by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Today is Saint Patrick’s Day, and it’s the middle of Women’s History Month, so my choice for this week’s poet was easy: Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852 – 1932). She was even born on March 15, just two days before St. Patrick’s Day.
The hard part is that Lady Gregory wasn’t only a poet, she was a translator, a forklorist, a major force in the Irish Literary Revival, a dramatist, and co-founder with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn of Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre – where she was also the one who ran it in the early years. George Bernard Shaw once described her as “the greatest living Irishwoman.”
Music and poetry go hand-in-hand in Ireland, so I’m also giving you the Chieftains, to set the rhythm going.
This first poem is one of the legendary stories told about St. Patrick, concerning his “breastplate” – a prayer he said when nearing an ambush, which caused his enemies to see him as a deer with a fawn, so St Patrick and his servant passed by unharmed.
The Deer’s Cry
Blessed Patrick made this hymn one time he was going to preach the
Faith at Teamhuir, and his enemies lay in hiding to make an attack
on him as he passed. But all they could see passing as he himself and
Benen his servant went by, was a wild deer and a fawn. And the Deer’s
Cry is the name of the hymn to this day.
I bind myself to-day to a strong strength, to a calling on the Trinity.
I believe in a Threeness with confession of a Oneness in the Creator
of the World.
I bind myself to-day to the strength of Christ’s birth and His baptism;
to the strength of His crucifixion with His burial; to the strength
of His resurrection with His ascension; In stability of earth, in
steadfastness of rock, I bind to myself to-day God’s strength to pilot
God’s power to uphold me; God’s wisdom to guide me; God’s eye to look
before me; God’s ear to hear me;
God’s word to speak for me; God’s hand to guard me; God’s path to lie
before me; God’s shield to protect me; God’s host to save me;
Against snares of demons; against the begging of sins; against the
asking of nature; against all my ill-wishers near me and far from me;
alone and in a crowd.
So I have called on all these strengths to come between me and every
fierce and merciless strength that may come between my body and my
Against incantations of false prophets; against black laws of heathens;
against false laws of heretics; against craft of idolatry; against
spells of women & smiths and druids; against every knowledge forbidden
to the souls of men.
Christ for my protection to-day against poison, against burning,
against drowning, against wounding; that a multitude of rewards may
come to me. Christ with me, Christ before me; Christ behind me, Christ
in me; Christ under me, Christ over me; Christ to the right of me,
Christ to the left of me; Christ in lying down, Christ in sitting,
Christ in rising up;
Christ in the heart of everyone that thinks of me; Christ in the mouth
of everyone that speaks to me; Christ in every eye that sees me; Christ
in every ear that hears me.
I bind to myself to-day a strong strength to a calling upon the
Trinity; I believe in a Threeness with confession of a Oneness in the
Creator of the World.
Donal Og is one of Lady Gregory’s best-known translations from ancient Irish Gaelic, a classic tale of seduction and betrayal. Donal Og translates as ‘Young Donald’ – probably a first-born son named for his father.
Translated from an anonymous eighth-century Irish poem
It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.
You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.
You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.
You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.
When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.
It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.
My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.
My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.
You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!
Lady Gregory’s friend, Douglas Ross Hyde aka An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, was a leading figure in the revival of the Gaelic language, and the first President of Ireland
An Craoibhin Complains Because He Is A Poet
IT’S my grief that I am not a little white duck,
And I’d swim over the sea to France or to Spain;
I would not stay in Ireland for one week only,
To be without eating, without drinking, without a full jug.
Without a full jug, without eating, without drinking,
Without a feast to get, without wine, without meat,
Without high dances, without a big name, without music;
There is hunger on me, and I astray this long time.
It’s my grief that I am not an old crow;
I would sit for awhile up on the old branch;
I could satisfy my hunger, and I not as I am
With a grain of oats or a white potato.
It’s my grief that I am not a red fox,
Leaping strong and swift on the mountains,
Eating cocks and hens without pity,
Taking ducks and geese as a conquerer.
It’s my grief that I am not a bright salmon,
Going through the strong full water,
Catching the mayflies by my craft,
Swimming at my choice, and swimming with the stream.
It’s my grief that I am of the race of the poets;
It would be better for me to be a high rock,
Or a stone or a tree or an herb or a flower
Or anything at all but the thing that I am!
Oisin, the mythical greatest poet of Ireland, is the son of the warrior-huntsman Fionn mac Cumhaill (sometimes transcribed in English as MacCool) of the Fenian Cycle of Irish Mythology. Fionn also appears in legends in Scotland and the Isle of Man. ‘Fionn’ means “fair” or “white” and the legend say his birth name was Deimne, which translates as “sureness” but also means a young male deer. There are several versions of how Fionn mac Cumhaill got his name when his hair turned prematurely white. (Ochone is an Irish and Scottish expression of sadness, regret or grief)
I saw the household of Finn; it was not the household of a soft race;
I had a vision of that man yesterday.
I saw the household of the High King, he with the brown sweet-voiced
son; I never saw a better man.
