t h e  g r e a t  b o o k  o f  g a e l i c

a n  l e a b h a r  m ò r


t the dawn of the twentieth century, borne up on the rising tide of national feeling, nurtured by the Gaelic League’s recuperative work on the poetry of the past, an Irish-speaking optimist might have predicted a flood of new poetry in the language as a feature of the coming times. He, or she, would have been both incautious and destined to be disappointed. The first Gaelic poet of serious achievement in the new century, Máirtín Ó Direáin, would not even begin to think of writing poetry in Irish until 1938, and would say at the outset “Níor chabhair mhór d’éinne againn san aois seo an aon uaill ná mac alla ó na filí a chuaigh romhain inár dteanga féin” — No cry or echo from the poets who went before us in our own tongue would be of help to any of us in this time.

Apart from Ó Direáin, no poetry of true value would appear in the Irish language until Seán Ó Ríordáin published Eireaball Spideoige in 1952. Consumptive, lonely and unillusioned, Ó Ríordáin was a kind of alienated pietist whose work strikes the first truly modern note in Gaelic poetry. Refusing the succour of sentimental loyalty to the forms and tropes of the high Gaelic tradition, his agonised soul-searching is a local version of the doubt and existential anguish which now seems so characteristic of the European mid-century. But Ó Direáin’s reluctant, even angry abandoning of the Arcadian peasant dream does not quite make him modern, in the sense that Eoghan Ó Tuarisc, say, writing self-consciously under the shadow of the Bomb, is modern. Paradoxically, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, immersed as she is in the poet-scholar tradition, becomes modern precisely because of her ability to play off a distinctly independent and contemporary sensibility against the structures and strictures of inherited traditions. Seán Ó Tuama, with his Corkman’s ancestral yearning for the Mediterranean, and Pearse Hutchinson, drawn to Galicia and Catalonia, find distinctive contemporary voices in Irish outside the sway of world-girdling English; one might say the same of Tomás Mac Síomóin, heavily and productively indebted to a Continental sensibility which owes more to Pasolini than to Pearse.

Caitlín Maude, who died tragically young, and Michael Hartnett, to whom we will return, both born in 1941, carry the mid-century: the fomer as a feminist avant la lettre, the latter as a gifted poet in both Irish and English, translator of Ó Bruadair , eidetic companion to the present generation even in death. Maude and Hartnett, as with the generation following swiftly on their heels, were more of the present moment than of Ireland, in the important sense that the Gaelic world was for them a repository of enormous resource for the living of a life, far more than it was a heavy and inescapable ancestral burden. They and their successors are of post-Catholic, post nationalist Ireland, the Ireland that was beginning to struggle to its feet at about the time they began publishing their youthful verses.

If the Gaelic League had, as it were, an afterlife following the establishment of the Irish Free State it was not vivifying, but the reverse. We can see it now as an admirable project of recovery and recuperation which carried within itself the metal fatigue of Victorian sentimentalism. The lost Gaelic order towards which it flung out a bridge was aristocratic, disdainful, Catholic and doomed. Apt in and for its time, the poetry of that order was spectacularly ill-suited to the grubby, dour, post-colonial truth of the infant Republic which would seize on it as the epitome of native high culture and, by force-feeding it in the schools, rob it of its political charge while unconsciously undermining its power as art. The insular, primitive nationalism of the new ruling class seized on the rich poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries as a shining string of baubles, the pathetic jewels of the poor who do not recognise their own poverty nor understand where their true wealth is to be found. By resolutely closing out the modern in favour of an idealised and unreal nexus of virtuous peasant and cultured Lord, the State, through its ‘education’ system, made the disjunction between a glorious poetry of the past and a possible poetry of the present both absolute and prescriptive. Seeking, for perhaps the best motives, to celebrate the high poetry of a comparatively recent past, it silenced the present.

There were, to be sure, disruptions. Frank O’Connor, no cherished treasure of the State, published a muscular translation of Cúirt an Mheán-Oíche, The Midnight Court, in 1945, followed by Kings, Lords and Commons and A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry 600-1200 (with David Greene), both in 1959. These books, paradoxically, awakened his English language readers to the intrinsic riches of the Gaelic poetic tradition, and helped make it possible to see in a positive context work which, unfortunately, the State had helped stigmatise as backward and unworthy of serious attention.

There were disruptions, and there was also a nourishing silence. Away from the eyes of the State and the new professional class of Gaeilgeoirí, in “unforgiven places” as Tony Curtis puts it, Irish continued to be spoken as a living, adaptive and ambitious language. On building sites in Coventry as much as in the botháns of Kerry and the fire stations of Boston and Chicago, with neither fuss nor fanfare, the language endured and mutated, as all living languages do, out of sight and out of mind. There is nobody more secretively rebellious than a man or woman who is assured by the well-off that poverty is an admirable thing; nothing is better suited to the life of a language than the secrecy of the poor; and nothing more appeals to a rebel than a language in which to access simultaneously both a hidden past and an unborn future. The rebels, as it happens, were waiting in the wings.

When Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Michael Davitt, Gabriel Rosenstock and Liam ó Muirthile arrived in University College Cork, they were coming to themselves as poets in what Che Guevara, in a different context but at more or less the same time, described as “an objectively revolutionary situation”. They would found, and be published in, a radical journal, INNTI.

