Louis de Paor’s bilingual Leabhar na hAthghabhála, Poems of Repossession, is the first major anthology of Irish language poetry for a quarter of a century since Dermot Bolger’s Bright Wave: An Tonn Gheal (Raven Arts Press, 1986) and An Crann Faoi Bhláth, The Flowering Tree (Wolfhound Press, 1991), edited by Declan Kiberd and Gabriel Fitzmaurice. It includes work from twenty-five poets ranging from Pádraig Ó hÉigeartaigh (1871-1936) to Gearóid Mac Lochlainn (b. 1966). The volume also includes a substantial critical apparatus. Alongside the introduction, in which De Paor charts the history of modern poetry in Irish, elucidating its social and linguistic contexts, there are also detailed biographies of the poets, useful notes on many of the poems, and a fascinating selection of comments by the translators on how they have approached their work.
Concentrating, by and large, on the most significant figures, De Paor has been discerning in his choices. A dozen poets chosen by Kiberd and Fitzmaurice have not been included here, presumably because they didn’t make made it across De Paor’s critical threshold or, like Breandán Ó Beacháin, aka Brendan Behan, may be considered to have made their mark more substantially in English or in a different genre. Most significantly, perhaps, only two poets have been added who were too young to be included in The Flowering Tree: De Paor himself, who has included just three of his own poems, and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn who has five. Moreover, as if to enhance the canonical status of his anthology, De Paor’s title echoes that of Thomas Kinsella’s monumental An Duanaire. 1600-1900; Poems of The Disposessed (Dolmen Press, 1981) and even takes as its opening poem Pádraig Ó hÉigeartaigh‘s ‘My Sorrow, Donncha’, which was the latest poem chosen by Kinsella and considered by him to be ‘a moving end to the high literary tradition of three centuries’.
In a brief review, there is insufficient space to comment on all the issues raised in De Paor’s magisterial introduction, other than to emphasise his plea for cultural pluralism and to applaud his insistence that translations are respectful of the work that inspires them. Hitherto, Irish poetry has frequently been presented in Lowellesque ‘imitations’ by celebrity poets, who play fast and loose with meaning. De Paor is acutely aware of the dangers inherent in this method: ‘Even where a handful of poems in Irish are included in anthologies…there is a strong sense than an English language aesthetic is operating to the detriment of work written in another language with its own acoustic sense, its own distinctive tradition and aesthetic’. For De Paor there is a duty to provide versions that not only work well in English, but are also faithful enough to offer readers with some grasp of the language a way into the Irish text. Thus, there are two versions of Liam S. Gógan’s ‘Tercets’. In one, David Wheatley is praised by his editor for giving a strong sense of ‘the metrical dexterity’ that characterizes Gógan’s work. However, in ‘Notes on individual poems’ there is also a version by De Paor in which, line by line, meaning is rendered more literally.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the parlous situation of the Irish language in the Twentieth Century, one detects a certain ‘siege mentality’ in some of the work included here. There are no monoglot speakers of Irish and many who have opted to write in it have learned it as a second language. Given the alternative of writing in a global language that one has learned from the cradle, their decision to do so might be considered Quixotic or maybe heroic, depending upon one’s point of view. This is the subject of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s ‘The Language Question’:
I send my hope afloat
in the small boat of a language
as you might lay a baby
in a basket cradle …
Tensions are also evident in the work of Seán Ó Ríordáin, considered one of the founding fathers of modern Irish poetry. Brought up in a bilingual village in County Cork, he is on occasion apologetic about the quality of his Irish, a language he addresses in one poem (not included here) as only ‘half-mine’. His first collection shocked many conservative elements with it startling neologisms, comparable in their effect to the early work of his anglophone Welsh contemporary, Dylan Thomas. His uneasiness comes to the fore in ‘Go Back again’:
Close your mind on all that has happened
Since the Battle of Kinsale was lost,
And since the load is heavy
And the road is long, free your mind
From the yoke of English civilisation,
Shelley, Keats and Shakespeare …
Presumably, only a man who loved the poets in question could have written these lines. In Cathal Ó Searchaigh’s ‘Native Speaker’ the tone is more ironic: ‘He had hooveráiled the flat, / jeyes-fluideáiled the bins, / harpicáiled the loo, vimeáiled the bath’; while Gearóid Mac Lochlainn who, unlike Ó Searchaigh, is not a native speaker, is more scathing of the ‘self-satisfied monoglots’ he takes to task in ‘Translations’, and yet it is hardly their fault if they have been deprived of their linguistic heritage and don’t, understandably enough, have the time or inclination to perfect what is for them a second language.
