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News from the Glen

The Glen: An Gleann – Recollections from a Lost World, by Séamas Ó Maolchathaigh translated and edited from the Irish by Micheál Ó hAodha, ISBN: 978-1851321049

In his book Outrageous Fortune Joe Cleary argues that “the most obvious form of licensed ignorance across the intellectual field has to do with the Irish language”. Certainly, cocksure judgments on the language revival or on literature written in Irish are commonplace among cultural historians unfamiliar with the language. But while their untenable self-assurance is remarkable, it is only fair to note that the number of literary texts translated from contemporary Irish is limited and that, for those cut off from the language an element of posturing may be the sole option.

A common belief among language revivalists was that the growth of a modern literature in Irish tangibly demonstrated the success of the revival: literature gave the literary public a concrete reason to embrace the language. Recent years have witnessed a gradual erosion of this aversion to translation, not least as a result of the widespread teaching of Irish in North American universities and some at least of the literary achievements of the language revival are available to the present generation, much as the Blasket autobiographies were available to a generation of English readers in the1930s.

The Glen: An Gleann, Recollections from a Lost World, translated by Micheál Ó hAodha ‑ from an original, An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann written by Séamus Ó Maolchathaigh (1884-1968) of Cruan, Newcastle on the south Tipperary-Waterford border and published in 1963 ‑ continues this trend towards translation of twentieth century texts. As a literary work this text is not easily defined. It is described in an unsigned preface to the original (not reproduced here) as “beathaisnéis shamhlaíoch”, an imaginative autobiography; it is described by the author himself in a foreword (not reproduced here either) as lacking anything that does not have “bunús fírinne”, a basis in fact. This type of fictionalised autobiography had already been published by the Donegal writer “Fionn mac Cumhail” (Maghnus Mac Cumhail) in his 1939 work Na Rosa go Bráthach, and given that Ó Maolchathaigh’s original is likely to have been written long before its publication in the1960s, the Donegal work may well have been an illustrative precedent, part of a genre described by Máirín Nic Eoin in Trén bhFearann Breac: An Díláthrú Cultúir agus Nualitríocht na Gaeilge as “na húrscéalta agus na saothair réigiúnacha a raibh sé mar phríomhaidhm ag na húdair saol na Gaeltachta a léiriú iontu”, those works whose authors had as their primary aim the demonstration of Gaeltacht life.

As a half-page biographical note accompanying the present volume states, Ó Maolchathaigh “tried to get an unabridged and unedited form of this book … published with An Gúm for many years but his attempts proved futile”. The establishment of An Clóchomhar at the end of the 1950s as an innovative publishing company which, unlike An Gúm, was free of state control gave Ó Maolchathaigh a second chance, but the resulting publication was far from being either unabridged or unedited.

Ó Maolchathaigh’s text exists in two neat handwritten manuscripts. The clearer ‑ and presumably ‑ final copy is held by the County Museum in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, the nearest town to Ó Maolchathaigh’s birthplace; the second manuscript, heavily annotated by the publisher, is held by the National Library, Dublin. The publisher’s editor was Seosamh Ó Duibhginn, a native of Armagh and someone unlikely to have been well acquainted with the Déise dialect (of which Tipperary Irish is a subset). The present translation derives, it would appear, from the Clonmel manuscript, but as a source is not disclosed this cannot be asserted with certainty. What can, however, be affirmed unambiguously is that An Gleann: The Glen is not a translation of the book as published in Irish in 1963: the current work includes six chapters excised by An Clóchomhar along with many excluded internal passages.

An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann was published at a time when the works of Gaeltacht life referred to by Nic Eoin were losing their centrality to literature in Irish. Instead, priority was being given to modernist literature – prose, poetry, drama – and a considerable audience for such works was being created by An Club Leabhar, a distribution agency which in 1959 had two and a half thousand members paying a modest subscription in return for an annual delivery of books in Irish. The results were impressive, and if 1963 saw the publication of John McGahern’s The Barracks, 1964 saw the publication of the significant modernist novels Dianmhuilte Dé by Diarmaid Ó Súilleabháin and Néal Maidne agus Tine Oíche by Breandán Ó Doibhlin. The issues lying behind this shift in aesthetic sensibility had been debated by Daniel Corkery and Pádraig de Brún in the journal Humanitas (1930-31) and in this debate de Brún had argued for a literature in Irish looking to Europe for its dominant influences while Corkery had put forward the nativist case, arguing for “dúchas agus stíl”, heritage and style.

