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The Irish Language and its Literature: A Brief Overview Part 3

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Our Literary Heritage

By Gabriel Rosenstock

There are a number of Irish-language festivals running in Ireland such as Oireachtas na Gaeilge – IMRAM is another, a literary festival with an eclectic multi-media approach which is outward- and inward-looking at the same time. It seeks out venues and creates events not normally associated with the language and by so doing allows the language and its literature to breathe freely outside of the cocoon. IMRAM has also acted in an advisory capacity for English-language festivals and for events which sought an Irish language component or which were advised that they needed one! IMRAM’s bilingual website has links to language and literature sites and the archives from 2004 until 2012 give us a glimpse of the vibrancy of the current literary scene. Vibrant, yes, but fragile too…

For centuries, many of our English-language writers had gone abroad, since the time of Goldsmith, and later Shaw, Wilde, Beckett, Stoker, Joyce. One of these great writers, George Moore, suggested that his short stories be translated into Irish as a model for a new generation of Irish-language writers. Somebody must have thought the idea had some merit because a publishing house established by the state, An Gúm, where I worked for over a quarter of a century, began to churn out literature in translation at a fairly impressive rate. Most of this was already available in English, however – Dickens, Conan Doyle, Conrad and so on. But it did provide some funds for writers and translators in the three major dialects. Of course, nothing like Madame Bovary would have been translated as the Church kept a keen eye on publications, as it did on everything else.

The translation scheme petered out. Had it served its purpose? Had too many works of little merit been translated? Whatever the reason, the end of the scheme meant that a ‘translation culture’ would never re-occur in a planned, systematic manner and this has been something that individual literary translators bemoan today and with very good cause. Ireland Literature Exchange/Idirmhalartán Litríocht Éireann, which promotes the two literatures of Ireland in translation and recently celebrated its 1,500 title in translation, does not support translation from Irish to English or English to Irish. The body that promotes publishing in Irish, Foras na Gaeilge, does not support translations from English to Irish either. But where are we going to get Irish translators with a knowledge of Estonian or Macedonian or Kurdish? They are few and far between. What is wrong with translating Kurdish literature into Irish via the medium of English? A talented, sensitive translator will be able to accomplish this. Must we wait until we find that desirable but elusive person who is perfectly fluent in Kurdish and Irish?

We have a translation into Irish (albeit truncated) of Don Quijote, which came to us via English. Indeed, it was this translator, a priest, who arguably started the modern literary movement in Irish. An tAthair Peadar (Father Peter), as he was generally referred to, published a Faustian tale in 1907,Séadna, itself a reworking of folklore, and established the ordinary (though often extraordinary) speech of the common folk as the literary standard (as opposed to a style based on that of the seventeenth century historian Keating, mentioned above). Here it should be noted that the quality of Irish folk tales often has a literary aura about it, a richness of style, characters galore, moving or witty dialogue. It is fair to say that, apart from perhaps Estonia and Latvia, there is no greater collection of folklore today in the West than that which has been collected by the Irish Folklore Commission.

The new respect shown to folklore resulted in a literary volcano describing ways of life which were soon to be things of the past and the autobiographical writings from the Blasket Islands, off the South West coast, are folk classics of real stature. Ó Criomhthain’s An tOileánach (The Islandman) and other works, and Ó Súilleabháin’s Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) are captivating accounts of a vanishing island civilisation, famously caricatured by the great Myles in An Béal Bocht.

One of these Kerry classics by the eponymous Peig (Peig Sayers) was a school text for people of my generation, a text that failed to properly represent the liveliness and wit which Peig undoubtedly possessed. It appeared to modern students to be something of a long whine (possibly sowing the seeds for later miserable Irish memoirs) and did not contribute to an enthusiasm for Irish in schools.

There’s a sadness, a sentimentality and a wistfulness in some of the poetry and prose of 1916 leader Patrick Pearse, another writer familiar to school children; nevertheless, he has a high place as one of the first of our modern stylists. An tAthair Peadar and Pearse are relatively easy to read; two writers from Connemara would prove to be much more challenging, Pádraic Ó Conaire and Máirtín Ó Cadhain, novelists and short story writers who were familiar with Continental literature. And it showed. Ó Cadhain in particular is lingustically challenging and became famous for a novel Cré na Cille situated in a graveyard, all the characters speaking from the bowels of the earth. It was recently made into an award-winning film and it records a richness of language that is no longer the norm in Connemara.

Donegal, too, had writers of note, Seosamh Mac Grianna and his brother Seamas Ó Grianna. (They disagreed about a number of things, including what their surname was!) Both writers have a loyal following to this day. Another Donegal writer, Micí Mac Gabhann, was to write about his adventures during the Klondyke gold rush.

Drama has been a hit and miss affair. For centuries it didn’t exist, at least not in the sense that we understand drama today. Drama requires a theatre, sponsorship to cover costs and overheads; drama requires audiences, actors, even a touring policy. What theatres existed in Ireland mainly served the colonial or the Anglo-Irish classes of the Pale. An Taibhdhearc in Galway and An Damer in Dublin had their short-lived glory days but the National Theatre (The Abbey and The Peacock) has done precious little in recent years to foster and develop Irish-language theatre. Radio drama is also in decline. TV drama has seen some success in Irish with the establishment of TG4, the Irish-language television station, but whether much of it belongs to a discussion on literature or not is a moot point.

Poetry and prose are thriving in spite of the odds and there are at least a dozen writers in each category that belong to world literature. Of course, book production is limited to fairly obvious genres and to list the amount of subjects which find sparse treatment in Irish would take us all day. There is little in the area of Arts and Cinema, Business, Do It Yourself, Gardening, Philosophy, Politics (whether national or international), Mind, Body, Spirit (in spite of the fact that books on Celtic Spirituality sell in their tens of thousands throughout the world) and so on and so forth.

Some critics bemoan the gradual spread of a thinned-out language, a pidgin Irish which even 40 years ago would baffle a native speaker. Writing inFáinne an Lae (1.10.1898) the aforementioned Father Peter (An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire) stated: ‘If all, or nearly all of our speakers can be made readers of the language it is essentially saved.’ He would have to qualify that statement today if he allowed his ears to be assaulted by what’s called ‘Gaelscoilis’, Irish-medium school’s argot, a language that sounds like Irish but is often polluted by English syntax and vocabulary and frequently dished out in distorted pronunciation and even in an American accent.

The so-called INNTI generation of the 60s and 70s were mainly poets writing, for the most part, in an acquired language, i.e. Irish was our second language; but we made sure to go back to the living springs of the language in the Gaeltacht before attempting to modernise it or bring it, playfully kicking, into new urban and international contexts.

What frequently arises is the question: should Irish-language literature be compared to Irish literature in English, or indeed to any other literature, or must different criteria be applied since the languages and the literatures evolved along different lines? We’ll leave that question aside for some other day. But it does give rise to a number of important questions.

About the author

(c) Gabriel Rosenstock July 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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