A Catholic poet through the medium of two languages

A Catholic poet through the medium of two languages Desmond Egan reading his poetry in the UCD Special Collections.

Gabriel Fitzmaurice

Choice/Rogha: A selection of poems by Desmond Egan, translated into Irish by Michael Hartnett (Goldsmith Press, €20.00/ £17.50)

Desmond Egan is one of our greatest poets, certainly our greatest Catholic poet which, among other things, means that he contains multitudes.

Michael Hartnett, a poet of equal stature, is a gifted translator from the Irish. I’m afraid I can’t comment on his translations, or versions, from the Spanish, Chinese and Hungarian as I have no knowledge of those languages.

But I was close to him (he was best man at our wedding in 1981) and I know him to have been a fluent speaker of Irish as well as a major poet in that language.

On April 2, 1990, Michael wrote to Desmond Egan enclosing these translations (from Egan’s Collected Poems which Michael had reviewed some time previously) commenting “Enclosed the translations. I can do no more. I’m knackered”.


He had chosen 15 poems from the following collections, Midland, Leaves, Woodcutter, Seeing Double, Poems for Peace and A Song for my Father spanning the years 1972-1989. (Some of the titles have been changed, or restored to their original, in the table of contents in the volume under review.)

Desmond Egan and Michael Hartnett first met at a poetry reading in the National Gallery in January 1971. Hartnett had already published volumes of poetry and translations; Egan would publish his first collection, Midland, under his own Goldsmith Press imprint in 1972.

Later Goldsmith Press would publish Hartnett’s Gipsy Ballads, “a version of the Romancero Gitano of Federico Garcia Lorca” in 1973 and The Retreat of Ita Cagney/Cúlú Íde which marked Hartnett’s farewell to English poetry in 1975.

In his introduction to Choice/Rogha, Egan writes tenderly of their long friendship. His description of their final meeting in St Vincent’s hospital in November 1999 is particularly poignant.

He writes: “We knew we would not meet again and, leaving, I kissed his forehead, assuring him that he had fought the good fight, that his work was special and would surely survive. I left on a ‘God bless’.”

He died even as Desmond and his wife drove out of the hospital grounds. They were the last to see him alive.

The poems translated here are a valuable representation of Egan’s poetry up to 1989. Adrian Mitchell famously stated that “most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”.

Not so Egan’s poetry. A true patriot, he doesn’t shy away from the political. His The Northern Ireland Question (“two wee girls/ were playing tig near a car/ how many counties would you say/ are worth their scattered fingers?”, translated by Hartnett as “bhí beirt cailíní bídeacha/ ag súgrádh leaist in aice carr/ cé mhéid tír is fiú id thuairim/ a mhéireanna scaipthe”) is one of the very best poems written about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

His is a voice crying out for truth and justice in Ireland and elsewhere. In his unforgettable For Benjamin Moloise hanged in Pretoria, Friday 18th October 1985, he writes “when they hanged you we all became black… and though they tried to get rid of you/ in the early hours when the world was asleep/the fools!/ they did not see your soul breaking over Africa/ over the whole earth dawning behind their digging” which Hartnett translates as follows: “nuair chrochadh tusa b’fhirghorma sinn… is cé go ndearnadar iarracht/ ar thusa a chur díobh/ go moch ar maidin is an domhan ina luí/ na hamadáin!/ ní fhaca siad d’anam ag gealú os cionn na hAfraice/o s cionn an bheatha go léir ag gealú laistiar dá dtochailte”.

In his poem Peace, Egan writes: “just to go for a walk on the road/ just that/ under the deep trees/ which whisper of peace…just that!/ but Sweet Christ that/ is more than most of mankind can afford/ with the globe still plaited in its own/crown of thorns” (“dul ar siúl ar bhóthar/ sin amháin/faoi na crainn doimhne/ a chogarann síocháin…sin amháin/ach a Chríost Mhilis/ níl sin ina achmhainn an cuid is mó den chine daonna/ mar tá an cruinn fós fite/ ina coróin spíne féin”) shows us a poet who has the courage to take on the most public of themes not always appreciated by the commissars of fashion.


Egan has the ability to state simply the most profound feelings. A lover of all the arts, he laments the death of his cousin Kieran Collins, one of the finest traditional tin whistle players of his era, who died in 1983: “you will never slip back join us in a corner and/ produce… spirit notes we cannot fully follow/ the music beneath the music” which translates as “ní chaolfaidh tú isteach eadrainn go bráth/ sa chúinne…ní sheinnfidh tú/ scálnótaí nach dtuigeamar/ ceol faoi cheol”.

His love poetry can be both celebratory and elegiac. Here he is in his beautiful Requiem: “music you loved has filled like autumn with sadness/ and places we used to be I can hardly bear/ flowers are less than flowers days of darkness/ something fell like a leaf when you went away”, which in its classic simplicity evokes a tradition that Egan has absorbed and inherited.

Hartnett’s translation captures the mood and tone perfectly: “ceol do chairis do líon sé an fómhar le brón/ is ní thaitníonn ar ngnáthóga liom níos mó/ ní bláth é an bláth sa lá níl ach dorchadas buan/ thit rud éigin mar dhuilleog nuair d’imigh tú”.

Egan is a classical scholar who has translated into English Euripides’ Medea (“one of the most successful translations of this era” according to Brian Arkins) and Sophocles’ Philoctetes which Arkins says “shows a rare fidelity to the source language… a remarkable new translation”.

Egan’s Thucydides and Lough Owel is at once a celebration of the local, a homage to the great Greek historian, a testament to the art of writing and the permanence of the true thing, all in 12 short lines.

Indeed this is a significant feature of Egan’s poetry. He can say the most in the least few words and lines. Once again, in this volume, Hartnett proves himself a master poised between two languages, equally at home in both. His translations of Desmond Egan are faithful as they are indispensable.

In saying this, I must point out that he doesn’t slavishly follow the diktats of An Caighdeán, that version of the Irish language acceptable to pedants, schools’ inspectors and civil servants.

Choice/Rogha celebrates the meeting of two major poets at the height of their powers. I welcome this collection. Any year that Desmond Egan publishes a volume of his poems is a good year for poetry. And to have him teamed up with his great friend Michael Hartnett is a bonus. Together and separately they have made a huge contribution to Irish poetry.

Choice/Rogha is a wonderful book, a treasure, a thing of beauty, a joy forever. I unreservedly recommend it.