This poem was written for Raghnall (son of Godred the Black son of Amlaíb [Olaf]), the king of the Isle of Man (r. 1187-1229) and the Western Isles. He was the great-grandson of Gall-Gaedal leader Godred Cróbhan [OG “white hand”] of the Uí Ímair of Dublin, who deposed Fingal, son of Godred son of Sitric, from Man and took his place c.1079. Godred Cróbhan’s son Amlaíb established a kingdom centred on Man which occasionally held claim to Dublin and parts of the Hebrides, depending on circumstances. The woman Sadbh, named in verses 8 and 9, may be his mother.
We do not know who composed this poem, but it seems to be in the first part of his reign, 1187×1208. He seems to have been chosen by the élite of Man to succeed his father in preference to his brother Olaf. Raghnall had connections across the British Isles: his sister Affrica was married to John de Courcy, an Anglo-Norman knight resident in Ulster; he did business with kings of Scotland and England; he was closely related to Somhairle, founder of Clan Donald. His galley was called “the Swan.”
This poem has many allusions to Gaelic mythological characters and sacred sites; it is a testimony to how the Gall-Gáedil had become integrated into the Gaelic mainstream. Emain is one of the names for the Isle of Man; it is also used of other sites associated with the Otherworld, and the poet exploits these ambiguities and connections.
The following extracts from the text were translated by Michael Newton based on the edition in Ó Cuiv, “A Poem.”
§ 1: A fertile settlement is the fairy mound of Emain: shapely is the territory in which it is found, a fair dwelling excelling all others, where there are many fair apple branches.
§ 2: A fresh appled Emain, it takes on the bright colour of summer; there are few forts or hills more beautiful, when it wears this fresh, green covering. […]
§ 7: Emain of the yew trees; the tips of its (sacred) trees shine; a dark blackthorn around the pure dwelling where Lugh, the offspring of the poet, was nurtured.
§ 8: Emain of the aromatic apple-trees, the honest Tara of the Isle of Man; the green apple branches of Emain are the offspring of noble Sadbha.
§ 9: You, the son of noble Sadbha, are the most beautiful apple-branch; what god from Newgrange [sacred tomb of the Boyne] conceived you with her secretly?
§ 10: O Raghnall, king of the fortress, Radruim Dá Thí [a nickname for Tara] is waiting for you; o noble son of Sadbha, the stone on the side of Tara [i.e., the Stone of Destiny] will speak to you. […]
§ 12: O son of fair, well-built Godred who never failed in his confrontations: because of your father, you would not think it right to allow an oaf’s son (to rule) in your great house during your lifetime. […]
§ 14: Emain will not be able to find a lover like you today; you are the shelter; can any hillock like Emain be found on the surface of the earth? […]
§ 17: From the smooth-plained Isle of Man you will formulate an attack from a great galley, slaughter worthy of an army; slopes throughout your clean, smooth fields have caused you pleasure from the fair Boyne river. […]
§ 19: You will attack the troops of Dublin, with your shield protecting your pure body; on coming to Dublin, o Raghnall, I will ask you in advance for the site for a house. […]
§ 29: I am bound by drinks of ale; is there any excitement that can match yours? I have no difficulty in drinking them, (and get) the intoxication of the cold ale of the Fionnghall [“fair-foreigners”, i.e. Hebrideans]. […]
§ 31: O Raghnall, o king of the island of Coll, all things can be found in your fair galley: the thin, cold wine of the Swan takes the anxiety of the ocean away from the crew. […]
§ 47: My trip over to you has benefitted me, you of the lovely, brown, undulating hair; o king of Seaghais, your shoulder was like a doorpost to me.
§ 48: As I left your excellent house, my gifts were considerable; staying with the fair offspring of Godred would be better than going to any king’s house. […]
§ 49: O son of Godred of the field of the island of Mull, your field will capture our attention; you take victory-spoils from Tráigh Bhaile [in Islay?] of the bright-ships to the shores of your house.