Revista Latinoamericana de Poesía
Número 93. Noviembre de 2012.
The Irish Language and its Literature:
a Brief Overview and some Points to Ponder
By Gabriel Rosenstock
Greek and Latin aside, Irish is the oldest written literary language in Europe, considerably older than the dominant language in Ireland which is, of course, English. Irish is a Celtic language. Outside influences began with the arrival of Christianity and Latin in the fourth/ fifth century. Prior to the Latin alphabet, the only evidence we have of Primitive Irish is markings on so-called Ogham stones. The sixth to the tenth century is the period of Old Irish or Early Irish. Our early literature is famous for its nature lyrics and poems of piety.
One could argue that the oldest play written in Ireland was not in English or in Irish but in Old Irish. It has been translated by Eleanor Hull as The Colloquoy between Fintan and the Hawk of Achill, a druidic verse play:
I am the grey hawk of Time,
Alone in the middle of Achill.
Since Fintan and his totemic hawk are over six thousand yearsold, if you believe in druidic time (as I do!), this could be the oldest play on earth.
After the 10th century Old Irish becomes Middle Irish, a language which produced early satirical, fabulist works such as Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (Mac Conglinne’s Vision). The great sagas and myths were finally written down in a language spoken not only in Ireland but also in the Scottish highlands and islands and on the Isle of Man. Later, Scots Gaelic developed its own distinct language and literature. (It is easier for contemporary speakers of Irish to understand Scots Gaelic than it is to understand Old Irish). Irish myths may not be as widely known as Greek myths, but they deserve to be.
Over the centuries, Irish would absorb influence from the Vikings, the Normans and the English. Latin had given us many words previously, póg (a kiss) is from pax (peace – Christians offered each other a sign of peace with a kiss) and báisteach (rain) comes from baptizare (the water of baptism) a word which also gave us baithis (the crown of the head on which the waters of baptism are poured).
The Leabhar Laighneach (Book of Leinster), a manuscript from the 12th century, lists hundreds of Irish sagas and the ollamh or chief poet was expected to be an authority on these and to absorb them in ways that influenced the matter and style of his own work.
The sagas and myths had qualities which would make them eminently suitable for an epic film: cattle raids, courtships, seductions, battles, slaughters, feasts, journeys, voyages external and internal. A pagan world of literally mythic proportions. The delightful frisson between the pagan and the Christian would be a characteristic of much Irish writing up until our own day. The Ulster Cycle (An Rúraíocht) gives us a heady mixture of high romance, war chariots, bravery and treachery whilst the Ossianic Cycle carries us away to the wooded hills for feasting, story-telling, romance, hunting, feats of bravery, enchanting tales and verse surrounding the enduring myths of other realities, Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth. Place naming and love of place shine through much of the early literature, reminding us of aeons past when Ireland herself was a tripartite goddess, Éire/Banba/Fódla. Sacred ground! My bilingual poem sequence Bliain an Bhandé/Year of the Goddess (first published by Dedalus and later by Original Writing for Kindle) honours this tradition.
The word for a poet in Irish file means a seer and it was the poet who inherited some of the ancient functions of the druid. We have descriptions of Gaelic poets in Ireland and Scotland which are associated with magical or even yogic practises, such as composing in the dark with a heavy stone placed on the chest, or emptying the mind (presumably) behind a waterfall. One should note an ghlámh dhígeann, poetic satire causing the victim to be covered in blisters, a remnant of druidic voodoo magic in all probability and Shakespeare was familiar with the Irish bard’s ability to rhyme rats to death!
The early Irish monks preserved pagan literature and lore by transcribing it, in Irish, whereas in most other parts of Europe native pagan lore was being systematically wiped out by Latin. Ancient Irish literature is, therefore, a key to unlocking not only our own past but also much of the past of pre-Christian Europe, a hint at how men and women thought and behaved in times beyond our ken.
Sometime between the 13th and the 15th century came Buile Shuibhne/ The Madness of Sweeney, a unique tale with poems in which a mad king is away with the birds:
Like cold snow of a single night
was the aspect of thy body ever;
blue-hued was thine eye, like crystal,
like smooth, beautiful ice...
