‘Thoughts on Lady Gregory’s Translations’: Prefaces (1902, 1903; rev. 1905, 1908, 1912), repr. from Lady Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) and Gods and Fighting Men (1904)

  • William H. O’Donnell
Part of the The Collected Edition of the Works of W. B. Yeats book series (CWWBY)


The Church when it was most powerful taught learned and unlearned to climb, as it were, to the great moral realities through hierarchies of Cherubim and Seraphim, through clouds of Saints and Angels who had all their precise duties and privileges. The story-tellers of Ireland, perhaps of every primitive country, imagined as fine a fellowship, only it was to the aesthetic realities they would have had us climb. They created for learned and unlearned alike, a communion of heroes, a cloud of stalwart witnesses; but because they were as much excited as a monk over his prayers, they did not think sufficiently about the shape of the poem and the story. We have to get a little weary or a little distrustful of our subject, perhaps, before we can lie awake thinking how to make the most of it. They were more anxious to describe energetic characters, and to invent beautiful stories, than to express themselves with perfect dramatic logic or in perfectly-ordered words. They shared their characters and their stories, their very images, with one another, and handed them down from generation to generation; for nobody, even when he had added some new trait, or some new incident, thought of claiming for himself what so obviously lived its own merry or mournful life. The maker of images or worker in mosaic who first put Christ upon a cross would have as soon claimed as his own a thought which was perhaps put into his mind by Christ himself.


Break Roof Lunar Influence Energetic Character Lyric Poem Irish Account 
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  1. 1.
    Imbas forosnai (‘palm-knowledge of enlightening’), one of the three ceremonies for attaining prophetic dreams, was among the requirements for difilé, the highest rank of the ancient Irish poets. See Yeats, ‘Irish Witch Doctors’ (1900), UP2 230; Eugene O’Curry, On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish: A Series of Lectures, ed. W. K. Sullivan (London: Williams and Norgate, 1873) II, 135Google Scholar
  2. Patrick Weston Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland (London: Longmans, Green, 1903) I, 242–5.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    See Lady Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland (London: Murray, 1904) p. 444Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Yeats was twenty years old when he met William Morris (1834–96), the English poet, artist and socialist, at a meeting of the Contemporary Club during Morris’s visit to Dublin, 9–14 Apr 1886, for lectures at the Dublin branch of the Social Democratic Federation. Yeats published this anecdote, but without naming Morris, in November 1886 in The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson’ (UP1 89). For an Irish account of the Battle of Clontarf, Dublin (23 Apr 1014), see Cogadh Gaedhilre Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill; or, The Invasions of Ireland by the Danes and other Norsemen (written c. 1016), ed. and tr. James Hen thorn Todd (London: Longmans, 1867) pp. 151–217Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    For Murchadh refusing Aoibheall of Carrick-lea, a Leannan Sidhe, see Gods and Fighting Men, p. 87 (‘Aoibhell’) and Nicholas O’Kearney, Feis Tighe Chonain Chinn-Shleibhe; or, The Festivities at the House of Conan of Ceann-Sleibhe, in the Country of Clare, Transactions of the Ossianic Society, 2(1854 [publ. 1855]) 101–2.Google Scholar
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    William Paton Ker, Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature (London: Macmillan, 1897).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    The Morrigu, a Tuatha de Danaan queen and goddess of battle; see Lady Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne: The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster (London: Murray, 1902) pp. 211–12Google Scholar
  8. 18.
    Untraced. In an earlier use of this remark, Yeats acknowledged an unnamed scholar as his immediate source (1901; E&I 107). James Olney has suggested that this doctrine is Heraclitan and, to some extent, also Platonic — The Rhizome and the Flower: The Perennial Philosophy — Yeats and Jung (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980) pp. 119Google Scholar
  9. 32.
    Tigearnach the Annalist (d. 1088) wrote that Finn was killed in AD 283. Douglas Hyde, in A Literary History of Ireland: From Earliest Times to the Present Day (London: Unwin, 1899) pp. 382–3Google Scholar
  10. Eugene O’Curry, Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History: Delivered at the Catholic University of Ireland, during the Sessions of 1855 and 1856, 2nd edn (Dublin: Hinch, Traynor, 1878) pp. 303–4Google Scholar
  11. 33.
    The Annals of the Four Masters records that the reign of Eochaidh Feidhleach began 142 BC (AM 5058); his daughter was Maeve, who instigated the war for the bull of Cuailgne, in which Cuchulain was a champion (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616, ed. John O’Donovan, 2nd edn [Dublin: Hodges, Smith, 1856] I, 87); O’Donovan remarked that ‘no competent scholar can doubt’ that the chronology of the earliest periods in the annals ‘is arbitrary and uncertain’ (I, xlii). The Annals of Tigernach, which mentions Cuchulain’s birth, gives the date of his death as AD 2 (‘The Annals of Tigernach’, ed. Whidey Stokes, Revue celtique, 16 [1895] 404Google Scholar
  12. 38.
    The old hunter is thought to be Orion. The Greeks hid at Tenedos during the ploy of the wooden horse at Troy. Robert Browning, ‘Pauline’ (1833), 11. 323–5Google Scholar
  13. 41.
    Un traced. Jacob Boehme, in Forty Questions of the Soul (IV.7) and The Three Principles (x.17), follows the biblical account (Genesis 2:19-20) of Adam naming the creatures; those passages from Boehme are quoted in Franz Hartmann, The Life and Doctrines of Jacob Boehme: The God-Taught Philosopher: An Introduction to the Study of his Works (1891), repr. as Personal Christianity: A Science: The Doctrines of Jacob Boehme: The God-Taught Philosopher (New York: Macoy, 1919) p. 152Google Scholar
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  15. 42.
    In ‘The Pursuit of the Gilla Dacker and his Horse’, Feradach, a king’s son, magically makes a ship for Finn from a wooden stick, with only three blows of a joiner’s axe. See Old Celtic Romances, tr. Patrick Weston Joyce 3rd edn (London: Longmans, Green, 1907) pp. 240–2, and ‘Pursuit of the Gilla decair’, tr. Standish Hayes O’Grady, Silva Gadelica I.-XXXI. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1892) II, 299.Google Scholar
  16. 52.
    This saying by the Greek tragic dramatist Aeschylus (525-456 BC) is reported in the Deipnosophists of Athenaeus, a Greek scholar (fl. c. AD 200) in Egypt: ‘…the saying of the noble and glorious Aeschylus, who declared that this tragedies were large cuts taken from Homer’s mighty dinners’ (VIII.347e) (tr. Charles B. Gulick, Loeb Classics [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957] IV, 75). Gilbert Murray’s translation is ‘slices from the great banquets of Homer’ (Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940] p. 160).Google Scholar
  17. 56.
    For the Jerusalem wager by Thomas (‘Buck’ or ‘Jerusalem’) Whaley, see John Edward Walsh’s anonymously published Sketches of Ireland Sixty Years Ago (Dublin: McGlashan, 1847) p. 16Google Scholar
  18. Donald T. Torchiana, W. B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1966) p. 19.Google Scholar
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  20. 57.
    Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847), Irish nationalist leader, killed Capt. J. N. D’Esterre in a duel, 1 Feb 1815. The memory of the duel haunted him for the remainder of his life. He never went to Communion afterwards without wearing a white glove on his right hand as a sign of penance’ — Denis Gwynn, Daniel O’Connell, 2nd edn (Cork: Cork University Press, 1947) p. 126.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Micheal Yeats 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • William H. O’Donnell
    • 1
  1. 1.MemphisUSA

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