106 Early Irish Poems: edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires: A review

106 Early Irish Poems: edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires, 2022, ISBN 979-8525523869, £9.99

Six years ago this month my review of My News for You: Irish Poetry 600 – 1200, edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires was published by the Dublin Review of Books. Squires’ new book, 106 Early Irish Poems, is an expanded and much enhanced reworking of that earlier volume, but in terms of cultural and social background, the challenges of translating and the comparisons with previous translation, I have little to add here and recommend the interested reader to click that link and read the previous review.

So, what’s different about this new book? The most immediate change is the addition of 25 new translations, a significant expansion in range and scope that makes 106 Early Irish Poems easily the most comprehensive readily available anthology of its kind. This, in turn, means that the Notes section is expanded, naturally, and in some cases significantly rewritten, and the notes are really integral to the book, partly because Squires begins each note with the original Irish version of the first line, an invaluable aid when it comes to locating the full originals on the Internet. The notes also discuss specific points of complexity in the translation process, both comparing Squires’ reasoning behind the choices he made when bringing over unclear or ambiguous words and phrases into English and comparing his decisions with those of earlier translators. This aspect of the notes gives the general reader some very useful insights into both the nature of the Irish language(s) during the period the book covers and Squires’ approach as a translator, which on the whole tends towards tonal rather than formal veracity. At any rate, as many of the notes make clear, the formal structures of the originals are very often the result of conjecture on the part of modern editors as they set out to transcribe from their manuscript sources.

In the earlier book, the reader was provided with an appendix that contained the originals for seven of the 81 poems translated; here a different approach is adopted, with 13 poems appearing with accompanying Irish text (8, 8a, for example). Four of these originals appear in both books, so he reader with access to them both will have 16 originals to compare with their translated versions. In addition, this new volume contains a very useful appendix that analyses some opening lines by providing transcriptions of what they sound like and discussions of their syntactic, semantic and phonic structures, an invaluable aid to those readers with limited or no knowledge of the language.

The other significant addition is the 30-page bibliography, an excellent list of resources covering the cultural, linguistic and historical contexts in which the poems were written, as well as source texts and other translations. It’s an invaluable resource.

One background area that definitely impacts on these poems is the shift to Christianity from the older pagan order. All of the poets here were at least nominally Christian and the poems are often marginalia in devotional manuscripts, so unsurprisingly many of them are straightforwardly religious. However, there is a strong element of an older Ireland that emerges, sometimes as whole poems (the nature poems and some of the Fenian narratives) and other times as an element in a poem that also has clear Christian tones. While this might seem odd at first, it strikes me as probably reflecting the reality of the wider context in which the poems were written. Societies and individuals don’t change overnight, and Christianity was particularly adept at coming to accommodations with earlier systems of belief. Like the poems they wrote, these poets contained within them elements of the pagan and the Christian. Perhaps this fusion in the poetry was facilitated by the fact that they were written in the vernacular; as the language of the church, Latin might have tended to impose a more religiously orthodox approach.       

And what of the translations? Squires remains faithful to his earlier approach, “to make of these originals an equivalent poem in English” and does so in the new versions as he did with the first set of 81. I note some silent changes of wording, as for instance in the poem ‘Fil súil nglais’ which changes from ‘a moist eye’ in 2016 to ‘a wistful eye’ now. As Squires notes, a literal translation would read ‘a green eye’ and previous translators have rendered the adjective glais as blue or grey, but his sense is that the speaker (nominally Columba) is expressing grief at leaving his native island, hence the move away from colour to emotion. A small point that provides a valuable window into the translator’s thinking.

Another small but significant (in my reading, at least) is that in 106 poems the first letter of each stanza is almost invariably capitalised whereas in the 2016 versions, this is limited to the first stanza, excepting proper nouns and the pronoun ‘I’. This shift has the effect of changing how you read the versions, with each stanza acting more as a discrete unit, disrupting, however slightly, the flow of the eye down the page. Of course, I can’t be certain that this was Squires’ intention, but the result is, in a way, to add a stateliness to the versions here.

The more I read it, the more I think that across these two volumes, Squires has recreated medieval Irish poetry for our times. This book is essential for the reader with an interest in Irish poetry, or poetry in general, or Ireland, European literature, or all of the above. Read it.