Neutral Tones
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Thomas MacDonagh (1878 - 1916)

One of the leaders of the Easter Rising 1916 in Ireland, MacDonagh in ordinary life was a lecturer in English literature at University College, Dublin.

This poem is a translation of the 18th-century poem "An Bunán Buí" by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. Of his translation method MacDonagh wrote: "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 Ein, 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."

The bittern is a wading bird and member of the heron family, a bird of the marsh and wetlands. Constantine was Roman Emperor (A.D. 306-37)


This is a masterly poem, a wonderfully dramatic - melodramatic - piece in the voice of the drunken narrator. One day I hope to hear Rab C. Nesbitt (Gregor Fisher) recite a Scots version of The Yellow Bittern.

 

 

The Yellow Bittern

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.