Archive for May, 2009

A Heinrich Heine Poem

May 25, 2009

I talked about Heine a few posts back:  a great German poet of the 1st half of the 19th century (1797-1856).  I plan to try my hand at a translation of another Heine poem; for now, Edwin Morgan’s translation of this short one:

by Heinrich Heine

Hat man viel, so wird man bald
Noch viel mehr dazu bekommen.
Wer nur wenig hat, dem wird
Auch das wenige genommen.

Wenn du aber gar nichts hast,
Ach, so lasse dich begraben—
Denn ein Recht zum Leben, Lump,
Haben nur, die etwas haben.

Translation, by Edwin Morgan:
“Hoo the Warld Wags”

Some hae mickle, and to thaim
Mickle soon sall grow to muckle.
He that hasna but a maik
Sall tine his puckle’s hinmaist pickle.

Yince ye’ve tint the last bawbee,
Ach man, hang yersel on a widdie!
Nane but thaim as has, can hae;
Life, ye gowk, life disna need ye.

Does the Scottish translation also need a translation?

(mickle: a lot; muckle: a really big lot; maik: a halfpenny; tine: lose;   puckle: a little bit; pickle: a really little bit; yince: once; tint:lost;  bawbee: halfpenny; widdie: a rope; gowk:fool)


Speaking of birds…

May 22, 2009

There was a young lady in white
Who looked out on the depths of the night.
But the birds of the air
Filled her heart with despair
And distressed the young lady in white.
— by Edward Lear

The scaldeens

May 22, 2009

Leaving aside poetry & Irish matters for the moment:  we had an interesting event recently.   A mother cardinal decided to build a nest and start her family in a shrub just outside our kitchen window.

Was this a good decision on her part?  She and her mate were upset about the big creatures who kept opening and closing the blinds– staring at her! — and rudely going in and out the front door, making her very nervous (we almost begged her pardon each time).  But she persisted.  Eggs were laid, and the babies hatched!  Then both parents were kept very busy indeed feeding the hungry little mouths.

And one morning Lynn got me up to tell me that one little fellow had fallen out of the nest, prompting much fluttering and chipping from the distressed parents.  Or maybe he’d just jumped out? for when I managed to scoop him up and put him back, he was soon out again:


We think there were three hatchlings, and soon all three were out and hopping around, giving the parents  fits.  We agonized with them– for one thing, a number of our neighbors have outdoor cats; and we shooed away many a stalking cat found roaming about like the Devil in  St. Peter’s epistle, going about  “like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour”.  In the cat’s case mewing, not roaring, and seeking to devour baby birds and suchlike…

Here’s the father in the shrub, looking for his offsprings:


I’m sorry to say that, as far as we could see, none of the fledglings were to be found anywhere in the vicinity the next day.  But I hope at least one survived.  We’ve had quite a few cardinals in our back yard, and most years we see youngsters who have made it, fluffing up their feathers and fluttering their little wings, chirping to their harassed parents:  “feed me, feed me!”  Until, presumably, the parents finally tell them “you’re on your own now.”

When I was a small boy in the Irish countryside we were always looking for nests of birds, to see the “scaldeens” as we called them.  Our elders told us that if you touched the nest or eggs or babies the parents would abandon the nest– which isn’t usually true, but probably helped keep us from harassing the poor birds and making it happen.

I don’t know the origin of the term “scaldeen”– was it a purely County Leitrim term?  In the Old Norse language “The skald was a member of a group of poets” (thank you, Wikipedia).  And of course the Vikings left their mark on Ireland some centuries befor the English.  Perhaps the Irish added the diminutive  and made it scaildín (scaldeen) to denote a little singer?  I’ll have to consult others in the Irish diaspora on this weighty matter.

On 2 Poets

May 17, 2009

Using my 2 years of college German, I’ve enjoyed reading German lyric poetry over the years (particularly when  a handy English translation is included).  I have a battered old Doubleday paperback, edited by Angel Flores:  An Anthology of German Poetry From Hoelderlin to Rilke.

My favorite of the included poets is Heinrich Heine– his sardonic wit appeals to me, and I like the fact that perhaps the greatest German poet was a Jew!

I may even try my hand at  translating one or two Heine lyrics myself.  But I’ll never rise to the level of Edwin Morgan, whose “braid Scots” translations are great poems in their own right.  Today I looked up Edwin Morgan and found a website dedicated to “Scotland’s greatest poet” .

More on this later…

Coming to America: How It Began

May 12, 2009

As I said earlier, both my parents had lived in the US when they were young—before they met, married, and began a family on a small farm in County Leitrim.  So what inspired them to pick up and emigrate with four young children in 1948?  My father was then 48 years old, my mother 40.

At some time I will tell more about our parish of Aughavas and our little townland of Graigeog.  I prefer “Graigeog” to the usual spelling “Gradoge”, by the way, because the latter would lead to one pronouncing it “grad-oge”; we always said “grad -joge”; it means “village” or “hamlet”.  But leaving all that aside …

Anyway, why did we emigrate?  Briefly:  my uncle,  John Francis Kenny, played a crucial role in this.  (I may have a lot more to say about Father John in the future).  After studying for the priesthood he went to the US in 1930, and was a priest in rural Missouri.  He enlisted as a chaplain in the US army  during the war (against his bishop’s wishes).


