar usages in these verses. There may be differences due to dialect, level of formality, or archaic language, some of which are pointed out in the commentary. Learners of other Celtic languages can look for parallel grammatical constructions and cognate words in the language they are studying.

iii) Visualisation: Practice visualising the images of the verses as you are saying them

Turn your mind towards the images and away from mental translation in English. Alternatively, meditate on key images, and let any mental or actual verbalisation be in appropriate Celtic-language words.

iv) Background: Read up on the major personages and images mentioned in the verses

If you're not sure where to start, try exploring a dictionary of the appropriate Celtic mythology and/or literature, but don't stop there! Read the tales and sources they mention. Read up on the function and practice of poetry in Celtic societies. Your librarian is your friend, and don't forget to ask for interlibrary loan or purchase request forms, or to try a public university library if necessary.

v) Associations and correspondences: Try picking out key words and working with each from various viewpoints

For example, in the Celtic language, what is the word's etymology? What other words are related to it? What other words simply sound like it? Are there any historical mythological or folkloric associations? How do these various associations and correspondences fit together - or not?

vi) Integration: incorporate all you've learned into your life

Use the verses as meditation poetry or in an appropriate ritual. Now that you've woven a rich, complex web of meanings and experiences with the verse, put it all together and try using the verses as meditation poetry or in ritual where appropriate.


A Taste of Welsh Poetry

The first verse we'll be looking at is attributed to Taliesin, and in translation is probably the best-known Welsh verse in the English-speaking world. The fourteenth century manuscript, 'The Book of Taliesin,' contains poems attributed to the historical sixth-century poet Taliesin, and the prophetic and mystical body of poems, probably composed around the ninth or tenth centuries, associated with the legendary Taliesin, whose story is related in sixteenth century manuscripts relating the 'Tale of Gwion Bach' and 'Tale of Taliesin.'

The following are the first eight lines of the poem often called the Hanes Taliesin (HAH-ness tal-YES-in, 'History of Taliesin'), adapted to modern Welsh spelling:

Prifardd cyffredin

Wyf i i Elffin

A'm bro gynefin

Yw gwlad sêr hefin

Johannes Ddewin

A'm gelwis i Myrddin

Bellach pob brenin

A'm geilw Taliesin

A rough guide to pronunciation:

PRIHV-vardh kuh-FRED-din

ooiv EE ee EL-fin

am BROH gun-AY-vin

yoo gu'LAHD sair HAY-vin

YO-hahn-nes DHEH-win

am GEL-wiss ee MURDH-in

BELH-akh pohb BRENN-in

am GUY-loo tal-YES-in

'ooiv': the vowel sound here is "oo" followed by a very quick "ee", with more weight on the 'oo' than in English 'oi'

'DH': represents a soft "th" as in 'the'; not the "th" of 'thing'

'LH' represents the notorious Welsh unvoiced 'l'. Say "bell," "Bellll," with the tip of your tongue ending up right behind your front teeth. Now say it again, except when you get to the 'l' part, don't say 'l'. Instead, keep your tongue in the 'l' position and blow air past it. Alternatively, make up your mind that you are going to say "bell" and "Beth" exactly at the same time, and then do it.

'KH': represents the throaty 'ch' of loch or Bach

The first thing to notice is that all the lines rhyme. This sort of monorhyme is the oldest known Welsh metrical form. The lines also have a very strong rhythm with two stressed syllables per line: DUH-dih-dih, DUH-dih-dih. For example: X - - X - - X - - X - - "Prifardd cyffredin / wyf i (pause) i Elffin/ A'm"

The extra beat after "i" works well, stressing Taliesin's identification of himself; this rhythm translates fairly well into English as "Primary chief bard am I [pause] to Elffin." However, rhyme is already lost, and the rhythm cannot be kept up in translation. It is certainly possible to recite a translation of these verses, perhaps with a harp accompaniment, and have it sound good. But the rhyme and rhythm of the original version gives it a much more compelling, almost hypnotic quality. It certainly has much more potential as a chant than the English translation.

