St Patrick’s Day: An Irish Poem

Donal Og

traditional Irish, this translation by Lady Gregory
Donal Og 2

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 has 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 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

Donal Og 1

observations: A search is on in Ireland at the moment to find the country’s favourite poem. There is now a shortlist of ten poems – you can find it here – and it’s a very fine selection with some excellent poems. Well worth looking at on St Patrick’s Day.

But my favourite Irish poem (and one of my favourite poems of all) is not there, and it’s this one. Lady Gregory – co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival, and a friend of WB Yeats – translated the poem from the Gaelic, but very much added her own stamp to it.

It is also known as The Grief of a Young Girl’s Heart, and Broken Vows.

I was reluctant to try to pin down a picture of the young woman concerned, but was finally happy with these two impressionistic versions.

The top one is called The Irish Girl by Ford Madox Brown (grandfather to one of my all-time favourite authors, who renamed himself after the artist).

The lower one – with her gloves and her shoes and her silk – is Woman in Black Gloves by Henri Lebasque.


  1. I LOVE this poem. Hadn't thought of it in a while, but it is wonderful. That last verse.... wow.

    1. I know. I get the shivers every time I read it, no matter how many times, never get immune to it.

    2. It also has curious echoes of the last lines of Porphryia's Lover....

      And thus we sit together now,
      And all night long we have not stirred,
      And yet God has not said a word!

  2. Moira - What an excellent choice for St. Patrick's Day. It's a powerful poem, and there's a rhythm and spark to it that speak of an excellent translation, too. And translating poetry is no mean feat.

    1. Thanks Margot, so glad you liked it, I think it is tremendous.

  3. Thank you so much for this - I first heard this poem on the radio two years ago, and loved it immediately and deeply. I'm sure that Auden must have known it - that last stanza is so reminiscent of 'Stop All the Clocks.' Also, do you think it's possible that Radclyffe Hall took 'The Well of Loneliness' from this...?
    Incidentally, St Patrick's Day is my wedding anniversary (am married to an Irishman)...

    1. Happy anniversary! And congrats on being married to an Irishman, they're good sorts. I've never thought of that about Auden, but yes, totally see your point. I actually looked that up about the Well of Loneliness while I was preparing the entry, but couldn't find any info, or references to the Well apart from this and the book, it's strange isn't it?

  4. Much of the same imagery in this poem is also used in Nuala Ni Dhomnaill's poem "Mo Mhile Stor" and it's clear that the prayer "The Breastplate of St. Patrick" influenced the writing of it--particularly the last stanza. What a beautiful poem, and thank you so much for sharing!

    1. I just went and checked out that poem, Sarah - it also is unbelievably beautiful, and yes the two poems must have similar roots. Thanks so much for linking to the other one.

    2. You're welcome! Thank you so much for your lovely blog and this post :)

  5. There's some of the same swing in what's probably my most favourite romantic poem ever - the splendidly asexual, ambiguous, yet so loving "The Statue." I love how it really could be from anyone to anyone, it's not explicitly "He Said To Her" or vice versa.

    Many's the time I've revisited this one when I'm feeling a bit blue, just to remind myself that even though it IS strange to have lived so long upon this planet, daylight and moonlight carry on, there's fun in the world, and life and love continue. It's a shame Allott isn't more famous.

    1. I didn't know that one at all Daniel, it is stunning, thank you so much for linking to it. I knew Kenneth Allott as an editor, one of those Penguin books of poetry...
      but this poem has gone instantly onto my favouites list...

  6. The tune is beautiful too - the Irish can write sad tunes in a "major" key.

    1. I had NO IDEA that you could sing it - I've just been listening to YouTube versions - thank you!

  7. Oh, gosh, this poem makes me realize that I'm glad I'm not still young, all that
    heartache over a lost love, a betrayal when one has opened one's heart, trusting
    and sincere.

    I am not that much of a poetry afficionado but I do like some particular poets and
    works. Thanks for posting the link to the 10 Irish poems. I like Seamus Heaney's poem, have always liked his work. I particularly like, "In the Republic of Conscience."

    An also on this list is a poem by a writer who has the same last name as I do,
    only spelled differently, actually in a way I had never seen before -- so maybe
    there's some historical family linkage.

    Happy St. Patrick's Day and Happy Anniversary to Lissa.

    I don't know about having an Irish partner, but I had an Irish father, a
    wonderful person and Dad, and he wrote poetry occasionally, perhaps
    for a birthday celebration.

    I have heard that every family in Ireland has at least one poet, that
    writing poetry is expected in every family. That was a revelation to
    me, but there must be so many known, but great poems.

    1. That's a perfect reaction, Kathy, I know exactly what you mean, it's most certainly a young girl's heart. Older people can suffer in love, but not exactly in the same way. I'm glad you enjoyed looking at the list.

  8. Not big on poetry myself (surprised..thought not), but I enjoyed that and have checked out the short list, cheers

    1. Glad you gage it a go Col - looking for the nation's favourite is a nice idea.

  9. It is a beautiful poem and I'd never read it before. It should certainly have made the shortlist. Thanks.

  10. Moira, I enjoy poetry and occasionally read classical poetry that I read and studied in school. I used to look forward to interpreting poems for my English class.

    1. There is some great Indian poetry isn't there? You should share some with us.

    2. Moira, I should have clarified. I was referring to British and American poetry of 17th to 19th century including Romantic/Victorian poets. I studied English literature in school and Milton's poems and Shaw's essays and plays were my favourites.

    3. You did say English class, my bad! But how great to have access to the great works of several cultures.

  11. When one is young, heartbreak is the end of the world. With age comes some perspective and wisdom that one can go on and look at the wider world.

    I meant to say that in Ireland, if each family has at least one poet, that there
    must be many unknown, but great poems.

    1. We understood what you meant Kathy about the poets in the family! And you put it perfectly about young people and heartbreak.

  12. I have not read this poem before, but it is a lovely one. As Kathy said, it reminds me that I am glad to be past that kind of heartbreak.

    1. Yes, Kathy summed it up perfectly didn't she? But when we're a bit older we can still enjoy the poem.

  13. What a moving poem, Moira! It really captures the poignancy of youth as well as the grief. It explores that longing so well...

    1. Thank you Margot. I love it so much and think about it often.

  14. A rather more cynical Irish view of love:

    Nora Criona [Wise Nora - also a jig]
    by James Stephens

    I have looked him round and looked him through,
    Know everything that he will do.

    In such a case, and such a case;
    And when a frown comes on his face.

    I dream of it, and when a smile
    I trace its sources in a while.

    He cannot do a thing but I
    Peep to find the reason why;

    For I love him; and I seek,
    Every evening in the week;

    To peep behind his frowning eye
    With little query, little pry,

    And make him, if a woman can,
    Happier than any man.

    —Yesterday he gripped her tight
    And cut her throat—and serve her right!

    1. Mmm - certainly cynical. I think he was a misogynist. I really dislike his poem about the glass of beer too, where he gets angry with a woman who won't give him a drink.


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