The Insular Celts

Having left hard ground behind

in the hardness of their place-names,

they have sailed out for an island:


as along the top of a wood

their boats have crossed the green ridges,

so has the pale sky overhead


appeared as a milky surface,

a white plain where the speckled fish

drift in lamb-white clouds of fleece.


As their sails will be covering

for the first houses that they build,

so their boats will be hovering


in the smoke of their first fires,

like red blood falling will be

their landing on the first shores.


They will come back to the warm earth

and call it by possessive names:

mother, thorned rose, woman, love’s birth;


to hard hills of stone they will give

the words for breast; to meadowland,

the soft gutterals of rivers,


tongues of water; to firm plains, flesh,

as one day we will discover

their way of living, in their death.


They entered their soft beds of soil

not as graves, for this was the land

that they had fought for, loved, and killed


each other for. They’d arrive again:

death could be no horizon

but the shoreline of their island,


a coming and going as flood

comes after ebb. In the spirals

of their brooches is seen the flight


of one thing into the other:

as the wheel-ruts on a battle-

plain have filled with silver water,


the confused circles of their wards,

their cattle-raids, have worked themselves

to a laced pattern of old scars.

– Ciarán Carson

In their speckled parchments we read

of word-play in the halls of kings,

of how these people loved to fight,


yet where are their fine houses now?

They are hammered into the ground,

they have been laid bare by the plough.


Yet their death, since it is no real

death, will happen over again

and again, their bones will seem still


to fall in the hail beneath hooves

of horses, their limbs will drift down

as the branches that trees have loosed.


We cannot yet say why or how

they could not take things as they were.

Some day we will learn of how


their bronze swords took the shape of leaves;

their gold spears are found in cornfields,

their arrows are found in trees.