The power of the State to contain reality had withered. The electronic age and the first world generation were upon us, rock and roll had thundered out across the world and the short-lived counter culture, for a dizzy moment, held the commanding heights. The first trans-national generation had arrived to claim its place in the sun, and considerably to the surprise of the tweeds and Fáinne brigade this brash and exuberant generation of poets was as unremarkably at home in the Gaeltachts as in the hip, wide world.

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, born in Lancashire, brought up in Nenagh and in the Gaeltacht of Corcha Dhuibhne, was a natural rebel with a profound sense of the riches of the folk tradition, as source both of story and syntax. Michael Davitt, son of a C.I.E worker, and Liam ó Muirthile from the heart of Cork City found themselves wildly at home in the Gaeltachts of Corcha Dhuibhne and Cúil Aodha, party and privy to a racy reality the pietists of the language had ignored or tried to forget. There was a true exuberance in the air, perhaps more soberly shared by Gréagóir ó Dúill and Micheal O’ Siadhail (his own preferred spelling) in other places, a sense that, as John Montague put it, “old moulds are broken” and that a new world, a new language was both possible and necessary. An Irish language, to put it this way, that could contain LSD and Gabriel Rosenstock’s abiding faith in the wisdom-literature of the East.

The wily and sceptical Seán ó Tuama offered a bracing counterpoint to their wilder enthusiasms, perhaps, as Seán ó Riada brought a demonic precision to the music he did so much to uncover and make new again, in the same place and at the same time, but for all that, the INNTI poets were essentially unruly and individual as much as they were ever a school. Their education helped shape but does not explain them.

They were excoriated as shallow barbarians, dabblers in the shallows of the language, polluters of the unsullied, sex-free, drug-free paradise of the Gael. Contemptuous of the carefully-nurtured and comfortable state-within-a-state which the professional Gaeilgeoirí had so profitably and quietly nurtured, they earned, in some quarters, genuine, spitting hatred. It is true that their focus was on the immediate, the lyric instant of the body present to itself, the street as theatre of the present moment, the exalted state of mind as both norm and normative. In that sense they were very much of their time, in fact so much of their time that, disconcertingly, they were of the avant-garde in a way that few of their English-language contemporaries were. Formally and thematically, they were ripping through received forms and received wisdom in unprecedented ways; perhaps only Paul Durcan, at that time, was doing in English what these poets were doing in Irish. This cleavage with the past, especially with the immediate past, was so shocking that, in effect, the shock anaesthetised itself. They were out and through into a new, unexpected re-appropriation of the past almost before they, themselves, realised what was going on.

It should be noted that the rising generation of poets were both heartened and inspired to a more capacious sense of their inheritance by the visits to Ireland of Scottish Gaelic poets, singers and musicians organised by Colonel Eoghan Ó Néill, and by the reciprocal visits to Scotland which would enter into the folklore as well as the poetry. The sense of a cognate tradition and of a comradeship in struggle became and remains an amplification and a quickening of commitment to the language, to a life in the language.

We live in a changed landscape now. Biddy Jenkinson can forge, as she has done, a lapidary and rigorous language of her own, steeped in the cold water of the language, and be and feel free to do so. Áine Ní Ghlinn can dare her poems to the edge of cold prose, write of the most painful things, and occasion no reproach that she lacks the classical frame of reference. Cathal Ó Searcaigh, whose beginning was in Kerouac, whose delight is in an unabashed gay sensibility, can write of Nepal and Gort ‘a Choirce and sex satisfactory and unsatisfactory and know he will be read and heard as a poet of the living moment. These things are true, and remarkable. Louis de Paor and Colm Breathnach are the first of the post INNTI generations, each a true and individual poet, both of them born into a new kind of liberty.

The cleavage is absolute between our now and our past, insofar as that past was constructed as an ideal reservation without whose walls there could be no salvation. The cleavage is, also, an illusion: language comes down to us as a living stream, defying all efforts to shape and contain its course. It is literally not possible to engage with the present of a language, to write in a language, without being informed by the past of that language. What is different is that the poet today can pick and choose where to immerse herself in the past, can come to the past as part of the project of making his own, unique existential self as a poet. There is an essential freedom in this relationship to the past, a freedom which is at base a kind of absolute humility and without which there can be no genuine respect for the life and work of those who have gone before us.

When Michael Hartnett, Mícheál Ó hAirtnéide, came “with meagre gifts to court the language of my people”, when he turned from English to Irish, to his own immediate present as well as the living present of Ó Bruadair and Ó Rathaille, it was a gesture read in one of two ways: it was quixotic and arbitrary, or it was a choice made in the face of forces, a-historical powers, he was helpless to resist. With the passage of time, and following his uncriticised and civilly-received return to English, it is possible now to see that Hartnett’s choice was made in response to a simple imperative: the words sought him out, and the words were in Irish.

And this, I think, is where we are now. When poets now living make their poems in Irish, they are making poems, not obeisances, not signs made in the name of a tradition but the elements themselves of a free, living tradition. Poems. In Irish. No more, and no less.



Theo Dorgan is an internationally translated poet, as well as a broadcaster, scriptwriter and editor. He is the author of THE ORDINARY HOUSE OF LOVE (1991), ROSA MUNDI (1995) and SAPPHO’S DAUGHTER (1998); editor of IRISH POETRY SINCE KAVANAGH (1997); co-editor of REVISING THE RISING (1991) and, with Gene Lambert, of LEABHAR MÓR na hÈIRANN / THE GREAT BOOK OF IRELAND. He was a former Director of Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann. His work has been widely translated and he is a member of Aosdána.


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