Poem delivered at EU Enlargement Ceremony by Irish Poet Laureate Seamus Heaney
Dublin, Phoenix Park, 1 May 2004
In the Celtic calendar that once regulated the seasons in many parts of Europe, May Day, known in Irish as Bealtaine, was the feast of bright fire, the first of summer, one of the four great quarter days of the year. The early Irish Leabhar Gabhála (The Book of Invasions), tells us that the first magical inhabitants of the country, the Tuatha Dé Danaan, arrived on the feast of Bealtaine, and a ninth century text indicates that on the same day the druids drove flocks out to pasture between two bonfires. So there is something auspicious about the fact that a new flocking together of the old European nations happens on this day of mythic arrival in Ireland; and it is even more auspicious that we celebrate it in a park named after the mythic bird that represents the possibility of ongoing renewal. But there are those who say that the name Phoenix Park is derived from the Irish words, fionn uisce, meaning "clear water" and that coincidence of language gave me the idea for this poem. It's what the poet Horace might have called a carmen sæculare, a poem to salute and celebrate an historic turn in the sæculum, the age.
Beacons at Bealtaine
Phoenix Park, May Day, 2004
Uisce: water. And fionn: the water's clear.
But dip and find this Gaelic water Greek:
A phoenix flames upon fionn uisce here.
Strangers were barbaroi to the Greek ear.
Now let the heirs of all who could not speak
The language, whose ba-babbling was unclear,
Come with their gift of tongues past each frontier
And find the answering voices that they seek
As fionn and uisce answer phoenix here.
The May Day hills were burning, far and near,
When our land's first footers beached boats in the creek
In uisce, fionn, strange words that soon grew clear;
So on a day when newcomers appear
Let it be a homecoming and let us speak
The unstrange word, as it behoves us here,
Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare
Like ancient beacons signalling, peak to peak,
From middle sea to north sea, shining clear
As phoenix flame upon fionn uisce here.