Gabriel Rosenstock interviewed for Bhashanagar (Kolkata)
Photo by Bill Wolak
By Subodh Sarkar
SS. I am awed by the fact that Ireland writes in `another` language that is her own. We were taught in schools and colleges that Ireland means English, and Ireland is English. Nobody in India is bothered about Ireland`s own language, own literature, own ethnicity. Did you feel the heat of it in India?
GR. Not many people in Ireland or in the West, generally, are aware of India's linguistic diversity, or the endangered linguistic diversity of the world. So we're quits!
Ireland had a literary Golden Age in Irish (Gaelic) long before English arrived on our shores. The language pre-dates English considerably.
I always believed that India derived some inspiration from Ireland’s struggle for independence. (Gandhi and Nehru attest to this). The 1916 Rising had poets and visionaries in its ranks, many of whom were committed to the revival of the Irish language, one of whom, Pearse, corresponded with your Tagore. I’m surprised that this small but significant detail is not part of the educated Indian’s consciousness today. But, my dear Subodh (and how English that sounds!), we must look back to people such as Matthew Arnold (d. 1888) who had this to say when writing about Celtic Literature:
The fusion of all the inhabitants of these islands into one homogeneous, English-speaking whole, the breaking down of barriers between us, the swallowing up of separate provincial nationalities, is a consummation to which the natural course of things irresistibly tends; it is a necessity of what is called modern civilisation, and modern civilisation is a real, legitimate force; the change must come, and its accomplishment is a mere affair of time. The sooner the Welsh language disappears as an instrument of the practical, political, social life of Wales, the better; the better for England, the better for Wales itself. Traders and tourists do excellent service by pushing the English wedge farther and farther into the heart of the principality; Ministers of Education, by hammering it harder and harder into the elementary schools. Nor, perhaps, can one have much sympathy with the literary cultivation of Welsh as an instrument of living literature; and in this respect Eisteddfods encourage, I think, a fantastic and mischief-working delusion. . . . For all modern purposes, I repeat, let us all as soon as possible be one people; let the Welshman speak English, and, if he is an author, let him write English.
This is what Arnold was saying about the main Celtic languages – Welsh, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Breton – and this is what he might say of Malayalam, let us say, or Gujarati today. This is what we are up against, I’m afraid: the racial, social, cultural, political and economical sense of superiority which the English language exudes like an unstoppable flow of diarrhoea. Not everyone in Ireland can swallow such arrogance, thankfully, and that is why the Irish language still exists as an antidote to the ‘mischief-working delusion’ of Matthew Arnold – there, let his own words ricochet back to him and to his ilk and kind. (Metaphorically speaking, of course! Your anti-British Vivekananda loved the English once he got to know them personally . . .)
SS. You have been seen at Indian writers` festivals quite frequently to represent the indigenous literature of the soil, the literature unknown in this part of the world. What, according to you, is the politics that played the game to silence the Irish writers writing in Irish?
GR. Well, you see, many of our successful English-language writers are published in London and New York so don’t tell me that these power houses of the Anglosphere do not have a cultural and linguistic agenda of their own. It was in India (at Hyderabad Literature Festival) that I briefly met the Singaporean critic Edwin Nadason Thumboo who reminded me that the Essays of Yeats were censored by his London publisher: Macmillan only published what they wanted to hear. However, we mustn’t look to the enemy without all the time. In a neo-colonial situation, the blight is closer to hand. In other words, large swathes of the Irish media are what you Indians might call dyed-in-the-wood Macauleyites and ignore Irish-language literature and other forms of Gaelic culture (except music and sports which they can’t get away from).
SS. When did you start your career as a writer, as a poet, as a
translator? What motivated you to choose Irish as your language as a poet, and English as a translator?
GR. I’m actively bilingual but I am much more inspired by Irish than I am by English. English, as a world language, is a useful tool for communication and, of course, as a bridge language when I did Irish-language versions, or transcreations, of Tagore, Iqbal, or your great bhakti poet-saints, let us say.
The music of the Irish language is far more beguiling to my ears. Throughout Irish history, poets have referred to ‘an garbh-Bhéarla’, the coarse-sounding English tongue.