Ó Maolchathaigh’s account of life in the Newcastle Gaeltacht, lying ten miles from Clonmel, was entirely in accord with Corkery’s norms and it derived value not only from its status as the sole book written by a native speaker of Tipperary Irish but from the exactitude with which it inventoried the ethnography of the area. However its ethnographic value was diminished greatly by An Clóchomhar’s editor when he blue-pencilled chapters with such Corkery-proof titles as “Old Customs”, “Old Customs Relating to Death”, “The Old World” and “Pots of Gold”, presumably because they made the book seem outmoded. (Fortunately, all excluded material has been re-inserted in the translated edition under review.)

These chapters have value. Unlike many of the urban visitors to traditional Ireland, Ó Maolchathaigh approaches ethnographic detail in a way that is candid, unsentimental and reliable. This is his account of the burial of a suicide victim, someone not usually allowed burial in consecrated ground:

Initially Peaits was buried in Cill Dhubh with his own people but his coffin was dug up again and the following morning it had been left outside the cemetery wall. He was then buried within the yard surrounding the church in Baile na hAbhann but someone dug him up again. In the end he had to be buried in the pauper’s (sic) grave in Clogheen.

In addition to its diminution of the book’s ethnographical value, Ó Duibhginn’s editorial cropping suppressed many of the dialect features, indeed his amendments often left the text closer to Connacht than to Déise Irish. While all of this may seem cack-handed, it begins to make sense when one realises that the editorial work was done with an eye to Club Leabhar distribution: this required readability for a membership whose competence in Irish was uneven and which was unlikely to welcome old-fashioned texts published in non-standard Irish. Club Leabhar distribution was indeed achieved ‑ but at a price. Ó Maolchathaigh’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished text is evident from the many comments scribbled by him on his personal copy of An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann (now in private hands) and was implicit in the speech he made in Clonmel at the book’s launch: “[b]hí mo scríbhinn chomh leadránach san gur caitheadh sé chaibidil a ligint ar lár” (my script was so tedious that six chapters had to be omitted).

The author, however, was the most severe of the book’s critics and it was widely reviewed and welcomed. Piaras Béaslaí in the Irish Independent said that he found it “delightful first as a picture of Gaelic Ireland in South Tipperary some sixty years ago, and secondly, a narrative in vigorous and expressive Irish, such as is all too rarely met with nowadays”. However, always a perceptive critic, he faulted the fact that

the official standard spelling and grammar has been used in the book, except when conversations or utterances of the speakers are reported. If this means that what Seamus himself wrote has been sub-edited – and I’m afraid it does – then that was very wrong! We want to preserve Seamus’s own words carefully, as a record of a vanishing dialect – like folklore. When I see forms that nobody in the Deise uses substituted for what Seamus probably wrote, it is annoying. I am certain he did not write “faoi”, which nobody in Munster uses, and to change “fé” to “faoi” is simply to change one dialect to another, which I regard as barbarous …

Ó Maolchathaigh spent his entire working life as a teacher in the national school at Grange, an area five miles from his birthplace but one which was both more anglicised and more prosperous than his native Cruan, set in a valley of thin soils overshadowed by the Knockmealdown mountains. (Cruan appears in the book as “Gleann Cárthainn”.) He contributed endlessly interesting lists of word and phrases from his native area to the UCD Archive of Irish Dialects (begun by Tomás de Bhaldraithe in 1953) and contributed to the work of the Irish Folklore Commission and the Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society. His speech at the book’s launch on November 18th, 1963 allowed him to express his regret at not having done even more:

Tá aon rud amháin ag déanamh buartha dom anois, is é sin nár thuig mé in am tábhacht an bhéaloideasa. Cé go rinne mé roinnt mhaith oibre don Choimisiún bhí sé im chumas a bhfad níos mó a dhéanamh. Is mó eachtra agus amhráin a thug sean-daoine ón dúthaigh sin san iúir leo. Ba mhór an feall é. (There is one thing bothering me now: that I didn’t appreciate the importance of folklore. Although I did a good deal of work for the Commission I was capable of much more. The old people of the district took many adventures and songs with them to the clay. It was a great shame.)

Ó Maolchathaigh’s literary abilities, so evident in the free-flowing lucidity of An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann, found an occasional outlet in short stories published in the Irish Press and in a short story anthology. A honeymoon spent in London was the extent of his foreign travels but he had enough French to translate the schoolbook La Tâche du Petit Pierre into Irish as Dualgas Pheadair Bhig in 1953. His personal book collection (preserved by the family) includes a number of books in French as well as many works of literature and history in both English and Irish.

