Saturday, March 12, 2016


Pádraig Pearse
Scraperboard by David Rooney
in 1916 Portraits and Lives
Click on any image for a larger version

Needless to say, in this centenary year of the 1916 Rising there has been much talk about Pádraig Pearse.

I find it strange that there is not more talk of his poem Fornocht do chonac thú. I have been captivated by this poem since I learned it in school. It is powerful and perfect. The Irish is simple and tight, the style traditional in the form of an Aisling.

It seems to have been written at a pivotal moment in Pearse's thinking, at a moment of transition from a home ruler to a blood sacrificing patriot. It has a fleeting beauty with its sexual undertones but equally a frightening prospect at the onset of tunnel vision leading to the inevitable and heedless blood sacrifice.

For all its beauty there is a biblical undertone from the very first stanza.
Fornocht do chonac thú,
a áille na háille,
is do dhallas mo shúil
ar eagla go stánfainn.
"If your right eye offends pluck it out ... (Matthew 5:29-30)

One couplet reminded me of Wilfred Owen and the brutal dissonance of his pararhyme.
is do dhúnas mo chluas
ar eagla go gclisfinn.
Your ear is waiting for cloisfinn (hear), even if that would not be consistent with the internal rhyme, but it is assaulted with clisfinn (fail), brutal and more extreme, and a better fit.

Pearse's Cottage, Rosmuc, Connemara (1960s)

Pearse spent a lot of time in the Gaeltacht in Rosmuc in Connemara where he had a cottage by the lake. His Irish was apparently of a very high standard though I suppose you can never quite compete with a native speaker, and anyway the Irish he was writing would also have a literary overlay.

View from Pearse's Cottage (1960s)

For Pearse nationalism and religion were conflated leading to blood sacrifice and redemption. The image above captures some of this in a small way.

Pearse mosaic, Chapel of the Resurrection, Galway Cathedral

Anyway, I thought I'd try a translation of the poem and see what turned out. I was not thinking in terms of mere transliteration. I did want to keep an element of the rhyme and rhythm. In other words I wanted something that could pass as a stand-alone poem itself.

I was happy enough with what I ended up with, but I think you'd need a Heaney to capture the beauty and earthiness of the poem.

Imagine my shock when I read today that Pearse had already done his own translation, calling the poem Renunciation. Who could translate it better than himself?

I had seen what I would have called an explanation of the poem, a sort of transliteration but had paid little attention to it. Now I find out that it is actually Pearse's own translation. All I can say is that he was better at writing the poem than translating it.

You can read the original, my translation and his own here.

If you are interested in the free gift of 1916 Portraits and Lives, you may need an ebook reader, which you can download from here. The ebook is well worth having. It has an introduction by Patrick Maume, some lovely scraperboard portraits of those concerned along with their entries in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

You might also be interested in downloading The Canon of Irish History - A Challenge by Francis Shaw SJ (1972) where Pearse is dissected. It is being offered by the Jesuit publication STUDIES.

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