The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry 
edited by Sean Mac Reamoinn.
Allen Lane, 272 pp., £8.95, November 1982, 0 7139 1284 7
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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.

This schizoid attitude is not confined to government. It has penetrated into many other areas and nowhere more successfully than into literature. Rooms can still be emptied or disturbed by disputes about ‘Anglo-Irish’ as against ‘Irish’ as against ‘Gaelic’ literature. The naming of a literature after a social class, largely because that class produced it, is odd and becomes increasingly anomalous as the literature written by Irish people in the English language has by now gone far beyond that social-linguistic-political boundary which once embraced most of the important writers between Swift and Yeats. But to call it ‘Irish literature’ does exclude the body of work which is in the Irish language and it needs no more exclusions than it already has. ‘Gaelic literature’ implies a distinction between it and ‘Irish’ which can be powerfully disputed, and anyway that term might more accurately describe what has been written in Ireland and Scotland in the Gaelic language, even up to the present day. The scholastic monotonies of the arguments can easily be taken as an indication of the unreality of the whole issue. Gaelic, Erse, Hiberno-English, Anglo-Irish, Irish are but part of the terminological spume that plays about the ghostly paradigm of political things within which the Irish communities have functioned for several centuries. The intensities generated by the dispute have, generally speaking, entered directly into the literature, in both languages. The monotonies, which are equally its product, have usually dominated the commentary on the literature. Ireland has produced an inordinate amount of interesting literature and an inordinate amount of boring literary criticism. The criticism is usually boring because it is bound to base itself, for explanation’s sake, on definitions which the literature has been at pains to escape from, avoid, deflect. To what extent are, say, Swift and Beckett Irish writers? Nothing could be more obtuse than this question: but the conditions of Irish life make nothing more inevitable. A criticism founded on such necessities cannot flourish. A literature, forced by the same pressures to be endlessly alert to language, its own medium, can.

The classic central work in Irish literary criticism is still Daniel Corkery’s Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (1931). Its polemical, even sectarian vigour arises directly from Corkery’s anxiety to define what is essentially ‘Irish’ about the Gaelic literature which Anglo-Irish writing had displaced, and, paradoxically, it is the uncompromising narrowness of this quest which still gives the book its force. To seek the defining characteristic of a literature is a sufficiently difficult business, but Corkery compounded this by seeking to express it in terms of one particular, if predominant grouping – that of the Irish-speaking and Catholic nation which had been destroyed between the late 17th and early 20th century. Yeats tried to recruit this group for his own purposes by inventing a version of Irishness – essentially a conservative, anti-modern temperament – which included the much-lauded Anglo-Irish writers of the 18th century, from Swift to Burke. Although the very term ‘Anglo-Irish’ was not coined until 1791, Yeats’s attempt at unification still has great appeal, and is, perhaps, the best there is. From today’s vantage-point, what seems most futile about these critical exploits is their single-minded desire to identify one unitary feature which can merit the racial title of ‘Irish’. By now, most writers, and a few politicians, acknowledge that there are various Irish communities which are better understood in their interrelationships rather than in terms of some unitary principle, racial, cultural, literary or any other. Sean Mac Reamoinn’s book, is illuminated throughout by this assumption.

It is an introduction to Gaelic poetry which manages to avoid being propagandistic on its behalf. At the same time, it has no ecumenical ambition to reconcile two opposed literary traditions, although its tone is certainly irenic enough on that issue. The essays are all based on scripts broadcast by Radio Eireann. Most of the contributors know Irish as a second language. They came upon its literature with a sense of discovering something strange which was also native to them, and this peculiar experience, sufficiently digested, has had, for many of them, the reverse effect of reminding them that English also is both a strange and native literature. Out of such tensions, which have inevitable political sources and consequences, comes a potent, if hesitant literature. Two literatures and two languages yoked together so violently for so long have elicited various cries and whispers from the writers who inherited both or, more usually, one of them, while remaining sensitive to the unacknowledged presence of the other. ‘We are circumveiloped by obscuritads,’ says a voice in Finnegans Wake, managing to lament the issue in something other than English.

Thomas Kinsella announces here that ‘there is a sense that it is up to us together to overcome the old dividing idiocies and employ our energies directly, as best we can, on the actual material of the vital inheritance that unites us and divides us.’ The Gaelic poet he commemorates is Padraigin Haicead (1600-1654), and he provides a translation of a tribute from Haicead to a harper which might serve as an epigraph for the whole volume:

Blessings on your head in a
glowing heap for ever, beloved,
as you grip the great wooden
travelling-harp. With a stream of
polished playing, profound and
sweet, you have banished the
spider’s web out of all our ears.

The intricate alliteration and assonances of the Irish, the complicated rhythms and rhymes, do not pass over into English. But the intractable problems posed by the strangeness to one another of the two languages generate in all the writers here a strong sense of the predominantly civil music of the English tradition and its inappropriateness to the Irish experience. In saying ‘civil’, I do not mean or imply ‘genteel’. Seamus Heaney, writing of early Irish nature poetry, mentions how it can communicate ‘Little jabs of delight in the elemental’ and distinguishes this from the effect of the bulk (not all) of English verse. ‘It almost seems,’ he says, ‘that since the Norman conquest, the temperature of the English language has been subtly raised by a warm front coming up from the Mediterranean.’ Thus for him, and for most of the other contributors, the infusion of Romance civility into the English language has differentiated it ever more sharply from an Irish culture which was at one time cut off from Medieval and, at a later period, from Renaissance Europe. A linguistic Spring overtaken by a dark political Winter, with scarcely an intervening summer season – such is the impression gained from these essays on the pristine vigours and inbred sophistications of Irish literature. One of the most telling essays is written by Michael Hartnett, who, some years ago, switched from writing poetry in English to writing in Irish. Hartnett confesses himself to be ‘obsessed by the work and mind of Daibhi O Bruadair’ (David Broderick or Brouder), the 17th-century poet from the Limerick area who witnessed the tragic sequence of events which destroyed his native cultural habitat: ‘the Popish Plot, the coming of Cromwell, the battle of the Boyne, the Treaty of Limerick and its non-ratification, the dispersal of the Irish leaders and their armies, and the selling into slavery (mainly to the Barbados) of thousands of women and children’. He broods in his poetry on the reasons for his culture’s ruin and finds them in his own people’s dissensions and their own dishonouring of their old customs, including respect for their own tongue.

