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Calleach Birra's Lough, Slieve Gullion, county Armagh

translated from the Old Irish


Anthony Weir

original version published 1975
this vsrsion published 1994

with photographs from
the translator's archive


listen while reading


click for a high-resolution picture

My life is ebbing
: let it drain -
unlike the tide which turns again,
the boiling, unbegotten sea.

I whose gown was always new
am now so pitifully thin
that this old shift will outlive me.

Wedge-tomb, Srahwee, county Mayo.

They want only money now.
When I was young, love was what
I wanted - and so richly got.

People then were generous,
and in return they asked a lot.
They ask and give so little now.

Cure-stones, Killerry Church, county Sligo.

I had chariots and horses then,
given by admiring kings.
I drank mead and wine with them.

Now among old onion-skins
of withered women I drink whey,
myself a withered onion-skin.

My hands are bony now, and thin;
once they plied their loving trade
upon the bodies of great kings.

My hands are bony, wasted things,
unfit to stroke an old man's head,
much less a young man's glowing skin

Young girls are happy in the Spring,
but I am sad and worse than sad,
for I'm an old and useless thing.

Figure from Lusty More Island, county Fermanagh. 

10. Nobody round me is glad;
My hair is grey and going thin.
My veil conceals what is well hid.

I once had bright cloth on my head
and went with kings - now I dread
the going to the king of kings. 
The winter winds ravish the sea.
No nobleman will visit me -
no, not even a slave will come. 

Corbels on church at Bussières-Badil (Dordogne) France. 

It's long ago I sailed the sea
of youth and beauty wantonly.
Now my passion too has gone.

Even in Summer I wear a shawl
It's many a day since I was warm.
The Spring of youth has turned to Fall.

15. Wintry age's smothering pall
is wrapping slowly round my limbs.
My hair's like lichen, my paps like galls.

Standing-stone, Ardmore, county Donegal.

I don't regret my lust and rage,
for even had I been demure
I still would wear the cloak of age.

The cloak that wooded hillsides wear
is beautiful; their foliage
is woven with eternal care.

I am old: the eyes that once
burned bright for men are now decayed:
the torch has burned out its sconce.

My life is ebbing; let it drain
unlike the sea which flows again,
the man-torn and tormented sea.

20. Flow and ebb: what the flow brings
the ebb soon takes away again
- the flow and the ebb following.

The flow and the ebb following:
the flow's joy and the ebb's pain,
the flow's honey, the ebb's sting.

The flow has not quite flooded me.
There is a recess still quite dry
though many were my company.

Wedge-tomb, Carrowcrom, county Mayo.

Well might Jesus come to me
in my recess - could I deny
a son of man my only hospitality?

A hand is laid upon them all
whose ebb always succeeds their flow,
whose rising sinks into their fall.

25. If my veiled and sunken eyes
could see more than their own ebb
there's nothing they would recognise.

Happy the island of the sea
where flow always comes after ebb:
What flow will follow ebb in me?

I am wretched. What was flow
is now all ebb. Ebbing I go.
After the Tide, the Undertow.


Listen to the translator reading this translation.


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in other words, a popular poet quite opposite to me: a Belfast atheist, anarchist drop-out
who has always despised 'academia', Aosdána, the Literati, the Hierarchy - and lived "on welfare".

The sea crawls from the shore
Leaving there
The despicable weed,
A corpse's hair.
In me,
The desolate withdrawing sea.

The Old Woman of Beare am I
Who once was beautiful.
Now all I know is how to die.
I'll do it well.

Look at my skin
Stretched tight on the bone.
Where kings have pressed their lips,
The pain, the pain.

I don't hate the men
Who swore the truth was in their lies.
One thing alone I hate–
Women's eyes.

The young sun
Gives its youth to everyone,
Touching everything with gold.
In me, the cold.

The cold. Yet still a seed
Burns there.
Women love only money now.
But when
I loved, I loved
Young men.

Young men whose horses galloped
On many an open plain
Beating lightning from the ground.
I loved such men.

And still the sea
Rears and plunges into me,
Shoving, rolling through my head
Images of the drifting dead.

A soldier cries
Pitifully about his plight;
A king fades
Into the shivering night.

Does not every season prove
That the acorn hits the ground?
Have I not known enough of love
To know it's lost as soon as found?

I drank my fill of wine with kings,
Their eyes fixed on my hair.
Now among the stinking hags
I chew the cud of prayer.

Time was the sea
Brought kings as slaves to me.
Now I hear the face of God
And the crab crawls through my blood.

I loved the wine
That thrilled me to my fingertips;
Now the mean wind
Stitches salt into my lips.

The coward sea
Slouches away from me.
Fear brings back the tide
That made me stretch at the side
Of him who'd take me briefly for his bride.

The sea grows smaller, smaller now.
Farther, farther it goes
Leaving me here where the foam dries
On the deserted land,
Dry as my shrunken thighs,
As the tongue that presses my lips,
As the veins that break through my hands.

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I am part of the landscape


re-translated by Anthony Weir from the Old Irish


By Belfast Lough
a bright-billed
blackbird trilled
from the effulgent gorse.


He is my joy
my sweet nut-grove.
He is my boy
and this
a kiss
for my love.


The winds are wild tonight. They tear
and toss the sea's white hair.
And yet they bring my mind much ease
for Vikings sail on calmer seas.


Here's my news:
stags calling loud;
winter snows,
summer's shroud.

The cold wind's high
and low the sun,
brief in the sky.
Big tides run.

The bracken's brown.
The wild geese
across the sound
cry to the ice

Cold has caught
the wings of birds.
Frost has brought
my winter words.

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adapted from Buile Suibhne,
the Madness of King Sweeney after his Defeat
at the Battle of Moira (Mag Roth), 637 CE

As flax is scutched by women
so was my army beaten.
But, Christ!
the blackbird's song is sweeter
than harpists at a feast.

' ' ' ' '

No stately home could ever be
grander than my Oratory here
where moon and stars shine bright and clear
above the safety of my tree.

It was the Holy Builder
of the Worlds who made
my bothy in this little glade
and thatched its leafy roof, my shelter,

my retreat where no rain comes:
refuge safe from spear and sword
my sylvan mansion - and, dear Lord!
no fear where no fence runs.

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Click here for another poem on the theme of old age written in 15th century France.