This Road of Mine, by Seosamh Mac Grianna, translated by Mícheál Ó hAodha, Lilliput Press, 224 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1843517894
Seosamh Mac Grianna is an abiding, if unlikely, hero to those with an interest in the Irish language literature of the Revival and especially that of Ulster. His family were leading lights in that movement. His brother Séamus (1889-1969), who wrote under the pseudonym Máire, his mother’s name, is one of the most prolific writers of the period, with seven novels, numerous collections of short stories and other works to his credit, including the song “Thíos i Lár an Ghleanna”, beloved by the late Nuala O’Faolain. That he is neglected today may be down to a certain repetitive quality in the work and a tendency to reproduce stereotypical and predictable characters and scenarios. Nevertheless, he is justly revered as a great stylist whose superb command of the language produced an enviably rich, elegant prose. Their sister Annie Bhán (1893-1963) was a noted storyteller, the subject of a fine book in her own right (MacLennan 1997) and another brother Seán Bán (1905-1979), the youngest sibling, made some of the finest song poetry heard in Donegal since their maternal Ó Dónaill ancestors were active at the turn of the nineteenth century. Seán Bán’s songs have been recorded by Clannad and other artists over the years and are readily familiar to any regular listener to traditional song. The parents themselves, Feilimí and Máire were noted tradition bearers. Feilimí’s voice was recorded by Wilhelm Doegen in Belfast in 1931, providing a Marian prayer and a short humorous story on that occasion. https://doegen.ie/LA_1235d2 https://doegen.ie/LA_1234d1
The accompanying biographical note records Feilimí as having received no schooling, and being unable to read and write in either Irish or English, though he could speak both.
Seosamh, eleven years his brother Séamus’s junior, seems to have felt an acute sense of persecution from an early age, perhaps as a result of his younger status. He writes: “If someone else did something untoward, it was quickly forgotten and they got away with it; but if I did something wrong, I never heard the end of it.” This bolstered an innate rebellious streak, evident throughout Mo Bhealach Féin and in this fine translation by Micheál Ó hAodha, This Road of Mine. He and his brother Séamus (Máire) never saw eye to eye, despite their interest in literature and their status as writers. They disagreed even on the Irish spelling of their surname, Séamus choosing Ó Grianna, while Seosamh retained Mac Grianna, probably the more historically justifiable variant. The difference in temperament is clearly evident from Seosamh’s passionate interest in modernism of all kinds and in his determination to remain free of obligation, as a vital necessity for his honesty and integrity as an artist, a conviction that amounted to a sometimes contradictory obsession. For example, he could on one hand promote liberation of the masses and on the other be completely in favour of an old aristocratic value system, believing himself to be a descendant of kings. The tantalising pursuit of integrity and candour provides the animating principle of the book translated as This Road of Mine.
Although plagued by paranoid doubt and serious depression, Mac Grianna remained proud of his literary output, naming some of his most important works in the course of this book, An Droma Mór (a novel), Dochartach Dhuibhlionna (short stories), Ar an Tráigh Fhoilimh (a short story about the Famine), Creach Chuinn Uí Dhomhnaill (a story set at a Gaelic chieftain’s court in Donegal) and Séamus Mac Murchaidh (a story about artistic creativity, ostensibly concerning the rapparee Séamus Mac Murchaidh of South Armagh). He also translated a number of works into Irish, notably three by Joseph Conrad.
Although this translation has been hailed as a “forgotten” classic, this is not strictly the case. Mo Bhealach Féin has for a long time enjoyed something like cult status as a modern classic among readers of Irish, especially those with an interest in Donegal Irish. A considerable body of criticism exists on Mac Grianna’s work, including work by Séamus Deane, Declan Kiberd, Cathal Ó hÁinle, Alan Titley, Pól Ó Muirí and Fionntán de Brún. Often included in university syllabuses under courses on “autobiography”, it is however quite unlike any of the works in the Blasket Library. Although Mac Grianna came from a similar background, his father having worked as a seasonal migratory labourer in Scotland for forty years, he received a thorough formal education, a right denied his elder brother and most others of his generation. As a result of his intellectual ability he received scholarships and eventually qualified as a primary school teacher. Irish had been included on the primary curriculum by 1904, and assumed greater importance on the secondary curriculum after 1908, when it became a necessary subject for matriculation to the newly established National University of Ireland. Clearly, apart from the required reading on the official curriculum, Seosamh read voraciously in both languages. This provided him with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and an enduring interest in literature and art. Though he taught for a short time, it became apparent that he could not endure the routine of a regular existence and he soon turned to writing full time.
