Saturday, March 16, 2013

Day 16: Here Come Ol' Adzed Head, he come chanting religion

We're halfway through our month of featuring Welsh and Irish poetry.  With St. Patrick's Day just around the corner, it's time to turn to the Irish.  Today's poem takes us back again to the 4th and 5th centuries, to the early days of Christianity in Ireland, when Catholic missionaries were making their way to the island.  This is the era of the Celtic Saints when men and women (St. Brigid, for example) were spreading the Christian religion and establishing religious communities along the coasts of Western Europe, including Ireland-- when, as the Welsh geographer, E.G. Bowen, noted, the western seaways were the primary route for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between the Continent and the British Isles. 

Today's poem reminds us that there was a time when Christianity was new to Ireland and was the strange religion, an interloper into the traditional, Druid-led religious world of the Irish Celts.  That story had already played out amongst the Celts of Britain and Gaul during the preceding centuries under Roman rule. The Welsh poems featured at the beginning of March from this same general era viewed the Britons as Christian protectors of a Romano-British society against the pagan Saxons.  Because of the animosity felt by the Britons toward the Saxons, conversion of the latter to Christianity would largely be left to the Irish, at least in the North of England (Augustine and other missionaries from the Continent worked in the south).

Today's poem is from the The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, Thomas Kinsella editor; the original, of course, would have been in Gaelic.  The term "Adzed-Head" refers to the style of tonsure of the missionary, with the hair cut straight across the head as if shaped by an adze.

He is coming, Adzed-Head,
on the wild-headed sea
with cloak hollow-headed
and curve-headed staff.

He will chant false religion
at a bench facing East
and his people will answer
'Amen, amen.'

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