The Irish Language and its Literature: A Brief Overview Part 2 | Magazine | Interviews | Our Literary Heritage

By Gabriel Rosenstock

We know little about the poet, Aonghus Fionn Ó Dálaigh, known as Aonghus na Diagachta (‘Aonghus of the Divinity)’. He flourished in the late sixteenth century. Over fifty poems survive, mostly of a deeply religious nature. He had a school of poetry in Duhallow, Co. Cork, at a time – from 1530 onwards – when ordinances were being issued to destroy the native literary classes (“Yryshe minstrels, rymours, shannaghes & bardes”).

O Christ, protect me!

How can I know your power?

Your peace I need now

Branch of fairest flower!

O child of Bethlehem

Please do not be hard!

Ruler of all

On Sunday be my guard.

On Monday, when you judge me

Save me from all harm,

Though angered by your wounds

Stretch out your arm.

On Tuesday, lovely Son

Who never shirked pain

Let the world’s kings stand aside

Be my gain!

On Thursday, God the Father,

Do not deny your face,

Your pain stirs love within me

Seal your grace.

O Trinity, stand by me

Without you we are dust,

On Friday, hold back your anger,

Help us, you must.

On Saturday, save me!

My deeds leave me in danger,

Do not tax me too much,

I am no stranger.

Son of the Father, help me,

Only Son most high,

Pardon us, in spite of all,

I cry.

This, too, was the period in which Anglo-Norman influence coloured native love poetry with the sensibility of amour courtois. (See some superb examples of this genre in A Treasury of Irish Love, which I compiled for Hippocrene Books, New York). But Cromwellian terror was on the horizon and those poets who did not perish by the sword would be left homeless and bereft.

Gaelic Ireland began to decline with the collapse of the native aristocracy at the beginning of the seventeenth century and the literature reflected this cataclysmic upheaval. Micheál Ó Cléirigh (1575-1645) and his team of scribes gave us the florid Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (The Annals of Ireland), and more pseudo-history from the Counter-Reformationist Geoffrey Keating/Seathrún Céitinn came in the form of Forus Feasa ar Éirinnand was widely circulated in manuscript. Pseudo-history may be the wrong term entirely. Céitinn was trained in France and his aim was to write a history that countered the story of Ireland as seen through the eyes of the conqueror.

Many poets had lost their patrons. Black and bitter was the ink which often ran from the pens of such highly accomplished poets as Piaras Feiritéar, (1600–1653), Pádraigín Haicéad (1600-54), Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (1625-98) and Aogán Ó Rathaille (1670-1728). This was the beginning of the aisling genre, the visionary poem in which Ireland appears to the poet as a muse or goddess offering one last glimmer of hope.

By the 16th century Catholics were forbidden to publish in Ireland and so we find that the first publishing house for Irish-language texts was not in Ireland at all but in the Franciscan college, St. Anthony’s, in Louvain; it was in Antwerp that the first Irish-language catechism was published. But the first book in Irish was in 1564 and was the work of Protestants, an Irish translation of John Knox’s Liturgy by the Bishop of the Hebrides.

Colonial English law in Ireland was not sympathetic to native ways but other calamities were to cause even further damage to the fabric of the Gaelic world, resulting in a major language shift in Ireland. In the mid 1840s the potato famine struck, millions died and millions more emigrated. Even great Catholic leaders such as Daniel O’Connell, whose aunt is said to have composed the great Gaelic lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (The Lament for Art O’Leary), even he, a native speaker, addressed the ‘monster meetings’ in English. The Church, in the main, saw Irish, too, as a badge of poverty and English was now the language of opportunity as the British Empire grew, taking over huge sections of the globe.

Among the poets born in the eighteenth century or earlier are Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (c.1680-1756), Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta (c.1647 -1753), Peadar Ó Doirnín (1704-68), Aindrias Mac Craith (1708-95), Donnchadh Ruadh Mac Con Mara (1715-1810), Art Mac Cumhaigh (1738-1773), Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1748-84), Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill (1748- c.1800), Brian Merriman (1747-1805), Antaine Raiftearaí (1784-1835). Many of their songs and hundreds of anonymous songs from that period survive and are sung to this day. A prose work from the seventeenth century, Parlaimint Clainne Tomáis (Clann Tomás’s Parliament), was a very popular parody of Irish story telling and exists in several manuscripts.

Irish looked like it was facing inevitable decline and possible extinction by the end of the nineteenth century; indeed, the number of native speakers – over four million in pre-Famine times – had shrunk terribly. Children were punished if they were heard speaking Irish. A combination of oppression and the concomitant self-loathing which accompanies colonisation saw a transition to English, often facilitated by a new type of clergy heavily influenced by Jansenism, a form of Puritanism, which sought to bury Gaelic ways as remnants of pagan superstition and ‘decadence’. It was then that various groups, composed of nationalists as well as scholars, writers, romantics and antiquarians saw that something unique and ancient was on its last legs, and the revival movement came into its own. It came into being when the British Empire was at its height but noises of dissent were beginning to be heard, a clamour for political and cultural freedom. And thus it was that after centuries of being second-class citizens in their own land, the Irish engaged in a struggle for freedom and when it was won, at last, those who had played a part in the Irish language revival were often, but not exclusively by any means, those who had also fought for political freedom. The language was therefore sanctified and perceived to be a key to the process of nation building and today the language enjoys the status of being the first of the two official languages of Ireland.

But what is the reality of the situation? The reality is that too much was expected of the educational system. It was hoped that the education system alone could produce active bilinguals but it did not. Active language planning would require the creation of large areas of the real world in which the language could be used. Is there any point in teaching someone how to order a bag of chips – mála sceallóg le do thoil – if the man in the chip van doesn’t know what language you are speaking? Today, few children, unless educated by Irish-medium schools, or reared by Irish-speaking parents, whether in Irish-speaking areas or elsewhere, can use or are willing to use the language in everyday circumstances. (Polish is more widespread than Irish in Ireland).

The fact of the matter is that English is the dominant instrument of commerce, culture and entertainment. Less than 2% of the staff of the Department of Education is fluent in the language. That says something, I’m afraid. The various reports, commissions and action plans for the language were not acted upon. We now have a recent 20-year plan for the language. Will it work?

And yet, it is fair to say that Irish-language culture punches far beyond its weight and in a cocoon of its own can even be said to thrive. But it is a cocoon nonetheless. There are a number of language organisations and the main one, Foras na Gaeilge, is a North-South body, something unimaginable before the recent Belfast Good Friday Agreement, which saw closer cooperation between the two jurisdictions. There is a Language Commissioner since 2003, whose task is to see that people who wish to have government services in Irish can have these services provided for them. Since 2007, Irish has been an official working language of the EU. (What took us so long?)

About the author

(c) Gabriel Rosenstock June 2012

Gabriel Rosenstock is an esteemed Irish writer. A member of Aosdána, he is a poet, haikuist and translator. 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.


Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books