(see A Hidden Ulster pp. 44-8 for detailed references and information)
This is Oriel version one of the best known songs in the Irish tradition. It was composed by a Breffny poet, Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, born c.1680 – c.1756 (AHU p. 337) whose songs were very popular in the songs of the people. Although probably born on the Fermanagh/Cavan border he featured prominently in the folklore of Oriel and is reputedly buried in Donaghmoyne in County Monaghan. In this song he comes across a bittern, dead on a frozen lake, and he identifies with the bird’s plight and laments the bird’s death in a mixture of pathos, humour and self mockery (AHU pp.44-8).
The song was transmitted throughout Ulster and into Connacht. It has been much translated by Irish poets including Séamus Heaney, Thomas McDonagh, James Stephens, Tom McIntyre and Thomas Kinsella. It is translated here by Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin.
It was unearthed and renewed by Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin from the Séamus Ennis transcription and first recorded by her on An Dealg Óir CD (Gael Linn 2003). The Donegal singer Diane Cannon learned it from Ní Uallacháin’s CD, which she has since sung in the National Oireachtas competitions, where she won Corn na mBan in sean-nós singing.
It is now a favourite version of the air played by piper Liam O’Flynn and also as a slow air played by guitarist Steve Cooney, and is once again firmly re-established in the living tradition.
It is recorded on Ceoltaí Oirialla – Songs of Oriel CD 2017.
The words are sourced mainly from an Omeath, County Louth singer, Neilí Ní Annluain of Corrakit, known locally as Neilí Pheadair Dhuibh and also Anna Uí Lorcáin from Lislea in Omeath, who both sang versions for the collector, Lorcán Ó Muirí (AHU pp.358-60) and also from manuscripts edited by Prof. Breandán Ó Buachalla.
A bhonnáin bhuí, ‘sé mo léan do luí
is do chnámha sínte in éis do ghrinn;
Chan easpa bí ach(t) diobháil dí
a d’fhág ’do luí thú ar chúl do chinn;
Is measa liom féin ná scrios na Traoi
tú bheith ’do luí ar leacaibh lom;
Is nach dtearn tú díth nó dola istír
is nárbh fhearr leat fíon ná uisce poll.
Tá mo cheann tinn is níl atharach ann
Óir d’éirigh alán den trioblóid domh;
Mo cháirde cruinn gan áit gan roinn
nach ndéanann siad díon nó foscadh domh;
Do bhéilín binn a bhí a’ síorthabhairt grinn
is b’aite liom do chómhrá carthannach;
A’ murab é an díth céille bheinn féin saibhir
Ach(t) ghlac mé de roghain an bhoichtineacht.
A bhonnáin álainn, ’sé mo mhíle crá
do chúl ar lár in éis do ghrinn.
Is gur iomaí lá a chluinfinn do ghrág
do luí ar an láib ar chúl do chinn;
’Sé mo thuirse mhór is mo mhíle brón
tú bheith sínte ‘mbrón imeasc na dtom,
Is na luchógaí móra a’ triall ’un do thórraimh
a’ déanamh spóirse is féasta ann
Chuaigh mé ‘n a’ tórramh is mé tuirseach, brónach
’gus buidéal beorach le mo thaobh;
Ar nós go n-ólfadh sé deoch nó dhó
a fhliuchfadh a bhéal is a chorp istigh;
Acht hóm bóm bó ’sé mo mhíle brón
a’n deoir chan ólann sé a choíche ‘ríst;
Bhí an buidéal ólta as mé ar leathchois leonta
a’ pilleadh ó thórramh an bhonnáin bhuí.
Chan iad bhur n-éanlaith atá mé ag éagnaigh,
an lon, an chéirseach nó ‘n chorr ghlas;
Ach(t) a’ bonnán buí a bhí lán de chroí
gur cosúil liom féin é i nós ‘s i ndath;
Bhíodh sé go síoraí ag ól na dí
’gus deirtear go mbím ar a’ nós sin seal
Chan fheil a’n deoir ’á bhfaighfinn nach leigfinn síos,
ar chéasta go bhfaighfinn bás den tart.
‘Sé d’iarr mo stór orm stadadh den ól
nó nach mbeinn anseo acht seal beag gearr.
Acht dúirt mé léithe gur ársaigh sí bréag
is gurbh fhaide do mo shaol an deoch ud fháil;
Nach bhfeiceann sibh éan a’ phíobáin réidh
a chuaidh in éag den tart ar ball?
Is, a chómharsnaigh chléibh, fliuchaigí mbur mbéal
óir chan fhaighann sibh braon i ndéidh mbur mbáis.
O yellow bittern for you I mourn
stretched out bareboned without quill or down;
Not the want of food but a mighty drooth*
left you lying there with your head upturned.
Far worse than Troy long since destroyed
your body cold on naked stone;
For hurt or harm you brought to none
not wine for you – but a water hole.
My head is sore and there is no cure,
For much trouble to me has come;
My neighbours here have naught to share,
no house or home to shelter in;
Your sweet birdsong gave non-stop fun
and I used to long for your friendly voice;
But for foolish ways I’d have wealth and gain,
the path of poverty was my own choice.
O sweet bittern, my endless pain
is your outstretched frame and naked pelt,
And many’s the dawn I’d hear you call
but now you lie inmud and dirt;
My heart it breaks with a thousand aches
you in the ditch, my sore lament !
And the rats so great, going to your wake,
in jollification and merriment.
I went to wake you though sad and frail
with a bottle of ale down in my coat;
So that we might swill a drop or so
to wet his bill and inside his throat;
But hóm bóm bó, my sorrowful woe
not a sip will pass his beak again;
The drink was done, I was drunk alone
coming home from the wake of my bittern friend.
It’s not your songsters that I now mourn:
the blackbird, thrush, and grey feathered crane;
But the yellow bird so full of love
just like myself in many ways;
He was always supping away alone,
and it’s said that I’m sometimes like him too;
Not a glass in hand but I’d swallow down
for fear that the thirst might kill me soon.
My love she urged me to give it up
for my life would shortly end in tears;
And I said to her that her words were false
for the drop o’ drink gave me extra years;
See now the full-throated singing bird –
How a thirst of late brought a silent end;
So comrades dear, wet your lips here –
for you’ll not get any when your lying dead.
Translation: P. Ní Uallacháin
The air here was collected from the McKeown family of Loughross in Crossmaglen County Armagh and recorded on wax cylinder by collector Luke Donnellan (AHU pp.361-3) at the turn of the 20th century.
All the airs of An Bonnan Buí, which were collected or recorded in Ulster and Connacht, are variants of the same basic air. As the Oriel version was – in a sense – frozen in time, and not transmitted for over 100 years, it still retained the flattened seventh note, which is a distinct feature of Irish airs of lamentation, and is a striking example of conveying pathos here.
The above manuscript was later transcribed by piper Séamus Ennis (AHU pp.368-70) when he first worked for the Irish Folklore Commission in Dublin (‘An Bunnán Buidhe’, Luke Donnellan Box 1 p.4 No.1.).
The above words on the music manuscript were written as Séamus Ennis heard the sounds on the old recording. They are not an accurate source for the lyrics.