I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

An Teanga on Tour

Philip O’Leary

Ar an Imeall i Lár an Domhain: Ag Trasnú Tairseacha Staire, Teanga, Litríochta agus Cultúir, Radvan Markus, Máirín Nic Eoin, Deirdre Nic Mhathúna, Éadaoin Ní Mhuircheartaigh, Brian Ó Conchubhair, and Pádraig Ó Liatháin (editors), Leabhar Breac, 512 pp, €40, ISBN: 978-1913814137

This collection of papers, whose title translates as “On the edge in the middle of the world: Crossing historical, linguistic, literary and cultural boundaries”, was first presented at a conference with the same main title held in Prague in 2017, the largest such gathering in Irish ever convened outside of Ireland. To bring some order to the impressive range of topics covered at the conference and in this book, the editors group the essays under five headings listed here in translation: “Irishmen on the Continent: Religion, Politics and Literature 1600-1800”; “Ireland and Europe: Culture, Language and Aesthetics”; “Modern Prose in Irish: Crossing Boundaries”; “Modern Poetry in Irish; Heritage and the Wider World”; and “Genres of Writing and the Boundaries of the Canon”.

Reviewing a five-hundred-page collection of this kind is a challenge. Naturally enough, with so many contributors, quality varies, although the general standard is high and all the essays are worth reading. Still, there are simply too many ideas, too many new approaches, too many provocative questions to be dealt with in a way that does justice to individual authors and to the work as a whole. Therefore, reluctantly, I will focus on a selection of essays that particularly interested me or that I feel I may have something to say about, with only occasional references to other pieces that might well be equally worthy of discussion here.

In the first group of essays, those dealing with the religious, political, and literary activities of Irish intellectual exiles in Europe, particularly Central and Eastern Europe, between 1600 and 1800, pride of place must go to Mícheál Mac Craith’s “Polaitíocht na Cráifeachta: Deoraithe Gael agus Rítheaghlach Habsburg”, an erudite and richly researched discussion of the role of Franciscans in Prague and elsewhere in Europe played in both continental theological debates and Habsburgian realpolitik at a time when the two were frequently and dangerously intertwined. For example, Mac Craith explains why “na Bráothre Bochta (the Poor Brothers) were far more warmly welcomed than were Aodh Ó Néill and his followers in Roman exile. To put it simply, the Franciscans had more to offer, at less risk, than did the defeated Ulstermen. The Franciscans’ championing of the ideas of Duns Scotus and their consistent and fervent support for the elevation to doctrinal status of the belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin made them natural allies of the Habsburgs in their campaign to recapture Europe for Catholicism. In return, the Habsburgs helped the Franciscans to extend their influence through monasteries that would contribute so much to the development of Irish as a language able to engage in some of the most significant intellectual debates of that time.

With a focus narrower than Mac Craith’s, Ken Ó Donnchú in “‘Freagra ar et caetera Philip’: Dán Ilteangach ón Seachtú hAois Déag” discusses a short, obscure, but fascinating scatological poem in which no fewer than five languages ‑ Irish, English, German, Bohemian, and Latin – were used for comic purposes, most likely by a Franciscan at the monastery at Prague.

In the section of essays entitled “Ireland and Europe: Culture, Language, and Aesthetics”, Ciarán Ó Braonáin discusses research into what inspires European learners of Irish, who lack the kind of ethnic and/or nationalist motives that often lead people to take up the study of the language in Ireland and the Irish diaspora. Ó Braonáin informs us that among the principal reasons drawing Europeans to the language are an interest in Irish culture (in particular Irish music), a fascination with linguistics and languages in general, and the appeal of Irish as an interesting, difficult, and/or endangered language. One of those Europeans who studied – and mastered – Irish is Radvan Markus, who in “De réir na Brí, na Feidhme agus na Fuaime: ag aistriú Cré na Cille go Seicis”, discusses the challenges he faced and his responses to them as he translated Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s masterpiece Cré na Cille into Czech as Hřbitovni hIlína. With two translations of this book now available in English, it is fascinating to read Markus’s explanation of choices he made and compare them with those of Ó Cadhain’s Irish translators with regard to dialect, droch-chaint (bad language), the role of English in Ó Cadhain’s novel, and, of course, the inevitable question of literal versus free translation.