Now let's take a quick look at the words and structure of the verses:

prifardd: prif means 'primary, principal', and -fardd is a mutation of bardd, 'bard'.

cyffredin: 'common, general, universal'

wyf i: 'am I', the second 'i' means 'to'

Elffin: Taliesin's patron in this story

a'm: The a here means 'and', and the 'm means 'my'

bro: This word, although often translated as 'region' or 'vale', is in essence an area united by geography, economy and culture into a basic unit. In particular, a person's bro is where they are at home, where they know and are known. It is telling that the phrase denoting Welsh-speaking areas (equivalent to the Irish Gaeltacht), is Y

gynefin: mutation of cynefin, 'acquainted, accustomed, familiar; haunt, habitat'

yw: 'is' in the sense of identification

gwlad: 'country, land'.

sêr: 'stars'. The singular is seren. Forming the singular from the plural, rather than the other way around, marks this as a collective noun in Welsh. Collective nouns are things which usually occur in the plural and are chiefly comprehended as groups or collectives. hefin: a form of the word haf, 'summer'. This form also shows up in the term for the summer solstice invented by Iolo Morgannwg, Alban Hefin, and in the old word for May or the first of May, kyntefin, meaning 'before/ beginning of summer'. The words sêr hefin, 'summer stars', originated as a mistaken reading of 'cherubim', but has been retained here as a fortuitous and delightful misreading.

Pausing between verses here, you may note that in both phrases covered so far, the verb does not come first as it does in standard Celtic sentences. This is because both are identification sentences, where the only verb indicates that two things are being identified as one. The word order is completely conventional. When Taliesin says "Primary chief bard am I' his sentence structure is not 'heightened' as that structure would be in English; it is perfectly normal Welsh.

Johannes Ddewin: Johannes (German form of John) the Diviner - ddewin, a mutation of dewin, is from the same source as English 'diviner' (i.e., from Latin); but dewin also is used simply to mean 'wizard'. Dewiniaeth is 'divination'.

a'm gelwis i: '[who] called me'. The first word here, a'm, is different from the a'm in the first verse. Here, a is a particle roughly meaning 'which' or 'who'. This is necessary because (again) it is not in the standard, verb-first Celtic word order. 'm still means 'my', and the i at the end of this phrase also means 'I, me.' Possessives in Welsh are often expressed in such a sandwich fashion, such as ei stafell hi, ei stafell o, 'her room [her]' and 'his room [he]'.

Gelwis is a third-person past tense of galw, 'to call.' So instead of the English subject-verb-object structure, the Celtic sentence structure is really subject-possessive-verb. An extremely literal translation of these two lines might be: '[It was] Johannes Dewin who my calling was Myrddin.'

Myrddin: Merlin, in the modern spelling of the original Welsh form Merdin. The name was probably changed to Merlinus in Latin because the straightfoward Latinization Merdinus would have unpleasant connotations (cf. French merde).

bellach: 'farther, at length, now' - particularly 'now' as differing from the past pob: 'every'

brenin: 'king'. This word is related to bri and bre (see Chapter 9) and thus is actually cognate with 'Brigid'

a'm geilw: '[who] calls me.' This is the same structure as a'm gelwis i, except the past-tense form gelwis is replaced by the present tense form geilw, again a form of the modern galw.

Taliesin: his name could be translated as 'brilliant forehead' or 'shining brow'; he is the archetypal transformed and inspired poet in Welsh tradition, and medieval Welsh poets regarded him and Myrddin as "the two great and authoritative poets who stood together at the very beginning of the Welsh poetic tradition."

This gives us in a fairly literal translation:

Chief-bard primary

Am i to Elphin

And my region accustomed

Is [the] land [of the] stars [of] summer.

