Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Irish Language: Hard Questions, Harder Answers, and Hope Through the Words of a Poet

 One of the most thumbed-through of the books I own in the Irish language is a dictionary: An Irish-English Dictionary compiled and edited by The Rev. Patrick S. Dinneen in 1904. I have other Irish-English dictionaries which are more useful to me than Dinneen’s, dictionaries that are printed in standard Roman type, unlike Dinneen’s which retains the half-uncial lettering and unreformed spelling in which Irish was written for centuries; dictionaries which have kept up with the times and can tell me the Irish words for “injection mould” and “file transfer protocol”; dictionaries laden with all the serviceable, civil service-concocted words necessary for communicating the intricacies of the bureaucratic machinery running the modern Irish state. These are all valuable dictionaries in their own right and I depend on them almost daily. But I don’t love them the way I do Dinneen’s; I don’t take as much pleasure in them; and they are not nearly as heart-breaking.
  I open Dinneen at random and my eyes are drawn to the word cairríneach which I’m told is the word used in West Kerry for “a frail scythe”. I flip on, and come across luch meaning “shreds of extraneous matter in tallow that is being melted down”. And further along there’s tothbhuarach “rushes pounded and prepared for the making of a spancel”.
Personally, I’ve never heard anyone in the present-day Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland which lie mostly along the Northwest, West and South-West coasts, use any of these words in ordinary, everyday conversation. They are among many hundreds, perhaps thousands of words which, though they have a dictionary existence, are passing or have passed from the living speech of native Irish speakers. These particular words come from a world that was pre-industrial, isolated, and conservative in custom and religion; they lived on the tongues of people who farmed smallholdings of fairly poor land, of cattle-raisers and sheep-herders, of fishermen and carpenters, of thatchers and farriers.  And they join whole classes of words that have gone silent in the speech of the Gaeltacht—the names of plants, of weather phenomena, of finely observed character traits. They join too the traditional songs, poems and stories that are forgotten or half-forgotten by living people and have gone to their rest in the archives of the heroic collectors of folklore and language data.
 “To imagine a language”, says Wittgenstein, “is to imagine a form of life”. And the form of life conjured up from a survey of Dinneen is so remote from the life of the present-day Gaeltacht, never mind the rest of Ireland, that the language itself seems almost as alien as Sanskrit. Long gone from the daily life of the Gaeltacht are the net weavers, the tailors, the cobblers and the blade sharpeners along with their rich hoards of specialized craft terminology. As far back as  1921 the great Blasket Island writer Tomás Ó Criomhthain took pride in the fact that a deal was struck at a market through the medium of Irish. “The farmer sold the big bullock through the language of his country and the buyer bought it through the same language. Though I’m not rich I’d rather be listening to these two worthy men making a bargain in the language of my country than have a pound of yellow gold”, he says, adding that the young farmer who sold the beast used his profits to come to the Blasket to improve his Irish. “It’s a pity I don’t hear the same sort of thing from every fair”, laments Tomás who was undoubtedly hearing the passing of a world where the earthy banter of a bullock’s selling was now as likely to be in English as it was in Irish, even in the Gaeltacht. As for our own day, you can forget about anything as inefficient as the aonach, the market fair, Tomás was referring to.  Bullocks tagged and tracked by computers are shown and auctioned off in a matter of minutes, ownership transferred to and from farmers who know nothing of each other, hardly a word of real English passing their lips, let alone a word of real Irish.
 At this point now the sociologically-minded person might produce a sheaf of woeful statistics about the status of Irish as a spoken language, and depending on her relationship to an Ghaeilge might prophesy its imminent disappearance with the kind of equanimity historical linguistics reserves for Tocharian or Gaulish, or, might fall romantically into the idiom of pure lament: “Mo mhíle trua, mo bhuairt, mo bhrón...” “Och, ochón!”  (My thousand pities, my grief, my sorrow...Alas, alas!)
 I, however, am going to call to my side a different spirit, one canny enough to understand how endangered the Irish language is, and yet one uncannily bold enough to try to turn the wake into a wedding. I’m going to take a look at a few poems of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, one of the foremost contemporary Irish language poets, and see what they might mean for us as learners and speakers of Irish, see if there’s inspiration and strength we can draw from them.
 To set a bit of context I want first, however, to quote you something written about 10 years ago by the very fine Irish poet Gréagóir Ó Dúill from an essay in Poetry Ireland called ‘The Language Shift’ which he followed by a poem of the same name. In the essay Ó Dúill confessed, with a lot of obviously sincere handwringing, that he was abandoning, by and large, his Irish language writing for English. As a writer he says,
I do not think that my own experience is unique. I now find that, after eight collections, a selected, two anthologies, a collection of short stories, a literary biography and much editing,
reviewing and adjudicating in Irish I have started to write in English. I am still sorting out the reasons. One is the erosion of ideology, or the form of ideology which underpinned my daily decision to go on writing in Irish. Maltese has more status even in the Gaeltacht area in which I spend most of my time. Another reason, more importantly, is a recognition that English is my maternal language. A professional writer must see his or her maternal language as a key resource, and English as a particularly rich one, a resource deserving to be exploited. English is also the maternal language of much of my actual and potential market.
He then follows statements such as this with a poem in English ‘The Language Turn’
[Listen to him read it here]
 Beside this I want to set the opening paragraph from an essay Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill wrote in 1995 in The New York Times Book Review called ‘Why I Choose To Write In Irish; The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back’:
Not so long ago I telephoned my mother about some family matter. “So what are you writing these days?”, she asked, more for the sake of conversation than anything else. “Oh, an essay for The New York Times,” I said as casually as possible. “What is it about?” she asked. “About what it is like to write in Irish,” I replied. There was a good few seconds’ pause at the other end of the line; then, “Well, I hope you’ll tell them that it is mad.” End of conversation. I had got my comeuppance. And from my mother, who was the native speaker of Irish in our family, never having encountered a single word of English until she went to school at the age of 6...Typical.
 But here’s a poem of Ní Dhomhnaill’s that might give us a whole different take on what a writer might feel about working in a language that even her own mother thinks it’s crazy to write in :
Féar Suaithinseach  Miraculous Grass, trans. by Seamus Heaney
There you were in your purple vestments
half-way through the Mass, an ordained priest
under your linen alb and chasuble and stole:
and when you saw my face in the crowd
for Holy Communion
the consecrated host fell from your fingers.

