Dían: A Quick Poetic Foundation

I have posted here before about the importance of poetry so, inspired by Lupus’ serial post for Samhain, I add here a series here on traditional Gaelic poetic forms. Taking my pattern from the bardic tracts and particularly the one detailing the training of the bard, I begin with the meters known as dían.

Without getting into too much background, there is an important bit of information to know about the structure of Irish meter. The basic unit is the rann or ‘part’ which we print usually as a quatrain. In most meters, these rainn are divided into two half-parts (leathrainn) which are also divided into two quarter-parts (ceathrú-rainn). Contemporary printing in English prints these ceathrú-rainn as individual lines, though in manuscripts the complete rann was written with a punctus between leathrainn, a convention maintained in early printed scholarship. The convention of cheathrú-rainn is based on the pace and rhythm of recitations, the length of each relative to the others determining in part the meter in question.

There are six variations of the ‘swift’ meter (dían meaning literally ‘swift’): three strong (trom) and three slender (seng). Each of these is characterized as being either ‘before’ (air), ‘middle’ (mid), or ‘hind’ (iar). For the sake of length, I will deal with each of these individually in separate posts. The first listed in the bardic tracts and the most regular metrically is dían airsheng, ‘swift fore-slender.’

Currech Life cona lí.
Is terc rí dia bhfodomair.
Rucad a chend uad i cían;
cosin slíab os Badammair.

Currech Life with his glory,
Few kings to whom he submitted.
Far he (Finn) bore his head from there;
to the mountain above Badammar.

This refers to a story in the Finn MacCumhaill cycle. The story is told in the Rennes Dinshenchas:

49. Cenn Currig.

Currech Lifi, from whom is Raith Cuirrig, had a daughter Cochrann the mother of Diarmait hua Duibni (by her husband Dub). And Cuirrech’s mother was the same as the mother of Fothad Canann and of Teite daughter of Mac Niad, from whom Oenach Teite is named. Teite was the wife of Find son of Ragamain.

Now Find killed Dub hua Duibni, whose son was Diarmait mac Duib son of Duibne. He was Currech’s son in-law.

So there was savage warfare between them (Find and Ciarech). Then Cuirrech bethought him of a way to get an advantage over Find. In the eastern part of Femen, on the eastern bank of the Suir, in Cathair Dúne Iascaig, Find had a paramour named Badammair (from her Rath Badammrach is called). ’Tis she that used to sustain Find with food and raiment. So Cuirrech went to Badammair’s house and slew her, and destroyed Cathair Dúne Iascaig. Forthwith goes Find on Cuirrech’s track, by Femen, Tete, Roigne, the Nore, Gabran, the Barrow, till he saw before him Cuirrech’s shadow, and throughout the shadow he hurled a spear, chanting a spell over its head, and strikes it into Cuirrech, who fell thereby. Then Find took Cuirrech’s head, and came on the morrow in the early morning to that mountain (Cenn Cuirrig) a little to the west of Femen, and set a tomb of stone there about the head. Whence Cenn Cuirrig is so called.

Afterwards Find son of Regamain and his wife Teite fell by a single blow of Find when they went away from the ale-banquet which (the latter) Find had made for Fothad (Canann).

The meter is as simple as you can get in Irish prosody with rhyme between its two leathrainn (between lines B & D in contemporary English presentation). In this example there is also rhyme between sliab and cían, though I suspect that this is just ornamentation and not a formal component of dían airsheng. Note that the rhyming words are of equal length.

My attempt at using this meter in English follows:

The shades of night are growing,
flowing down from ev’ry tree,
while the stragg’ling winds of Fall
call above us, cold and free.

It is not the soul of poetry, I realize, but hopefully it gives a sense of the meter.

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