If one now writes to the proper rule,
in the way demanded by the schools,
then some smart-alec Paddy or such
will say it is as obscure as Dutch.

God of Heaven, preserve and keep
the one man who protects from need
the climbers who scale true poetry
and avoid the lovers of English and ease. Amen.

Through O Bruadair, Hartnett reminds us of one of the permanent psychological wounds left by the loss of the language: a habit of self-castigation which can easily become shame, a sense of inferiority which can easily become submission. It was out of shame and submission that the language revival grew, defending its newly acquired vigour in an exclusive, often bitter spirit, always remembering O Bruadair’s famous line, which began with the new Sinn Fein words: ‘We ourselves have buried the summer at last.’

The bitterness of some of this poetry is not reserved for the people who betrayed the old culture from the inside. Those who came from the outside inevitably take the brunt of some of the most contemptuous jibes. It is salutary to remember that the Irish Ascendancy class of the 18th century was regarded by the native speakers as a sham aristocracy, as a people without blood, dignity or ancestry. The Yeatsian apotheosis of this class fades very quickly for the reader of Aogan O Rathaille, the greatest of modern Gaelic poets, a contemporary of Swift. John Jordan’s eloquent and penetrating essay on O Rathaille is one of the best things in the book. Sympathetic to both the Irish and the English literature of that period, Jordan is able to give us a sense of the intimacy and the distance between them and, further, to show how the wrong-headed Yeats had, as always, the imaginative sympathy to embrace both while understanding neither. O Rathaille’s most famous poem, ‘Cabhair Ni Ghairfeadh’ (‘No help I’ll call’), a threnody on the lost tradition which he embodied, ends with the famous boast that he will go to the grave to join those kings ‘My people served before the death of Christ’. Jordan points out that this line is incorporated into Yeats’s poem ‘The Curse of Cromwell’, in Last Poems:

And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride –
His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified.

Yeats came to O Rathaille, or to this line of his, with the help of Frank O’Connor. Introducing O’Connor’s name, John Jordan introduces a writer who won a particular fame as a translator of Irish as well as a more widely acknowledged renown as a short-story writer in English. The translator has been of extraordinary importance in Irish writing. The reasons are obvious, but the debt is so large that it may go unpaid. Since the early days of the 19th century, at least from Sir Samuel Ferguson up to the present, there has been a powerful interaction between scholarship and poetry which has enriched all Irish writing in English. Kuno Meyer, Robin Flower, James Carney, Brian O’Nolan (alias Flann O’Brien), Gerard Murphy, Valentin Iremonger, Austin Clarke, Sean O’Tuama, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and a host of others have created a kind of interstitial literature which responds to the genius of both tongues and effects thereby a form of reconciliation for which there is no correspondent activity in any other field. One of the great attractions of this book is the generous provision of translations, often with the original Irish. Through them we begin to sense how miraculously contemporary Irish poets like Sean O Riordain and Mairtin O Direain, the subjects of fine essays by Sean O Tuama and Micheal O hUanachain (themselves poets), have overcome the discontinuities and disadvantages of their linguistic position, turning them widdershins into renewal and power. Still, it is perhaps best to remember, as Sean Mac Reamoinn points out in his introduction, that this literature is not confined to Ireland. Scotland also has a Gaelic literature. The three Gaelic literatures have the distinction ‘of being the oldest in any European vernacular’. In Scotland, since Hugh MacDiarmid, and in Ireland, since Sean O Riordain, there has been a renaissance of poetry in the old language. John Montague sees this renaissance embodied in the person and work of Sorley MacLean (Somhairle Mac Gill-Eain). Montague’s essay is a timely reminder that Ireland and Scotland are separated at their closest point by no more than 11 miles of water and they are connected and divided by so much in language, history, religion, that it is no surprise, although it is also, somehow, a shock, to hear the intimacy between the two cultures which MacLean’s poetry registers. His poems ‘At Yeats’s Grave’ and ‘The National Museum of Ireland’ provide yet one more variation on the interrelationships of literature and politics in English and in Gaelic cultures in these islands. In the latter poem, Montague observes MacLean moving from the present Ulster situation back to 1916 and the execution of the Labour leader, James Connolly, who was born in Scotland. The bitterness still prevails:

The great hero is still
sitting in the chair
fighting the battle in the Post Office
or cleaning streets in Edinburgh.

Yet it would be inappropriate to close the account of a book such as this on that note. As an introduction, it could hardly be bettered; as a reminder, it could hardly be more gentle or chastening.

Send Letters To:

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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?

William Milne
London SW18

Seamus Deane showed a sympathetic interest in Scottish Gaelic poetry in the article which inflames William Milne. Or is he joking?

Editor, ‘London Review’

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