I felt shame, I never
mentioned it once,
my lips were sealed.
But still it lurked in my heart
like a thorn under mud, and it
worked itself in so deep and sheer
it nearly killed me.

Next thing then, I was laid up in bed.
Consultants came in their hundreds,
doctors and brothers and priests,
but I baffled them all: I was
incurable, they left me for dead.

So out you go, men,
out with the spades and scythes,
the hooks and shovels and hoes.
Tackle the rubble,
cut back the bushes, clear off the rubbish,
the sappy growth, the whole straggle and mess
that infests my green unfortunate field.

And there where the sacred wafer fell
you will discover
in the middle of the shooting weeds
a clump of miraculous grass.

The priest will have to come then
with his delicate fingers, and lift the host
and bring it to me and put it on my tongue.
Where it will melt, and I will rise in the bed
as fit and well as the youngster I used to be.

 One way of reading this poem, obliquely enough, perhaps, is to see the ‘host’, ‘an abhlainn bheannaithe’ as the numinous body of the Irish language itself, a tongue fallen into the most unpropitious of circumstances, fallen out of the hands of official and officious and hypocritical male-dominated cultural practices. But here the language of humiliation and pain, as Frank McGuinness has called it, is transmuted into the language of celebration, sensuality, delicious deviancy. Why not, the suggestion seems to be, make some kind of a virtue out of linguistic marginality, even transgression? Why not go for broke in the faithful expectation of miracle? And why not a woman poet to accomplish it?
 It’s not that Ní Dhomhnaill is completely sanguine about all this. In her New York Times article she talks about the current language situation in Ireland:
At some level, it doesn’t seem too bad. People are warm and not hungry. They are expressing themselves without difficulty in English. They seem happy. I close my notebook with a snap and set off in the grip of that sudden pang of despair that is always lurking in the ever-widening rents of the linguistic fabric of minority languages. Perhaps my mother is right. Writing in Irish is mad. English is a wonderful language and it also has the added advantage of being very useful for putting bread on the table. Change is inevitable, and maybe it is part of the natural order of things that some languages should die while others prevail.
 And yet, and yet...
 And yet, and yet, indeed. On some level I sometimes think we allow a certain unconscious belief in absolute historical determinism to color our views of future possibilities. The Irish language in a globalized economic system and a global iPod culture, surely it’s all down hill from here?
 And yet, and yet... Frank O’Connor claimed that Gaelic culture could be characterized by “the backward look”, an Irish tendency to retrospective anticipation, to looking at the past (not the present) as indicator of the future. Of course it depends on where exactly you look. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill sometimes looks back, reaches back, into the amazing Irish poetic tradition for tropes and hopes of the flowering of the vastly improbable. She has often mentioned, for example, as one of her poetic forebears Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill, the 18th Century poet who composed one of the greatest love poems and elegies in Irish ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, ‘The Lament for Art O Leary’. Composed at a time when Irish was on the verge of being abandoned by large sections of the population, this poem is a miracle of lyrical intensity, a fully realized sumsumption of the entire Gaelic tradition of the caoineadh, the lament, and a miracle of survival, living on well into the 19th century in the oral tradition of West Kerry, indeed all of Munster:
            Mo chara thú is mo thaithneamh!
            Nuair ghabhais amach an geata
            D’fhillis ar ais go tapaidh,
            Do phógaís do dhís leanbh,
            Do phógaís mise ar bharra baise.
            Duraís, ‘A Eibhlín, éirigh i d’ sheasamh
            Agus cuir do ghnó chun taisce
            Go luaimneach is go tapaidh.
            Táimse ag fágáil an bhaile,
            Is ní móide go deo go gcasfainn.’
“My friend and my delight, when you went out the gate you came back quickly and kissed your two infants. You kissed me on the tips of my fingers and said ‘Eibhlín, stand up and put your work aside fast and soon, for I am leaving home and I might never be returning.”

