Tracing the Past that is Never Over: I am Lewy by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction
I am Lewy

By Mícheál Ó hAodha

An interview with Irish-language writer and translator Mícheál Ó hAodha on his recent translation of Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s modernist novel An Lomnachtán (I am Lewy).

What is the novel An Lomnachtán – recently translated into English for the first time and published as I am Lewy about?

I Am Lewy is a beautifully written novel as set in a market town in the west of Ireland during the turbulent 1920s and reveals the inner, imaginative world of a six-year old boy, Loodeen Winders, whose family, like so many other Irish families of the era, is a diverse blend of inherited loyalties and traditions, Protestant and Catholic, Irish and English, working-class and aspiring middle-class, town and country, poor and rich. The dark cloud of violence, both real and imagined looms over everything in the six-year-old Lewy’s life: the Republicans are on the attack; the Free State soldiers patrol the front of the Workhouse. Loodeen’s father, who drives a taxi driver has suffered severe injuries fighting for the British Army during the war but is trying to keep “in” with everyone in the local community irrespective of the bitterness that serves as a background to the political situation so’s he can keep get occasional work  mother working away into the early hours in the kitchen sewing clothes. At the same time, young Loodeen tries to work out the differences of class and creed that congregate every day in the market square, the diversity of people who intermingle at every fair, show and public spectacle – from the “bullockocracy” of the wealthier farming class to the piano-nuns and from the townies ( the group he belongs to himself) to the orphans – ‘slobbery, weak and raggy.’ in his class at school. Young Loodeen experiences innocent encounters or sexual awakenings in the company of  Violet and ‘Brazenface’ Rosaleen McInally when they go to play in the woods nearby, even as he tries to come to terms with the death of his beloved grandfather and the legacy of physical and mental suffering that the men in his family have experienced as a consequence of fighting in two brutal world wars. Loodeen’s escape from these dark thoughts comes through music and art- (the “Jazzdrums”) the imaginative world he creates with the regular arrival of the travelling fit-ups, the circus and the fair.

You have translated a range of books from the Irish, including writers from very different backgrounds traditions and Irish-speaking regions. For a translator, do you think it is important to know a lot about life or the background of the writer whom you are translating? What do we know about Ó Tuairisc, the writer.

I am Lewy

I think it is important to know as much as you can about the writer in question when you’re translating their work. While he belongs to a different generation from my own, there was a good deal in Ó Tuairisc’s background that I could relate to. He wasn’t born in the Gaeltacht and language wasn’t his mother tongue or the language of his local community. Ó Tuairisc was born Eugene Rutherford Watters in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, in April 1919, the eldest of two sons and two daughters of Thomas Watters, shoemaker, who had been wounded in 1916 while fighting with the Connaught Rangers at the Somme, and Maud Watters who, in addition to being a homemaker, worked a range of jobs to supplement the family income including as a seamstress and sometime clairvoyant. Ó Tuairisc went to St Joseph’s College, Garbally in Ballinasloe where he was noted for his facility at languages and his wide reading across a range of European literatures. As with many of his contemporaries however, the economic climate and family circumstances meant that he was unable to take up a university scholarship he had garnered. Ó Tuairisc was nothing if not determined however and he managed to attend St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra and qualify as a primary teacher in 1939. He later joined the army and taught National School in both Rathfarnham and Finglas where he worked until 1961, while simultaneously studying Humanities in UCD in the evenings and writing prolifically in both Irish and English.

Why were you interested in translating Eoghan Ó Tuairisc?

Because he was a Galwayman firstly – like myself, I suppose! – But also because his contribution to the literary canon (in both Irish and English) has yet to be fully appreciated in my opinion. He wasn’t a “committee man” or someone who was obsessed with the Irish language as a “cause” I suppose. This, combined with the fact that he wasn’t born or brought up in the Gaeltacht meant that he was probably always on the margins of the Irish language movement in that era to a certain extent. And yet he created some of the most original and striking literature produced in Irish during the 20th century.

Not only did he interrogate inherited and accepted traditions and narratives in relation to Irish nationalism and culture when it wasn’t fashionable to do so, but he also pushed new boundaries in the Irish language in an era where it wasn’t popular to do so and I think he found himself marginalised to a large degree which is a real shame given his literary talent and abilities.

A central plank of his life’s work was to ensure that the Irish language re-assumed the place it warranted within the European literary and cultural tradition as a whole.

Whether by chance or by design (see: the translation of Seosamh Mac Grianna’s Mo Bhealach Féin as This Road of Mine –

I’ve always been attracted to writers who stood outside the “establishment” and were willing and brave enough to interrogate or even contradict the fashionable or “accepted” narratives or discourses that define Irish identity and society.

Also, I think Ó Tuairisc was a true poet in both Irish and English.