In “Idir Dhúchas agus Oiliúint: Amhránaíocht Thraidisiúnta na Gaeilge agus an Aeistéitic Eorpach”, Róisín Nic Dhonncha turns her attention to the ways in which, for better or worse, European ideas about music have had an influence on the performance, preservation, and perpetuation of traditional sean-nós singing since the competitions at the very first Oireachtas in 1897. She points out that continental singers, audiences, and critics took for granted things like instrumental accompaniment, valued the vocal projection necessary in the concert hall and expected that notated charts would be available for performers. More important, those with such a European background were comfortable with the idea of formal competitions, with separate prizes for men and women. All of these things were alien to native singers used to performing in far more intimate settings at home with a repertoire in which there was a great emphasis on the meaning of the songs in a specific communal context and on the emotional power and ‘authenticity’ of the singer. For Nic Dhonncha, in any cultural fusion between European standards and native tradition, dúchas should take precedence over oiliúint.

Deirdre Nic Mhathúna discusses the life and work of Monsignor Pádraig de Brún, a man who despite his impressive scholarly achievements in Ireland and on the European continent never lost sight of his roots. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine many who could match his street cred as a cosmopolitan intellectual. Educated in theology and mathematics in Dublin, France and Germany, and holding a doctorate in integral mathematics, he taught mathematical physics at Maynooth, served as president of University College, Galway and at the end of his life was chair of the council of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Convinced that it was essential that readers of Irish should have access to the world’s literary classics, he translated to Irish from the original languages The Odyssey, Plutarch’s Lives, Sophocles’ Antigone, Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Racine’s Athalie. As Nic Mhathúna makes clear, however, de Brún saw no great divide between the classics of European high culture and the Irish of Corca Dhuibhne. Thus, in a 1944 poem commemorating the native speaker Pádraig Ó Conchúir, a man he saw as a linguistic mentor, he wrote: “Léighinn duit ó am go ham na haistrithe do rinneas / Ó dhrámaí stáitse an chlú ón bhFrainc ’s ón seana-Ghréig. / Thaithníodh a gcúrsaí leat, is chuirfeá feabhas is cruinneas/ Ar mo lag-iarrachtaí le bréithe an bhrithimh réidh. / Pé tréith maithe ar domhan do luaifí lem scríneoireacht, / Is uait a fuaras iad . . .” Nic Mhathúna also discusses the enormous influence de Brún had on his niece, the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who wrote of him in her 2003 autobiography The Same Age as the State: “It was thanks to my Uncle Paddy that all my knowledge of the world of art and letters was mediated through Irish.”

If the essays in the first two sections of Ar an Imeall i Lár and Domhain focus on the crossing of geographical boundaries, those on the next two sections dealing with modern and contemporary literature in Irish are more concerned with the often conflicting demands individuals must try to resolve in their passages through life. Alan Titley introduces this shift in emphasis in rollicking fashion in “Fóda an tSaoil Seo”, in which he takes on the cliché that Irish speakers have inherited a narrow and subservient worldview shaped by their submission to the demands of a rigid and authoritarian Catholicism and an unthinking belief in traditional folklore. Drawing on the Gaeltacht autobiographies, particularly what he calls the “second generation” of them (that is post-Ó Criomthain, Sayers, Ó Súilleabháin), Titley rejects the myth of the repressed and benighted Irish speaker of the past: “Is é is ionadh liom a shaoire atá said ó chreideamh is ó bhéaloideas araon . . . Is é is ionadh liom gur mó acu tairseach an tí, agus gur lag leo an tairseachúlacht agus imill na saolta.”

In effect, what Titley is saying is that, in literature in Irish. Irish-speaking people are presented as people much like any other, human beings whose principal interest in life is the living of it, and whose struggles with liminality are the universal ones of the individual trying to find his place in society and clarity and peace within himself. Such is certainly the case in Micheál Briody’s ‘“Gur i gcathracha amháin is féidir litríocht a chumadh’: Máirtín Ó Cadhain idir Tuath agus Cathair.” Using Ó Cadhain’s notes from a now lost radio debate he had with Brian Ó Nualláin (‘Myles na gCopaleen’) in 1944, Briody discusses the radically different views of these two Dublin-based writers of Irish on whether or not the language could successfully come to terms with life in Dublin or any other city. For Myles, who of course wrote all his novels in English after An Béal Bocht (1941), Irish was hopelessly trapped within the confines of the Gaeltacht – “truaillithe le cúigeachas, paróisteachas, aineolas etc. lucht na Gaeltachta” – and thus any future literature of any value in the language could only emerge from the city. Ó Cadhain would have none of this, insisting that a genuinely contemporary Irish literature could evolve naturally beyond the geographical and psychic boundaries of the Gaeltacht if writers with good Irish and personal experience of urban life accepted the challenge as, of course, he himself did with brilliant results. Few with an interest in writing in Irish will be unaware of Ó Cadhain’s fear that his linguistic medium might well predecease him. He did not, and Briody here perceptively details the thinking that motivated him to give literary expression to the life of a rapidly changing modern Ireland in a language many mistakenly thought – and think – is on the wrong side of history.

