Hermit and King: An Old Irish Colloquy

Composed in the 10th century, this Irish poem presents a conversation between King Guaire of Connaught and his half-brother Mardun. Both are historical figures of 7th century Ireland, and around Guaire's court arose a cycle of poems and balladers.

Mardun became a recluse, though not a religiously professed one. He was probably a swineherd for his brother. The poem mentions four other brothers, all dead. Guaire and Mardun are old now, and Mardun recounts what he treasures in life, a poignant description of nature and its bounty, with himself in its midst as a hermit. Mardun mentions his intended bequest, which generously includes a cup to a hermit, and his pet (perhaps a pig) to a leper. The king listens quietly, speaking only to praise his brother's choice of an eremitic life.

From Hermit and King: A Colloquy between King Guaire of Aidne and His Brother Marban; Being an Irish Poem of the Tenth Century, edited and translated by Kuno Meyer. London: David Nutt, 1901. A few emendations have been made for clarity.


O Marban, O hermit,
Why dost not thou sleep upon a quilt?
More often thou sleepest abroad,
Thy head stretched upon a pitch-pine floor.

I do not sleep upon a quilt
Though it were for my health's sake:
There are many abroad
Who come to share my meditations.

Our foster brothers live no more,
Parting from them does not move us:
Save a single six only
Not one of them remains, O Guaire!

Ornait and Lugna the perfect,
Laidgen and Ailiran,
Both of them are at their work,
Marban and Cluithnechan.

Thou hast already heard my bequest
At the hour of leaving the world:
This cup of mine to the hermit,
My household pet to Laidgen the leper.

My knife and my spetugud [not identified],
My dwelling in Tuaim Aidchi,
My cudgel, my pet, my cup,
My leathern satchel, my musical instrument.

O Marban, O hermit,
Though the hour has come to make thy will,
To the craftsman his reward,
But His betrayal to David's Son.

I have a hut in the wood,
None knows it save my God:
An ash tree on the hither side, a hazel bush beyond,
A huge old tree encompasses it.

Two heath-clad doorposts for support,
And a lintel of honeysuckle:
The forest around its narrowness sheds
Its mast upon fat swine.

The size of my pasture is tiny, not too tiny,
Many are its familiar paths:
From its gable a sweet strain sings
My lady in her cloak of the thrush's hue.

The stags of Oakridge leap
Into the river of clear banks:
Thence red Roigne can be seen,
Glorious Mucraime and Maenmag.

Hidden, lowly little abode,
Which has possession of ... ,
To behold it will not be granted me,
Yet I shall be able to find its ...

A hiding mane of a green-barked yew-tree
Which supports the sky:
Beautiful spot! the large green of an oak
Fronting the storm.

A tree of apples - great its bounty!
Like a hostel, vast:
A pretty bush, thick as a fist, of tiny hazelnuts,
Branching, green.

A choice pure spring and princely water
To drink:
There spring watercress, yew-berries,
Ivy-bushes of a man's thickness.

Around it tame swine lie down,
Goats, pigs,
Wild swine, grazing deer,
A badger's brood.

A peaceful troop, a heavy host of denizens of the soil,
Atrysting at my house:
To meet them foxes come,
How delightful!

Fairest princes come to my house,
A ready gathering!
Pure water, perennial bushes,
Salmon, trout.

A bush of rowan, black sloes,
Dusky blackthorns,
Plenty of food, acorns, pure berries,
Bare flags.

A clutch of eggs, honey, delicious mast,
God has sent it:
Sweet apples, red whortleberries,
Berries of the heath.

Ale with herbs, a dish of strawberries,
Of good taste and color,
Haws, berries of the yew,
Sloes, nuts.

A cup with mead of hazelnut, bluebells,
Quick-growing rushes,
Dun oaklets, manes of briar,
Goodly sweet tangle.

When pleasant summertime spreads its colored mantle,
Sweet-tasting fragrance!
pignuts, wild marjoram, green leeks,
Verdant pureness!

The music of the bright redbreasted men,
A lovely movement!
The strain of the thrush, familiar cuckoos
Above my house.

Swarms of bees and chafers, the little musicians of the world,
A gentle chorus:
Wild geese and ducks, shortly before summer's end,
The music of the dark torrent.

An active songster, a lively wren
From the hazel bough,
Beautiful hooded birds, woodpeckers,
A vast multitude!

Fair white birds come, herons, seagulls,
The cuckoo sings in between, --
No mournful music! -- dun heath poults
Out of the russet heath.

The lowing of heifers in summer,
Brightest of seasons!
Not bitter, toilsome over the fertile plain,
Beautiful, smooth!

The voice of the wind against the branchy wood
Upon the deep-blue sky:
Cascades of the river, the note of the swan,
Delightful music!

The bravest band makes music to me,
Who have not been hired:
In the eyes of Christ the ever-young I am no worse off
Than thou art.

Though thou rejoicest in thy own pleasures,
Greater than any wealth,
I am grateful for what is given me
From my good Christ.

Without an hour of fighting, without the din of strife
In my house,
Grateful to the Prince who giveth every good
To me in my bower.

I would give my glorious kingship
With my share of Colman's heritage,
To the hour of my death let me forfeit it
So that I may be in thy company, O Marban!