News / Events

A Hundred Years Ago – A Royal Poet

6 Sep 2021

A Hundred Years Ago – A Royal Poet

In the issue of the Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie for 1921, Kuno Meyer called attention to the ‘last stanza’ of King Áed Allán: composed by him according to the annals in 743, on the eve of the battle in which he lost his life:

Diandomm∙ainsed mo Día dil

for brú Locho Sailchedain,

íarum dia mbeinn-si fri col,

ropad maín ar mog m’anacol.

‘If my dear God should protect me upon the shore of Loughsallagh – if I should fall into sin thereafter, protecting me would be “a treasure bestowed upon a slave”.’

Meyer saw no linguistic reasons against accepting that Áed Allán was really the author of this verse. Áed was a ruthless warrior in a time of ruthless warriors: of his victory over the Leinstermen at Áth Senaig, five years earlier, the Annals of Ulster state that ‘we do not find that so many fell in any single attack, and perished in fierce conflict, in all the ages of the past’. Here, however, Áed’s gaze is directed to concerns beyond military victory, and even beyond physical survival. ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’

Maín ar mog ‘a treasure bestowed on a slave’ is a proverbial expression designating something futile: because the purpose of a gift is to establish a relationship between a lord and a free client, and a slave cannot enter into such a relationship, a gift to a slave is a pointless waste. To accept a lord’s gift is to accept responsibilities and obligations. Áed here imagines God’s gift of life in these terms: if he repays his Lord with virtue, he will be a worthy client; if he fails to do so, he will be no better than a slave. As is famously the case in the poems of Blathmac, religious devotion and legal thinking are closely intertwined.

But in fact God did not grant Áed Allán his life in the ensuing battle, and so he was not tested in this way.

Roinn na Sean- agus na Meán-Ghaeilge

Department of Early and Medieval Irish

Bloc A, Urlár na Talún, Áras Uí Rathaille / Block A, Ground Floor, O'Rahilly Building, UCC, Cork