I may not have taken the final decision to throw my lot in with the Gael (versus the Saxon) until attending Cork University where Michael Davitt, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Liam Ó Muirthile and myself became associated with the student poetry magazine INNTI which Davitt and I co-founded. This was in the early 1970s and some of the rebellious spirit of the Sixties was still in the air… students rioting in Paris and elsewhere, the Gandhi- Martin Luther King inspired Civil Rights and anti-war marches in the US.
In Ireland, the last outposts of Irish-speaking Ireland (the Gaeltacht) also began to protest about issues such as the haemorrhage of emigration and dearth of Irish-language media. Have we progressed since then? Yes and no. It’s a see-saw affair, up and down. The state appointed a Language Commissioner to ensure that Irish-speakers would be able to deal with the state through Irish but he resigned due to lack of progress!
SS. Becket is held in high esteem in India, Yeats is loved, Joyce is an idol in Kolkata. Strangely enough, no Irish-language poet writing in Irish is known in India. How do you react?
GR. Is Kolkata viewing the literary world through an English prism? Is India experiencing the same neo-colonial symptoms that still plague Ireland today? What can I say? Are you reaching out to poets who are writing in lesser-spoken languages or are you content with what is dished up as fashionable by the Anglosphere? Is it our fault or your fault that Irish-language literature, ancient and new, is unknown in Bengal? Are you familiar with poets from Slovenia, Albania, Iceland, Romania, Switzerland, Finland etc? Somebody once compared Irish-language poetry to a plant that thrives better in the shade! It might wither in the full glare of the sun.
If literary Kolkata has never heard of poets such as Biddy Jenkinson, Seán Ó Ríordáin, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill or Máirtín Ó Direáin, who is to blame? You tell me. Have you heard of the Scots Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean? Had he won the Nobel Prize you would have heard of him, of course. Perhaps he hadn’t been translated into Swedish which would have mitigated against his chances. We cannot read everything in every language, of course, (even in translation) but if you only know the literature of Ireland through her English-language writers, you’ve only got one side of the coin and I am grateful for the opportunity you have given me here to hint at a fuller picture. Let us open the floodgates of two-way translation, please, and enrich each other’s spirit and culture in this way. We have more in common than at first sight may be obvious.
SS. When you visit literary India, maybe in Mumbai or in Wardha or in Delhi or anywhere else, do you notice the same thing in modern India has also been carried forward? You write in English then you exist, you write in your own language and you are nobody in the national market here.
GR. If you are thinking of the market you have already forfeited your soul. If you are thinking and dreaming in English (and suppressing your native tongue) you have forfeited your soul. You are guilty of cultural treason. One of the poet-revolutionaries of the 1916 Rising, P.H. Pearse, used to say, ‘Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam’; a country without a language is a country without a soul. Yes, the market is full of soul-less writing, in Ireland, in India, everywhere. I belong to a generation which, in a way, was divided between those who accepted Pearse’s dictum and those who didn’t. I accepted it, in a spirit of nationalistic fervour. I’m no longer a nationalist. I’ve more sympathy for Utopian Anarchism and no longer believe in nations, borders, flags or badges of nationality. (Languages can survive, I hope, without being festooned with tribalistic badges and ribbons). Those who rejected Pearse’s dictum resented the fact that Irish became a compulsory subject in schools after independence or, for one reason or another, they did not see any advantage in being bilingual in a world that is dominated by English. The English propaganda machine is very powerful – the best tennis in the world is Wimbledon, the best flower show is Chelsea, the best literary prize for a novel is the Booker, the best broadcaster is the BBC. If we measure ourselves by foreign brands of excellence, our own values shrink into nothingness.
SS. As soon as the status of Irish as a major language was lost, interestingly enough, Irish continued as the language of the greater part of the rural population and, for a time, of the working classes in towns. History says: "From the middle of the eighteenth century, as the penal laws were relaxed, and a greater social and economic mobility became possible for the native Irish, the more prosperous members of the Irish-speaking community began to adopt an Anglicized way of life and to take up English. This increased during and after the Great Famine (1846-1848). The language was on the point of extinction``. How did it happen?
What did the writers do to save the sanctity of their own language?
