The Return of Mac Eachaidh

I’m starting off my posts of Irish poems with translations of poems by Brendan Behan. The book I am translating currently is called Poems and a play in Irish published by Gallery Books. I’d post the original poem in its entirety, if it wasn’t for copyright laws.

I myself am not particularly fanatic about Modernist poetry, Irish or otherwise. I believe it was Yeats who said that during the Gaelic Revival, the most potent garbage can be passed for poetry as long as it is written in Irish. Whoever said it, it’s pretty damn true. In reading a lot of Irish Modernist poetry, one finds that function has been beheaded in favor of form. The quality is decidedly lower.

However, I do still believe that lots of value can be found in these poems. Brendan Behan is peculiar among the Modernist Irish authors because he is not a native Irish speaker. Brendan was thrown in prison for possession of explosives (which he had as a result of his IRA activities) and he learned Irish from a fellow prison mate. He eventually studied under An Cadhaineach himself. I don’t remember off the top of my head any other Irish modernist fringe writers who learned Irish so fluently from an Anglo background and became quite as lucrative. It’s impossible to read Brendan’s poems and not see his passion for Ireland. Whatever can be said about the Óglaigh na hÉireann, it can’t be said that it wasn’t filled with passionate, idealistic members. Furthermore, I think that anyone who truly learns Irish as a second language in order to write literature should be appreciated to a certain extent.

The Return of Mac Eachaidh

Patrick, my friend. Did you hear the shouts?
Did you hear the majesty, the schism and the din?
Did you hear about how the police went to Ulster
Strong in numbers on the road?
A pipe and guns were brandished festively
The skies brightly shining, the birds in full song
Welcoming Mac Eachaidh back to the North—
For in the end, pride  is stronger than sadness

At first I thought that they were going in a procession
That it was a keening pipe that was sighing,
And the guns—their voices seemed worried:
But it’s like the big triumphant band of O’Neill
on his returning from the Pope and the Englishman left in anguish—
The light-hearted Gael and the reaving under full sail—
Welcoming Mac Eachaidh back to the North
—For in the end, pride is stronger than sadness

Today the trip will be to Milltown
With his family all around him, the thousands in homage,
His smooth gracious kingly way through the crowd
Is like the chieftain’s journey in the olden times of our freedom:
The Fianna, the young supporters of the Republic of Ireland
Soldiers of the land between men & women,
Small girls in bright Gaelic dress—
A music band playing and all bearing mantles—
Thousands will be humbly following his coffin,
The great Treasure of Ireland, with the loyal heart of the lion
Welcoming Mac Eachaidh back to the North
—For in the end, his death is stronger than their power.

Seán Mac Eachaidh was lost to a hunger strike in Portlaoise prison, 1946.
His body was carried back to Belfast.


Behan wrote this poem as an elegy for Seán Mac Eócaidh, a Republican Army leader in the early 20th century. The poem depicts the IRA member’s  funeral procession to the man’s birthplace in Northern Ireland. This poem was rather easy to translate in comparison to lots of other Behan poems that I’ve tried my hand at.

The original Irish used the words ‘siosma’ and ‘gleo’ which I interpreted as “schism and din” because I liked the cadence of the English words.

My favorite line was:

‘an Gael go gealmheidhreach is an chreach faoi lán seoil’

I interpreted it as “the light-hearted Gael and the reaving under full sail” because I was not actually familiar with the word creach. The dictionary hinted that it’s an old word, meaning some sort of connection with cattle-raiding, and considering the story of Aodh Ó Néill, I figured that the word ‘reaving’ would fit. To be honest, I don’t really know what Behan meant when he said “an Gael go gealmheidhreach”, because it’s odd to find an adverbial ‘go’ after a noun.

Gealmheidhreach is also a compound noun and it’s rather hard to translate compound nouns in any way except literally. Geal of course is ‘bright’, and meidhreach is ‘light-hearted’… I chose ‘light-hearted’ instead of ‘bright-hearted’ because I liked the contrast between ‘light-hearted Gael’ and ‘the reaving’.

The contrast between peace & light and violence is a subtheme in this poem. Consider the reference to policemen amassing in Ulster for the funeral, as well as the music of pipes contrasted with the worried sound of guns. The reference to Na Fianna is a duality between light and dark in and of itself, for the Fianna were soldiers, yes, but soldiers of freedom and independence. The greatest example of duality greets the reader at the end of every line:

“– mar sa deireadh is treise an bród ná an brón” contrasts pride and death. This poem can be interpreted as the pessimistic scribblings of a war-ravaged mind, but in considering the life of Behan, and the passion and pride contained in his soul, I think that pride is truly what this poem is about; Behan lightly tips his hat to the violence, darkness, and death that surrounds him and overwhelms him and his people at times. In fact, pride and passion can never put an end to that part of life. He instead posits that in the end, darkness can be used as an example for Ireland to prove her worth and to rear back her head and roar.


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