I saw the household of Finn; no one saw it as I saw it; I saw Finn
with the sword, Mac an Luin. Och! it was sorrowful to see it.
I cannot tell out every harm that is on my head; free us from our
trouble for ever; I have seen the household of Finn.
Oisin After The Fenians
Now my strength is gone from me, I that was adviser to the Fenians,
my whole body is tired to-night, my hands, my feet, and my head; tired,
It is bad the way I am after Finn of the Fenians; since he is gone
away, every good is behind me.
Without great people, without mannerly ways; it is sorrowful I am after
our king that is gone.
I am a shaking tree, my leaves gone from me; an empty nut, a horse
without a bridle; a people without a dwelling-place, I Oisin, son of
It is long the clouds are over me to-night! it is long last night was;
although this day is long, yesterday was longer again to me; every
day that comes is long to me.
That is not the way I used to be, without fighting, without battles,
without learning feats, without young girls, without music, without
harps, without bruising bones, without great deeds; without increase
of learning, without generosity, without drinking at feasts, without
courting, without hunting, the two trades I was used to; without going
out to battle. Ochone! the want of them is sorrowful to me.
No hunting of deer or stag, it is not like that I would wish to be;
no leashes for our hounds, no hounds; it is long the clouds are over
Without rising up to do bravery as we were used, without playing as
we had a mind; without swimming of our fighting men in the lake; it
is long the clouds are over me to-night!
There is no one at all in the world the way I am; it is a pity the
way I am; an old man dragging stones. It is long the clouds are
over me to-night!
I am the last of the Fenians, great Oisin, son of Finn, listening to
the voice of bells; it is long the clouds are over me to-night!
The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne (also spelled Grania) is the story of the love triangle between the great warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, the beautiful princess Gráinne, and her paramour Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. The wife of the ageing Fionn has died, and his men decide that Gráinne, the daughter of High King Cormac mac Airt, is the woman worthiest to be his new wife. At their betrothal feast, however, Gráinne is distressed that Fionn is older than her father, and becomes enamored with Fionn’s handsome warrior Diarmuid. She slips a sleeping potion into the drinks of the rest of the guests and persuades Diarmuid, reluctant at first out of loyalty to Fionn, to run away with her. After many adventures, Diarmuid’s foster father Aengus negotiates peace with Fionn. The lovers settle in Keshcorran, County Sligo where they have five children; in some versions, Fionn marries Gráinne’s sister. Fionn organises a boar hunt near Benbulbin and Diarmuid joins, in spite of a prediction that he will be killed by a boar. The boar does wound him mortally as he deals it a fatal blow. Fionn has the power to heal his dying comrade by simply letting him drink water from his hands, but he lets the water slip through his fingers twice. Finally Fionn’s grandson Oscar threatens him with violence if he does not help Diarmuid, but when he returns from the well on the third attempt it is too late. Diarmuid has died.
Her Lament For His Death
Then when Grania was certain of Diarmuid’s death she gave out a long
very pitiful cry that was heard through the whole place, and her women
and her people came to her, and asked what ailed her to give a cry
like that. And she told them how Diarmuid had come to his death by
the Boar of Beinn Gulbain in the hunt Finn had made. When her people
heard that, they gave three great heavy cries in the same way, that
were heard in the clouds and the waste places of the sky. And then
Grania bade the five hundred that she had for household to go to Beinn
Gulbain for the body of Diarmuid, and when they were bringing it back,
she went out to meet them, and they put down the body of Diarmuid,
and it is what she said:
I am your wife, beautiful Diarmuid, the man
I would do no hurt to; it is sorrowful I am after you to-night.
I am looking at the hawk and the hound my secret love used to be
hunting with; she that loved the three, let her be put in the grave
Let us be glad to-night, let us make all welcome to-night, let us be
open-handed to-night, since we are sitting by the body of a king.
And O Diarmuid, she said, it is a hard bed Finn has given you, to be
lying on the stones and to be wet with the rain. Ochone! she said,
your blue eyes to be without sight, you that were friendly and generous
and pursuing. O love! O Diarmuid! it is a pity it is he sent you to
You were a champion of the men of Ireland, their prop in the middle
of the fight; you were the head of every battle; your ways were glad
It is sorrowful I am, without mirth, without light, but only sadness
and grief and long dying; your harp used to be sweet to me, it wakened
my heart to gladness. Now my courage is fallen down, I not to hear
you but to be always remembering your ways. Och! my grief is going
A thousand curses on the day when Grania gave you her love, that put
Finn of the princes from his wits; it is a sorrowful story your death
You were the man was best of the Fenians, beautiful Diarmuid, that
women loved. It is dark your dwelling-place is under the sod, it is
mournful and cold your bed is; it is pleasant your laugh was to-day;
you were my happiness, Diarmuid.
Lady Gregory was born in County Galway, the youngest daughter of the Anglo-Irish gentry family Persse. The family home, Roxborough, stood on a 6,000 acre estate. She was educated at home, but her earliest influence was her nanny, Mary Sheridan, a native Irish speaker who told her myths and stories.
