The Yellow Bittern by Thomas S. McDonagh (Translated from An Bonnán Buí)

 The yellow bittern that never broke out
In a drinking bout, might as well have drunk;
His bones are thrown on a naked stone
Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.
O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
Though they say that a sot like myself is curst —
I was sober a while, but I’ll drink and be wise
For I fear I should die in the end of thirst.

            It’s not for the common birds that I’d mourn,
The black-bird, the corn-crake, or the crane,
But for the bittern that’s shy and apart
And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.
Oh! if I had known you were near your death,
While my breath held out I’d have run to you,
Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird
Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.

My darling told me to drink no more
Or my life would be o’er in a little short while;
But I told her ’tis drink gives me health and strength
And will lengthen my road by many a mile.
You see how the bird of the long smooth neck
Could get his death from the thirst at last —
Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,
You’ll get no sup when your life is past.

            In a wintering island by Constantine’s halls
A bittern calls from a wineless place,
And tells me that hither he cannot come
Till the summer is here and the sunny days.
When he crosses the stream there and wings o’er the sea
Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight —
Well, the milk and the ale are drunk every drop,
And a dram won’t stop our thirst this night.

 

 

** 1] A translation of the 18th-century poem “An Bonnán Buí” by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. MacDonagh writes: “All my translations are very close to the originals.
In my version of this poem I have changed nothing for the purpose of elucidation. I have even translated the name of Loch Mhic an Éin, a lake in the North-west
of Ireland. Some of the references must be obscure to all but students of Irish literature; I think, however, that the poem does not suffer too much from
the difficulty of these.” bittern: heron-like marsh bird with a booming cry.

Gillan, Patrick. “MacDonagh, Thomas Stanislaus (1878-1916).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford:
OUP, 2004.

Biographical information 

Given name: Thomas Stanislaus
Family name: MacDonagh
Birth date: 1 January 1878
Death date: 3 May 1916
Nationality: Irish
Family relations
wife: Muriel Gifford (from January 1912)
Education: Rockwell College, near Cashel, county Tipperary to 1901
Politics: Irish Republican Brotherhood: 1915 to 1916
Occupation: Teacher
Residences
29 Oakley Road, Ranelagh
St Colman’s College, Fermoy, county Cork
St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny
Cloughjordan, county Tipperary: 1878
Dublin: 1908
32 Baggot Street, Dublin, near St Stephen’s Green: 1912
Cause of death: firing squad
Buried at: Unmarked grave, Arbour Hill barracks

 

For An Bonnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna in old Gaelc script click here

For English translation The Yellow Bittern by Seamus Heaney click here

The Yellow Bittern by Seamus Heaney (Translated from An Bonnán Buí)

Yellow bittern, there you are now,
Skin and bone on the frozen shore.
It wasn’t hunger but thirst for a mouthful
That left you foundered and me heartsore.
What odds is it now about Troy’s destruction
With you on the flagstones upside down,
Who never injured or hurt a creature
And preferred bog water to any wine?

Bittern, bittern, your end was awful,
Your perished skull there on the road,
You that would call me every morning
With your gargler’s song as you guzzled mud.
And that’s what’s ahead of your brother Cathal
(You know what they say about me and the stuff)
But they’ve got it wrong and the truth is simple:
A drop would have saved that croaker’s life.

I am saddened, bittern, and broken hearted
To find you in scrags in the rushy tufts,
And the big rats scampering down the rat paths
To wake your carcass and have their fun.
If you could have got word to me in time, bird,
That you were in trouble and craved a sup,
I’d have struck the fetters of those lough waters
And wet your thrapple with the blow I struck.

Your common birds do not concern me,
The blackbird, say, or the thrush or crane,
But the yellow bittern, my heartsome namesake
With my looks and locks, he’s the one I mourn.
Constantly he was drinking, drinking,
And by all accounts I’ve a name for it too,
But every drop I get I’ll sink it
For fear I might get my end from drouth.

The woman I love says to give it up now
Or else I’ll go to an early grave,
But I say no and keep resisting
For taking drink’s what prolongs your days.
You saw for yourself a while ago
What happened to the bird when its throat went dry;
So my friends and neighbours, let it flow:
You’ll be stood no rounds in eternity.

 

For An Bonnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna in old Gaelc script click here

For English translation The Yellow Bittern by Thomas S. McDonagh click here