Of course Ó Cadhain first came to the notice of readers of Irish as a chronicler of the challenges and hard-earned satisfactions of Gaeltacht life. In “Gnéithe de Choincheap na Tairsiúlachta in ‘An Bhearna Mhil’ agus Scéalta Uí Chadhain”, Pádraig de Paor stresses that, however they differ in detail, the rites of passage facing Gaeltacht people have a great deal in common with those with which people everywhere have to contend, in the process undercutting the notion that literature from or about the Gaeltacht cannot be all that relevant for city dwellers, suburbanites, or townies in Ireland or anywhere else.

Myles na gCopaleen features again in Ian Ó Caoimh’s provocative “Brian Ó Nualláin agus Seán Ó Ríordáin: An Bhuneisint, an Córas Comparáide agus Bagairt na Buile”. In this essay Ó Caoimh discusses a fear these two writers shared, the fear of being unable to keep their grip on a reality for which words were proving inadequate, of helplessly crossing the boundary between sanity and madness. Of particular interest considering the themes of this collection is Ó Caoimh’s deeply informed and unselfconscious use of texts in both Irish and English when dealing with the work of Ó Nualláin.

In her essay “Idir Dhá Chultúr: Spléachadh ar an Idirchultúracht i nGearrscéalaíocht Phádraic Bhreathnaigh”, Laoise Ní Cheallaigh offers another perspective on this question. Drawing on the work of Homi Bhabha and Máirín Nic Eoin, Ní Cheallaigh argues that while Breathnach is certainly aware of “monoculturalism” (aonchultúrthacht) – not just in the Gaeltacht! – and “intercultural conflict” (coimhlint idirchultúrtha), he is also convinced of the possibility of a healthy “intercultural confidence” (muinín idirchultúrtha). As a result, she rejects any simplistic application of postcolonial theory to the situation of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht. For Ní Cheallaigh, the prolific Breathnach is “scríbhneoir Gaeilge idirchultúrtha na freacnairce . . . a bhfuil a shaothar cruthaitheach ar chaighdeán litríochta idirnáisiúnta agus é i ngleic le cuid mhaith de na ceisteanna comhaimseartha céanna lena chomhscríbhneoirí ar an ardán domhanda”.

The subject of Breandán Ó Cróinín’s “Úrscéal Cathrach Eorpach ó Chósta Thiar na Cruinne” is Pádraig Ó Cíobháin’s brilliant novel Ré an Charbaid (2003), which is also one of the works discussed by by Máire Ní Annracháin in her contribution to this volume. Ó Cróinín argues that the city of Galway present and past is not only the setting but also the subject and principal character of this novel or, perhaps better, novels, for, as he points out, Ré an Charbaid is at times a fantasy, and at other times a historical novel, a campus novel, and a metafictional novel. Moreover, its resistance to generic classification and its intertextuality links it with both native Irish and wider European literary traditions. It is to be hoped that Ó Cróinín’s compelling essay helps remedy Ó Cíobháin’s inexplicable relative obscurity even in Irish-language circles.

Unlike writers of fiction like Ó Cíobháin, poets writing in Irish have managed through translation to catch the attention of readers and critics outside the borders of Ireland. In this regard, what often becomes important for the critic is not to establish the cosmopolitan credentials of a poet whose work has appeared in English and/or other languages, but to explore the native inspirations for the work. In “Ar Thairseach na Daonnachta: Cearta an Duine agus Filíocht Chomhaimseartha na Gaeilge” and “Iltíreachas na nGnáthdhaoine: Léargas ón Imeall i bhFilíocht Chomhaimseartha na Gaeilge”, by Rióna Ní Fhrighil and Máirín Nic Eoin respectively, the authors argue that the very modern expressions of sympathy and support for and unity with the different, the marginalised, the oppressed and persecuted featuring prominently in so much poetry in Irish is rooted in the history and psychology of Irish speakers, whose folklore and literature reflects centuries of exclusion and marginalisation. Ní Fhrighil, Nic Eoin, and Caitríona Ní Chléirichín in ‘“Tocht na Beatha’: Tairsiúlacht i bhFilíocht Chaitlín Maude”, offer strikingly convincing close readings of poems by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Liam Ó Muirthile, Louis de Paor, Simon Ó Faoláin and Caitlín Maude, to show that writers of Irish had no need to cross any linguistic or psychic boundaries to understand and express the plight of the suffering millions in the modern world. Other poets discussed in essays in this collection, essays that deserve far more attention than I am giving them in this review, are Michael Davitt, Derry O’Sullivan, Ailbhe Ni Ghearbhuigh and Biddy Jenkinson.

