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The Irish Language and its Literature: A Brief Overview Part 1

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Our Literary Heritage

By Gabriel Rosenstock

Greek and Latin aside, Irish is the oldest written literary language in Europe, considerably older than the dominant language in Ireland, which is, of course, English. Irish is a Celtic language. Outside influences began with the arrival of Christianity and Latin in the fourth/fifth century. Prior to the Latin alphabet, the only evidence we have of primitive Irish is markings on so-called Ogham stones. The sixth to the tenth century is the period of Old Irish or Early Irish. Our early literature is famous for its nature lyrics and poems of piety. One could argue that the oldest play written in Ireland was not in English or in Irish but in Old Irish. It has been translated by Eleanor Hull as The Colloquy between Fintan and the Hawk of Achill, a druidic verse play:

I am the grey hawk of Time,

Alone in the middle of Achill.

Since Fintan and his totemic hawk are over six thousand years old, if you believe in druidic time (as I do!), this could be the oldest play on earth.After the tenth century Old Irish becomes Middle Irish, a language which produced early satirical, fabulist works such as Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (Mac Conglinne’s Vision). The great sagas and myths were finally written down in a language spoken not only in Ireland but also in the Scottish highlands and islands and on the Isle of Man. Later, Scots Gaelic developed its own distinct language and literature. (It is easier for contemporary speakers of Irish to understand Scots Gaelic than it is to understand Old Irish). Irish myths may not be as widely known as Greek myths, but they deserve to be.

Over the centuries, Irish would absorb influence from the Vikings, the Normans and the English. Latin had given us many words previously, póg (a kiss) is from pax (peace – Christians offered each other a sign of peace with a kiss) and báisteach (rain) comes from baptizare (the water of baptism) a word that also gave us baithis (the crown of the head on which the waters of baptism are poured).The Leabhar Laighneach (Book of Leinster), a manuscript from the 12th century, lists hundreds of Irish sagas and the ollamh, or chief poet, was expected to be an authority on these and to absorb them in ways that influenced the matter and style of his own work.

The sagas and myths had qualities that would make them eminently suitable for an epic film: cattle raids, courtships, seductions, battles, slaughters, feasts, journeys, voyages external and internal – a pagan world of literally mythic proportions. The delightful frisson between the pagan and the Christian would be a characteristic of much Irish writing up until our own day. The Ulster Cycle (An Rúraíocht) gives us a heady mixture of high romance, war chariots, bravery and treachery whilst the Ossianic Cycle carries us away to the wooded hills for feasting, story-telling, romance, hunting, feats of bravery, enchanting tales and verse surrounding the enduring myths of other realities, Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth. Place naming and love of place shine through much of the early literature, reminding us of aeons past when Ireland herself was a tripartite goddess, Éire/Banba/Fódla. Sacred ground! My bilingual poem sequence Bliain an Bhandé/Year of the Goddess (first published by Dedalus and later by Original Writing for Kindle) honours this tradition.

The word for a poet in Irish, file, means ‘a seer’ and it was the poet who inherited some of the ancient functions of the druid. We have descriptions of Gaelic poets in Ireland and Scotland, which are associated with magical or even yogic practices, such as composing in the dark with a heavy stone placed on the chest, or emptying the mind (presumably) behind a waterfall. One should note an ghlámh dhígeann – poetic satire causing the victim to be covered in blisters – a remnant of druidic voodoo magic in all probability, and Shakespeare was familiar with the Irish bard’s ability to rhyme rats to death!

The early Irish monks preserved pagan literature and lore by transcribing it, in Irish, whereas in most other parts of Europe native pagan lore was being systematically wiped out by Latin. Ancient Irish literature is, therefore, a key to unlocking not only our own past but also much of the past of pre-Christian Europe, a hint at how men and women thought and behaved in times beyond our ken.Sometime between the 13th and the 15th century came Buile Shuibhne/ The Madness of Sweeney, a unique tale with poems in which a mad king is away with the birds:Like cold snow of a single night 
was the aspect of thy body ever; blue-hued was thine eye, like crystal, 
like smooth, beautiful ice…

Early Modern Irish starts around the thirteenth century and is a period famous for its schools of poetry. Over three hundred meters evolved in this sophisticated milieu. Notable poets from that period were Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh (1175-1244), Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh (1180-1250), Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh (1320-87), Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn (1550-91), Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa (1567-1617), Aodh Mac Aingil (1571-1626), Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh (1602-1640).

For the more on the Irish language and writing, and the next in this series, check back with writing.ie.

About the author

(c) Gabriel Rosenstock June 2012

Gabriel Rosenstock is an esteemed Irish writer. A member of Aosdána, he is a poet, haikuist andtranslator. Born in Kilfinane, Co. Limerick in 1949, he studied at University College Cork, where he associated with the Innti group of poets. He has written or translated more than 100 books, principally in Irish. Rogha Rosenstock, a selection from 10 different volumes of his poetry, appeared in 1994, and a selection of his children’s poetry, Dánta Duitse, was published in 1998. He also published another volume of poetry, Syójó, and A Treasury of Irish Love, a compilation. Other recent titles include the Krishnamurphy trilogy from Coiscéim, Krishnamurphy Ambaist!; Eachtraí Krishnamurphy and Tuairiscíonn Krishnamurphy ó Bhagdad, the travelogue Ólann mo Mhiúil as an nGainséis (CIC 2003), the bilingual selection Rogha Dánta/ Selected Poems (CIC) and the bilingual volume Bliain an Bhandé/ Year of the Goddess (Dedalus 2007). A former chairman of Poetry Ireland, Gabriel is a member of several international haiku associations, and holds an honorary life membership of the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association. He lives in Dublin.

Gabriel’s debut novel in English My Head is Missing is a fantastic concoction of highly original humour and lyrical poignancy.

My Head is Missing scintillates along the borders of the mythical and the real. It is set in the Irish village of Powl Duv where Shane O’Neil, formerly with Interpol and Europol, sets up the Kerry Detective Agency. Although this unique event occurs with very little fanfare, it sets in train a series of strange manifestations. Suffice to say that life is never the same again for the denizens of Powl Duv, a village where time moves slowly and to a mysterious rhythm all of its own.

Available in paperback and eBook, click here for more information and to read a sample.

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