Early Modern Irish starts around the thirteenth century and is a period famous for its schools of poetry. Over three hundred metres evolved in this sophisticated milieu. Notable poets from that period were Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh (1175-1244), Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh (1180-1250), Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh (1320-87), Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn (1550-91), Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa (1567-1617), Aodh Mac Aingil (1571-1626), Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh (1602-1640).
Below is my translation of a poem from that period.
Days of the Week
We know little about the poet, Aonghus Fionn Ó Dálaigh, known as Aonghus na Diagachta (‘Aonghus of the Divinity)’. He flourished in the late sixteenth century. Over fifty poems survive, mostly of a deeply religious nature. He had a school of poetry in Duhallow, Co. Cork, at a time – from 1530 onwards – when ordinances were being issued to destroy the native literary classes (“Yryshe minstrels, rymours, shannaghes & bardes”).
O Christ, protect me!
How can I know your power?
Your peace I need now
Branch of fairest flower!
O child of Bethlehem
Please do not be hard!
Ruler of all
On Sunday be my guard.
On Monday, when you judge me
Save me from all harm,
Though angered by your wounds
Stretch out your arm.
On Tuesday, lovely Son
Who never shirked pain
Let the world’s kings stand aside
Be my gain!
On Thursday, God the Father,
Do not deny your face,
Your pain stirs love within me
Seal your grace.
O Trinity, stand by me
Without you we are dust,
On Friday, hold back your anger,
Help us, you must.
On Saturday, save me!
My deeds leave me in danger,
Do not tax me too much,
I am no stranger.
Son of the Father, help me,
Only Son most high,
Pardon us, in spite of all,
This, too, was the period in which Anglo-Norman influence coloured native love poetry with the sensibility of amour courtois. (See some superb examples of this genre in A Treasury of Irish Love which I compiled for Hippocrene Books, New York). But Cromwellian terror was on the horizon and those poets who did not perish by the sword would be left homeless and bereft.
Gaelic Ireland began to decline with the collapse of the native aristocracy at the beginning of the seventeenth century and the literature reflected this cataclyismic upheaval. Micheál Ó Cléirigh (1575-1645) and his team of scribes gave us the florid Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (The Annals of Ireland), and more pseudo-history from the Counter-Reformationist Geoffrey Keating/Seathrún Céitinn came in the form of Forus Feasa ar Éirinn and was widelycirculated in manuscript. Pseudo-history may be the wrong term entirely. Céitinn was trained in France and his aim was to write a history that countered the story of Ireland as seen through the eyes of the conqueror.
Here’s a poem that should be better known:
Do bhíodh ag Laoghaire san lios
Séafradh Ó Donnchadha an Ghleanna (?1616 -1678)
Do bhíodh ag Laoghaire san lios
gur traochadh ár dtír tar n-ais
súgh caora i gcuachaibh gan ghlas
’s luachair ghlas co caolaibh cos.
Bun-ghlaise ghrianmhar an ghleann’
a bheann aoibhinn is mian liom,
ionann scáil a ciabh ’s a com
fonn fághnathach fiadh na mbeann.
Bun-ghlaise ghrianmhar an ghleann’
ag teacht le sleasaibh na gcídh gcorr
ba ghnáthach ann le ceoltaibh crot
feoil bhroc, bradáin is breac.
Lusradh cois-mhín na ngort,
Oscar, Oisín agus Art,
Clanna Rónáin na lann nglas,
im ghleann ar chontráith ba chlos.
In Laoghaire’s fortress once
Geoffrey O’Donoghue of Glenflesk (?1616-1678)
In Laoghaire’s fortress once –
before our land began to die –
wine flowed freely from goblets
green rushes spread round ankle-high.
Sunny stream of the valley
my heart rises to the crags!
crest and hollow in deep shadow –
a land for wandering stags.
Sunny stream of the valley
from the sacred Paps flows out
to the wild music of harps –
meat of badger, salmon, trout.
Soft each herb underfoot,
Oscar, Oisín and Art
Clanna Rónáin of the steely blades
were heard in my glen before the dark.
(English version: GR)
Geoffrey O’Donoghue, Lord of Glenflesk (Séafradh Ó Donnchadha an Ghleanna) was a leading 17th century poet. Once famed for his lavish banquets, Cromwell and his pack of ‘madraí úisc’ (greasy dogs) put a swift end to all of that. The prince turned outlaw. Legend has it that he and his men revived the banqueting tradition by feasting on some of the above-mentioned dogs!
