The Yellow Bittern

Original Text: 
The Poetical Works of Thomas MacDonagh (Dublin: Talbot, 1916): 65-67. 23697.12.20 Widener Library, Harvard University
2    In a drinking bout, might as well have drunk;
3His bones are thrown on a naked stone
4    Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.
5O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
6    Though they say that a sot like myself is curst --
7I was sober a while, but I'll drink and be wise
8For I fear I should die in the end of thirst.
9It's not for the common birds that I'd mourn,
10    The black-bird, the corn-crake, or the crane,
11But for the bittern that's shy and apart
12    And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.
13Oh! if I had known you were near your death,
14    While my breath held out I'd have run to you,
15Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird
16    Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.
17My darling told me to drink no more
18    Or my life would be o'er in a little short while;
19But I told her 'tis drink gives me health and strength
20    And will lengthen my road by many a mile.
21You see how the bird of the long smooth neck
22    Could get his death from the thirst at last --
23Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,
24    You'll get no sup when your life is past.
25In a wintering island by Constantine's halls
26    A bittern calls from a wineless place,
27And tells me that hither he cannot come
28    Till the summer is here and the sunny days.
29When he crosses the stream there and wings o'er the sea
30    Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight --
31Well, the milk and the ale are drunk every drop,
32    And a dram won't stop our thirst this night.


1] A translation of the 18th-century poem "An Bunán Buí" by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. MacDonagh writes: "All my translations are very close to the originals. In my version of this poem I have changed nothing for the purpose of elucidation. I have even translated the name of Loch Mhic an Ein, a lake in the North-west of Ireland. Some of the references must be obscure to all but students of Irish literature; I think, however, that the poem does not suffer too much from the difficulty of these." bittern: heron-like marsh bird with a booming cry.
Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (A.D. 306-37) Back to Line
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
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