Johannes [the] Diviner

Called me Myrddin

Now every king

Calls me Taliesin

The next verse is an englyn. The englyn (pronounced ENG-linn, with no hard g) is a very ancient Welsh verse form, as well the most popular type of Welsh verse written today. It has often been compared to the Japanese haiku. It is a short verse following strict rules of composition, focussed on capturing the essence of a single moment, often on a nature theme. The most popular type of englyn has thirty syllables in four very specifically patterned lines, and follows the rules of Welsh alliteration, rhythm and internal rhyme, called cynghanedd (kung-HAHN-edh), which means something like 'together-chiming' or 'harmony'. There are four main types of cynghanedd, each with several sub-types, and around sixteen classes of technical errors. Not surprisingly, it takes a long time to learn how to write proper cynghanedd. Today you can buy books and take courses to learn this complex craft, but it was once only learned through apprenticeship to a master poet or, as Pat Neill puts it:

In the old days of bardic pride a master poet would teach his craft to an apprentice. Anyone not having such tuition would be bound to break one or more of the secret laws, and his work would be laughed out of court. "I can imagine one bearded bard nudging an equally hairy friend and say, 'Did you spot the protest there? Chuck the poem on the scrap heap. And no largesse for him tonight-we can't have people like him protesting about the place and ruining our reputation for protest-free products." And the poor fellow would have to brew up some nettle soup to stop his tummy rumbling, wondering the nonce what heinous crime he had committed. And there was no fairy godmother available to take him to one side and explain things to him. To learn the rules of cynghanedd he had to have the full treatment, and this usually meant a costly live-in apprenticeship. Unless he was amply endowed with the ready cash, or had very pretty blue eyes, this course of instruction would have been beyond him, and he never would have achieved acceptance as a bard.

In Wales today, the poet is still held in high regard. The highest prize at the National Eisteddfod is the Chair, awarded for strict-meter poetry using cynghanedd, and the volume of entries and adjudications of this and other major competitions is a Welsh-language bestseller each year.

This englyn is by Eifion Wyn, 'White Anvil', Eliseus Williams (1867 -1926):

Hed hebog fel dart heibio - a'i wgus

Lygaid yn tanbeidio;

Drwy y drain y dyry dro:

Nid oes gân lle disgynno.

Pronunciation, more or less (for 'lh' and 'ooi', see notes above):

Hed HEB-ogg vell dart HYE-byo - eye OO-giss

LUH-gye'd uhn tann-BYE-dyo


Nid oyss GAHN lhay diss-GUN-oh.

Compared to the Taliesin verses, the rhythm is much more subtle. Here's the pattern, where each letter represents a syllable, the main accents are capital letters, and 'a/A' and 'b/B' are main rhyming syllables:

x X x x x A b - x X x

X a x x A b

x x X x x x B

x x X x x X b

And here are the consonants used in the englyn, with the major patterns in parentheses:





A full explanation of the rules that are involved is beyond the scope of this introduction, but every pattern element noted above is in accordance with some rule or another and is not optional frosting on the cake. Yet the rules and limitations themselves contribute to the poetic expression of a deeply felt, intense moment of life. As one poet put it, the passion burns through the icy rules of cynghanedd. It is in the rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration that we can see some of the basic cynghanedd patterns; in this englyn, the easiest place to hear them is the last two lines. Each line can be divided into two parts, each with a major accent; each line has a sequence of consonants repeated twice; and at the end of the lines, an accented syllable rhymes with an unaccented syllable. The resulting subtle rhythmic pattern of this type of poetry has an interesting correspondence in a type of Welsh music. In cerdd dant, there are two musical lines, the harp playing a given piece and the voice singing a given verse to another tune, where the two lines of music weave together in a complex and subtle rhythm.

Hed: 'flies'

Hebog: 'hawk, a hawk' (there is no indefinite article in Welsh) cognate with Irish seabhac

fel: 'as, like'

dart: 'dart, a dart'

heibio: 'past'

a'I: 'and his'

wgus: a mutation of gwgus: 'frowning, glowering'

lygaid: a mutation of llygaid, 'eyes'

yn: linking word to the verbal noun tanbeidio - if we want to translate as literally as possible, we could say 'at', in the sense of 'in the process of' (the Irish equivalent is ag)

tanbeidio: 'to burn fiercely' - tân is fire, cognate with Irish tine

drwy: 'through'

y: 'the'

drain: 'thorns' - can mean thorn trees/hedges or thorns themselves

y dyry: 'gives' - a somewhat formal or archaic form

dro: mutation of tro: 'a turn, a twist, a period of time, an event'

nid: negative marker

oes: 'there is', in the form used for questions or negations - so nid oes means 'there is not/no'

gân: mutation of cân, 'song'

lle: 'place, location, where'

disgynno: 'to descend, descending'

