Withered with years and broken by Time’s play
I still do live, who only seek to lay
My harp aside and my white head to rest
On the safe shelter of the earth’s soft breast.
There o’er me spread her coverlet of green,
And let me bide as though I ne’er had been.
I am the bard of Breffney, and I keep
A vigil still while all I loved doth sleep
And sorrow cometh with the passing years.
Much have I sung of laughter, much of tears.
Hate have I seen, and anger, love, despair,
Now am I captive in the net of care.
Proud of my race, of Erin have I sung
With my sweet harp while yet my heart was young.
Oh, isle of Kings, how lowly did she come,
My song triumphant shook and trembled dumb.
Bride of the waters, she who knew no chain,
From her fair shores she drove the nomad Dane,
And Norsemen fierce who dared her power offend,
Then she, betrayed by one who was her friend,
Quaked ‘neath the Norman foot, that down the years
Shall tread its way through useless blood and tears.
And when at last, of all her glories shorn,
She lies in chains a captive all forlorn,
She shall arise, and crying in her shame,
Curse that false son who bore MacMurrogh’s name;
As I do now who go toward the grave,
And have my sad immortal soul to save.
Yea! do I pray destruction swift and sure
On Dermot’s race. He did with guile secure
The Saxon foe to come upon her shore;
Whose iron grasp shall loose her never more.
And I shall curse a woman’s wayward heart,
Who in some wanton hour did all depart
From virtue’s way, and with MacMurrogh sped.
So in the winds her husband’s honour shed,
As thou Dearbhorgil, who in thy disgrace
Hath shamed the glories of an ancient race.
O curs?d day within the pregnant year,
When first this tale did so distress my ear,
And Red O’Ruark hath from his fasting come
From some far shrine. I stood to meet him, dumb
Within his hall, when crying on her name,
He held her not, and understood her shame.
White did he grow who still was faint with prayer,
And turned aside to hide his chill despair.
And when he went into the banquet spread
For his gay friends, slow was his heavy tread
As one who bears a burden to his place,
Yet to his guests he held a smiling face.
And when they saw Dearbhorgil’s empty chair,
Calling their eyes to note the absence there,
Of her who should upon the feast have smiled,
With easy jest their humour they beguiled,
In guessing where she hid and why she stayed.
With their gay wit they did O’Ruark upbraid,
‘She loves thee not to leave thee thus alone,’
Or ‘To what cage has this sweet birdling flown?’
And I did glance, in pity at his need,
On his white face whose stillness so did plead
For their forbearance, but they, gay with wine,
Strove each in jest the other to outshine.
Then did O’Ruark find chorus for their tune
With oft a smile, but sorrow held him soon,
So he spoke not in her defence again,
But sat as one whose very heart were slain,
And through his teeth drew in the sighing breath,
As some proud bull sore stricken to his death
Pants in the ring to fall and fight no more,
Yet still doth face the knife his vitals tore,
He sighed and leant his chin upon his breast
In silence ‘neath the daggers of their jest.
Then down his cheek a great tear surely fell,
Wrung from despair, their merriment to quell,
Calling to us have pity, and for shame.
This noble sorrow gave the greater blame.
And as he sat in silence each light laugh
Dropped into peace, and each wit-pointed shaft
Fell aimless, as an arrow sloping flies
To pierce some wretched beast that lifeless lies.
And so each hunter of immortal jest,
Stayed by this stillness, all shamed in his quest,
Fell half to anger for his humour chilled,
Till one arose, with all his laughter killed,
To gaze into the eyes of his sad chief,
And read that face so pale with wordless grief.
And his low cry drew all upon their feet
To learn the tragic tale he did repeat.
Dearbhorgil gone! the jest was then too true.
Throughout the hall the horrid scandal flew,
And from the door sent forth her fateful cry,
So all did hear who passed the threshold by.
The maids, who ran swift-footed through the place,
In hurried whispers spread the dark disgrace.
The ag?d cook, who slept beside the fire,
And woke to grumble at his work in ire,
Then fell to sleep again, till he did hear
This noisy tale that did awake his ear.