The Tipperary Gaeltacht was scrutinised by the Gaeltacht Commission, established by the government in 1926. Full Gaeltacht status required at least eighty per cent of residents in an electoral division to be speakers of the language; those areas where the percentage lay between twenty-five and seventy-nine per cent were deemed to be partial or “breac” Gaeltachtaí. (If similar criteria were applied today no substantial area of Ireland would achieve full Gaeltacht status.) The relentless anglicisation of the small Irish-speaking districts in Tipperary had been evident in the 1911 census. This returned the Ballybacon dispensary district, of which Cruan was part, as having a population of 582, 103 of whom were speakers of Irish. Ninety-seven of the latter were aged sixty or over. None of these was a monoglot speaker of Irish, although two monoglots were recorded in nearby Newcastle. All this contrasted with the 60 per cent Irish-speaking population in the barony as a whole (Iffa and Offa West) during the decade 1841-51 as calculated by Garret Fitzgerald in a renowned study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in 1984.

Ó Maolchathaigh’s speech at the book’s launch included an account of the last monoglot in the area:

Ní raibh aithne agam ach ar aon shean-fhear amháin ná raibh focal Béarla aige. Is cuimhin liom go raibh mé istigh sa siopa sa Chaisleán Nuadh, nuair a bhí mé ag dul go dtí an scoil nuair a tháinig sé isteach agus dúbhairt sé le bean an tsiopa “Thorm an bhulóig is stálaithe sa te’”. Bhí sé ceithre fichid an uair sin. Bríste glún corda an rí a bhíodh air agus cnaipí práis ar an taobh amuigh de gach glúin, bróga íseala agus stocaí fada glas-caorach agus casóg air síos go dtí a oscaidí. Ní bhíodh éadaí mar sin ar aoinne eile san áit. Ní cuimhin liom dé sórt hata a bhíodh air. Bhí sé ina chomhnuidhe i mbotháinín leis féin, agus sa phoor-house a cailleadh an fear bocht … (I only ever knew one man without a word of English. I remember that I was in the shop in Newcastle when I was going to school and he came in and said to the woman of the shop, “give me the stalest loaf in the house”. He was four score at that stage. He used wear a corduroy knee britches with brass buttons on the outside of each knee, low shoes and long woollen stockings and a jacket down to the back of his knees. Nobody else in the place wore similar clothes. I forget what type of hat he wore. He lived alone in a hut and the poor man died in the poorhouse.)

The Newcastle-Ballybacon area’s breac-Ghaeltacht status lasted until 1956, when Gaeltacht boundaries were revised and updated. Even at that late stage the area was home to wonderfully assured speakers of the language and several of these were recorded by the Radio Éireann Mobile Recording Unit. Around 1955 the Swiss scholar Heinrich Wagner, then compiling his four-volume Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects (1958), visited the area and described Goatenbridge, near Cruan:

Goatenbridge. In South Tipperary, at the foot of the Knockmealdown mountains, there was quite a number of speakers left, all belonging to the older generation. None of them, however, was as fluent in Irish as in English.

The area in which the book is set is one which was as Nic Eoin puts it “ag dul i dtreo an mhacarónachais”, becoming macaronic or bilingual. She argues that:

Uaireanta ní thuigeann scríbhneoirí na hathruithe teanga atá ag tarlú timpeall orthu féin, agus bíonn claonadh iontu a bheith rómánsúil agus míchruinn freisin agus iad ag cur síos ar phróisis theangeolaíochta ar ghnáthphróisis chlaochlaithe i suímh theangmhála teanga iad. (Sometimes writers fail to understand the linguistic changes happening around them and additionally they have a tendency to be romantic and inaccurate when describing linguistic processes which are normal processes of linguistic change in settings where languages meet.)

This gradual language shift probably accounts for the book being an imaginative autobiography set in an earlier period than the time of composition, either among those who were “ag áitriú ann le linn m’óige” (those living there during my youth) as claimed in the author’s foreword to An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann or in his father and mother’s generation as claimed – probably more accurately ‑ in the unsigned preface. Any reliable account of the realities of Ó Maolchathaigh’s own day would have required a “macaronic” or bilingual presentation of the area’s speech rather than the exclusive fluency in Irish of the book’s characters. Many of the Irish speakers of his own time were what Nancy Dorian has termed “semi-speakers”, speakers of an endangered language whose comptetence in that language is partial and who may be more comfortable in the incoming language, as was said by Wagner of the speakers he encountered around Goatenbrige. Like ee cummings’s snow, modernisation “doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches” and the process of linguistic shift in Tipperary could be delayed but not prevented. As Ó hAodha’s translation puts it:

It was the language that almost everyone still used then, other than some of the younger generation who were already attending school. What happened then was that the adults began to speak English to their children. This change between the generations killed the Irish language faster than anything else did. When my mother and my grandfather and my aunt were chatting among themselves, they only ever used Irish – particularly when they were discussing anything that they didn’t want me to know about.

In An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann, Séamas Lios na Faille, the book’s narrator, recalls his father saying about him before he began school “[d]éanfaidh sé seó dínn ag labhairt Gaolainne sa scoil” (he’ll make a show of us when he’s speaking Irish at school).