A somewhat literal translation could be:

Flies [a] hawk like [a] dart past-and his frowning

Eyes burn fierce

Through the thorns [he] gives [a] turn

No song where [he is] descending

One place to start looking at the levels of meaning in this verse is in the image of the hawk. There is no shortage of hawks and related raptors in Celtic mythology, and 'hawk' was a common epithet for a warrior. One character in early Welsh mythology is Gwalchmai, who may have developed into the better-known Gawaine of Arthurian legend. The latter's name may mean 'hawk of the field' though it is often interpreted as 'hawk of May'. And the hawthorn (draenen wen in Welsh, 'whitethorn') is a tree also with strong Maytime associations.

A Taste of Irish Verse

The following verses are attributed to Fionn, who gained iomas, 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 earlier. 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.

You may be surprised to learn that Irish is a highly phonetic language. The spelling of an Irish word is a rather unreliable guide to its pronunciation. The key is that the letters and combinations of letters in Irish spelling are pronounced very differently from in English. 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.


DOR-dhidh DAHV




EE-shel GREEaN


RUHR-thekh REEaN









One important element of Irish pronunciation is that all consonants except 'h' have broad and slender pronunciations. 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 obviously when the next letter is a broad vowel. 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.

'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 French 'gn', 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.

Scél: 'story, tale, account, news'; cf. modern Irish scéal; cognate with Welsh chwedl

lemm: 'with me'; cf. modern Irish liom

dúib: 'to you (plural)'; cf. modern Irish daoibh.

In previous sections, we 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 "I have [a] scél for you."

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.' 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.

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.

Snigid: 'drops, pours, snows'

Gaim: 'winter', modern Irish geimhreadh, cognate with Welsh gaeaf

ro-: ro-, 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 feithid, 'goes'; so ro-fáith means 'has gone'

sam: 'summer', related to modern Irish samradh, Welsh haf, Gaulish Samonios, and 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)

ro-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 common 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, "This [is] my scél".

Working with Sound Patterns

This type of poetry is called dán díreach, syllabic poetry, which was most widely practiced between the seventh and sixteenth centuries. There are four main types of dán díreach 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. This means that these verses are a variant of the metre cethramtu rannaigechta móire, '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 earlier. Another way in which it is 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 sounds :

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

In these verses, the rhyme scheme for this metre is principally 'a b a b,' 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 síneadh 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-Éces tells us:

O poets [aes dána] of the east and west;

Of both Ireland and Scotland;

They deserve no lucky treasures;

For every poem that is not properly closed [dúnta].

The poem we have been discussing is clearly specially suited to Samhain. The images are all of that season, and the poet tells us outright, 'Summer has gone.'


A Twentieth-century Verse

Our taste of modern Irish poetry is the first verse of "Fáilte Bhéal na Sionna don Iasc" ("The Shannon Estuary Welcomes the Fish") by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (1952- ), 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 Words

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 atá therefore 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 míle fáilte, 'a hundred thousand welcomes'

líontach: 'netted', an adjectival form of líon, 'net, web'. Other meanings of líon 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 Cú Chulain had to cross (using the salmon leap!) to get to the island of the woman-warrior Scathach.

Fáilte Bhéal na Sionna don Iasc works on several levels. On one level, it is an elegant and spare 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. The principal meanings of béal 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 Cú Chulain's wooing of Emer and training in arms is also well worth reading in this context. While Ní Dhomhnaill's poem 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 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.

A Taste of Breton Verse

Having looked at some old and new poetry in Welsh and Irish, we'll now look at some verses from a Celtic language likely to be less familiar to most readers.