GR. The Gaelic world order collapsed after the Battle of Kinsale and the Flight of the Wild Geese. (You can look these up!). The Wild Geese were the native Gaelic aristocracy, patrons of the bards. We are talking about the beginning of the seventeenth century, 1607. This was the first of many calamities. Ireland was “planted” with English landlords and the native Irish were kept in poverty and often in mental and spiritual slavery. During the penal days, you couldn’t refer to Ireland/ Éire by name and poets devised over 200 names for their country, such as the Droimeann Donn Dílis, the name of a cow. Can you imagine Mathhew Arnold referring to Britain as a cow? This brings the Irish Gaelic sensibility and the Indian sensibility closer together, I think. And if you do a bit of surfing on the internet, you should find Séamus Ennis, a great folklore collector and musician, singing the Droimeann Donn Dílis in tones that you might find closer to Indian music than to that of the West. That’s a little experiment which you can conduct on your own. But to continue with the narrative: in the mid 1840s the potato famine struck. Millions died as the potato was the staple diet. (Landlords continued to export corn at this time, with the help of armed British regiments, corn which could have fed the ‘wretched of the earth’). Millions emigrated. (You wouldn’t have had an Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy, as President of the US without those waves of emigration). The Irish language became associated with poverty in the eyes of a rising middle class that favoured English as the language of opportunity.
I recently attended a festival to honour the memory of Seamus Heaney. The event took place in a church in the village of Ashford, a Church of Ireland (Protestant) building. Before the event, which was sold out, I strolled around, looking at the memorial plaques on the walls, one to a Captain Howard, 18th Hussars, who died at Madras, February 11th, 1875, aged 38 years. Yes, there were jobs going, in the Army, in the civil service, in the expanding British Empire and what good was the Irish language to you in Kolkata or Delhi? It wasn’t much good to you in Dublin either, until we had a government of our own: the Irish language as a passport to a permanent, pensionable state job soon became a matter of derision among many. The Church, with a few exceptions, favoured Anglicisation. It went hand in hand with material progress, as Matthew Arnold and so many others relentlessly preached.
SS. There is no denying the fact that at the beginning of the eighteenth century scholars, paradoxically, started to get interested in the language and in its literature. But the opinion was on the rise that Spoken Irish was declining. It has also happened in India in the case of non-administrative languages. Was adopting an Anglicized way of life the killer of the spoken Irish?
GR. One of those antiquarians, Whitley Stokes, worked on Old Irish texts while living in Kolkata!
Obviously, the false god of Anglicisation was a factor in the replacement of Irish; but a culture is more than language and the polite ways of a new rising middle class, mimicking English fashion, meant turning their backs on many pagan customs that still survived in rural Ireland. But you also had ‘lords and ladies’ of an Anglicised hue (often Protestant as opposed to the peasant Catholic) who embraced and mastered the Irish language when the Revival was briefly fashionable. But their interest in the language was imbued with a romantic, antiquarian cast of mind, much as those people who did the Grand Tour of Europe and became interested in fossils and relics of the past. As soon as Irish language revivalists joined subversive groups, such as the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, things got a bit too rough for many of the gentle folk who had embraced the Irish-language revival.
The new state, when it finally arrived, didn’t know much about language planning. How do your revive a language which was once spoken by at least 5 million people in the pre-Famine years and which today has only about 50,000 native speakers left? Israel had revived Hebrew but close comparisons cannot be made with that situation which required a language to unify Jews that were coming from many different linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. Too much of the burden o the Irish Revival was placed on the educational sector. Schooling alone cannot revive a language. There were some very good recommendations made to the government by expert committees but too many well-meaning schemes fizzled out or were never acted upon. It’s been up and down ever since and the future is uncertain.
Our new state, in fact, retained much of the British structures that had previously been in place, in matters of law and administration. It has often been said that all we achieved was smothering red British post boxes with green paint.
SS. I am not to believe that everybody wanted to be English. Right?
GR. Damn right! However, a lot of people can express their identity through forms other than linguistic ones. There’s music and sports, for instance. There’s also a distinctive Irish speech, various accents and speech patterns, which owe something to the Gaelic hinterland, and an Irish personality and wit colours Irish speech in many areas today. Unfortunately, through the influence of Anglo-American pop culture, many young people today are no longer speaking any language known to man; they seem to be squeaking like something out of an American cartoon. I wonder what would Matthew Arnold think of it? For an example of this distinctive Irish speech, common in rural Ireland until recently, I wonder how many Indians would be able to read The Weaver’s Grave by Seamus O’Kelly without a glossary. Here’s an extract. Though written in English, the tone and the rhythm of it is quite Gaelic. Not many people write like this any more:
What is it you’re saying about the spot between the mounds?’ he demanded.