Ó Maolchathaigh’s biographical details were at variance with those of the book’s narrator, who is a farmer’s son while both Ó Maolchathaigh’s father and grandfather were gamekeepers, working for the local landlord and living first in a mountainside hunting lodge and then being rehoused under the Labourers (Ireland) Act, 1883. This doubtlessly accounts for the sympathetic depiction of the local gamekeeper, ‘Seán na Coille’, a portrayal at variance with the traditional image of that embattled profession. However the dominant sympathy in the book, as in Corkery’s ideology, is with the farmers. As Declan Kiberd puts it in Inventing Ireland, “… rural Ireland was real Ireland, the farmer the moral and economic backbone of the country”, and so it is in this work.

The Glen: An Gleann is to be welcomed as a useful addition to the growing body of translations of literary texts in Irish written in this and the preceding century and its 368 pages offer a workmanlike replication of the original in which, in line with much of contemporary translation practice, an element of creative and interpretative scope is allowed to the translator. Indeed it could be argued that the translation is more authentic than An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann as published in 1963, given that it follows the lines of Ó Maolchathaigh’s original manuscript. However, the book comes with its own issues. The form of the title, The Glen: An Gleann is somewhat different from Ó Maolchathaigh’s An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann; no doubt a title such as “the glen and all that was in it” would have appeared clumsy in English. The original combined two styles, a faithful depiction of local narrative speech for the dialogue and a more formal literary register for the narrative passages. This leaves the translation with unresolved issues of style, tone and tenor. Thus the Clonmel manuscript sentence: “[l]e linn m’óige chreid gach aoinne sa mbaile gur bfhéidir im a fhuadach le piseóga” is translated into thesis-speak as “[w]hen I was a child everyone believed that it was possible to ‘take’ the butter through the use of magico-religious beliefs and charms”. Similarly a beggar is addressed improbably with the phrase “Micilín Dhomhnaill, you’re a very sophisticated person”, where the manuscript has “A Mhichilín Dhomhnaill is foirbthe an duine tu”, a fine illustration of the natural Irish of Ó Maolchathaigh’s area. Nor is it is likely that anyone in “Gleann Cárthainn” ever said “God with you forever, oh holy little cockerel” (“Dia go deo leat a choilichín bheannuigte” being the manuscript original).

The book also has the occasional mistranslation. For instance, “raol” is sixpence not fourpence, and the description of the schoolroom as “a room without a dresser or a table or a sink anywhere in sight”, with its implication that the school attended by the narrator had a sink and so running water, is not the import of the original; “… a rádh gur ghreannmhar an tigh an scoil gan driosúr ná corcán ná bórd ann” is the manuscript original and “corcán” would have been more accurately rendered as “pot”. The word “otair” in the writer’s politically incorrect dialect meant both “overweight” and “ignorant” and it is the latter not the former meaning which was intended by word in the phrase “[b]ean an-otair an-mhí-thuigseanach do b’eadh Méin Bhillí bean chéile Phádraig Uí Dhomhnaill, dá shon san is dócha ná beadh mórán maitheasa ann a bheith ‘gá lochtughadh i dtaobh na leabhartha agus na scríbhinne a dhóghadh”, a phrase translated by O hAodha as “Méin Bhillí, Pádraig Ó Domhnaill’s wife, was a very overweight woman who wouldn’t have understood the importance of those manuscripts. It is hard to fault her for what she did when she burned all the books and manuscripts.”

Personal names and surnames are generally rendered in their Irish forms ‑ as are more local place names ‑ but this is done inconsistently and so we have the local landlord described as “Old-Leainglí (Langley)” and as “Langley” or the same family named as “Dalton” and “Daltún”. The phrase “up feel” in “you didn’t up feel when you wore the coat-dresses” may exist but if so it is neither common nor elegant. The book is not without its typos, not least the chapter heading “Tadhg Mhichil – County Legal Advisor”, where “country” was intended. Similarly “George the Sixth” not “George the Seventh” is the correct form of “an sémhadh Seoirse” and the possessive apostrophe is repeatedly misused (“the Dalton’s farm” and “the Daltún’s”).

The Glen: An Gleann stands or falls on its merit as a text which will be read by those with no knowledge of the original or of the language in which it is written but for those general readers the absence of a contextualising foreword is likely to make it a puzzling, if intriguing, volume.


Dr Proinsias Ó Drisceoil has written extensively on the literature and cultural history of Gaelic Ireland and Scotland. Publications include Ar Scaradh Gabhail: An Fhéiniúlacht in Cín Lae Amhlaoibh Uí Shúilleabháin (2000) and Seán Ó Dálaigh: Éigse agus Iomarbhá (2007). He was a contributor to the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the Encyclopedia of Ireland and various other works of reference and is a former editor of the Tipperary Historical Journal.



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