One of his first works was to write down accounts of his maternal ancestors, Aodh, Peadar and Séamus Ó Domhnaill, brothers who flourished at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. His maternal uncle, Johnny Sheimisín Ó Domhnaill (1863-1948), a great-grandson of Séamus, had committed their songs to writing using a phonetically based spelling borrowed from the English system he had learned at school. Having been formally taught the historical orthography of Irish, Seosamh restored his uncle’s records to their traditional written appearance and published them in 1926. He remained intensely proud of these poet ancestors and often alludes to them, occasionally quoting their work in Mo Bhealach Féin.
Mo Bhealach Féin is more of a novel than an autobiography, an attempt to work out the relationship between art and the artist and to confound the critics or anyone else who might want to lay a claim to the author. Unusually, for a work written in the 1930s by someone whose first language was Irish, it is set in Dublin, London, Liverpool and Cardiff, as well as taking in a great swath of Wales as the narrator sets off on foot on an epic journey that will clarify once and for all for him his artistic vision in a Celtic land with a beleaguered language closely akin to his own. Therefore it can be considered an urban novel, though Mac Grianna’s perspective as an Irish speaker remains closely tied to his Ulster Gaelic heritage and his native patch, Rannafast, the least colonised spot in the archipelago, according to him. Mac Grianna is frank about his bouts of lethargy induced by depression, so that the reader can apprehend the varying stability of the narrator’s mental health. Though not overemphasised, the contrarian paranoia that pervades the work links directly with the bouts of crippling depression tellingly, if briefly described.
While it is not a direct attack, the work is an indictment of the poverty endured by a large number of Dublin people during the depression of the ’30s and gives a vivid impression of the daily hardships. Indeed, given the current crisis in homelessness, the theme remains enduringly relevant. Another relevant theme foreshadows today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Mac Grianna was certainly the first Irish language writer to address the issue of racism in his work as he encountered it through his friendship with Mac Mhaitiú/Matthews, a man of colour and an activist in Cardiff during the author’s stay in the city. Mac Grianna’s treatment of the theme typically ends in an absurdist twist, but the concern he expresses appears genuine enough.
Mac Grianna himself was fortunate that his education and his ability as a writer in Irish provided him with a good, if not a regular, income. but his descriptions of the lodging houses in which he stayed, the inedible food, and the many quarrels over rent frustrate any nationalist glorification of the achievement of independence. A particularly searing narrative is the story of the widow whose husband was killed in 1916. Employing him as a private Irish tutor to her two children, she ends up sending her daughter to borrow a shilling from him. After an agonising inner debate, he is on the point of giving the girl his last shilling but eventually refuses, saying he has nothing to spare. The next day, he receives news that the widow has died, while a substantial cheque simultaneously arrives for him in the post. Ashamed, he drinks the money.
In another story, concerning a dispute over rent owed, one blow that fells a landlady’s son conveniently and briefly assumes the fearsome status of a Christy Mahon-like mortal attack to create a mock-heroic tone of derring-do. This is a sustained piece in which Art Mac Cumhaigh, the south-east Ulster author of “Úrchill a’ Chreagáin” becomes the narrator’s new identity as he disguises himself in case of his capture and arrest for murder. But after the novelty wears off, mundane reality reasserts itself with the realisation that he has not killed the landlady’s lump of a son after all.
Mac Grianna’s hatred for An Gúm, the government publishing agency that provided much of his paid work is another abiding theme. Recent research shows that, in fact, the employees of the agency were quite generous and indulged his impatience and frustration with them, disregarding his outbursts as best they could (Ní Laighléis).
These and other, often fragmentary, anecdotes make up the book so that it may be difficult to see it as any great achievement. The lack of unity could be a major fault if one expects a linear, chronological narrative, but the very point of the book is the avoidance of such a convention, as claimed perceptively by Gordon Ó Riain, who has compared Mo Bhealach Féin to the work of both Nabokov and Dostoyevsky. The journey is the unifying idea: the road, and all vignettes, contribute to that central concept. Added to that, the quest for connection with the great Gaelic/Celtic past, the desire to inhabit the realm of heroes, to exist in a zone of pure poetic communion, creates a deeper, more complex context for the journey. The book is a study in alienation from normative existence, an outsider’s view on the 1930s in every way. Mac Grianna’s stance resonates closely with the outlook described so successfully in Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, and also bears a striking resemblance to that in Knud Hamsun’s Nobel-prizewinning novel Hunger (1890).
The recent translations of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille have brought his work to a wider reading public, one curious to learn about modern Gaelic literature. The translation of Mo Bhealach Féin by Micheál Ó hAodha does Mo Bhealach Féin a similar honour. The translation adopts an informal, often colloquial tone, making the book quite an easy read, despite its seeming disjunctures. This is a successful and commendable strategy, making this work now accessible to new readers who could not previously have enjoyed it. It will also help those who would like to dip into the original text by providing them with a readily available guide.