Much of his work is lost but interested readers should read John Minahane’s spirited treatise on Ó Donnchadha (and Ireland’s War Poets 1641-1653) published by Aubane Historical Society, 2008. (ISBN 978-1-903497-49-4)
Many poets had lost their patrons. Black and bitter was the ink which often ran from the pens of such highly accomplished poets as Piaras Feiritéar, (1600–1653), Pádraigín Haicéad (1600-54), Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (1625-98) and Aogán Ó Rathaille (1670-1728). This was the beginning of the aisling genre, the visionary poem in which Ireland appears to the poet as a muse or goddess offering one last glimmer of hope.
By the 16th century Catholics were forbidden to publish in Ireland and so we find that the first publishing house for Irish-language texts was not in Ireland at all but in the Franciscan college, St. Anthony’s, in Louvain; it was in Antwerp that the first Irish-language catechism was published. But the first book in Irish was in 1564 and was the work of Protestants, an Irish translation of John Knox’s Liturgy by the Bishop of the Hebrides.
Colonial English law in Ireland was not sympathetic to native ways but other calamities were to cause even further damage to the fabric of the Gaelic world resulting in a major language shift in Ireland. In the mid 1840s the potato famine struck, millions died and millions more emigrated.
Even great Catholic leaders such as Daniel O’Connell, whose aunt is said to have composed the great Gaelic lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (The Lament for Art O’Leary), even he, a native speaker, addressed the ‘monster meetings’ in English. The Church, in the main, saw Irish, too, as a badge of poverty and English was now the language of opportunity as the British Empire grew, taking over huge sections of the globe.
Among the poets born in the eighteenth century or earlier are Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (c.1680-1756), Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta (c.1647 -1753), Peadar Ó Doirnín (1704-68), Aindrias Mac Craith (1708-95), Donnchadh Ruadh Mac Con Mara (1715-1810), Art Mac Cumhaigh (1738-1773), Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1748-84), Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill (1748- c.1800), Brian Merriman (1747-1805), Antaine Raiftearaí (1784-1835). Many of their songs and hundreds of anonymous songs from that period survive and are sung to this day. A prose work from the seventeenth century, Parlaimint Clainne Tomáis (Clann Tomás’s Parliament), was a very popular parody of Irish story telling and exists in several manuscripts.
Irish looked like it was facing inevitable decline and possible extinction by the end of the nineteenth century; indeed, the number of native speakers – over four million in pre-Famine times – had shrunk terribly. Children were punished if they were heard speaking Irish. A combination of oppression and the concomitant self-loathing which accompanies colonisation saw a transition to English, often facilitated by a new type of clergy heavily influenced by Jansenism, a form of puritanism which sought to bury Gaelic ways as remnants of pagan superstition and ‘decadence’.
It was then that various groups, composed of nationalists as well as scholars, writers, romantics and antiquarians saw that something unique and ancient was on its last legs, and the revival movement came into its own. It came into being when the British Empire was at its height but noises of dissent were beginning to be heard, a clamour for political and cultural freedom. And thus it was that after centuries of being second-class citizens in their own land, the Irish engaged in a struggle for freedom and when it was won, at last, those who had played a part in the Irish-language revival were often, but not exclusively by any means, those who had also fought for political freedom. The language was therefore sanctified and perceived to be a key to the process of nation building and today the language enjoys the status of being the first of the two official languages of Ireland.
But what is the reality of the situation? The reality is that too much was expected of the educational system. It was hoped that the education system alone could produce active bilinguals but it did not. Active language planning would require the creation of large areas of the real world in which the language could be used. Is there any point in teaching someone how to order a bag of chips – mála sceallóg le do thoil – if the man in the chip van doesn’t know what language you are speaking? Today, few children, unless educated by Irish-medium schools, or reared by Irish-speaking parents, whether in Irish-speaking areas or elsewhere, can use or are willing to use the language in everyday circumstances. (Polish is more widespread than Irish in Ireland).