The above is not to suggest, however, that poetry in Irish is obsessively inward looking. One of the fascinating aspects of this anthology is to note the cross currents and influences that have shaped the poetry included in it and to see how a legitimate desire to preserve one’s roots does not necessarily cut one off from the wider world. One of the earliest poets selected by De Paor, and one whose work, for this reviewer at least, has been a pleasant surprise, is Liam S. Gógan. Born in 1891, his first collection was published in 1919 and thus well before the work of the more frequently anthologized Ó Direáin and Ó Ríordáin. In ‘Fantastical Fog’ the ambiance evoked is more reminiscent of Baudelaire or T.S. Eliot than rural Ireland:
The fogs of November
constrict round the low,
unhappy light of the street lamp
at the edge of the green where I lie,
the lamp-post itself an apparition
in this yellow half-world.
Máirtín O Direáin, too, who left Aran to work as a bureaucrat in Dublin, evokes the dreariness and chaos of life in the city in his long poem ‘Our Wretched Era’: ‘a prisoner before me, / a prisoner behind, / and I between them / a prisoner like all / since we took our leave / of land and strand.’ However, his vision is always coloured by nostalgia for the peasant simplicity of life on his native islands. The work of Derry O’Sullivan, a Capuchin monk, is influenced by his long residence in France. Eoghan Ó Tuarisc adapts the ritual of the Catholic mass to memorialize the victims of Hiroshima; while Caitlin Maude sings defiantly of love against the backdrop of the Vietnam War: ‘They said we had no shame / parading our love / in the midst of this desolation’. Seán Ó Curraion in his extended narrative, Beairtle, seems almost to be updating Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger for the age of the EU, as he takes his protagonist from the Connemara Gaeltacht to exile in Dublin and then Paris, where he reads Sartre, Camus and the Nouveau roman.
By the early 1970s the new generation of poets were wide open to the world and experimenting with influences from across the Atlantic. Cathal Ó Searchaigh and Michael Davitt absorbed the influence of the Beats and the lyrics of Bob Dylan. In ‘One Special Day’ Ó Searchaigh takes the poetics of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and transplants them to the Donegal Gaeltacht. Michael Davitt’s ‘Shortening the Road’ is in one sense a freewheeling poem about two strangers meeting up ‘on the road’ while being at the same time a celebration of community and linguistic roots:
A Muskerryman for sure, I thought,
But no, ‘A Corkman born and bred.’
That lit a fuse and we launched
Into Irish, tracking each other
Through lanes of memory
And God it’s a small world
That both of us had travelled
The very same backroads of dialect …
Nuala Ní Dhomnaill, like Davitt, was associated with the influential Innti group in the early 70s, and is probably the most widely translated contemporary Irish language poet. Her work is informed not only by native mythology but by the years she spent abroad, most notably in Turkey. In ‘Venio ex Oriente’ East meets West in imagery as lyrical and sensual as The Song of Songs:
There is henna in my hair
pearls at my throat
and a crock of wild honey
is hidden in my navel.
But there’s another fragrance on my body,
the scent of honey from Imleacht Slat
the smells of turf and water-mint
and its colour is dark.
Like her predecessor, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Ni Dhomhaill’s feminism and her sometimes frank avowal of female sexuality have challenged the repressive morality of traditional Catholicism. In ‘Mary Hogan’s Quatrains’, Mhac an tSaoi’s protagonist proclaims: ‘I care little for people’s suspicions, / I care little for priest’s prohibitions, / for anything save to lie stretched / between you and the wall…’ Other notable feminine voices here are Deirdre Brennan, whose richly textured poems exploring motherhood deserve a much wider audience, as does the work of that elusive poet whose nom de plume is Biddy Jenkinson and who, at least in Ireland, has previously refused to allow more than a handful of her poems to be translated into English. So perhaps we can leave the last word to her: ‘The writing is a matter of love … a stretching back along the road we have come, a stand here in the present among the outnumbered and beleaguered but determined survivors of Gaelic Ireland.’