new zealand electronic poetry centre

Fiona Farrell

online works

The Lament of the Nun of Beare
a translation

Ebb to me!

In old age, the tide turns,
brings back the blood
and I grieve at its coming,
yet am glad at the flood.
I am the nun of Beare.
Once my dresses were new.
Now my shift is so thin
my bones show through.

I loved people, not riches,
when I was alive.
Loved their wide plains
over which I could drive.

Swift chariots I had
and horses fleet.
Bless the kings who
gave them to me!
Now they hand me a
penny whenever we meet.

My body is fearful
of this Son of God
and the judgement
he’ll make when I’m
under the sod.

Bony my hands now
that once touched
splendid men.
Too bony to rise over
sweet boys again!

Girls laugh and delight
at the coming of spring.
But I, an old woman,
have sorrows to sing.

No wedding lamb for my
table. I pour no good ale.
My hair grey and scanty
beneath a white veil.

Once I wore coloured
veils over my hair.
Now my veil is white,
and I no longer care.

Nothing old do I envy
but Femin’s wide plains.
Storms rage – yet they
spring goldenhaired
once again.

Tonight in the darkness
the winter waves roar.
No king’s son nor slave’s
son will visit my door.

I am cold. Wear a shawl
to sit in the sun.
Winter slips in to smother.
Youth’s summer is done.

I was wanton in youth
and I’m glad I was bold!
If I’d been more cautious
I’d still sit here: old

in my ancient cloak –
when the bare hills’ covering
is the fine icy cloak
flung down by the King.

God help me! Whose bright eyes
to candle feast were the spark,
now dim in a wooden church,
decayed in the dark.

Mead and wine with kings
I drank in my day.
Now I sit with old women
drinking water and whey.

May I drink from this cup!
May my blood turn from rage!
May I accept as God’s will
this chilly old age!.

May I accept as my cloak
this grey hair that on me
grows through my skin as
lichen on a gnarled tree.

My right eye snatched from me
as payment and due.
To complete the transaction,
my left eye taken too.

Flood surge and swift ebb.
What is brought to your hand,
the ebb draws from you.
This, I understand:

Flood surge and swift ebb.

I know these to be so.

I have fed all from my pantry.
I have never said ‘no’.

I have taken in strangers,
I have done my best.
Now the Son of Man
is my only guest.

Happy the island
in the midst of the sea,
for flood follows ebb.
But not for me.

Sad my dwelling and
empty, on this bare day.

I must learn from
my sadness:

that all ebbs away.

I don’t know how stone and verse might be connected, if at all – but the Hag of Beare turns up again as the speaker in the most famous and powerful of all Old Irish poems , ‘The Lament of the Hag/Nun/Old Woman’ – take your pick to translate ‘Cailleach’ – ‘of Beare’.

The author is unknown. It was first written down in the tenth century, but it was probably composed much earlier, in the fifth or sixth century at the time when Christianity was displacing the old religion.

It’s an amazing poem: a howl of protest, a storm of grief from an old woman who has lived in her youth as a pagan priestess, but must now adjust to living as a nun under the new Christian religious regime. I love its physicality – the blood in the first stanza (today she’d no doubt be a candidate for HRT), the vision of the young woman in bright clothing driving across a plain in her chariot, the present desolation of storm and an empty house, the linking of tide and body and life. I love the way she yells down the centuries from her hut by the sea, objecting to the new world order.

My version of the lament is rough. I don’t read Old Irish so it is based on a literal English translation in The Golden Treasury of Irish Verse. That also uses quatrains, but I can tell, looking at lines I don’t understand, that I haven’t come anywhere close to the rhythmic and rhyming complexity of the original, and I’ll inevitably have missed all sorts of delicate cross referencing. But it’s as near as I can get to her.


From The Pop-Up Book of Invasions (AUP, 2007)

Fiona Farrell

Last updated 26 July, 2007