Breton, or Brezhoneg, is the Celtic language of Brittany, whose history is outlined in the previous chapter. As a language without aristocratic support and patronage after the eleventh century, the language of Brittany did not produce or retain an equivalent to the sophisticated literary outpourings in medieval Welsh and Irish. Extant Old Breton examples are mostly lists, glosses and names, and the first significant literary texts in Middle Breton date from after the fifteenth century, consisting mostly of religious material and mystery plays.

Nevertheless, Brittany has made irreplaceable contributions to the legendary and mythic side of the Celtic world. The living folk traditions of Brittany, along with those of Gaelic Scotland, are the deepest and most intact in the Celtic world. The tales of Arthur and the Matter of Britain, one of the more influential elements of Celtic origin on European literature, are due to the Bretons, as it was through Breton bards that the tales came to the attention of the Norman aristocracy and thence to the consciousness of mainstream Europe.

The modern Breton literary revival was stimulated by the publication in 1839 of Barzaz-Breiz, a collection of ballads and songs, by Theodore Hersart de la Villemarqué (known in Breton as Kervarker). Although much of its claim to be genuine ancient tradition was disproved, it directly resulted in the study of genuine Breton folksong and folklore by such scholars as François-Marie Luzel and Anatole Le Braz. More recently, with access to Kerverker's notebooks, it has been shown that, while material was added and rewritten, there was a solid core of genuine folksong and folk tradition.

The poetry selection we will be looking at in this section, Marzhin-Divinour, is a song from the Barzaz-Breiz collection. It is not known for sure whether this song is based firmly on a nineteenth-century folk original, but the closely-related, much longer ballad Marzhin-Barzh, which had been a particular target of the 'debunkers,' has now been proven to be part of the genuine folk tradition, and Marzhin-Divinour is at least partially based on verses from the longer work.


Marzhin, Marzhin, pelec'h it-hu

Ken beure-se, gant ho ki du

Bet on bet kas kaout an tu,

Da gaout dre-man ar vi ruz

Ar vi ruz eus an naer-vorek

War lez an aod, toull ar garreg

Mont a ran da glask d'ar flourenn

Ar beler glas ha'n aour-yeoten

Koulz hag uhel-varr an dervenn

E-kreiz ar c'hoad, 'lez ar feunteun

Working with the Sounds

The phonetics of Breton, particularly the vowels, is based on French. In the following phoneticization, 'ü' represents the sound of French 'u' (as in tu) or the German 'ü'; 'eu' represents the French 'eu' as in fleur; 'kh' represent the 'ch' of 'loch' or 'Bach'; 'ñ' represents a nasalised 'n,' as in French maman.

The Breton 'r' is usually rolled, but in some dialects is like the uvular 'r' of French or German. Note that in the following phoneticization, some of the accents are non-standard to match the song meter. In most Breton dialects, the accent is on the next-to-last syllable, so in spoken Breton one would have, for example, "MAR-zin" instead of the song's "mar-ZIN".

mar-ZIN, mar-ZIN, pe-LEKH it-hü

ken BUR-eh zeh, gand o ki dü

BED on BED, kass kowt an tü

da GAHW-oot DRAY-mañ ar vee rü

ar VEE rüz UHSS an NIRE (rhymes with fire) VOR-eg

var LEZ an OWD, tool ar GARR-reg


ar BELL-er glahss hag an OUR YOWT-enn

KOULZ hag UH-hel VAHR an DAYR-venn

eh-KRAYZ ar KHWAD, layz ar FEUN-tun

Working with Words and Associations

Marzhin: the Breton form of Merlin (cf Welsh Myrddin). One of the four Marzhin songs in the Barzaz-Breiz relates the tale of his unusual conception and birth. A king's daughter becomes pregnant by a bird flying about her head and ears while she is in the house of a 'little pagan god.' Her newborn child tells her not to bewail her fate or to call his father an evil spirit, and she exclaims that the child is a marzh, 'a marvel', a folk etymology of the name Marzhin.