The translation marks a certain departure from the prose style of the original. Mac Grianna, like his brother Séamus, was a conscious wordsmith who weighed every sentence and who was acutely aware of his own heritage as a descendant of poets, who had moulded the language to their own needs in earlier times. He consistently and continually refers to himself throughout the work as a poet, assuming the title of Rí-Éigeas na nGael in aimsir na hAiséirí on the first page. “The King of Gaelic Poets” is an accurate translation of éigeas, but it lacks the echoic connotation of the term, redolent of bardic learning, wisdom, specialised knowledge and high status. This is a dilemma faced by any translator and Ó hAodha’s strategy in resolving it proves workable and practicable. He provides glosses on some of the more obscure references, especially for those who do not share Mac Grianna’s familiarity with Gaelic literature and culture. In a note, the translator reveals his awareness of this challenge. All in all, he succeeds admirably in his task, making this book a pleasure to read from start to finish, with a coherent and evenly handled text that will make it a popular choice for readers.
A few quirks of an idiomatic nature in Donegal Irish escaped the net, which I will mention here not by way of critique but rather to further emphasise the considerable achievement completed in bringing this work to publication. In the dispute about rent, mentioned earlier, the landlady in question is something of an institution herself, also having literary aspirations. She is described as a dark, mysterious woman who may have Jewish heritage and who is always heavily made-up. In the Irish, she is said to resemble “cathair i ndiaidh na hoíche” which is rendered “a city when the night is over” in translation. That is indeed a possible translation, though I believe that the phrase “i ndiaidh na hoíche” in Ulster Irish translates to “after night” [has fallen], a phrase also readily understood in Ulster English. Likewise, Donegal O’Donnells are always referred to as Na Dálaigh, from an early ancestor called Dálach. This is misleadingly rendered as the O’Dalys in translation. Similarly, the question, “An tú … nó Ceithearnach Caolriabhach Uí Dhónaill a phill agus a fuair an fhéile ar shiúl?” is translated thus: “Are you … or Ceithearnach Caolriabhach Uí Dhónaill who returned to find the feast in full swing?” There is a misunderstanding here of the difference between “ar siúl”, meaning “in progress” and “ar shiúl”, meaning gone away. I believe that the phrase should translate “who returned to find that generosity and hospitality had been abandoned”.
This raises the question of having a second translation to reflect the variability of the challenge in the way that Cré na Cille has been rendered into English twice successfully, by Alan Titley and, using a completely different approach, by the late Tim Robinson and Liam Mac Con Iomaire. Given Mac Grianna’s relative obscurity this is probably unlikely to happen. What is certainly a desideratum however, is to have the rest of his work, which is mostly out of print, republished both in the original and in translation so that today’s readers in Irish and English can access it once again. A translation of “Ar an Tráigh Fhoilimh”, his short story about the Great Famine, appeared in translation in the Field Day Anthology volume 3 in 1991, and An Droma Mór, Mac Grianna’s novel, translated by AJ Hughes, followed after twenty years. Micheál Ó hAodha has done us a signal service in taking another auspicious step in that direction. The Lilliput Press has produced a well-designed and attractive book with a short introduction by Pól Ó Muirí, himself an authority on Mac Grianna. On the whole, the volume makes for a very pleasant reading experience. This work is therefore highly recommended and will undoubtedly achieve its object of introducing Mac Grianna’s most important creative work to new generations of readers.
Suggestions for further reading:
A short biography and a comprehensive list of the critical works mentioned above can be accessed at http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/Mac/M-Grianna_S/life.htm. See also: https://www.aislannrannnafeirste.ie/seosamh-mac-grianna
The following works do not appear on either of these sites:
MacLennan, Gordon. Seanchas Annie Bhán/ The Lore of Annie Bhán. Eds. Alan Harrison & Maria Elena Crook. Seanchas Annie Bhán Publication Committee, 1997.
Ní Laighléis, Gearóidín. ‘An Gúm, An Ghruaim agus an Griannach, ‘in An Gúm 1926-2016, Cnuasach Aistí. https://www.forasnagaeilge.ie/fuinn/an-gum/an-gum-1926-2016-comhdhail-lae
Ó Riain, Gordon. “Mo Bhealach Féin: An Fhírinne agus an Fhilíocht” Bliainiris 2004, 108-136
Lillis Ó Laoire is professor of Irish language, literature and folklore in Roinn na Gaeilge, NUI Galway in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. With Moyra Haslett and Conor Caldwell, he is co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Irish Song (2022).