The miscellaneous final section of the book contains a piece on Seán Ó Ríordáin’s diaries, on the development of comics in Irish, on the use by some science fiction writers of Irish words and phrases in their accounts of alien civilisations, as well as Éadaoin Ní Mhuircheartaigh’s “Idir Seánraí: An Seanchaí ar an Ardán agus ‘Stáitsiú’ na Scéalaíochta”. Ní Mhuircheartaigh’s essay is of particular interest as it fills a significant gap in the history of drama in Irish. At the very beginning of the Gaelic literary revival, some critics argued that those wishing to develop the previously non-existent genre of theatre in Irish should seek inspiration in the dramatic performances of traditional storytellers. Ní Mhuircheartaigh shows how this idea came to fruition with the creation of scéaldhrámaí (story plays), a mixed genre in which performers act out a story as it is told. The heyday of this form was in the 1930s and 1940s when it was a regular feature of festivals sponsored by An Cumann Scoildrámaíochta, but as Ní Mhuircheartaigh shows, the genre is by no means dead, and storytelling remains a major element in Irish theatre in both Irish and English.

Two essays that illustrate particularly clearly the ways native tradition can cross the boundaries of time and language to influence contemporary writing in Irish are Máire Ní Annracháin’s “Fuinneamh agus Misneach: Rian na Rúraíochta agus na Fiannaíochta ar Nualitríocht na Gaeilge” and Máirín Nic Eoin’s “Iltíreachas na nGnáthdhaoine: Léargas ón Imeall i bhFilíocht Chomhaimseartha na Gaeilge”. In her essay, Ní Annracháin identifies what she sees as the main ways in which writers of Irish now make use of the tales about Cú Chulainn and other characters in the Ulster Cycle (Rúraíocht) and the stories about Fionn mac Cumhaill and his fian band (Fiannaíocht). Some writers only suggest a connection “often through metaphor and often by means of the paratext, particularly through the title of the new work”. Other writers expand on their originals, reimagining them in various ways, for example as “versions that incorporate a perspective on the world not usually associated with the original versions”. Yet other writers produce new versions of this material, some quite faithful to their originals, some in which it is not always easy to draw the line between translation and invention. Ní Annracháin then turns to a discussion of how these approaches actually work with real texts, and how some writers have made those texts their own by reading them through the lens of their own concerns and critical perspectives, feminism for Nuala Nѓ Dhomhnaill and Biddy Jenkinson or postmodernism for Padraig Ó Cíobháin, for example.

In her essay, Máirín Nic Eoin first discusses how writers of Irish have struggled with their awareness of being marginalised within their own country, but then argues that it is just that awareness that enable them to express so effectively “comhthuiscint agus chomhbhá agus dlúthpháirtíocht . . . le daoine aonair nó le grúpaí nó le pobail atá faoi leatrom, faoi mhíbhuntáiste, nó ar an imeall ar chúis amháin nó ar chúis eile”. For Nic Eoin, this sense of solidarity arises from what Homi Bhabha has called “vernacular cossmpolitanism”, a concept that balances “dílseacht a shamhlófaí ar thaobh amháin le tírghrá, le féiniúlacht eitneach agus le feasacht an duine atá fréamhaithe i bpobal nó i gceantar ar leith, agus ar an taobh eile le freagracht agus comhthuiscint dhaonna a sháraíonn teoireannacha náisiúnta agus eitneacha”. To support her argument, she offers close readings of two very different poems by contemporary poets: Simon Ó Faoláin’s “Caoineadh Henryk Piotrowski”, inspired by the death of a homeless Polish immigrant in Dublin, and Liam Ó Muirthile’s “Earrach Phrág”, in which the poet remembers hearing of the suppression of the Czech revolt of 1968 while he was in the Corcu Dhuibhne Gaeltacht, immersing himself in the often tragic history of the area. Nic Eoin here offers her readers a considerably more nuanced way of applying postcolonial theory to the situation of modern Ireland.

Ar an Imeall i Lár an Domhan is a splendid collection, bringing together the work of established and younger scholars, male and female, Irish and European, to discuss what was once called “Irish Ireland” as a society that, however marginal its geographical position at the edge of Europe, was and is very much involved in European affairs, political, cultural and literary. Throughout the essays, continental and Third World theorists like Bhabha, Fanon, Kristeva, and Memmi rub shoulders more or less comfortably with familiar names like Corkery, Denvir, Ó Buachalla, and Ó Tuama. The publisher, Leabhar Breac, also deserves our thanks for producing at a reasonable price this hefty, handsome, and well-bound volume virtually free of the kind of typographical errors that are, alas, all too frequent in books in Irish.



Philip O’Leary teaches at Boston College.



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