This week we take a seasonal look at the poem/song, The Yellow Bittern for a number of reasons. Firstly because a number of people have asked me why the recent excellent TV documentary screened recently on Liam Clancy, in tribute of him following his death was entitled the Yellow Bittern. Well it’s truly beautiful traditional Irish song dating from the early 18th century from Cathal Bui equally a popular balladeer/poet of his day. So let’s find out a little more about this Breifne Bard.
Mac Giolla Ghunna, Cathal Buí (1680-1756), poet; mostly associated with Co. Cavan in folk tradition, where he is perceived as a typical poetic rake. The poems ascribed to him reflect a wayward existence. In his best-known song, ‘An Bonnán Buí’, the poet laments a bittern he finds dead of thirst, and resolves to steer clear of abstinence in future. He further identifies with this bird as also bore the appellation of Bui/Yellow in his name. This may have been given to describe Cathal’s yellowish complexion linked to his fondness for the juice of the barley, perhaps. So Cathal Bui pens this famous lament for the Bonnan/Bittern on finding him dead during a harsh cold snap when the wells and waterways were frozen over, just like now. The tone is mock-heroic and says sad but harsh lessons are to be learned and it’s lamentable what can happen if you cannot slake your thirst – so no fear is he going to risk it!
He was, along with Peadar Ó Doirnín, Art Mac Cumhaigh and Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta one of the four most prominent of the south Ulster and north Leinster poets in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He has been described as ‘an Irish-speaking Christy Moore, an incisive ballad singing entertainer for a totally Irish-speaking community of poor people living at or below subsistence in the early 18th Century.’
Mac Giolla Ghunna was probably born in Fermanagh and, having initially gone on to be a priest, settled for a career as a rake-poet. It has been remarked about his poetry that ‘of the handful of poems attributed to him, most are marked by a rare humanity, but none can match An Bonnán Buí (The Yellow Bittern) with its finely-judged blend of pathos and humour’. Although “Cathal Buí”, as he is still affectionately termed in the folklore of Bréifne, is now little known in Ireland( I hope the recent documentary and our column today in its small way are helping to change that), his masterpiece An Bonnán Buí remains one of the best known laments and songs in Irish from the past few centuries. His memory is celebrated annually in his home country – Blacklion(Cavan) and Belcoo(Fermanagh) with a festival named in his honour, Féile Chathal Buí. Liam Clancy you will agree has been a worthy bearer of the lyricism, pathos and humour of that poetic tradition.
An Dan: An Bonnan Bui/The Yellow Bittern
There have been various translations of this beautiful lament here follows is on by Seamus Heaney- a fellow Ulster man. The first four lines are in the original words of Cathal Bui:-
A bhonnán bhuí, is é mo léan do luí,
Is do chnámha sínte tar éis do ghrinn,
Is chan easba bidh ach díobháil dí
a d’fhág i do luí thú ar chúl do chinn….
Yellow bittern, there you are now,
Skin and bone on the frozen shore.
It wasn’t hunger but thirst for a mouthful
That left you foundered and me heartsore.
What odds is it now about Troy’s destruction
With you on the flagstones upside down,
Who never injured or hurt a creature
And preferred bog water to any wine?
Bittern, bittern, your end was awful,
Your perished skull there on the road,
You that would call me every morning
With your gargler’s song as you guzzled mud.
And that’s what’s ahead of your brother Cathal
(You know what they say about me and the stuff)
But they’ve got it wrong and the truth is simple:
A drop would have saved that croaker’s life.
I am saddened, bittern, and broken hearted
To find you in scrags in the rushy tufts,
And the big rats scampering down the rat paths
To wake your carcass and have their fun.
If you could have got word to me in time, bird,
That you were in trouble and craved a sup,
I’d have struck the fetters of those lough waters
And wet your thrapple with the blow I struck.
Your common birds do not concern me,
The blackbird, say, or the thrush or crane,
But the yellow bittern, my heartsome namesake
With my looks and locks, he’s the one I mourn.
Constantly he was drinking, drinking,
And by all accounts I’ve a name for it too,
But every drop I get I’ll sink it
For fear I might get my end from drouth.
Is é a d’iarr mo stór orm ligint den ól,
Nó nach mbeinnse beo ach seal beag gearr;
Ach dúirt mé léithi go dtug sí an bhréag,
Is gurbh fhaide mo shaolsa an deoch úd a fháil.
Nach bhfaiceann sibh éan an phíobáin réidh
A chuaigh in éag den tart ar ball;
Is a chomharsain chléibh, fliuchaíg bhur mbéal
Óir chan fhaigheann sibh braon i ndiaidh bhur mbáis.
The woman I love says to give it up now
Or else I’ll go to an early grave,
But I say no and keep resisting
For taking drink’s what prolongs your days.
You saw for yourself a while ago
What happened to the bird when its throat went dry;
So my friends and neighbours, let it flow:
You’ll be stood no rounds in eternity.
I was going to curtail it by just giving a taste of a verse or two but I think it was worth having the full pint! Keep a weather-eye out for the birdies.
Cheers agus Slainte