Aois na hÓige: Díolaim Próis, Aisling Ní Dhonnchadha, Máirín Nic Eoin (eds), Cló Iar-Chonnacht, €15, ISBN: 978-1784441609
Children’s studies as an academic field has made great strides worldwide and in Ireland in recent years. It was long thought of as a genre unworthy of the attention of serious scholarship, but that view has now radically changed. In tandem with developments in child health, psychology, education and so on, children’s literature deservedly receives much more attention now than in the past. A burgeoning critical literature has grown up around creative writing of various kinds for children and teenagers.
Although the Anglophone world leads in this change, Irish language scholars have also addressed the previous neglect in this important literary genre. As far back as 2003, Caoimhe Máirtín published the groundbreaking volume An Máistir: An Scoil agus an Scolaíocht i Litríocht na Gaeilge. Ten years later, Ríona Nic Congáil’s edited volume of essays on literature for young people in Irish, Laethana Gréine agus Oícheanta Sí (2013) followed. The present volume, by two of the most senior scholars of Irish language literature, asks important questions. The editors try to answer them in this volume by providing a selection of excerpts from the broad spectrum covered by the catchall phrase ‘”Irish Language Literature”. Their two principal directions of inquiry comprise the following: What perspectives can be gained from a study of Irish language literature on the experience of childhood in Ireland? And secondly, can any distinctive aspects of childhood be discerned from a survey of Irish language literature?
The editors further aim to draw readers’ attention to the rich diversity of approaches to writing about childhood to be found in Irish language sources, from the revival of Irish writing in the late nineteenth century until the present. This is a vast field and a daunting one that these two experienced scholars have, nevertheless, successfully navigated. The results are admirable. The editors provide the reader with a variety of important pieces that describe Irish childhood from disparate of points of view.
Ní Dhonnchadha and Nic Eoin have collaborated previously, working together on Ar an gCoigcrích: Díolaim de Litríocht na hImirce (2009), a comprehensive anthology of migration literature which has since become a staple item on the university syllabus. Indeed, that volume itself included many of the same texts included in the present book, given the widespread practice of child migratory labour in Ireland throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. Thus the book includes passages from well-known Gaeltacht autobiographies as well others from more recent, fictionally based works. As in the migration anthology, theme trumps genre and makes for a satisfying way to bring disparate approaches together. Altogether the editors chose twenty-one authors from almost a hundred books, many now out of print, which makes the collection an important contribution to increasing awareness of youth-oriented writing for younger readers. This narrowing suggests that a second, similar, anthology could be compiled without difficulty.
Selected contributors include renowned Blasket writers Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Peig Sayers, his period in the workhouse, and Peig’s going into service because of her sister-in-law’s refusal to keep her providing the relevant topics there. Máire Ní Ghuithín, a lesser-known Blasket author, details her delight at a doll sent by an aunt from America. Her grandmother believes it a more fitting item for display on the kitchen dresser than a child’s toy but, despite her misgivings, Máire is allowed to have it. The engaging description of the young Máire and her friend Siobhán as they play with the doll is all the more poignant when a fireside accident destroys the plaything. The editors point out the almost uncanny resemblance of Ní Ghuithín’s experience and her descriptions to Pearse’s short story “Bairbre”, the name of a doll also owned by a Gaeltacht child. This comparison brings out the promise of combining different genres of writing in the same volume. Another interesting point of comparison is the three short pieces written by Irish-speaking children from Corca Dhuibhne in the teens of the last century. These pieces, encouraged by Pádraig Ó Siochradha (An Seabhac), mark him out as a pioneer in promoting children’s literature, a position consolidated by his own perennial favourite, read by many Irish-speaking schoolchildren in primary school, Jimín.
Máirtín Ó Direáin’s Feamainn Bhealtaine also provides salient insights into island life and the poet’s own engagement with his native community. He wonders who the cailín is that everyone euphemistically refers to when speaking about tuberculosis, thinking that the metaphorical name of the disease is really a human being. He also details his mother’s disapproving warnings to him about playing alone, and shows how a gradual understanding took root in him that island life would not be suitable for him as a result. Parallels can be seen in this account with Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s Lomnochtán and the pseudonymic Robert Schuman’s Kindersehnen. These are fictional works but dovetail well with Ó Direáin’s more autobiographically conventional writing.
The Donegal writers, especially Séamus Ó Grianna, discuss schooling and the way in which the curriculum differed so much from their ordinary life. Ó Grianna emphasises the difficulty Irish-speaking children experienced with the English-speaking curriculum. Having to learn highly Latinate phraseology by heart in order to recite it aloud later in parrot fashion is effectively ridiculed, the later consciousness of the adult informing the earlier child’s perspective in a comically satirical manner. I was disappointed not to see a selection from the youth classic Gasúr de Chuid Bhaile na nGrág (A Boy from Baile na nGrág) (1955) by Tadhg Ó Rabhartaigh excerpted. Although not widely known, the book is a classic coming of age story written from the perspective of a boy in his early to mid-teens. Nevertheless, with contributions from Róise Uí Ghrianna, Eoghan Ó Domhnaill and Micí Mac Gabhann, it cannot be said that Donegal has not received its fair share of space here.
An unexpected perspective on youth in an Irish language anthology, perhaps, is the piece from Alan Titley’s short novel Gluaiseacht, dealing with the story of a sibling pair of African refugees on their way to Europe. The chapter included from that work describes the brother and sister’s arrival in the refugee camp on the shore of the Mediterranean, their subsequent billeting and the boat’s departure for the north in vivid and sometimes chilling terms. Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s description of a young girl’s first trip to the coláiste samhraidh, the Irish summer college, contributes greatly to the heroine’s self-awareness and her understanding of her place in the world in relation to others, something she had not previously comprehended. The comparisons she makes with the life of her housemate Juliet especially give her particular insights that reveal her growing shrewdness and perceptiveness.
This is an excellent collection of writing and presented in an accessible and attractive format. It will, like its predecessor, Ar an gCoigcrích, become a standard item on university literature courses for Irish and is probably intended for this market. It gives a good survey of various genres of writing in Irish and, because of the brevity of most of the pieces, it could also provide an interesting item for the many Irish language book clubs now active throughout the island and indeed, in the diaspora. The editors are to be congratulated for their enterprise and the publisher’s high standards of production deserve similar praise.
Lillis Ó Laoire is senior lecturer in Irish, Folklore and Celtic Civilization at NUI Galway. He is also programme director for MA sa Nua-Ghaeilge.