Crann na Teanga / The Language Tree, by Cathal Ó Searcaigh, transl Paddy Bushe and the Author, Irish Pages, 432 pp, €42, ISBN: 978-0993553240
When the selected poems of a great poet are published, we expect it to be a distillation from the best of his work. Yet, when we look at Crann na Teanga/The Language Tree, all of its 430 pages plus, it has the feel of a complete oeuvre. This, in itself, is a simple statement that Cathal Ó Searcaigh – one of the finest poets in Ireland, and one of the very best in the Irish language in this century and the last – has been writing and honing and perfecting his craft for nearly half a century. And “craft” does indeed have to emphasised in every cranny of his work. Even to look at a page in one of his many books without reference to context or meaning we immediately see a shape and a cut and a form. A reading of the poems will see how the language and the contours have been melded together to make an artistic whole. This concern for craft is central to the Irish poetic tradition, as in the Irish language composing poetry is most usually described as “ag déanamh filíocht”, that is “making poetry”. No slapdash stuff then, no plopping it down just as it comes out, no emotion unselected with facility.
This is a selection of Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s poetry from sixteen collections between 1975 and 2018. They are lovingly, craftily and poetically translated by Paddy Bushe, one of those who vigorously defended the integrity of Ó Searcaigh when he was maligned some years ago. Being a poet of great distinction himself, Bushe is probably the ideal person to undertake this massive project. This is not in any way to take from earlier bilingual collections of his poetry, An Bealach ’na Bhaile / Homecoming (1991) with translations by Máire Mhac an tSaoi, or Out in the Open (1997), selected and translated by Frank Sewell, or indeed other translations by Seamus Heaney and Gabriel Rosenstock, all of which introduced him to a non-Irish-reading public. Comparing these translations would be a fascinating task, but it is not the immediate concern here.
Reading through a collection like this the big question raises its head. What is he about? Is there some kind of vision of life here? Is anything being said? And the answer is a thumping yes. The book is all about love. There is a lot of homosexual love, as you might expect from a poet who not only “came out”, to use that clapped-out phrase, but openly expressed this love when it was often furtively murmured about in the corners of a different Ireland . These love poems are as tender and as passionate and as erotic as you expect from a poet who never hid his emotions and who expresses them with artistic drive. But they are part of a bigger picture in which quite simply love of life is the driving force. This love of life can be furled down to love of place, and love of nature, and love of language, more simply, love of the world. Poetry is not meant to make anything happen as Auden famously quoted, but on reading Ó Searcaigh you do feel uplifted and the sun shines once more.
He has fashioned his own style from the common Irish of Gort a’ Choirce, his native shore. This is what any writer poet does if there is an individual voice there at all. This individual voice shines out (and shine is the apposite word) in a language which is clear and celebratory. At some future date a wordsmith critic will examine the diction: “lí ómra an choirce”: “the golden glow of oats” / “uisce beo bíogúil, fíoruisce glé”: “the lucid gush of a true spring” / “bláth bán mo gháire”: “the white flower of my laughing” / “é ag scaipeadh a shoiscéal aoibhnis”: “whose journey is urgent with tidings of joy” / “ag gríosadh lí na gréine”: “animating sunlight”/ “an mhaidin ghlasuaithne seo sa tsíoraíocht”: “the green tinge of infinity this breaking day”.
This language bears with it a philosophy of joy which is repeated throughout the book. While it can’t be neatly summed up or tidily packaged, a phrase such as “go bhfuil mise fosta ar thaobh an tsolais, fosta ar thaobh na beatha”: “I’m with you on the side of light, with you on the side of life” expresses it as briefly as anything else. This occurs in a poem in honour of Isaac Rosenberg, one of a series on writers and artists who have either inspired him or whom he wishes to celebrate. One of these is the great Aran poet Máirtín Ó Direáin, and we can hear through many of his compositions the rhythm of Ó Direáin’s work, those particular conversational lines which seem so natural and yet must have been striven for with great attention. In another poem,”Tá an Lilí i mBláth ar an Dúloch”: “Waterlilies are Blossoming on Dúloch”, it is set down with the same simplicity: “Suím anseo ar mo mharana / ag tabhairt buíochais ó chroí / do dhúile uile na cruinne”: “I sit here in contemplation/ offering the heart’s gratitude / to all the world’s elements.”
Not all is sweetness and light, however, but most of it is. There was a time when the fate of the Irish language, or its beauty, or its neglect was a common theme for many poets. We can trace this back to at least the seventeenth century, and it has been a concern ever since. It has been less common in more recent years, but Ó Searcaigh, not surprisingly, writes worriedly about the thinning and the retreat of the language in his own native place. The title poem, “Crann na Teanga” : “The Language Tree”, touches on this, and much more, but it is the language itself which gives inspiration and sustenance: “Óir is tusa bé na filíochta”: “For you are the muse of poetry”, as he puts it in “Teanga an Ghleanna”; “The Glen’s Tongue”. And yet he is never elegiac or moaning about the glories of the past, although he acknowledges the great tradition of which he is a part and to which he has added with great distinction. Much of the poetry of the present has no past, burbling away in a contemporary bubble. Not so Ó Searcaigh. Although determinedly modernist or even postmodernist (although we don’t want these labels to prevent us engaging with the poetry) some of Ó Searcaigh’s lyrics remind us of those early Irish poems scribbled on the margins of manuscripts celebrating astonishment at the freshness of creation.