Divinour: 'diviner, fortune-teller, wizard'; compare Welsh dewin, covered above under "A Taste of Welsh Verse"

pelec'h: 'where'

it: 'go' in the second person 'polite'/plural form, present tense

it-hu: 'you' - a dialect form of the second person 'polite'/plural ; the usual form is c'hwi. Breton, like many other languages, has two forms of the word 'you' - one with a singular meaning and reserved for close friends, children and so forth, and the other used for more formal situations and for addressing more than one person. Compare French vous and German Sie.

ken: 'so'

beure: 'morning, early'

-se: 'this', which modifies the preceding word. Put together, this phrase means 'so early this morning'.

gant: 'with', cognate with Welsh gan

ho: 'your' (again, the 'polite' form)

ki: mutation of c'hi, 'dog.' Compare Welsh ci and Irish cú, 'hound.' The Welsh Myrddin Wyllt is also associated with a wolf or a dog (among other animals).

du: 'black', cf. Welsh du, Irish dubh

Bet on bet: on is 'I am', while bet is the past participle 'been'. On bet is the usual way of expressing 'I have been', and the additional bet here is intensifying the expression

kas kaout: kas is 'to send, to get, and kaout is 'to find', and the two together form an idiom meaning 'to seek'

an: 'the'. There are three words for 'the' in Breton: al, which appears only before words beginning with 'l,' an, which appears before words beginning with vowels or with 'n,' 'd,' 't,' 'h'), and ar which appears otherwise.

tu: 'seacoast', as well as more general 'side'

Da: 'to'

gaout: a form of kaout, above

dre-mañ: 'here, in this place'

vi: 'egg', compare Welsh wy

ruz: 'red,' cf. Irish ruadh. Remembering that in Breton, as in the other Celtic languages, the adjective follows the noun, the phrase an vi ruz means 'the red egg'.

eus: 'from'

naer-vorek: naer is 'serpent, and vorek is an adjectival form of mor, 'sea,' another word with obvious cognates in all the Celtic languages.

War: 'on'

lez: 'edge'

aod: 'coast, shore, beach'

toull ar garreg: toull is 'hole, hollow', ar is 'the', as noted above, and garreg is a mutation of karreg, 'rock, stone, reef'. This construction is a possessive. In English terms, it has an understood 'of': (the) hole (of) the stone. This structure is used several more times here, so keep an eye out for it!

The hollow of the stone is where the sea-serpent has laid the red egg, and the red egg of this serpent is a Breton version of the talisman found across the Celtic cultures in both time and space, from Pliny's classical reference to the "serpent stone" (ovum anginum), through the gleiniau found in living Celtic folk traditions, including Wales and Scotland. They are variously connected with divination, healing, and protection.

Mont a ran; Mont is 'going', ran is 'I do, I am doing', and a is a particle that connects the two. The phrase can be literally understood as "[It is] going [which] I am doing" - that is, "I am going".

glask: 'to look for, to search'

flourenn: 'grass, meadow'

beler: 'cress', an edible plant often mentioned in Celtic poetry and folklore

glas: a color word with cognates in all Celtic languages. It includes shades of blue, green and grey, specifically shades of these 'wild' colors which are found in nature.

ha'n: 'and the'

aour-yeotenn: aour is 'gold', like Irish ór and Welsh aur, and yeotenn is 'herb, plant'. The 'golden herb' in Breton folklore is a legendary plant with solar assocations, found only when it shines on St. John's Eve (June 23, the Midsummer festival), which must be harvested only while barefoot, clad only in a shirt, and with ritual observances and charms. The special properties of this herb are said to include giving understanding of the speech of dogs, wolves and birds.

Koulz hag: 'as well as'

uhel-var: 'mistletoe' cognate with Welsh uchelfar. The first element of the word means 'high', and it is high in a tree that mistletoe grows.

dervenn: 'oak,' cf. Welsh derwen, Irish dair. This term is a collective noun, where the basic word refers to oaks as a group or class in general, from which the word for any specific element of the group is formed by adding a suffix, dervenneg (cf. sêr in the Taliesin verses above). Mistletoe and oak have been long associated with the Druids, as in Pliny's famous account of the Druidic rite of cutting the mistletoe of the oak on the sixth day of the new moon.