In 1945 he was with the American occupation forces in Germany, and somehow managed to get a pass from the Seventh Army commander, Gen. Alexander Patch, to visit his family in Ireland for Christmas.  There were complications because Eire had been neutral during the war; which may be why I remember him as wearing a funny white checked suit (not a uniform), always in a hurry to see and talk to everybody—at full volume!  So there were always crowds of people around.  He chain-smoked his American cigarettes, tossing them away when only half-consumed; and youngsters would pick up the “fags” and keep them from going to waste.

I might mention that Fr. John made quite a sensation when he told the neighbors what it was like to liberate a German concentration camp—which certainly dampened some of the pro-German feeling which went along with continuing bitterness toward England.  One item:  my brother John remembered him telling our father how he and the other officers had to take over the job of burying dead, starved prisoners (I think this was at Dachau?) – because the enlisted men assigned to that duty went berserk and began shooting the captured guards.  I guess it helped to unload this on his oldest brother; my dad could be a good and comforting listener.

But the other thing he talked to my dad about was the need to emigrate.  Fr. John probably had the shock of many a returning Irishman in those days, of seeing anew how backward his native land really was.  John F. Kenny could always be very persuasive when he was sure he was right!  And from that followed our emigration from Ireland, though not until nearly three years later.

For a man of 48 with a 40-year-old wife, starting over in a new country with four young children must have been a daunting task—even with the strong support of his priestly brother, and some (I think reluctant) promises of support from a relative already in the US who was in a position to help.  I wonder if my dad was familiar with the mournful old song of emigration:

A Stór Mo Chroí, in the stranger’s land
There is plenty of wealth and wailing.
Whilst gems adorn the great and the grand
There are faces with hunger paling.

But he and our mother made the fateful decision for us all.  We departed, leaving the little farm to my uncle Peter Kenny.  And it all worked out.

America, 1948: My sister remembers

May 5, 2009

From my sister Pat, who was 6 1/2  in Oct. 1948:

“New York: Going out on the roof and being amazed. But also feeling very closed in and trapped with all the buildings and no grass. I am a farm girl at heart.
“Immigration: standing in the lines for hours with all our stuff and being so tired, and Mom being worried that she or Daddy would not pass the physical exam. I think they still did the eyelid exam for something or other then.”

Very vivid– I hardly remembered any of that.  Did they do a test for exposure to  TB?  I always test positive for that, so if they didn’t it’s just as well– imagine having to go back for that!

TB was still pretty common in Ireland at that time– the new government, with Sean MacBride’s political partner Dr. Noel Browne as health minister, finally changed that.  There’s a fascinating Wikipedia article on Browne.  I’m glad our dad campaigned for his party just before we left.  Thanks for your input, Pat.  (You see how I always get sidetracked on another topic!)

To America, 1948 (Part 4: In New York)

May 4, 2009

My mother’s American-born cousin Mary Kelly was married to Pat Treacy, an immigrant.  It was funny to hear her very strong NY accent alongside his soft Galway brogue.  They lived in an apartment at 127 East 95th Street in Manhattan; and that’s where we stayed, for a week or so, before going on to St. Louis.

As mentioned previously, my mother had come to New York as a young immigrant in 1927; and my dad had also lived there in the early ’20s before going on to St. Louis— on Shakespeare Avenue in the Bronx, easy to remember.  Both of them had many friends and relatives in NY.  Besides the Treacys there was Mom’s brother Tom Conboy and his family; a number of O’Rourke relatives on the Kenny side; another, an older Michael Kenny living in White Plains.  And some Farleys, and other Aughavas people.  Plus old friends of our parents.  (We kids didn’t know who was who, didn’t ask, and our parents didn’t tell us; or if they did we soon forgot.)

But there were visits and parties!  Our dad took John and I to see that other Michael Kenny in White Plains—I wish I knew that relationship, obviously it was important to them.  And the Treacys had a party too—I think on our first evening there.  In that crowd in the little apartment (much like Ralph Cramden’s place in Jackie Gleason’s “The Honemooners”) I remember telling Mary Treacy that I was thirsty and would like a drink of water.  “Sure, you can get one at the kitchen sink.”  The sink?  I didn’t know what a kitchen sink was—we’d gotten our water from the well.  And the “sink” at home in Graigeog:  that was the oozing place, at the foot of the farmyard, where we’d dump garbage.  But I soon adjusted to running water and American plumbing.

In that apartment, from a window, we looked down one morning on American kids playing stickball in the street (it must have been on Sunday).  That was new and fascinating.  And one night there was some kind of political rally going on down there, with a crowd, and a vehicle broadcasting a speech.  Dewey or Truman? or probably some NY pol speaking for one or the other (it was just a few weeks before the 1948 election).  We didn’t know anything about US politics.  Should we be for the Democrats or the Republicans?  Maybe it was 6-year-old Patsy who said “well, Daddy’s a Republican!”  But of course we had a lot to learn.

With the Treacys we went to the beach (even though it was October).  This was Rockaway Beach, sometimes nicknamed “The Irish Riviera” (according to Terry Winch).  This was a trip by subway, another exciting experience.  I remember a shooting gallery, stereoscopic pictures and such carnival-like attractions, but not the ocean on that gray autumn day.  I conclude with this picture of a young immigrant boy, all dressed up, in what’s hardly a very scenic spot.