One cannot say that Ó Searcaigh is a community poet, in the sense which somebody like Johnny Chóil Mhaidhc was in Conamara. Yet he speaks again and again about “mo mhuintir”, “mo bhunadh”, “mo dhaoine”, that is, his people. It is a recognition of where he has come from, and what he owes to them and to his area. There are, of course, many of those early lyric poems about the beauty and solitude and homeliness of his own place, such as the much anthologised “Níl aon ní”: “There is nothing” or “Anseo ag Stáisiún Chaiseal na gCorr”: “Here at Caiseal na gCorr Station”. But he isn’t a spokesman for “his people”. One of the reasons for this, apart from the fact that it must be nigh impossible now for any poet to articulate the life of a fractured community ‑ and if he did he might be ignored by them or thought plain mad ‑ may be that he is a poet of international reach and interest. While many Irish poets in both languages have either looked to Europe or west to the US, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, like his remarkable contemporary Gabriel Rosenstock, turned east. There are many poems here about Kathmandu and Nepal, which is no surprise given his beautiful memoir of 2004 Seal i Neipeal.(“A While in Nepal”) But here he ranges across and through Iraq and Palestine and India and elsewhere as a locus for an inspiration which seems to come unbidden. Whatever is said about poetry in Irish it is not insular, although our country is rapidly becoming known as “the Island”. Ó Searcaigh always sails in the mothership of world culture and is happy to be blown by every wind without being steered astray from his own centrality.
Every variety of the poetic genre is included here. Primarily a lyricist, he can turn his skill to praise poetry, to narrative, to psalms, to rhetoric, to touching on the political (although really about humanity) and even to the prose poem. A poem should never be prose, although Cathal’s prose is often poetry, as evidenced by many parts of his recent novel Teach an Gheafta (The Gate House) There is a trajectory here, but it must be looked for. The book is laid out chronologically, and although his early poems are often still among his best, there is a development from some of those early lyrics of surprise – maybe just the surprise of being a poet, and of being here – on to longer carefully-wrought statements and reflections on love, place, nature, artists and belief. And lest it not be said often enough, this is a selection and other readers will notice some of their own favourites missing. I particularly was waiting to reread “Gort na gCnámh” (“The Field of Bones”) one of the most harrowing poems in modern Irish, but it wasn’t there. This poem, incidentally, was made into a short film in 1998 by About Face Productions which was visually captivating and didn’t hide from the horror, but the words are always different. But then, you can’t have everything.
Translation in all its ramifications seeking to capture the everything of an original is always an impossible task, but it must be done. Different languages carry different charges, different voltages, but even more important, they feel and taste different. This is particularly so with two languages like Irish and English, one carrying the echoes of 1,500 years of literature at least, the other a neophyte vacuum cleaner sweeping up all around it. If anybody could transition a new collection of Cathal’s Irish into English it is Paddy Bushe. He already performed the most ticklish and subtle task of giving us Irish versions of Somhairle MacGill-Eain’s Gaelic poetry Ó Choill go Barr Ghéaráin (2013). Because Irish and Gaelic are so closely related, so near and yet so far away, it presented him with the most intricate and curly challenges, which he met with style and sensitivity. These translations are of a different order. I tried reading many of them without referencing the original versions, and they work! They are successful as poems in their own right, which is what we want them to be. Paddy Bushe nearly always followed the pattern and cut of the Irish poem, except when for artistic reasons he made some changes, as in the long title poem itself. Or for metrical reasons: for example in “Ag Faire do Shuan: “Watching Your Sleep”, which is written in a traditional song metre; the translation keeps the shape, but it would have been impossible to copy the rhymes and assonances.
Anyone familiar with the Irish will see how apt, indeed how clever (and I use clever in its most elevated sense) the new renderings are. Sometimes it is just at the level of a single word, as in “brocsholas” becoming “leftover light”. More often it is a phrase: “éirí amach na bhfocal” he turns into “the uprising of words”. “Eirí amach” has, of course, the common meaning of “revolution”, as in 1916 or 1798, but can also hint at “stepping out”, especially in the morning. “Uprising” captures both. “Clábar cáidheach” as “slobbery clabber” retains the Ulster echoes, “cáidheach” being a common Donegal word, and “clabber”, although originally from Irish, is used extensively in Ulster-Scots. The translations also are not afraid of having some fun, “Má thiomáineann siad tharm”, meaning literally “if they drive past me” becomes “but if they pass on by, then let it be, let it be”, neatly marrying the Beatles to the hint of a song by Dionne Warwick. And of course, that great rambling wind-in-your-hair poem of Cathal’s with the simple title “Do Jack Kerouac” (“For Jack Kerouac”) gives us “Let’s Hit the Road Jack”.
One of the thornier problems that any translator from Irish into English faces is what to do with place names. Paddy Bushe sensibly leaves them alone: “from an Mhalaidh Rua to Mín na hUchta / From Páirc Mhéabha to Droim na Gréine / from An Phit, An Pollán and An Cró Crochta”. This immediately avoids the ugliness of the Anglicisations of many Irish place-names, and the clumsier task of trying to translate them. Surely Muiceanach idir Dhá Sháile in Conamara could never be Muckanaghederdauhaulia, or even worse “The piggery between two stretches of salty water”?
This is a beautifully produced book, with its clear print, strong paper and a lovely russet photograph by Seán Ó Gaoithín on its cover. It is a joy to handle as it is to read, and is a credit to The Irish Pages Press, whose own journal constantly gives us some of the best, most courageous and innovative writing.
Alan Titley is emeritus professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork and is the author of novels, stories, poetry and plays.