The Song of Amergin (a mistranslation)

Thus far I’ve tried to avoid Irish language poetry, partly because it reminds me of the shame of not speaking my indigenous tongue, and partly because such poems come a little too close to home sometimes.

That said, I’ve tackled Scatha’s warning to Cuchullain in the past, so I guess there’s not really a rule as such here. Therefore, I have added to the hilltop of poetry translations yet another version of the Song of Amergin.

Amergin, in short, was one of the Milesian invaders who displaced the Tuatha de Danaan, or Children of Danu, from Ireland. The latter later morphed in mythology to become the undying, the supernatural race of the Aos Si, or people of the Sidhe, ie the underworld.

The Milesians, or sons of Mil, were according to the same mythological history, Celts who came to Ireland from Iberia originally to invade. This history is told in Ireland’s mythological repository, the aptly named Leabhar Gabala, or Book of Invasions, for many were the invasions of Ireland.

Amergin comes to Ireland therefore as a conqueror, intending to displace the people of the land and take ownership himself. It is told that as the Milesians approached the coast of Ireland, Amergin was suddenly possessed of poetic inspiration and thus emerged his enigmatic song.

I don’t wish to comment or critique it too much. It is after all a product of ancient pagan imagination, likely filtered through layers of Christian sentiment before reaching us in its current forms. What we can safely say is that Amergin expresses the confidence of the conqueror, but a very unusually expressed confidence, in which he already seems to be merging with the flora and fauna, the geography and meteorology, of Ireland itself.

In this sense, he is declaring himself to be a suitable king and custodian of the land, for in that scapegoat primitive society, the wellbeing of the ruler was intimately braided with that of the kingdom and the land itself. Often, in times of famine, a king would be put to death to placate the land and the gods. In his song, therefore, Amergin displays an expansive kind of amor fati. He is accepting this gamble, this fate, and pledging his capacity to fulfill the role of leadership by himself becoming one with the land.

Amergin, however, did not become king, or Ri, of Ireland. He was a bard and sorcerer, a druid not a ruler. Instead the island was divided (then like now) into two kingdoms, north and south, each ruled by one of his brothers. This being Ireland, of course that led to its own difficulties later, even as Amergin became the chief poet and judge of the land.

We can perhaps accept that, in his divinely inspired song, he had at least earned that title. The song is, in a sense, the first judgement he handed down.

“The Coming of the Sons of Miled,” illustration by J. C. Leyendecker in T. W. Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911.

The Song of Amergin

I am the air that moves the sea.

I am the sea wave moving.

I am the ocean’s bellow.

I am the seven-antlered stag.

I am the ox who fought seven times.

I am the hawk descending from the cliff.

I am the beam of sunlight in a dewdrop.

I am the most beautiful of flowers.

I am a boar in courage.

I am a salmon through water.

I am a flood on the plain.

I am a hilltop of sorcery and poems.

I am the tip of the battle spear.

I am the god who ignites fires in the mind.

Who is it who sheds light where the mountains meet?

Who knows what lies within the unhewn tomb?

Who declares the ages of the moon?

Who tells the place where the sun sleeps?

If not I?

What Scátha Foretold

I asked some students who their favourite literary characters were. Cue a lot of Harry Potter. One asked me in return, first time it’s ever happened, oddly enough. So I said Scátha, as you do, and then had to explain who she was.

Scátha is a wise warrior woman who lives on the Isle of Skye. She trains Cú Chulainn, the hero of the Red Branch cycle of Irish mythology (and fails to stop him shagging and fighting of course.) She is also very weird and magical, and so before she bids him farewell, she foretells his bloody and violent future for him. A typical stubborn Ulsterman, he goes ahead and does it all anyway.

She crops up on the margins of the myths. The stories are about others, not her. But we sense her danger, her aloof isolation and her weary wisdom. In the Bronze Age cockfight that is the Red Branch cycle, she’s the alluring and frightening outsider, adept in all manner of arcane wisdom and power.

We have the poem wherein she tells Cú Chulainn’s fortune, the “Verba Scathaige”, and for decades I’ve meant to write a (very freeform) translation of it, set in Eighties Belfast, which I finally finished tonight and is below. I imagine, in one of Scátha’s timebending feats, reading it in a smoky Eighties Belfast bar, with a crackly PA playing “The Sickbed of Cú Chulainn” by the Pogues throughout.

I am Irish by birth and inclination, British as a result of colonial occupation. But my people were, are and always will be the Ulaid. We need another Scátha now of course, but we’re probably still too boneheaded to listen.

Scátha Foretells Trouble

Well, big lad, even if no one

dares lift their fist to you,

you’ll still face troubles

if they all gang up.

You’ll have to slap a few hard men,

do a few kneecaps down the entry,

shed some blood,

until all, all you can see is blood.

You’re gonna wreck the place, the lot of you,

blowing up buildings,

painting the walls,

the wreckage adorned with flags and emblems,

telling the names of who’s the real hard men around here.

What’ll you gain by it? Scundered when they rob your house

and get away with it?

They’ll come after you for weeks at a time. You’ll lose


You’re all on your own this time, big man.

They’ll need punishing properly.

A wee slap won’t suffice. It’ll take might,

armalite, a crack in the night.

There’ll be blood.

Your mates are all wasters, son. Just like

yer ma always said.

No less thieves than themmuns, you know.

No point gilding the lily here, mucker.

It’s going to hurt. Hurt and hurt again.

You’ll hurt bad.

Did I say it would hurt?

And they’ll get their own back, tit for tat,

until there’s neither tit nor tat left.

Not a word from you, with your red face

like a slapped arse!

You know you’ll hold your own, smacking one

hallion after another.

You’re the big fish in this wee pond.

You’re built for destruction, but everyone wants to hook the big fish.

It’s alright for you ganshes, but these people just want

some peace and quiet.

You never think

of the children, of the women. Too busy

bragging while they cry their eyes out.

Sooner or later, though,

it’s gonna be hospital food.

No one wins forever.

Youse and themmuns. Seriously.

It’s like watching

two bulls charging in a field. Would you not

give it up

and give all our heads peace?