E-kreiz: Kreiz is 'center, middle', and e-kreiz is 'in the middle'

c'hoad: a mutation of koad, 'forest' (Welsh coed)

'lez: 'edge'

feunteun: 'fountain' This fountain must be Baranton (or Barenton), in the forest of Brekelien (or Brocéliande), in Brittany. The Welsh Myrddin is also said to live near a spring or fountain in the forest of Celyddon, in what is now Scotland.

A full translation is left as an exercise for the reader, but if you run into severe problems, a free translation of these verses was used by Mary Stewart in her novel The Crystal Cave. Similar lines from the Marzhin-Barzh verses, from known folk tradition, make an interesting comparison to the lines above. Marzhin is asked, "Marzhin, Marzhin, where are you going, with your trousers torn on both sides, and with your holly stick, like a countryman?" Marzhin answers, "I am going to look for my harp, which was worth its weight in silver, and which was my consolation in this world."

While working with this song and the figure of Marzhin, it is necessary to remember that the familiar character Merlin from later non-Celtic literatures has become very distanced from the Marzhin and Myrddin of native Celtic traditions. In addition to the Breton songs and legends of Marzhin, one may also look at the early Welsh poetry connected with Myrddin. The accounts of Merlin related by Geoffrey of Monmouth, although in Latin, were not yet far removed from Welsh tradition and may have been based directly on a native Welsh source as Geoffrey claimed. The Irish Suibhne Geilt and Scottish Lailoken are also closely related. Familiarity with these will help one to begin to connect with the native Celtic tradition.

Since Kervarker undoubtedly was familiar with both the Welsh Myrddin legends and contemporary theories about Druidism (he was a member of the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain), this pleasing song cannot be regarded as an independent, pristine survival of a Breton version of the Merlin legend. However, Kervarker was deeply immersed in Breton and other Celtic culture and folklore, and his work was an essentially harmonious development within the Celtic cultural matrix. This is illustrated by the fact that both the genuine and the invented material from the Barzaz-Breiz have become entirely re-incorporated into the living folksong and tradition of Brittany, and is a beautiful and vital part of the living Celtic tree of today.

Other Celtic Poetry

Although we have not had room to look at Scottish Gaelic, Manx, or Cornish poetry here, that is not for lack of material. One particularly popular source in Scottish Gaelic is the collection of Highland folk verses called the Carmina Gadelica. Although many neo-pagans have chosen to borrow and 're-Paganise' material from the readily-available English edition of this work, it is far more valuable and rewarding to work deeply with the original verses, to develop a full understanding of their meaning on many levels. Folksongs and modern poetry are also valuable sources for all the Celtic languages. All have poets working through them today who perhaps are not Pagan, but are deeply rooted in Celtic Heritage and intensely sensitive to Celtia's mystical power, and as such are inspiring reading for any Celtic Pagan. Studying and experiencing Celtic poetry as outlined in this chapter will ideally be an intrinsic part of a Celtic Recreationist path, and some of you who today speak no Celtic language will someday not only be loving this centuries-long music, but also be adding to it. Recently, some have seen a dichotomy between the 'cultural' approach to Celtic Paganism (language, music, crafts, and so forth), and the 'magickal' approach. But in Celtic poetry we can see how the two are intertwined: they are, in fact, one.


Patrick K. Ford, The Mabinogi, University of California Press.

An Foclóir Póca, ('The Pocket Dictionary'), An Gum, Baile Átha Cliath, 1986

Oxford Guide to Welsh Literature,

Gerard Murphy, Early Irish Lyrics,961.

Pat Neill,'Cynghanedd', in Discovering Welshness, edited by Oliver Davis and Fiona Bowie, Gomer Press, Llandysul, 1992

Hersart de la Villemarqé, 'Barzaz-Breiz: Chants Populaire de la Bretagne,' Librarie Académique Perrin, Paris, 1963 reprint

Ifor Williams, Chwedl Taliesin, University of Wales Press, 1957