Saturday, 27 September 2008

Hunting on Arran

Here's an example of a passage of Middle Irish prose which I think is exceptionally beautiful. It comes from a 12th century text called 'The Old Men's Colloquy'. In a strange, luminous moment, the pagan hero Cailte has mysteriously survived from Ireland's ancient past to converse with St. Patrick. Patrick is delighted by this huge, wild envoy from Ireland's antiquity, and they wander together about Ireland. In the course of their journey, Cailte tells Patrick many tales of what life was like in the days of his lord, Finn mac Cool, who led the band of noble warriors, the Fian. It's as though an medieval Greek were to have written a prose epic in which Achilles lived on to meet St Paul, and used that as frame tale for a series of subtales as complicated and subtle as Ovid's Metamorphoses. The translation is my own. 'Cailte' is pronounced 'KWEEL-cher'. The 'Trogain' month appears to be our August.

* * *

'Well, my friend Cailte', said Patrick, 'what was the best hunting the Fian ever found, in Ireland or in Scotland?'

'The hunting of Arran', said Cailte.

'And where does that land lie?', asked Patrick.

'Between Scotland and the land of the Picts', replied Cailte. 'And we, the three battle-bands of the Fianna, used to go there on the first day of the month of Trogain which is called Lughnasadh, and we used to take our full share of hunting there, until the cuckoo called out from the treetops of Ireland. Sweeter than any human music was listening to the lovely voices of the bird-host rising from the waves and from the island's shores. There were three fifties of bird-flocks thereabouts, with flashing feathers of every colour - blue-grey, and green, and blue-green, and yellow.'

And Cailte recited this poem:

Arran with its running deer,
and sea swelling to its shoulder,
island where hosts were fed,
ridges in which blue spears were bloodied.

Skittish deer on its mountaintops,
tender bog-berries amid its leaves,
cold water in its streams,
mast upon its dark oaks.

Greyhounds were there, and hunting dogs,
blackberries and sloes from the blackthorn,
trees close to the water's edge,
deer wandering amidst its oaks.

There was purple ling gleaming on its rocks,
and unblemished grass upon its hillsides,
above its crags (fine ornament) you'd see
the play of speckled fawns leaping.

Smooth were its meadows, fat its wild-pigs,
happy its clearings, a tale most to be believed.
Nuts clustered on the branches of its wood-hazel,
the sails of longships travelled past it.

Paradise it was to us from fair weather's advent,
with trout beneath the banks of its rivers
and gulls disputing about its white cliffs.
Arran! - lovely at every season.

'May victory and blessing come to you, my dear Cailte!', said Patrick. 'Your tales and you yourself are welcome with us always!'

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