The fact of the matter is that English is the dominant instrument of commerce, culture and entertainment. Less than 2% of the staff of the Department of Education is fluent in the language. That says something, I’m afraid. The various reports, commissions and action plans for the language were not acted upon. We now have a recent 20 year plan for the language. Will it work?
And yet, it is fair to say that Irish-language culture punches far beyond its weight and in a cocoon of its own can even be said to thrive. But it is a cocoon nonetheless. There are a number of language organisations and the main one, Foras na Gaeilge, is a North-South body, something unimaginable before the recent Belfast Good Friday Agreement which saw closer cooperation between the two jurisdictions. There is a Language Commissioner since 2003 whose task is to see that people who wish to have government services in Irish can have these services provided for them. Since 2007, Irish has been an official working language of the EU. (What took us so long?)
There are a number of Irish-language festivals such as Oireachtas na Gaeilge and IMRAM is a literary festival with an eclectic multi-media approach which is outward- and inward-looking at the same time. It seeks out venues and creates events not normally associated with the language and by so doing allows the language and its literature to breathe freely outside of the cocoon. IMRAM has also acted in an advisory capacity for English-language festivals and for events which sought an Irish-language component or which were advised that they needed one! IMRAM’s bilingual website has links to language and literature sites and the archives from 2004 until 2012 give us a glimpse of the vibrancy of the current literary scene. Vibrant, yes, but fragile too ...
For centuries, many of our English-language writers had gone abroad, since the time of Goldsmith, and later Shaw, Wilde, Beckett, Stoker, Joyce. One of these great writers, George Moore, suggested that his short stories be translated into Irish as a model for a new generation of Irish-language writers. Somebody must have thought the idea had some merit because a publishing house established by the state, An Gúm, where I worked for over a quarter of a century, began to churn out literature in translation at a fairly impressive rate. Most of this was already available in English, however – Dickens, Conan Doyle, Conrad and so on. But it did provide some funds for writers and translators in the three major dialects. Of course, nothing like Madame Bovary would have been translated as the Church kept a keen eye on publications, as it did on everything else.
The translation scheme petered out. Had it served its purpose? Had too many works of little merit been translated? Whatever the reason, the end of the scheme meant that a ‘translation culture’ would never re-occur in a planned, systematic manner and this has been something that individual literary translators bemoan today and with very good cause.
Ireland Literature Exchange/ Idirmhalartán Litríocht Éireann which promotes the two literatures of Ireland in translation and recently celebrated its 1,500 title in translation, does not support translation from Irish to English or English to Irish. The body which promotes publishing in Irish, Foras na Gaeilge, does not support translations from English to Irish either. But where are we going to get Irish translators with a knowledge of Estonian or Macedonian or Kurdish? They are few and far between. What is wrong with translating Kurdish literature into Irish via the medium of English? A talented, sensitive translator will be able to accomplish this. Must we wait until we find that desirable but elusive person who is perfectly fluent in Kurdish and Irish?
We have a translation into Irish (albeit truncated) of Don Quijote which came to us via English. Indeed, it was this translator, a priest, who arguably started the modern literary movement in Irish. An tAthair Peadar (Father Peter), as he was generally referred to, published a Faustian tale in 1907, Séadna, itself a reworking of folklore, and established the ordinary (though often extraordinary) speech of the common folk as the literary standard (as opposed to a style based on that of the 17th century historian Keating, mentioned above). Here it should be noted that the quality of Irish folk tales often has a literary aura about it, a richness of style, characters galore, moving or witty dialogue. It is fair to say that, apart from perhaps Estonia and Latvia, there is no greater collection of folklore today in the West than that which has been collected by the Irish Folklore Commission.
The new respect shown to folklore resulted in a literary volcano describing ways of life which were soon to be things of the past and the autobiographical writings from the Blasket Islands, off the South West coast, are folk classics of real stature. Ó Criomhthain’s An tOileánach (The Islandman) and other works,and Ó Súilleabháin’s Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) are captivating accounts of a vanishing island civilisation, famously caricatured by the great Myles in An Béal Bocht.
One of these Kerry classics by the eponymous Peig (Peig Sayers) was a school text for people of my generation, a text that failed to properly represent the liveliness and wit which Peig undoubtedly posessed. It appeared to modern sudents to be something of a long whine (possibly sowing the seeds for later miserable Irish memoirs) and did not contribute to an enthusiasm for Irish in schools.
