Monday 9 December 2019

Poetry: A president and a scholar

Douglas Hyde
Douglas Hyde

Near the end of May 1941, 75 years ago, Áras an Uachtaráin was damaged by a German bomb. It didn't take a feather out of the then President, Douglas Hyde, however. He was an intensely brave man when it came to doing what he believed to be right. He had been founder of the Gaelic League which Michael Collins had said was the most important act in Irish history, surely placing Hyde high on the list of achievers in this country. Yet the GAA struck him off in 1939 for attending a soccer match between Ireland and Poland.

His marvellous translations of Irish poetry into English inspired Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory and were at the root of the success of the Irish Literary Renaissance.

He was the best snipe shooter in the West of Ireland, a fine cricketer and, as a scholar, sat for six doctorates in Trinity College, which included languages, music, law and English literature.

Hyde had gone round among his people in his native Roscommon and collected a vast body of poetry and stories which he translated. The important thing was that not only was he a scholar, but he was a poet, too, and his translations may be probably the best ever made from one language to another. Catholics were not allowed to go to Hyde's funeral because of a Vatican rule. Noel Browne was the only government minister to attend the service in St Patrick's Cathedral. Here is Hyde's translation from his first book, Love Songs of Connaught.

from Ringleted youth of my love

Ringleted youth of my love,

With thy locks bound loosely behind thee,

You passed by the road above,

But you never came in to find me;

Where were the harm for you

If you came for a little to see me,

Your kiss is a wakening dew

Were I ever so ill or so dreamy.


I thought, oh my love! you were so-

As the moon is, or the sun on a fountain,

And I thought after that you were snow,

The cold snow on the top of the mountain;

And I thought after that you were more

Like God's lamp shining to find me,

Or the bright star of knowledge before,

And the star of knowledge behind me

Douglas Hyde, 1860-1949

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