‘I’m saying’, said Meehaul Lynskey vehemently, ‘that it’s the weaver’s grave.’
‘Mortimer Hehir’, replied Meehaul Lynskey. ‘There’s no other weaver in it.’
‘Was Julia Rafferty a weaver?’
‘What Julia Rafferty?’
‘The midwife, God rest her.’
‘How could she be a weaver if she was a midwife?’
‘Not a one of me knows. But I’ll tell you what I do know and know rightly: that it’s Julia Rafferty is in that place and no weaver at all.’
‘Amn’t I telling you it’s the weaver’s grave?’
‘And amn’t I telling you that it’s not?’
‘That I may be as dead as my father but the weaver was buried there.’
‘A bone of a weaver was never sunk in it as long as weavers was weavers. Full of Raffertys it is.’
‘Alive with weavers it is.’
‘Heavenly Father, was the like ever heard: to say that a grave was alive with dead weavers.’
‘It’s full of them - full as a tick.’
‘And the clean grave that Mortimer Hehir was never done boasting about - dry and sweet and deep and no way bulging at all. Did you see the burial of his father ever?’
‘I did, in troth, see the burial of his father - forty years ago if it’s a day.’
‘Forty year ago - it’s fifty-one year come the sixteenth of May. It’s well I remember and it’s well I have occasion to remember it, for it was the day after that again that myself ran away to join the soldiers, my aunt hot foot after me, she to be buying me out the week after, I a high-spirited fellow morebetoken.’
‘Leave the soldiers out of it and leave your aunt out of it and stick to the weaver’s grave. Here in this place was the last weaver buried, and I’ll tell you what’s more. In a straight line with it is the grave of -’
‘A straight line, indeed! Who but yourself, Meehaul Lynskey, ever heard of a straight line in Cloon na Morav? No such thing was ever wanted or ever allowed in it.’
‘In a straight direct line, measured with a rule -’
‘Measured with crooked, stumbling feet, maybe feet half reeling in drink.’
‘Can’t you listen to me now?’
‘I was always a bad warrant to listen to anything except sense. Yourself ought to be the last man in the world to talk about straight lines, you with the sight scattered in your head, with the divil of sparks flying under your eyes.’
‘Don’t mind me sparks now, nor me sight neither, for in a straight measured line with the weaver’s grave was the grave of the Cassidys.’
‘The Cassidys that herded for the O’Sheas.’
‘O’Shea Ruadh of Cappakelly. Don’t you know any one at all, or is it gone entirely your memory is?’
‘Cappakelly inagh ! And who cares a whistle about O’Shea Ruadh, he or his seed, breed and generations? It’s a rotten lot of landgrabbers they were.’
‘Me hand to you on that. Striving ever they were to put their red paws on this bit of grass and that perch of meadow.’
You may notice in that extract that place names such as Cloon na Marv are meaningless Anglicised forms of original Gaelic names. Most place names, names of rivers, lakes and mountains in Ireland, are Gaelic but are known by their Anglicised forms. Brien Friel, who died this year, made a drama out of it, Translations.
SS. Literature at its highest level can hardly save a language.
Bengali in Kolkata is reeling under a threat of extinction. Kolkata has a double-faced hypocrisy. It loves Bengali but uses English. The city praises dark hair but secretly wants to be blonde. I describe this subversion as `clandestine in India`. It`s not the scholars, nor the writers who can save a language but it is the working class people who can save their language. Do you notice any movement now to save the Irish language?
GR. There are Irish-medium schools in working class and in middle class Ireland, North and South. But schools won’t save the language, as I have said. I have met native Irish speakers of the far left and have bought their publications from them, pointing out their neglect of the Irish language. The far left saw the language revival as something to which middle class nationalists paid lip service and while some of the 1916 leaders, such as James Connolly, were committed socialists, the language and the left have not been conspicuous bed fellows, unfortunately. One of our prominent writers, Tomás Mac Síomóin, in voluntary exile in Barcelona, has written about Ireland as a neo-colonial entity, a description which our politicians (he claims) have failed to recognise. (I recommend his book The Broken Harp, available from Amazon). How can politicians act on something they don’t even recognise? How can they cure something if they are blind to the symptoms? This is the crux of the matter. I read in The New York Times that English-language newspapers in India are now printing editions in Indian languages so this gives one some hope that linguistic diversity can thrive.