There’s a sadness, a sentimentality and a wistfulness in some of the poetry and prose of 1916 leader Patrick Pearse, another writer familiar to school children; nevertheless, he has a high place as one of the first of our modern stylists. An tAthair Peadar and Pearse are relatively easy to read; two writers from Connemara would prove to be much more challenging, Pádraic Ó Conaire and Máirtín Ó Cadhain, novelists and short story writers who were familiar with Continental literature. And it showed. Ó Cadhain in particular is lingustically challenging and became famous for a novel Cré na Cille situated in a graveyard, all the characters speaking from the bowels of the earth. It was recently made into an award-winning film and it records a richness of language that is no longer the norm in Connemara.
Donegal, too, had writers of note, Seosamh Mac Grianna and his brother Seamas Ó Grianna. (They disagreed about a number of things, including what their surname was!) Both writers have a loyal following to this day. Another Donegal writer Micí Mac Gabhann was to write about his adventures during the Klondyke gold rush.
Drama has been a hit and miss affair. For centuries it didn’t exist, at least not in the sense that we understand drama today. Drama requires a theatre, sponsorship to cover costs and overheads; drama requires audiences, actors, even a touring policy. What theatres existed in Ireland mainly served the colonial or the Anglo-Irish classes of the Pale. An Taibhdhearc in Galway and An Damer in Dublin had their short-lived glory days but the National Theatre (The Abbey and The Peacock) has done precious little in recent years to foster and develop Irish-language theatre. Radio drama is also in decline. TV drama has seen some success in Irish with the establishment of TG4, the Irish-language television station, but whether much of it belongs to a discussion on literature or not is a moot point.
Poetry and prose are thriving in spite of the odds and there are at least a dozen writers in each category that belong to world literature. Of course, book production is limited to fairly obvious genres and to list the amount of subjects which find sparse treatment in Irish would take us all day. There is little in the area of Arts and Cinema, Business, Do It Yourself, Gardening, Philosophy, Politics (whether national or international), Mind, Body Spirit (in spite of the fact that books on Celtic Spirituality sell in their tens of thousands throughout the world) and so on and so forth.
Some critics bemoan the gradual spread of a thinned-out language, a pidgin Irish which even 40 years ago would baffle a native speaker. Writing in Fáinne an Lae (1.10.1898) the aforementioned Father Peter (An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire) stated: ‘If all, or nearly all of our speakers can be made readers of the language it is essentially saved.’ He would have to qualify that statement today if he allowed his ears to be assaulted by what’s called ‘Gaelscoilis’, Irish-medium school’s argot, a language that sounds like Irish but is often polluted by English syntax and vocabulary and frequently dished out in distorted pronunciation and even in an American accent.
The so-called INNTI generation of the 60s and 70s were mainly poets writing, for the most part, in an acquired language, i.e. Irish was our second language; but we made sure to go back to the living springs of the language in the Gaeltacht before attempting to modernise it or bring it, playfully kicking, into new urban and international contexts.
What frequently arises is the question: should Irish-language literature be compared to Irish literature in English, or indeed to any other literature, or must different criteria be applied since the languages and the literatures evolved along different lines? We’ll leave that question aside for some other day. But it does give rise to a number of important questions.
After the Second World War, with the establishment of the monthly magazine Comhar and the publishing house Sairséal & Dill, new writers came to the fore, in poetry and prose and there are now more books in print than ever before. Long isolated from the rest of the world and with an unacceptable degree of poverty and emigration, Ireland opened up in the 1960s and a youth culture began to assert itself. This was also an era of civil rights in many places around the world and that movement would be echoed in Ireland, North and South, eventually spilling over into linguistic and cultural rights for Irish speakers who by now were very much a small minority of the total population of the island.
Meanwhile, there was the challenge of establishing an official written standard, one that could be employed by journalists and communicators, as well as educators, and the task of creating new terminology to meet modern needs. This was accomplished, more or less, and every so often we hear of plans to simplify the grammar. There are many websites available which offer sophisticated services to the writer and translator, Irish spellcheckers, downloadable dictionaries, word banks, a thesaurus, a gazeteer of place names and so on. There are rich archives of texts and sounds available for those who are on a quest.