How relevant are the tropes and themes explored in I am Lewy to modern-day Ireland of today and the multi-ethnic generation growing up in Ireland today?

By a strange irony, I think that the themes explored in I am Lewy are as fresh and as pertinent today as they were in when he first wrote the Irish-language original An Lomnachtán, all those years ago. In fact, we are only just beginning to explore them in any great depth today.

Who are we (the Irish as a people) really? What is Irishness? What is our relationship with Britain and the British given the fact that the Irish and the English have been our neighbours and foes and with whom (like it or not!) we have traded and intermarried for centuries. In the UK census of 2001, over a quarter of people in Britain claimed Irish ancestry. That’s a lot of people! And ironically, such questions around collective memories or narratives and inherited myths and truths as passed on within different families and regional traditions have come back to haunt us in recent times across Ireland, both north and south.

Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s novel was published exactly 40 years on the anniversary of the Galway writer’s death?

Yes. This was a coincidence in many ways, but a very nice coincidence nonetheless.  Bullaun Press is a new and exciting departure in Irish publishing as founded by Bridget Farrell in Galway a year or so ago. Bridget is a talented linguist in her own right and particularly adept in both French and Russian. Her vision is that the new press become an advocate for translators in coming years, particularly translators working in Ireland.

In a strange way, the publication of Ó Tuairisc’s novel couldn’t be more timely or appropriate, given the past decade or so, the decade of commemorations relating to the independent Irish state’s first 100 years, the foundation of the state and the tragedy of the Civil War. Tragically, the child’s view of violence as elucidated in I am Lewy echoes one of the worst aspects of Europe’s history as a whole during the course of the 20th century.

There are strong resonances of the current war in the Ukraine also in Ó Tuairisc’s book also, particularly as regards how war impacts on ordinary people and tears many families apart, – particularly families of mixed traditions and ethnicities/minorities, as is the case with some of the central characters inÓ Tuairisc’s book.

Why do you think translation is still important today, particularly translation from minority or endangered languages such as Irish?

Translation is crucial for dialogue with other cultures and traditions and to improve understanding and acceptance between peoples. There are still many large areas in the world, the Asian subcontinent being just one example, which we in the West  know very little about and whose languages and literatures have yet to be valued or made visible in translation at all. With all the talk of multiculturalism and diversity, it remains a major irony that on an island as small as Ireland – where two completely different cultures and traditions have co-existed for centuries – just a handful of works have been translated as of yet from one of those languages and traditions – i.e. the Irish language. This is despite the fact that some of the best writers of the 20th century wrote in Irish – Seosamh Mac Grianna, Seán Ó Ríordáin, Máirtín Ó Direáin, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc to name but a few. Hopefully I am Lewy will contribute towards a better engagement and respect between the Irish and English language traditions and a greater appreciation of much-neglected Irish-language writers like Eoghan Ó Tuairisc worldwide.

(c) Mícheál Ó hAodha

I am Lewy will receive its Limerick launch on Friday 31st March, 6.30pm at Quay Books, Limerick. See here for full details.

About I am Lewy:

Cover of the book I am Lewy by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc.Translated by Mícheál Ó hAodha

Loodeen Winders – Lewy, six years of age – is growing up sharp. It’s the turbulent early 1920s in a market town in the west of Ireland. Free State soldiers patrol in front of the Workhouse. Lewy’s worried about his father’s car being commandeered again. The nuns loom over Lewy and his classmates, amongst them the orphans – those shadowy figures, ‘slobbery and weak and raggy’.

Encounters with Violet and ‘Brazenface’ Rosaleen McInally in the woods play on Lewy’s mind, even while he’s trying to fathom the death of his beloved Grandfather. For a treat he goes behind the screen at the Pictures where his father creates the sound effects with his ‘Jazzdrums’ for the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Lewy’s mother works magic on the sewing machine and picks up the pieces when things get out of hand – like the time he breaks his arm walking the wire in their backyard circus.

On the fortieth anniversary of Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s death, this is the first appearance in English of the frank, funny voice of Lewy, a vital witness of his place and time.

About the author

Mícheál Ó hAodha was born in Galway and grew up between the west of Ireland and the north of England. He is a prolific translator as well as an Irish-language poet and writer with a particular interest in the Irish-speaking minority of the west of Ireland, Travellers and Irish emigrants. Two of his most recent acclaimed translations include This Road of Mine (Lilliput, 2020) and Exiles (Parthian, 2020).

Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (1919-1982), born Eugene Rutherford Louis Watters in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, built a reputation as an innovative stylist in Irish and English. O Tuairisc’s work includes poetry, drama, short stories, novels, essays and lectures in both languages. A primary school teacher, writer of pantomimes, modernist poet and inaugural Aosdana member, he was always breaking literary moulds. Selected works: L’Attaque (1962), Lux Aeterna (1964) The Week-End of Dermot and Grace (1964), De Luain (1966).

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