- The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry edited by Sean Mac Reamoinn
Allen Lane, 272 pp, £8.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 7139 1284 7
The loss of the Irish language was tragic and the attempt to revive it has been a farce. Taken together, these two facts have serious implications for modern Irish nationalism in all its contemporary mutations. It is understood now that the process of ‘de-Anglicisation’ which led to the movement to revive the language was a form of cultural conditioning which helped to create the possibility of political independence. But its continuation beyond that point has been disastrous for the language and for the literature contained within it. The economic factor which contributed so much to the loss of the language – the dependence on an English-speaking commercial system which was world-wide – did not disappear after the achievement of political independence. The ideological factor – nationalist particularism in alliance with Roman Catholicism or with some variant of socialist doctrine – was not dependent on the language as such for its continuance. The idea of the language as something already recovered was more attractive than the immense labour of actually recovering it. The tendency to idolise as a national aspiration the recovery of something which successive government policies have managed to exterminate almost completely is peculiarly damaging both in itself and in its extensions. The structural similarities between the attitudes of Dublin governments to the language and to the North are as horrifying as they are instructive. In Ireland a national aspiration is that which, at all costs, must never be attained. Make that your prior determination and the aspiration can always be kept. Speak for it, work against it. In doing both, with complete conviction, a neurosis is revealed but a policy is retained.
Vol. 5 No. 11 · 16 June 1983
SIR: Seamus Deane in his review of Sean MacReamoinn’s The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (LRB, 21 April) seems altogether reluctant to admit Scottish writers into his pantheon of Gaelic literature: ‘It is perhaps best to remember … that this literature is not confined to Ireland. Scotland also has a Gaelic literature.’ Oh, really? How charming! (For a Scotsman, that hesitant ‘perhaps’ falls somewhat strangely, and rather disquietingly, on the ear.) I suggest Professor Deane reads not only the work of Sorley MacLean in its entirety, but also that of, say, Iain Crichton Smith, George Campbell, Hay and Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh, to name but four major contemporary Scottish poets writing in Gaelic. Professor Deane also appears to be under the misapprehension that Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in Gaelic: ‘In Scotland, since Hugh MacDiarmid … there has been a renaissance of poetry in the old language.’ Gaelic for MacLean, yes, but ‘the old language’ for MacDiarmid was Standard Scots, the language of Dunbar, not Ossian.
Professor Deane seems also not to have heard of Scottish autonomy (nationalism, if you like), stating that two of Sorley MacLean’s poems (‘At Yeats’s Grave’ and ‘The National Museum of Ireland’) ‘provide yet one more variation on the inter-relationships of literature and politics in English and Gaelic cultures in these islands’. English? Never! The poems in question are concerned with those aspects of Gaelic culture shared by both Scottish and Irish speakers of the language. Again, one word, ‘English’ this time, falls strangely, and somewhat disturbingly, on Scottish ears. Has he forgotten that it was English justice James Connolly received, as once before him William Wallace?
Seamus Deane showed a sympathetic interest in Scottish Gaelic poetry in the article which inflames William Milne. Or is he joking?
Editor, ‘London Review’