Today, Irish is a core school subject. To matriculate, you need to pass Irish in the Leaving Certificate. This important status is frequently debated however and the situation could easily change in the future. The battle might have to be fought all over again. If Irish were to lose its status as a core subject in schools and if the Gaeltacht areas were to decline any further, the situation would become increasingly artificial and the chances of having a real, vibrant, evolving literature in the future, with a readership to sustain it, would grow dim. But if we can be optimistic for a moment, we have survived well enough thus far in spite of historical vicissitudes.
It seems to me that an opportunity was lost by not developing an Irish-language subtitle culture in the field of films. Perhaps it’s not too late to attempt to set this up. Film is the most popular art-form today. Subtitling would have contributed to a reading culture and would have helped to lessen the barriers between the three major dialects and, indeed, made standard forms more acceptable. As things stand, there is still a marked preference for reading material in one’s chosen dialect.
What is the average print run of a book of prose and poetry today? Probably 500, though recent fiction with a populist detective slant could easily risk a print run of 2,000. The quality of Irish-language writing is generally high and it’s unquestionable that there are a handful of geniuses, no less, whose work should be known around the world. But who is going to invite these writers to festivals abroad when there is such a dearth of translation – even a dearth of information! In this internet age there is no excuse whatsoever for a dearth of information.
Culture Ireland/ Cultúr Éireann was set up to assist Irish artists to promote their work abroad and is open to artists whatever their language or medium. It has helped the staging of high-profile events abroad. Of course, Irish-language writers don’t have literary agents to arrange international readings, tours, lectures, interviews and signings for them. An agent depends on a percentage for his or her promotional and contractual work on behalf of the client and Irish-language writers don’t earn enough to warrant the use of an agent. Most of them operate on a loss! But should there not be an agency, nonetheless, to cater, say, for European writers in minority languages? I don’t see why not. Writers create a national literature, translators create world literature, as José Saramago once said.
Take a great Albanian novelist such as Ismail Kadare. His work has appeared in over 30 languages. His novels appear in English, as far as I understand, as secondary translations, that is to say they are translated from the French. An agency such as the one I propose could commission translations from Irish into English and the English can then serve as the text to be further translated into French, Albanian and so on. There is nothing wrong with this process. Why wait until we have someone who is perfectly fluent, let us say, in Irish and Albanian?
There are a number of Irish-language publishing houses, notably Cló Iar-Chonnacht which recently took over two other older imprints and their back lists, namely Sairséal Ó Marcaigh with a strong literary list and An Clóchomhar, best known for academic research. Coiscéim seems to be able to produce a book a week! Other publishers such as An Gúm and O’Brien Press specialise in educational material and leisure reading for the young. Futa Fata, Cló Mhaigh Eo, An tSnathaid Mhór and Móinín have produced attractive books for young people, including graphic novels. CDs often accompany picture books for children. And there are books for adult learners as well, with restricted vocabulary and simplified style. The very able publisher Cois Life maintains a website which features pen-pictures of their own writers and an array of others. (This bilingual website should be consulted to find out more information on dozens of contemporary Irish-language writers: http://coislife.ie)
Speaking of websites: the Internet age means easy access to everything by everybody. Has this changed what publishers expect from writers, what readers expect from writers, what writers expect from themselves? One writer who refuses to compromise is Pádraig Ó Cíobháin. He is fond of quoting this section from an essay by Calvino:
“Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function …”
That certainly gives us something to think about. There’s lots to think about if we bother to think at all. There is the problem of reviewing, for instance. First of all, everybody knows everybody else in the Irish-speaking world and this means that rapiers are seldom drawn. My essay An Nuafhilíocht ar Strae, published in Gaelscéal, caused a furore. But it was necessary to shake us out of critical complacency. Secondly, only a tiny proportion of Irish-language books ever get a mention in mainstream English-language media and even Irish-language radio and television have over the years been loathe to deal with books. They are driven by market forces and a public service remit doesn’t extend as far as covering new titles in Irish. And now is hardly the time to suggest some kind of sponsorship as the Republic now owes her body and soul to the International Monetary Fund.
