Olivia O'Leary on the Song of Amergin‘It’s a poem that sounds a deep echo with any of us born on this island.’

As heard on Drivetime

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Sometimes a song is enough. A song and a place. I was 14, in a proper Gaeltacht for the first time. Baile na Sceilige. Ballinskelligs in County Kerry. Inlander as I am, used to the gentle river valleys of home, I was stunned by the epic beauty of this place.

But I was still resisting the actual Irish classes until the teacher taught us a local song. It was in a minor mode, full of sadness and yearning. And it was called Amhrán na Leabhar. It was all about a local hedge-school teacher who was moving from Derrynane to Port Magee to work and whose precious collection of manuscripts was lost in a storm at sea on the way.

The lyrics were by the great Iveragh poet of Daniel O’Connell’s time, Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin. I used to play it to myself mournfully on the piano for years. I was hooked.

Any culture that could produce a song like this had to matter. And it all came together for me again this last weekend on Ballinskelligs bay at the Amergin Summer Solstice Festival in Waterville.

Amergin was the poet and lawmaker of the Milesian or Gaelic people who became the founding settlers of the Irish nation as it saw itself. As he set his right foot on land at Waterville, he proclaimed his great poem or manifesto, which begins: ‘Am gaeth i m-muir,
Am tond trethan, Am fuaim mara’. ‘Am wind on sea, Am wave-swelling, Am ocean’s voice’.

Amergin has long been looked to as the beginning of their poetic tradition by Irish poets but also by English poets. Robert Graves wrote that, “English poetic education should really begin not with The Canterbury Tales, not with The Odyssey but with The Song of Amergin.

It has been reproduced in most of our ancient books, including The Book of Leinster and The Book of Fermoy. So, poet Paddy Bushe and his wife Fíona organised a festival around the Summer Solstice to celebrate the great poem and they asked five Ireland Professors of Poetry to write a poem in response to Amergin.

The poems are all powerful and extraordinary and they are reproduced in a beautiful book, Unde Scribitur, with Paddy’s own English translation of the Amergin poem and it’s a poem that sounds a deep echo with any of us born on this island.

Am wind on sea
Am wave swelling
Am ocean’s voice
Am stag of seven clashes
Am falcon on cliff
Am sunlit dewdrop
Am rarest of herbs
Am boar enraged
Am salmon in pool
Am lake in plain
Am fortified hilltop
Am learning’s essence
Am sharpened spear dealing death
Am god who kindles fire in the head.

And there’s more. This identifying of God with nature is so familiar to us. It’s there in the church liturgy, which has been such a central part of our culture. In ‘The Deer’s Cry’, the St. Patrick breastplate hymn, which has inspired so many composers including Arvo Pärt and Shaun Davey and which was sung so memorably by Rita Connolly at President Michael D. Higgins’ inauguration.

I would even argue that it’s there in the one hymn that anyone over 40 can sing, ‘Queen of the May’, which begins: “Bring flowers of the fairest”. It’s a hymn to Mary but for all its Victorian sentiment, isn’t it also a song to a Goddess of Spring and fertility.

Amergin goes deep into the folk memory and at a time when Nationalism itself is being questioned, as Paddy Bushe says in his introduction to the book, “Maybe the poem’s ecological statement offers a new forward for our survival as a species, let alone as a race or nationality”.

With artists and guided walks of the ancient landscape and calligraphers and traditional musicians from Ireland and Galicia and the sun lighting up the sea and the great Skellig rocks, this was heady stuff. But headiest of all was the poetry because this was a poetry festival, with poetry centre-stage, where it needs to be. Poetry needs its own space.

On my last night there, after readings from poets Kerry Hardie, Mick Delap and Micheal Longley, the musician-in-residence for the festival, the great violinist and viola-player Maura Breathnach, started to play the song that first converted me to this place and this culture as a teenager. A song I hadn’t heard for years. The beautiful Amhrán na Leabhar. This was Ireland at its spell-binding best. And I don’t think I’ve woken up yet.

As originally broadcast on Drivetime with Mary Wilson, Tuesday, June 26th

For more from Drivetime on RTÉ Radio 1, click here.

© The Listener 2018

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