Int én bec

Int én bec
ro·léic feit
do rind guip
glanbuidi
fo·ceird faíd
ós Loch Laíg
lon do craíb
charnbuidi.

The Blackbird of Belfast Lough

The little bird
lets a whistle go
from the point of a beak,
bright yellow:
throws out a cry
above Loch Laíg,
a blackbird from branch
(a cairn of yellow).

As a special treat, a translation into Modern Irish:

An t-éan beag
a lig fead
de rinn ghoib
ghlanbhuí;
caitheann [sé] faí
os Loch Laoi
lon de chraobh
charnbhuí.

-Nollag Ó Muiríle (2007)


This is a new first- a translation which I did not do in class, and is solely for the purposes of this here blog. Unfortunately, as I have not studied the poem formally, I don’t know the first damn thing about it. A quick google search reveals that it’s quite the popular little piece. The blackbird of the poem is the symbol of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, and in 2008 the Centre held an exhibition on the poem.

According to the Guardian’s article about the show, this lovely little poem was used in the 11th century to illustrate a metre called ‘snám súad’, about which I know… nothing. I suppose my Old Irish professor must have covered this during a period when I was (surprise!) ill. Although I appear to be ignorant about the poem in all the ways that matter, it is a charming little thing, isn’t it?

Everyone seems to translate Loch Laíg as some variant of ‘Belfast Lough’, but my knowledge of Irish geography fails me here. I know of the Lagan River, near Belfast- but no lake, or anything of the like. Loch can also mean ‘inlet’ I gather, so presumably the poem refers to that region of the river? I have decided to leave the blasted phrase untranslated out of sheer stubborness. On the other hand, charnbuidi is a charming little compound of the words for ‘cairn’ (carn) and ‘yellow’ (buide); the branch is somewhat literally a ‘cairn of yellow’. What a delightfully whimsical phrase! Gerard Murphy’s ‘yellow-heaped’ is quite lovely in it’s own way, but something about a brightly coloured cairn appeals to me.

For some other translations, take a look at that Guardian article I mentioned- and skim through the comments, too. At least one clever fellow has his own MnE translation. Similarly, pop over here (and the comments); or the webjournal archipelago over here.

Archipelago actually has a whole host of Irish poems, including everyone’s favourite Pangur Bán- and audio for several of them, which gives one a rare chance to hear poems such as that one about the scholar’s white cat recited in the Old Irish. I’ve yet to get the knack, having almost no ability to pronounce that wretchedly difficult tongue.