THE YELLOW BITTERN
By Thomas S. McDonagh (1878-1916)
(Translated from An Bonnán
Buí in the Irish
of Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna)
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.
** 1] A translation of the 18th-century poem "An Bonnán Buí" by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. MacDonagh writes: "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 Éin, 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." bittern: heron-like marsh bird with a booming cry.
Gillan, Patrick. "MacDonagh, Thomas Stanislaus (1878-1916)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford:
Given name: Thomas Stanislaus
Family name: MacDonagh
Birth date: 1 January 1878
Death date: 3 May 1916
wife: Muriel Gifford (from January 1912)
Education: Rockwell College, near Cashel, county Tipperary to 1901
Politics: Irish Republican Brotherhood: 1915 to 1916
29 Oakley Road, Ranelagh
St Colman's College, Fermoy, county Cork
St Kieran's College, Kilkenny
Cloughjordan, county Tipperary: 1878
32 Baggot Street, Dublin, near St Stephen's Green: 1912
Cause of death: firing squad
Buried at: Unmarked grave, Arbour Hill barracks