The business of literary translation is a very hit and miss affair. It often boils down to the whim or fancy of an individual translator or his or her personal contacts. Rarely are translations actually commissioned as is the norm among dozens and dozens of European publishing houses. Until such time as we have a handful of literary translators whose full time job is to translate into and out of Irish, the situation is unlikely to improve.
An online Irish-language bookseller www.litriocht.com has remarked that most of its orders are for books of a local nature rather than works of literature – and certainly not international works of literature in translation. Surely this must reflect badly on the way languages and their literatures are taught in our schools and third-level institutions? Does it suggest that students are cramming so much that the thought of a book causes their stomach to churn? What a tragedy!
The cult of the local has also meant that until recently it would have been something of an anomaly to see an Irish-language title dealing with global issues.
The distribution of Irish-language books is an area that has suffered from lack of funding, lack of vision and lack of staff for decades. The state-sponsored distributor, ÁIS, has been in serious decline for decades.
I would like to see more book clubs springing up around the country. One of the difficulties with this idea, and one that immediately comes to mind, is that in all likelihood people who might be interested in a book club, getting together in each other’s homes or in libraries, might conceivably have different levels of Irish or different dialectical preferences. (This would not be the case in most Gaeltacht areas). Do we need more bilingual books with parallel text to solve this problem so that a reader unsure of a phrase or a word could easily glance at the opposite page?
So-called minority literatures should not face their challenges alone. The raising of universal consciousness on the issue of writing in smaller languages must be a strategy shared, worked out and executed among all the relevant players. Just as biodiversity is vital for the future of the living environment and ourselves, so too the health of minority literatures affects us all.
Any good news? Recently, inspired by the Booker antics across the water and Ireland’s IMPAC awards, there is now an Irish-language Book of the Year event and shortlisted books receive more publicity than usual, but the follow up to the optics is weak.
A number of writers, mostly poets it must be said, such as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Cathal Ó Searcaigh and myself have been given the opportunity of reading on the international circuit. Poets who meet up at such festivals as Struga in Macedonia, Vilenica in Slovenia or Kritya in India often strike up a working relationship with other poets which can result in translating each other’s work. If English is the common denominator well and good. I have translated Kristiina Ehin into Irish without knowing Estonian, I have translated Nikola Madzirov into Irish without knowing Macedonian and K. Satchidanandan without knowing Malalayam but I can stand by my versions and I hope, in a very small way, that they add some little colour to the Irish-language literary scene. Only pathological purists fear cross-fertilization. I know many Irish-language writers who have never been invited to a literary festival abroad. We need to set things in motion!
An important scheme to help up and coming writers is a tutoring programme called called Scéim na nOidí. What this means is that an aspiring writer can apprentice himself/herself to an established writer for a year. A year is more than enough as one wouldn’t want a young voice to be muffled or over-influenced by a senior or more experienced writer but the advantages of the scheme are obvious. The senior writer acts, in a way, like an editor, suggesting ways in which a manuscript might be improved or urging the apprentice to experiment with different approaches. It is a situation that must be handled delicately. Success is not automatically ensured. But it’s something. There is also the long-running Writers in Schools scheme administred by Poetry Ireland/ Éigse Éireann which is open to writers in both languages.
Books in Irish are rarely seen in bookshop windows. Window space is frequently bought by London-based publishers and other big players and I don’t think we are going to stage or win any battles with them. We must rely on one or two small specialist bookshops and on electronic shopping from now on.
If this paper is short on facts, figures and statistics there is a reason: sales figures and market analysis are difficult if not impossible to obtain. I hope we’re not hiding anything too unpleasant to know.
To look no further than the literatures of the Celtic nations, clearly no discussion can be had on literature or literature in translation without taking a sober look at the state of the languages which is as follows, according to Unesco’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger (December 2010):
Cymraeg/Welsh: Vulnerable (611,000)
Gaeilge/Irish: Definitely endangered (80,000 speakers)
Gàidhlig/Scottish: Definitely endangered (58,652 speakers)
Brezhoneg/Breton: Severely endangered (200,000 speakers)
Gaelg/Manx: Critically endangered (revitalised) (1,689 speakers)
Kernewek/Cornish: Critically endangered (revitalised) (2000 speakers)
Publised at noviembre 9th, 2012