She didn’t marry until she was 28 years old, to a man 35 year her senior, Sir William Gregory, who had just retired from his appointment as Governor of Ceylon. Sir William was a well-educated man with many literary and artistic interests, and the house at Coole Park housed a large library and extensive art collection, which the new Lady Gregory explored eagerly. He also had a house in London, where the couple spent a considerable amount of time, holding weekly salons frequented by many leading literary and artistic figures of the day, including Robert Browning, Lord Tennyson, John Everett Millais and Henry James. Their only child, Robert Gregory, was born in 1881. He was killed during the First World War, while serving as a pilot, an event which inspired Yeats’s poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.”
The Gregorys travelled in Ceylon, India, Spain, Italy and Egypt. While in Egypt, Lady Gregory had an affair with the English poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, during which she wrote a series of love poems, A Woman’s Sonnets.
Her earliest work to appear under her own name was a pamphlet in support of Ahmed Orabi Pasha, leader of the Urabi Revolt, an 1879 Egyptian nationalist revolt against the oppressive regime of the Khedive and European domination of Egypt.
During her marriage, she wrote a series of pamphlets in 1887 called “Over the River,” in which she appealed for funds for the parish of St. Stephens in Southwark, south London, and a number of short stories and poems which never appeared in print.
When Sir William Gregory died in March 1892, Lady Gregory went into mourning at Coole Park where she edited her husband’s autobiography, which she published in 1894. She was to write later, “If I had not married I should not have learned the quick enrichment of sentences that one gets in conversation; had I not been widowed I should not have found the detachment of mind, the leisure for observation necessary to give insight into character, to express and interpret it. Loneliness made me rich—’full’, as Bacon says.”
The following year, a trip to the Aran Islands reawakened her interest in the Irish language and folklore. She organised Irish lessons at the school at Coole and began collecting tales from the area around her home, especially from the residents of Gort workhouse. She edited her collected material into a number volumes of folklore, including A Book of Saints and Wonders (1906), The Kiltartan History Book (1909), and The Kiltartan Wonder Book (1910). She also produced collections of “Kiltartanese” versions of Irish myths, such as Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) and Gods and Fighting Men (1904). “Kiltartanese” was Lady Gregory’s term for English with Gaelic syntax, based on the dialect spoken in Kiltartan.
Edward Martyn was a neighbor of Lady Gregory’s, living at Tullira Castle. In 1896 he introduced her to the poet William Butler Yeats. Discussions between the three of them led to the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. Lady Gregory handled fundraising for their first production: Martyn’s The Heather Field and Yeats’ The Countess Cathleen.
The Irish Literary Theatre project collapsed for lack of funding in 1901. In 1904, Lady Gregory, Martyn, Yeats, John Millington Synge, Æ, Annie Horniman and brothers William and Frank Fay came together to form the Irish National Theatre Society. The first performances staged by the society took place in a building called the Molesworth Hall. When the Hibernian Theatre of Varieties in Lower Abbey Street and an adjacent building in Marlborough Street became available, Horniman and William Fay agreed to their purchase and refitting to meet the needs of the society, and in December 1904, their first offering, Annie Horniman’s Spreading the News opened, followed by Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World, which caused rioting in the theatre. Lady Gregory wrote in a letter to Yeats about the riot:”It is the old battle, between those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t.”
For the next 24 years, she was an active director of the theatre, and wrote over 19 plays, mainly for production at the Abbey. She also wrote a two-volume study of the folklore of her native area called Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920) When her health began to decline, she retired in 1928 to Coole Park, where she retained tenancy for life after selling the property in 1927 to the Irish Forestry Service. She died there at the age of 80 from breast cancer. The entire contents of Coole Park were auctioned three months after her death and the house demolished in 1941. There is one tree still on the grounds with the carved initials of Synge, Æ, W.B.Yeats and his artist brother Jack, George Moore, Seán O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Katharine Tynan and Violet Martin, the only remains of Coole Park’s years as a center for Ireland’s remarkable literary revival.
William Butler Years wrote several poems there during those heady years, including “The Wild Swans at Coole”:
. . . now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
The Heart Of The Wood
My hope and my love, we will go for a while into the wood, scattering
the dew, where we will see the trout, we will see the blackbird on
its nest; the deer and the buck calling, the little bird that is sweetest
singing on the branches; the cuckoo on the top of the fresh green;
and death will never come near us for ever in the sweet wood.
- Poets and Dreamers: Studies and Translations from the Irish, by Lady Gregory – Echo Library
- Red Deer in fog, by Bertie Gregory
- Gold ship from the Broighter hoard, found in Derry (now in Northern Ireland)
- Wild Atlantic Salmon
- Fionn mac Cumhaill by Beatrice Elvery
- Fionn mac Cumhaill and Diarmuid Ua Duibhne before the boar hunt
- Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory
- The lake at Coole Park
- Spring violets in woods
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud