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The Hidden World of Poetry - Unravelling Celtic Mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry / Adam Wyeth

The Hidden World of Poetry - Unravelling Celtic Mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry

By: Adam Wyeth

‘A gifted commentator/close reader. “A hearer and heartener.”’  SEAMUS HEANEY ‘Adam Wyeth discloses the pulse of an unbroken tradition in poems that speak absolutely to the living moment. At once guide to a rich, hidden inheritance and informed c...
ISBN 978-1-908836-56-4
Pub Date Friday, October 18, 2013
Cover Image ‘The Battle of Moytura’ by Hans Diebschlag –
Page Count 148
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‘A gifted commentator/close reader. “A hearer and heartener.”’  SEAMUS HEANEY

‘Adam Wyeth discloses the pulse of an unbroken tradition in poems that speak absolutely to the living moment. At once guide to a rich, hidden inheritance and informed celebration of the contemporary, here is a book that will illumine the mind and cheer the heart.’  Theo Dorgan

‘Wyeth’s essays excavate the intricate Celtic motifs running through his chosen poems with charm and precision. In doing so he performs the dual task of bringing less familiar work to the fore as well as illuminating new ways of reading old favourites.’   Josephine Balmer

In this unique book, Adam Wyeth unravels the many rich and varied ancient Celtic legends which run through contemporary Irish poetry. Each chapter begins with a poem by one of Ireland’s leading poets, followed by sharp, shrewd analysis of its making and references. As well as poetry’s inner workings, the reader will discover a wealth of Celtic culture – their gods, heroes and folklore – and its continuing role in shaping Ireland’s identity in the twenty-first century.
   Celtic mythology is far from a dead or peripheral part of our history; its narratives and traditions are deeply intertwined into the fabric of our daily lives. As each generation re-visits these ancient tales, our personal and expanding lives offer fresh interpretations of these age-old myths. 
     Including poems by Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Bernard O’Donoghue, Paul Durcan, John Ennis, Desmond O’Grady, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Mary O’Malley, Paula Meehan, Patricia Monaghan, Paul Muldoon, Maurice Riordan, Leanne O’Sullivan and Matthew Sweeney.

With ink paintings by Miriam Logan -

Adam Wyeth

Adam Wyeth is an award-winning and critically acclaimed poet, playwright and essayist with four previous books published with Salmon Poetry. In 2019 he received The Kavanagh Fellowship Award. His debut collection Silent Music (2011) was Highly Commended by the Forward Poetry Prize. In 2013 Salmon published his essays The Hidden World of Poetry: Unravelling Celtic Mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry, Foreword by Paula Meehan. His second collection The Art of Dying (2016) was an Irish Times Book of the Year. Wyeth’s plays have been performed across Ireland as well as in New York and Berlin. His play This Is What Happened was published by Salmon in 2019. In 2020 he received the Arts Council Ireland Literature Project Award and was selected for the Abbey Theatre Engine Room Development Programme to work on an audio production of about:blank. about:blank premiered at Dublin Theatre Festival 2021, performed by Olwen Fouere, Owen Roe and Paula McGlinchey - In 2021 he was a recipient of the Live Music & Performance Scheme for there will be no silence, a new music and text work, in collaboration with Emmy-nominated composer David Downes, performed by pianist Rolf Hind and cellist Adrian Mantu, with actors Aisling O’Sullivan and Owen Roe, produced by Pauline Ashwood. In 2021 Wyeth was selected for artist residencies at the Heinrich Böll Cottage and the Ámeto Mítico Residency along the Camino de Santiago. Wyeth lives in Dublin where he works as a freelance writer and teaches online creative writing correspondence courses at and He is an Associate Artist of the Civic Theatre, Dublin, and works on ideas and research for the RTÉ Poetry Programme.

Chapter 1 - Maurice Riordan

On the surface simplicity
but the darkest pit in me
it’s pagan poetry.


I was walking where the woods begin
with an almost sheer drop to the river 
– so that I was eye level with the tops
of nearby trees and higher than the branch
when I came upon the crow sitting there,
so close I could have touched her with a stick.
She was creaturely and unwary, as the wind
bore her away and brought her back.
We shared the same tangy woodland smells
the same malt-pale October sunlight.
Then I must have made a sound,
for she came alert and looked at me.
And in that interval before the legs
could lift her weight from the branch,
as the beak sprang open to deliver
its single rough vowel, she held me off
with a look, with a sudden realignment
of the eyes above the gorping mouth.
It is the look known to legend and folk belief
– though also an attribute useful for a bird
without talons or guile to defend it.
Then she was gone, in a few wing beats
indistinguishable from her fellows wheeling
above the trees, carrying on their business,
neighbourly and otherworldly.

Maurice Riordan was born in Lisgoold, County Cork, 1953, and educated at University College Cork where he later taught. In 2004, he was selected as one of the Poetry Society’s ‘Next Generation’ poets. He is co-editor of the anthologies, Dark Matter: Poems of Space and A Quark For Mister Mark: 101 Poems about Science. Riordan believes that poetry is one of the means through which the human impact of science can be registered. ‘One of the things that poetry does,’ he says, ‘is open the doors of perception, or another way of putting it – it increases our stock of available reality, enlarging our capacity to understand and take in things.’

This poem first appeared in a festschrift by Faber in 1995 for Ted Hughes’s sixty-fifth birthday. It was later published in Riordan’s second collection, Floods, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award. Riordan’s writing is deceptive in that it appears effortless. Michael Glover describes his voice in the Independent as having ‘a measured delivery that never strains after its effects, but lets the words speak for themselves.’

On first reading, this poem may seem not much more than an intense but otherwise straightforward encounter with a crow. But a little scratch beneath the surface of Riordan’s subtle lyricism reveals it is in fact laced with Celtic imagery and folklore. Badb (rhyming with ‘have’) comes from the Irish for the shape-shifting warrior Goddess (hence Riordan’s use of the female gender) in Celtic mythology, who often took the form of a crow (in some interpretations the raven), symbolizing the cycles of life and death, wisdom and inspiration. Sometimes known as Badb Catha (battle crow), she often caused confusion among soldiers to move the tide of battle to her favoured side. Battlefields became known in Ireland as the Land of the Badb.

Birds play a major role in Celtic mythology, figuring as divine emblems and messengers of the gods. In more recent literature we are reminded of one of England’s most renowned poets, Ted Hughes (for whom this poem is written). Hughes reinterpreted the crow in a book-length sequence of poems that is perhaps his most notable work, creating an extensive folk-mythology of his own. In his poems, crow is a kind of man-bird – undergoing various adventures in a dark and disastrous world.

But even without these facts the poem has a ghostly allure that insinuates something more. Riordan opens the poem in a conversational tone. The sound-making of the first line with the ‘W’ alliteration, ‘I was walking where the woods begin,’ has a sense of the elements about it. The ‘W’ sound creating a wind chamber in the mouth as the line is spoken, making us feel we are out there with the poet immediately – ‘eye level with the tops/ of nearby trees’.

The writing becomes alive through the use of all the five senses throughout. First of all there is sight, ‘eye level’. ‘Eye’ is mentioned three times in the poem as is ‘look’. Then touch, ‘so close I could have touched her with a stick’; and ‘woodland smells’, while ‘tangy’ suggests taste, as does the onomatopoeic, ‘gorping mouth.’ ‘Then I must have made a sound’ leads us into the crow’s beak springing ‘open to deliver its single rough vowel’ – before the flapping sound of ‘a few wing beats’. All this rich detail draws us into the piece as if we are there – looking at the crow, so close we actually feel ‘that interval before the legs/ could lift her weight from the branch’.

But another reason for the five senses is to take us to the next level, the sixth sense, which is the power of perception seemingly independent of the five senses. It is to do with our intuition, the sense of hunches and gut reactions, also known as second sight. This occurs when the crow delivers ‘its single rough vowel’. In Celtic mythology, the cry of the crow was often interpreted as the voice of the gods. It also appears when the bird and speaker meet eye to eye (‘the look known to legend and folk belief’.) This extra sensory perception brings all the mythology of Badb together. When Badb took the form of a crow it was taken as a prediction that someone was going to die.

The slowed down, zoomed-in description of the bird, brings us closer, so we become aware of the power of Badb, as she holds him off ‘with a look’. An oblique reference to the strong roles female deities played in Celtic myth. Then ‘in a few wing beats’ we see Badb retreat back to the bird world, becoming an anonymous part of the flock, ‘indistinguishable from her fellows’. 

The image of the birds ‘wheeling/ above the trees’ gives a sense that they are part of the heavens. The poet might not just be ‘wheeling’ from the rushing up of the crow, but also subconsciously linking this movement to the Celtic idea of the wheel. The ancient Celts sometimes buried model wheels with corpses as symbols of the sun to light the way of the dead to the otherworld. To the ancient Celts, the Earth was alive and sentient, both matter and consciousness. They venerated all natural phenomena, including water, trees and of course the sun – all of which are mentioned in this poem. 

The description of ‘wheeling’ also alludes to Yeats’s lyric poem, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, which explores his life and mortality. As an ardent believer in the occult and a symbolist, Yeats used images to indirectly express mystical ideas. Yeats’s description of the swans, ‘wheeling in great broken rings’, is a symbol of eternity. Ted Hughes was also a great believer in the occult, and that poetry had a form of sorcery and magic about it. The root meaning of file, the Irish name for poet, is ‘to see.’ (The Greek root of ‘poet’ is ‘to make’) The function of the file was not just to celebrate the tribe but to be divine seer as well – hence Riordan’s use of the sixth sense here. In many ancient cultures, poetry and prophecy were said to derive from the same source. This Celtic definition remains at the roots of poetry. Ibsen said, ‘to be a poet is chiefly to see.’
‘Carrying on their business’ alludes to the Crow’s connection with the spirit realms and also hints at a line from Hughes’s first masterpiece, ‘The Thought Fox.’ In the poem, Hughes describes the fox as, ‘coming about its own business.’ It is a poem about writing and being visited by the muse. ‘Carrying on’ is a pun on ‘carrion’: the decaying flesh of dead animals and also the common species of crow. Badb sometimes took the form of a carrion crow, most notably on the shoulder of the mythical warrior, Cú Chulainn, after he died in battle.

The paradoxical last line, ‘neighbourly and otherworldly’ picks up on a previous line, ‘she was creaturely and unwary,’ providing an effective juxtaposition, subtly suggesting the Celtic outlook on life after death, where the otherworld is next door to us. Three years after this poem was published Ted Hughes died, adding another dimension to the crow’s symbol of prediction. Perhaps another spooky foretelling is found in Riordan’s line ‘malt-pale October sunlight’. In poetry, the seasons are often a metaphor for age. (October here can then be seen as Hughes being in the autumn of his years.) Moreover, to the ancient Celts, autumn/winter is when the strength of the gods of darkness and the underworld grew great. Hughes died on October 28th, three days before Samhain, (pronounced ‘Sow’ en’) the eve of the Celtic New Year, the last day of October. Samhain was a time to celebrate the lives of those who had passed on. It is seen as a festival of darkness. The long barrows where dead heroes were buried in pre-Christian Celtic society are also the fairy mounds, which are supposed to open up at Samhain. 

As with many pagan and Celtic traditions, it later became amalgamated into Christianity, and is now of course popularly known as Halloween, the Eve of All Saints Day. But many of its rituals and superstitions still survive in rural parts of Britain and Ireland today. Heaney, a close friend of Hughes, said, ‘A good poem goes that little bit further and leaves you walking on air...’ or in this case – ‘wheeling above the trees’.

Review:  The Hidden World of Poetry reviewed by Bethany W. Pope for (August 2014)

Adam Wyeth’s The Hidden World of Poetry: Unravelling Celtic Mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry is a useful and intriguing introduction to both subjects mentioned in the title. The book is composed of a series of tightly-written essays that use close readings and the author’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Irish mythology to parse poems by the best-known contemporary Irish poets. The essays are interspersed with Miriam Logan’s lucid, richly atmospheric ink-paintings and each essay is introduced with a quote from an appropriate expert on the psychology of myths, from Bjork to Yeats, and Italo Calvino.

In his informative introduction, Wyeth elaborates on the close connection between Celtic culture and poetry. He writes:

The word ‘Celt’ itself is shrouded in mystery, believed by some to come from the Greek, ‘Keltoi’, meaning ‘hidden people’ – a reference to their lack of written records perhaps, and tales which were passed down through the generations by the druids and poets who studied long years to commit all their knowledge to memory.

Wyeth pays attention to language. In his analysis of poems by such luminaries as Maurice Riordan, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Patricia Monaghan he treats each word as a mine-rich ore, drawing out a golden history for every image. In his close reading of Monaghan’s brutal, beautiful reimagining of the myth of Mad Sweeney, ‘Dark of the Moon’, Wyeth follows a trail of linguistic associations that lead to a seemingly-inevitable conclusion:

The poem uses the changing phases and faces of the moon as a device for Sweeney’s state of mind. ‘Fat and fair-faced,’ ‘gleaming glance’, when he was a blood-lusty warrior; to ‘lean and stern of late.’ Shedding his ‘feathered cloak’ and running ‘naked with wolves’ alludes to another transformation. Wolves feature prominently in Celtic mythology. The  Irish word for wolf is Mac Tire meaning literally the Son of the Countryside and has associations with human transformation. In Monaghan’s own Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore she describes the wolf as a creature that could see into the otherworld. Down through the ages, the full moon has strong connotations of transformations – especially into werewolves.

Wyeth’s analysis digs much deeper than history and image; he has an ear for sound, for the music of poetry and the layers of meaning that verbal music can add to a work. Discussing Mary O’Malley’s sensual poem ‘Bean Sidhe’, Wyeth reminds us of Alexander Pope’s belief that, “sound must seem an echo to the sense.” Referring to the poem, Wyeth says that, “The sound-echoes sensuality is deepened through the physical end-rhymes that move down the poem, such as, ‘lips/hips’, ‘oh/grow’, ‘dry/eyes’.” The great strength of this book grows from the combination of technical study and elaboration on the themes of myth. Form and content are explored together and the result of this is that the reader leaves with a deeper understanding, not only of the history behind the poems, but of how the poems generate their strong effect.

There is a single glaring flaw in the formula that Wyeth has created. Between poem and analysis, Wyeth interrupts himself to force a biography of the poets whose work he is discussing. There is no structural break between the biography and the rest of the essay, biography and analysis jar against each other, and the shift in tone is distracting. He would have done better to include the authors’ bios in a group at the end of the book. When the reader looks beyond that odd choice, they will find that each chapter in this book reveals something new; a poem, a fragment of history, or a piece of a great story that has become detached from context. By focusing with such intensity on detail, on this specific word, each essay serves, seemingly paradoxically, to draw the threads of myth together, transcending time and country, so that, ‘In this sense, we can all claim a Celtic identity.’

Paula Meehan’s Introduction at the Launch of The Hidden World of Irish Poetry by Adam Wyeth
Venue: The Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1 - 25th October, 2014
You can’t judge a book by its cover is an old and sound saying, but in this case the marvellous cover is a reliable guide to what you will find within — to wit marvels, wonders, vivid encounters with the imagination of the ancestors. You will meet them in their myths and legends, with their heroes and gods; you will access their understanding of the interdependence and interpenetration of human and animal worlds, and of this world and the otherworld. 

Adam Wyeth reminds us that one etymology for, or source of, the word Celtic is Hidden. So the book is essentially sixteen individuated forays into the minds, inspirations and compostional habits of contemporary poets. Each of the sixteen poems under his forensic gaze yields up its hidden treasure trove of poem lore and myth lore and what are the myths but the poems of the ancestors?  Each essay can be read on its own but together they braid into a whole and they too are interdependent and interanimate each other.
We apprehend in these elegent readings what I call our aboriginal mind, so crucial as an antidote to the growing institutionalized mind which marks and, I believe, afflicts so much of our human culture in an age when we are the most dangerous species on the planet, a danger even to ourselves. The institutionalized mind keeps wittering on about accountability and transparancy till those words have lost their meaning and what they actually represent now is erosion of democracy and increase of bureaucracy. The institutionalized mind – devoid of a shred of common sense will, if left unchecked, drive turbo development and exploitation of dwindling resources to the point where we will make this home planet incapable of sustaining us. 

This book connects us back to a Celtic dreamtime through mythology which is, no more, no less than the poetry of the ancesters. It reaffirms the vestigial and, paradoxically, central role of ancestral thought in contemporary Irish poetry in general, and in this generous selection from contemporary makers in particular. It illustrates the continuity of the trade back through the technologies, virtual and print, into the oral tradition. We can hear back to the bronze age culture of the Milesians, and read back to the first writing down of the myths and legends in the 6th to the 11th centuries. So Adam’s book is both nourishment  and boon for readers in the English language who might not have access to the lore in the mother tongue. 

One of the unexpected gifts of this book for me has been that it has encouraged me to go back to the source – to the mother tongue. The huge number of the ancient manuscripts that are being digitized means we can look at the very texts themselves that carried the oral tradition into the written tradition. For example the site Irish Script on Screen, or the digitized holdings of  the Royal Irish Academy, and many more such sites, allow us access from our own armchairs to heretofore remote and precious, sometimes unavailable for reasons of conservation, ancient manuscripts. A lovely irony that the machine age with its digital memory restores to us a version of our earliest imaginings.

Adam Wyeth is exactly the kind of reader poets dream of. Deeply intuitive, interested in everything to do with words. Pasternak remarked that each word comes to us carrying all its ghosts; Adam, as a learned and productive poet himself, respects those ghosts and understands the shamanic heft, the magic potential of each word, and the spell-like nature of a line of poetry, each word and its host of etymological ghosts in its fated place. Adam quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson who says “Language is fossil poetry.” And becuase he is a fine poet himself he inspires confidence: he opens up, and is an impeccable guide to, the craftworking and deliberate shaping of each poet, and the poetry lore is as erudite as the folk lore. He gets the anvil music, the fluent song of water.

He brings a wealth of reference, historic, archeological and literary to his readings of the chosen poems. And they are read with love, respect and enthusiasm. He opened up new readings for me in poems I thought I knew well – Leanne O’ Sullivan’s ‘Promise’, Paul Muldoon’s ‘Mayfly’. Indeed he opened up new readings for me in my own poem and reaffirmed what I have long suspected — that the maker of the poem is not necessarily the poem’s most informed or nuanced reader. One can be blind, as the poem’s maker, to what is blindingly obvious to the poem’s reader. 

Ancient history is by its very nature highly speculative; and while I might argue with some of Adam’s speculations I applaud wholeheartedly the verve and coherence of those speculations. A lovely word itself – speculate. One of its meanings is to look at from a vantage point and that expresses exactly what Adam has achieved.
 Another, though by no means the least, of its achievements is, to be a kind of core sampling through the living generations of Irish poets writing in English, which might be termed our stepmother tongue, with one representative from the mother tongue. Informative as to backgrounds, publications, contexts for writing, it is a solid introduction to a generous helping of beautiful poems.  

And the placing of these recently made poems — their ink hardly dry, their soundwaves hardly digitized: by placing them against the earliest stories on the island it frees them of any individuated ego driven energies of the ‘poetry bizniz’ and restores them to their rightful place in a long continuum of makers, native and incoming, who are known to us mostly as the genius ‘Anonymous’.
I convey my gratitude at being placed in such company, both of this world and of the otherworld.
Paula Meehan (Ireland Professor of Poetry)  25th of October 2013  

Other Titles from Adam Wyeth

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