The Burial of my Mother

The sun of June — an orchard,
There’s a humming in the silken afternoon,
There’s an accursèd bee a–lilting
Like a screech that cuts the veil of noon.

‘Tis an old stained letter that I read:
With every word–draught I swallow
A venemous pain pierces my breast,
As each one squeeses out its own tear.

I remember the hand that made the script,
A hand as familiar as a face,
A hand that ever bestowed the benigness of an old Bible,
A hand that was a balm when I was sick.

And June falls all the way back to Winter,
The orchard is a white graveyard by a river,
And in the midst of the dumb whiteness around me
The black trench screams out loud in the snow.

The white brightness of a little girl on First Communion Day,
The white brightness of a Host on an altar on Sunday,
The white brightness of milk wire–flowing from the breast,
As they bury my mother, the white brightness of the sod.

My mind is scourging itself, trying
To take in the funeral completely,
Then, through the white stillness,
A robin flies gently, fearless and unabashed.

And stops over the grave as though aware
That the reason for its mission is hidden from all
But the one waiting in the coffin,
And I envy their strange intimacy.

The breath of Heaven comes down on that grave,
A holy and an awful mirth possesses the bird,
I am cut off in my ignorance from the mysterious affair,
And the grave before me seems far away.

My lust–filled soul bathes in the fragrance of grief,
The snow of virginity falls into my heart,
Now I will bury in a heart made upright
The memory of the lady who bore me three seasons in her womb.

Now the young men come and the harsh din of shovels,
Their energy sweeps the clay into the grave,
I look away: a neighbour is wiping his knees,
I look at the priest: there is worldliness in his face.

The sun of June — an orchard,
There’s a humming in the silken afternoon,
There’s an accursèd bee a–lilting
Like a screech that cuts the veil of noon.

As I write my lame little verses,
I would like to catch hold of the tail of a robin,
I would like to banish the spirit of those who wipe their knees,
I would like to go to the end of the day in sadness.


This is my attempt to translate Adhlacadh mo Mháthar, the elegy for his mother written in Irish by Seán Ó Riordáin (1916 – 1977).
Born in Ballyvourney, County Cork, he was a local government official who died of TB. He is considered to be one of the greatest Gaelic poets in the last 200 years.
This, the most profoundly beautiful poem of its kind I have ever read in any language, must be among his finest legacies to readers of Irish everywhere.
The association of the robin with a time and a place of death is one of the staples of folk belief in Ireland.
Consider, for example, the appearance of a robin on the killing fields of Belgian Flanders shortly before the third Battle of Ypres, 31 July – 6 November 1917.

About Seán Ó Ríordáin
This is a link to a television programme in Irish with subtitles in English. It lasts almost 52 minutes.

Nascanna don Ghaeilge / Links to Irish / Gorgysylltiadau i’r Wyddeleg