Then quick he rose to pass the story on
To wondering youths who hung his words upon,
And one, who fed the hounds, away did creep
To some far stable to lament and weep
Dearbhorgil gone. For he did love her well,
And feared for her who wove the wanton spell.
Did not O’Ruark guess at her faithless heart,
When to that shrine he praying did depart,
Or was it for her love he there did plead?
For some still say that rumour long had freed
Her evil net to noose him in its snare
Of fierce suspicion and of jealous care.
If so it be, in silence he did shed
His bitter tears, for lone his brave heart bled,
As some great ox fly-driven meek doth go,
All powerless to assault his tiny foe,
Where hath a greater fallen ‘neath his rage.
But when O’Ruark, uplifted from amaze,
Knew for his foe no woman’s fickleness
But found a king, his fate he did confess
And swore to vengeance, as did every man
Who faced him there. So swift the story ran
To Conor’s Court, the king of all the land,
To join O’Ruark and have MacMurrogh banned.
And the red torch of war, that each man lit
From Red O’Ruark’s hot vengeance, soon did flit
About the restless Isle, made prostitute
By Murrogh’s shame. He flew at our pursuit
To call on Saxon aid, and did return
To light dissension’s flame, that still doth burn.
Nor shall it die in ages still to come,
When my sad singing is for ever dumb.
Dumb as the traitor lips of Murrogh are,
And brave O’Ruark’s who perished in red war.
And I, who fought beside him as he fell,
Raised my young arm the deathblow to repel,
Now in my chair sit angry with the years
That bring to my dim eyes the shame of tears,
That bind me helpless with the bonds of time,
Freeze my hot blood with winter’s frosty rime.
And mem’ry, like a stone cast in a lake,
Doth by its wound a thousand circles wake
Of griefs all hope forgotten, and of days
I’ll live no more. For I in dim amaze
Find myself captive to Time’s powerful net.
A prisoner I, who never vanquished yet
By nobler foe, else I myself had slain,
Here lie a captive to a victor’s chain.
This feeble arm, once ready in the fray,
I scarce can raise to brush the gnats away.
These feet so quick to reach the flying foe,
From couch to fire now hesitate to go.
And went my heart, unshaken through the tears
Of those my enemies enslaved by fears,
As clove my ship through stress of storm and rain.
This heart, that ne’er shall beat with youth again,
Calls out in weeping, ‘Pity, I implore,
Let Time destroy as he cannot restore.’
There at the gate the steeds champ for the race,
The great hounds yawn in waiting for the chase.
And my son’s son, impatient to be free,
Walks by the creeping feet of age with me,
And twists his restless body ‘neath my hand,
Eager to flee his grandsire’s weak command.
And comes my son to say, ‘Canst thou not rest?
Thou art but feeble to endure this quest,
To see us speed in passing through the gate,
Lie in thy chair, my son on thee shall wait.’
And as he goes the easy tears of age
Flow down my cheek and end my useless rage,
For my soul, angry with the years, drops now
Her last poor weapon, and her neck doth bow
Beneath the heavy foot of Time, and falls
A prey to this great victor who enthrals
Her cries to silence, so she doth but creep
To nod beside the fire content to sleep.
For I have been sore wasted in the fray,
And, fallen to dishonour and dismay,
Have given up the battle to my shame.
Old, I am old, nigh done with life’s brief flame.
Son of my son, do thou my last request
So I may sleep untroubled in my rest.
Let free the captive hawks, the wolf release
From his caged comfort, that shall bring no peace
To his wild heart. ‘Tis good to see them go
Through the sweet air, so they may never know
The grief of age, but die in some fierce fight
That makes e’en death a glory and delight.
And run thee, child, fleet as thy foot can go,
Far from this feeble age that mocks thee so.
Crying, so shalt thou be who now art young,
Such was he once who sits the shades among.
Here let me sleep the restless sleep of age,
Who would have slept more sound where battles rage
Sung in my dying ears its lullaby
Upon the field where brave O’Ruark did die.
(Dora Sigerson Shorter)
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Based on Keywords: dissension, nomad, forbearance, birdling, swift-footed, fickleness, norsemen, enthrals, conor, dermot, ruark