THE PURPOSE OF this essay is to demonstrate that the corpus of medieval Irish poetry is broader, more challenging, and more imbued with poetic possibility than the relatively narrow range of oft-anthologised, oft-adapted poems would suggest. After an overview of the limited forms of poetry which have tended to be studied, translated and anthologised, and a discussion of some of the key methodological issues, I offer three examples of rather different, and hitherto neglected, poems – religious, historical and didactic – which hint at wider opportunities for creative and poetic engagement with more challenging verse forms. At the end of an essay on linguistics and poetry, the Irish poet Micheal O'Siadhail wrote: ‘I want to hold up the wonder of words and say: How about this?’ My aim here is comparable: I want to hold up some of the lesser-known wonders of medieval Irish poetry and say: How about this? Or this? Or this?
Anthologising Medieval Irish Poetry
When modern poets look to medieval Irish poetry for inspiration, they understandably turn to anthologies of translated medieval verse: Gerard Murphy's Early Irish Lyrics, originally published in 1956, was the first anthology to provide the original texts of a selection of medieval Irish poems, accompanied by facing page translations. It was a landmark publication and, along with two other significant collections, it has determined the way that medieval Irish poetry has been presented to the Anglophone reading public and to modern poets for the last half-century. The academic study of medieval Irish poetry has advanced hugely in the decades since then: large numbers of previously unedited and untranslated poems have been made available, although perhaps not sufficiently available since they can generally only be found in specialist scholarly journals, such as Celtica, Eigse and Eriu. There is no collection aimed at the non-specialist reader which contains these newly-presented riches. And, more frustratingly, in contrast to the corpus of Old English poetry, there are countless medieval Irish poems – beautiful, complex microcosms of medieval thought – which remain unedited and untranslated and thus entirely unavailable to the non-academic reader.
The poems which have previously been selected for inclusion in anthologies have been those which most closely conform to modern expectations of poetry, that is, lyric poetry, narrative verse, occasional verse and nature poetry.