Medieval Irish Lyrics

Edited and Translated by Barbara Hughes Fowler

This anthology offers modern readers fine translations of the lyric poetry transcribed or written by medieval Irish monks. Irish poets were the first Europeans to write in the vernacular, though few people now read this poetry in its original. Well known for her translations of the poetry of classical Greece and Egypt and of medieval Portugal, Barbara Hughes Fowler once again makes the poetry of another era accessible to a new generation.

The 35 lyrics in this book were composed between 800 and 1200 A.D., all of them anonymously, although some are attributed to legendary or historical figures who had died centuries before. Irish monks wrote them in the margins of the manuscripts they were copying, or they interpolated poems they either knew or composed into the pagan tales they were recording.

Many of these poems are about what the Irish called Tir na n’Og, the Land of the Young. This was not a place you went after death if you behaved yourself in life. It was where imaginative Irish longed to go—a paradise of lovely women, bountiful food and drink, and endless treasures of silver, gold, and jewels. The monks who composed or recorded such lyrics preserved their Celtic heritage while making concessions to Christianity, as in these stanzas from “Fair Lady, Will You Go With Me?”

The earth is watered by sweet streams.

We drink the best of mead and wine.

Perfect are the people there.

Conception has no guilt or sin.

We see every one about,

and no one sees us, because

the darkness caused by Adam’s sin

prevents them from counting us.

Lyric poems, rooted so firmly in the expression of human emotion, travel well from an ancient culture to a modern one in the hands of a fine translator. Rendered into language and form intended for a general readership, these lyrics help to preserve an ancient and rich culture.

The late Barbara Hughes Fowler was John Bascom Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A well-known classicist, translator, and poet, she was author of The Seeds Inside a Green Pepper, a volume of original poems, and editor and translator of Love Lyrics of Ancient Egypt, Songs of a Friend: Love Lyrics of Medieval Portugal, and Vergil’s Eclogues.