Na Muintir: Three Fragments


                                              After Seumus McManus

(The Coming of the Gaels)

Let us sing of the coming of the Gaels,
         Three tribes like three streams, wandering
Across the wide lands of the East and South,
         Across the roaring body of seas, land
Of foreign powers and ways weird to Eire.
         From there came the Milesians though last
In order, first in war and rule.
                                                These were met
By bristling Firbolg and mighty Tuatha Da Danaan,
         When to these the Milesians beat their path.
All three were kin of Celt’s blood, who before
         The singing of songs separated to become
One tribe, they of whom we now sing our tune,
         The triple-headed river of wandering men,
Come from the East, the Gaels, warring down
         To the peace of a single river’s flow: the Gaels.
First the Firbolg came, and they from Hellas,
          Long enslaved but cunning in their escape,
Capturing the ships of their veteran masters,
         Outrunning the curses of Manannan MacLir,
They managed a beach head, and thereby good fortune
         Until the Fomorians, tribe of rovers,
With a stronghold on Tory Island, waged big war
         Coming down like birds of prey, across
The cold grey seas, white-tipped with chill wind,
         Come down from the Island of Tory, northwest.
Because of the Firbolgs, the Fomorians would work
         A petty worry in the wake of the Tuatha De Danann.
So came next these clever and skillful folk.
         Awed by the finery and execution of artful works,

Firbolg payed a good homage to Tuatha De Danaan,
         Calling them magi, singing songs about them.
Even the Milesians, new masters to come,
         Conquering Firbolg and De Danann alike,
Were no match for the beauty and wisdom
         That the Tuatha De Danann held, and for which
They were enflamed with fame, subject most fit
         For scop, for folk, for recounting in poetfolk’s song.

(Breas and Cairbre)

Breas, smithy of hard insults to poet Cairbre –
         No exultations, no banquets, no high honors
Afforded this great man of the singing times –
         Insulting with dry cakes and cold rooms,
Breas the niggard king died, then, on an ash heap
         Of warrior victories at Southern Moytura
And seven years reign, after Nauada,
         King of the Tuatha De Danann passed on,
Died with the one voice of Cairbre
         Pounding like the surf in Breas’ hollowed ear:
“The honed meal-blades of your kinfolk,
         They were not whetted at your foreshortened
Table, nor did your ales pass down parched
         Gullets of thirstyfolk; their breath was not
Thick with mead at the banquet, call it that
          Anyway, that you threw.
                                             Silence reigns here.
Neither their poets nor their harpers, bards,
         Trumpeters, jugglers, not even a buffoon,
Were seen to set foot nor practice craft
         Amusing our assembly, call it that anyway,
In that rabble you call a court.
                                              So came I, Cairbre,
Met with insult: how paltriness hurts
         All the more when even a frigid welcome
Is canceled by thin mead.
                                             And good folk,
         Knowing such gross impiety of the crown,
Revenging blemished pride (mine – earned,
         Demanded and deserved) sent you, o king
And master of your own household, spewed you
         Out from your own door, your own hearth,
Squealing to your father, wise Elatha.
         Thus your fate is written on tongues of stone.”
And that was Cairbre who spoke to Breas
         When he died on the ash heap, dying who knows
Where. But Elatha, father to Breas, could not help,
         Though Balor had slain King Nuada,
Who took again the throne, although he was called
         Airgead Lam, when Breas was banished
To ash. And so the king was newly called
         When he ruled. Balor of the evil eye, slew Nuada
At Moytura North, Balor of Tory Island,
         Fomorian Chief.
                                           Balor’s turn came next
At the hands of his kin – Lugh the famous one
          Sent him to his death with sling and stone.
These were his weapons.
                                             So at Sligo
          The mighty Lugh found treasure, victory
For the Tuatha Da Danann; Lugh utmost
          Of the fiery Fomorians passed on his reign
To Dagda, the greater man, and further
         To three generations, say the poets and bards,
Three generations of good blood and great hope
         When at last the Milesians came.

(The Battle at Southern Moytura)

It happened that the Tuatha De Danann
         Met with the Firbolg and overthrew them,
So much the greater were they in war talent.
                                              Thus it went
As the frenzy of fortune throws first
                                                               one way
And then,
                         to great dismay,
                                             Before greasy firelight, poets tell
How it went for these two famous clans,
         Thus it goes and what the poets hand down
And the seanachies relate: that becomes
         A picture of a people, a history of war
And ways of bloodshed in battle-manners.
         For the Firbolg’s fear overshadowed
Their warriors and kings, so huge were the Da Danann,
         Hated host. In cunning the Firbolg
Sought to put time between themselves and
         The fateful hour when weapons would lock,
Deciding for all times, master and slave,
         Tongue and silence, ruler and ruled,
History and nothing.
                                   When the armies drew up
         In handsome lines opposite each other,
The Firbolg shrank from the battle-call.
         To them the fierce De Danann called out….

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