Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Ruins of Timoleague Abbey - Seán Ó Coileáin

translated from the Irish by Tony Hoagland and Martin Shaw

I am gut sad.

I am flirting
with the green waves,
wandering the sand,
feeding reflection
into the seaweed foam.

That Shaker's moon
is up.
Crested by corn-colored stars
and traced by those witchy scribblers
who read the bone-smoke.

No wind at all -
no flutter
for foxglove or elm.

There is a church door.

In the time
when the people
of my hut lived,

there was eating and thinking
dished out to the poor
and the soul-sick in this place.

I am in my remembering.

By the frame of the door
is a crooked black bench.

It is oily with history
of the rumps of sages,
and the foot-sore
who lingered in the storm.

I am bent with weeping.
This blue dream
chucks the salt
from me.

I remember
the walls god-bright
with the king's theology,

the slow chorus
of the low bell,
the fully hymn
of the byre and field.

Pathetic hut.
Rain-cracked and wind-straddled.
Your walls bare-nubbed
by chill flagons
of ocean spit.

The saints are scattered.
The high gable
is an ivy tangle.
The stink of fox
is the only swinging incense.

There is no stew
for this arriving prodigal,
no candled bed.

My kin
lie under the ground
of this place.

My shape
is sloughed with grief.
No more red tree
between my thighs.
My eyes are milk.
Rage my pony.

My face has earnt
the grim mask.
My heart a musky gore.

But my hand. My hand
reaches through this sour air
and touches
the splendid darkness
of my deliverer.

Where to begin?  Firstly, the author.  Collins, as his name would likely be Anglicized, is of minor renown, and largely unknown in terms of biographical details, apart from his life dates, 1754-1817.  He was a teacher, and once educated as a priest.  He wrote in Irish, and this poem is presented in (captivating) translation.

Secondly, I think it's important to have some historical context about the translation of this poem into English.  From the translator, Tony Hoagland himself:

"The poem has traveled a long way. In 1951 a Cambridge scholar named Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson published A Celtic Miscellany, a collection of two hundred and fifty translations of verse and prose-extracts from the existing body of Celtic literature. Though Jackson drew from all six Celtic tongues (Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton), his anthology mainly presents work from the dominant literatures, Welsh and Irish.
As a translator, Jackson’s primary aim was literal fidelity. He rendered poems as blocks of prose. He knew he could not retain the entangled grammatical constructions of the original Welsh, for instance, and that to strive for rhyme would cost all naturalness. Jackson also wished to correct for what he called “an intolerable whimsicality and sentimentality” in eighteenth and nineteenth century versions of the poetry, produced to gratify the appetite of English readers for the exotic mystique of Gaelic culture.
It’s in this form that my partner Martin Shaw, a Devon storyteller and mythologist, found Jackson’s texts, and began curiously dipping into their imagination and language. What happened after that is more mysterious. Jackson’s renditions, though meticulously faithful, are often windy and plain, especially in the poem at hand, “The Ruins of Timoleague Abbey.” It’s my impression that what Shaw did in his first drafts was to reach into Jackson’s text, seize a fistful of the structural narrative and its lyric flavor, pull it out, and recast it into the diction and rhythms of his poetic storytelling language.

Now, on to the poem itself.  It is the account of a visit to a ruined church, in whose plot the narrator's ancestors lie.  It's a romantic scene, to be sure, with the visitor abstractly thanking God, his "deliverer" for bringing him to this place.  The poem is also filled with some of the most evocative images I've read in a long time.  "Gut sad," "soul sick," and "it is oily with history" are some of my favorite small chunks of language.  My single favorite stanza is "I am bent with weeping. This blue dream chucks the salt from me."  What an image for crying that is!  That will stick with me forever, I think.

It's hard to read this poem without becoming sentimental for some imagined ruined place of one's own future.  In the return to this place, there is love, anger, and grief, followed by relief and thankfulness.  The reading of it is cathartic, and I can't help but wonder what place will inspire these sort of feelings in me at some point later in my life.

Lastly, I've found an image of the place itself.  I seldom do this, as I think the imagining of the words into a mental image is important, but I found the image too beautiful and informative to keep to myself.  Besides, it's far enough down this wall of text that I don't fear it coloring your reading until after you've formed your own mental picture.


  1. Wow. Entirely, startlingly modern; entirely, startlingly unknown.

    It evokes St Helen's Chapel at Cape Cornwall for me. A tiny ruin, right in the middle of desolation, but it must have been built for some profound reason.

  2. Beautiful translation! I live nearby the abbey - it is a powerful, beautiful place. Very much enjoyed your presentation here!