SS. Thomas Davis, in 1843, was among those who publicly declared that Irish is a "national language". Why is it not yet so?
GR. It is a national language, but only in name. Thomas Davis and most of his friends in the Young Ireland Movement said this and more, it is true. They said it in English! Their newspaper, The Nation, was in English. When Davis was publishing The Nation, how could such a newspaper have been in Irish when Irish wasn’t taught in schools under British rule, when speaking Irish in the playground was a punishable offence?
SS. The documents testify that The Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, which was established in 1876, managed to gain recognition for Irish at every level of the education system from primary school level to university. In the year 1893 Dubhghlas de hÍde, Eoin Mac Néill, Father Eoghan Ó Gramhnaigh and others established Conradh na Gaeilge, or the Gaelic League. Within a couple of years they managed to create a mass movement of support for the Irish language. Is that mass support for Irish now again in decline?
GR. The mass support fizzled out, I’m afraid. Kafka reminds us that most revolutions get choked, in time, by red tape. Nevertheless, all public opinion polls and national surveys today will tell you that there is about 70% support for the language. That support is not translated into direct action as our schooling system has not produced the sufficient levels of fluency among enough people to create living Irish-speaking communities. Outside of the state, in Northern Ireland, Belfast, curiously enough, there is something of the cultural excitement that characterised what was happening in the South a hundred years ago.
SS. What role did you take in the mass support besides being a poet? I mean did you take any role of a language activist as a saviour of your own language?
GR. I joined the Gaelic League but only for a day as it didn’t seem to be a natural home for poets and intellectuals that it once was. I worked with RTÉ, the national broadcaster, for two years on an Irish-language TV and radio series which taught the language; for another two years I worked on a now defunct Irish-language newspaper and for the rest of my life I worked with a state publishing company that produced books, dictionaries and educational materials in the Irish language. I have acted on stage, original plays in Irish as well as translations of Pinter, Arthur Miller and others. Love of language inspired these activities; so, far from being the narrow pursuit which some of my fellow citizens might see it, a life devoted to the Irish language has been as broad, internationally minded and as varied as one might wish for.
Over the years I have contributed to the national debate about the language, as a frequent letter writer to the papers and so on. I was involved (and still am) with the IMRAM literature festival which produces Irish-language events in a multi-media context and I have translated songs for the festival by Leonard Cohen, Van Morrisson, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, The Pgues, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell etc.. You started off this interview by saying that your readers are familiar with Irish writers in English such as Yeats, Heaney and Beckett, all of whom I have translated into Irish. Is this a subversive act? In a way it is. It says, this is how Yeats, Heaney and Beckett would have written had it not been for the Conquest of Ireland. Of course, that’s not true at all because the Conquest formed them, their minds and their themes and their styles, so we do not know what they would have been writing about had the Conquest not happened.
I have written and translated huge amounts of material for children of all ages – poems, stories, picture books, TV cartoons. There are many ways of being a language enthusiast and a language activist. Political canvassers who come to my door get short shrift if their flyers are in English only. I would be one of many writers campaigning for equal rights, equal representation and I think in the past forty years or so, anthologies of Irish literature without Irish-language contributions are seen to be deeply flawed. We wouldn’t be having this conversation were it not for the fact that I have gone out of my way towards an international outreach. I have ‘transcreated’ into Irish the selected poems of K. Satchidanandan (Malayalam), Hemant Divate (Marathi), Dileep Jhaveri (Gujarati), Rati Saxena (Hindi) and co-edited an anthology of Gujarati poety, edited by Jhaveri, that appeared in Irish. PoetryWala in Mumbai, in turn, has brought out a selection of my own poety translated into English called I Open My Poem… So, I have frequent conversations with poets outside of the confines of my own small island nation, Ireland, and tirelessly promote the work of many of my Irish-language contemporaries as a translator and as a cultural activist. I’m an internationalist and my Irish-language blog is a potpourri of many cultures, literatures and beliefs, ranging from Japanese haiku to the Advaita tradition of India. Irish has brought me down many an interesting byroad and, I think, much further afield than would have been the case were I crippled as an English-speaking monoglot.
But, seriously, if you ask what role I played in the survival of Irish, my wife Eithne and I reared our four children as native Irish speakers. What more can we do?
Seamus Heaney’s view of the Irish language:
November 25th, 2015