Ah, The Bittern

An Bonnan Bui, The Yellow Bittern, is a song still sung widely today, yet composed by Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Ghunna, or Yellow…

An Bonnan Bui, The Yellow Bittern, is a song still sung widely today, yet composed by Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Ghunna, or Yellow-haired Charles Mc Elgunn (16801756). He came from the Fermanagh-Cavan area and was a younger contemporary of O'Carolan. Cathal Bui was, according to Seamus Mac Gabhann in the latest issue of Riocht na Midhe, a notable rake who lived with a succession of women and incurred the wrath of the clergy. It is told that when a parish priest of Omeath heard that Cathal Bui was coming that way, he spoke from the altar leaving his seven curses on anyone who would give a night's lodging to the poet. That evening, around twilight, a poor woman knocked at the priest's door and begged a night's lodging ar ghra De. The priest ordered his servant to make a shake-down for the old woman in the corner of the kitchen. Next morning, when the priest entered the kitchen, he found a verse written on the wall. In English it reads: You left seven curses, oh priest of my heart,/On the one who would give quarters to Cathal Bui;/It was yourself who gave quarters to Cathal Bui/And the seven curses have fallen on your house. The story ends that when the priest looked around he missed seven things - his walking stick, his riding whip, his horse, his dog, his tall hat, his overcoat and his housekeeper.

The composition An Bonnan Bui was greatly cherished. In the poem the writer voices his distress when, upon going out on a frosty morning he discovers the lovely bittern stretched on the ice-covered lake, where it had died of thirst. As a hard-drinking man, Cathal Bui determines to learn the obvious lesson: that he should drink his fill while he can, lest he too might end his days like the hapless bird and die of drought. (Don't suggest that the bird might have frozen to death or died from other causes.) The original, of course, is in Irish, but Seamus Heaney has written an English version which, he believes, captures much of the spirit and humour of the original.

The last two lines by the Nobel laureate read: So my friends and neighbours, let it flow/You'll be stood no rounds in eternity. All the above is taken from an article "The people's art: the great songs of Meath and Oriel" with many valuable references given. The author is also editor of the publication which has many distinguished contributors, headed by George Eogan. Anyone ever hear or seen a bittern?