 Listen to the echos of this (and much more) at the end of a poem called Dún ‘Stronghold’ by Ní Dhomhnaill:
            Ach níl in aon ní ach seal
            i gcionn leathuaire
            pogfaidh tú mé i mbarra éadain
            is casfaidh tú orm do dhrom
            is fágfar mé ar mo thaobh féin
            don leaba dhúbailte
            ag cuimhneamh faoi scáth do ghuailne
            ná tiocfaidh orm bás riamh roimh am.
“Everything lasts but a moment. In half an hour you’ll kiss the top of my forehead and you’ll turn your back to me, and I’ll be left on my own side of the double bed, remembering in the shade of your shoulders that death will never come to me before my time.”

 With a poem like this we can be certain that death will never come to the Irish language itself before its time, and there’s an energy and musicality in Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem that while full of literary nuance is also full of the vigor of the spoken, everyday language. Anyone who has spent a night in a pub in Ballyferriter or Spiddal knows that spoken Irish has a vital, earthy, fluent existence that really can’t be captured in the “native speaker” statistics such as those piled up in Reg Hindley’s book ‘The Death of the Irish Language’.  The numbers game isn’t the whole story.
 Ní Dhomhnaill wonderfully and humorously and bitingly catches something of the continued vitality of the spoken language and its importance for literature in a poem called ‘Claoninsint’,  literally, ‘Indirect Speech’:
            Tá’s againn, a dúradar,
            cár chaithis an samhradh, a dúradar,
            thíos i mBun an Tábhairne, a dúradar,
            cad a dheinis gach lá, a dúradar,
            chuais ar an dtráigh, a dúradar,
            níor chuais ag snámh, a dúradar.
            Canathaobh nár chuais ag snámh?
            Mar bhí sé rófhuar, a dúradar,
            rófhuar do do chnámha, a dúradar,
            do do chnámha ‘tá imithe gan mhaith, a dúradar,
            bodhar age sámhnas nó age teaspach gan dúchas
            gur deachair dhuit é a iompar, a dúradar.
“We know, they said, where you spent the summer, they said, down in Crosshaven, they siad, what you did every day, they said, you went to the beach, they said, you didn’t go swimming, they said. Why didn’t you go swimming? Because it was too cold they said, too cold for your bones, they said, for your bones that are turned to no good, they said,  not able to cope with hardship, with your unnatural high spirits, it was hard for you to handle, they said.”

 Here and elsewhere in the work of Ní Dhomhnaill, and indeed in the work of many other Irish writers who choose to be mad enough to continue writing in Irish, the corpse is certainly sitting up and talking back, even singing back. From the margins, from the scarcely acknowledged gaps and discontinuities in the mainstream anglophone culture in Ireland, is coming a whole range of discourses that in refusing to shut up or be shut up opens up a profound questioning of cultural values and to some extent is producing, in literature, at least, a kind of hybrid vigor as English language Irish writers try to take in the insights of such a critique. Issues not only of language, but of gender, of colonization, of genre, of the social position of the writer—all these are informed and deepened by the practice of poets like Ní Dhomhnaill.
 Central to it all are the problems and opportunities presented by translation. For many people in Ireland and for the vast majority of Americans interested in Irish literature it is through translations that much of present day Irish language writing becomes available. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has actually translated some of her own work into English, and a great number of poets from Seamus Heaney to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin to Medbh McGuckian to Paul Muldoon have produced often stunning versions of her poems in English. Muldoon, in particular, seems to have a sensibility that is congruent with Ní Dhomhnaill’s literary playfulness and linguistic caprice.
 Though it’s through translation that Ní dhomhnaill has garnered a large international readership, it probably goes without saying that in poetry in particular something is always lost when it enters another language. In the case of Irish and its somewhat endangered status it really matters what it is that’s lost. I want to put before you a poem by Nuala called ‘Ceist na Teangan’, literally ‘The Language Question’; here it is in Irish and even for those of you that have little or no Irish I’d ask you to listen carefully to the sounds and rhythms:
            Cuirim mo dhóchas ar snámh
            i mbáidín teangan
            faoi mar a leagfá naíonán
            i gcliabhán
            a bheadh fite fuaite
            de dhuilleoga feileastraim
            is bitiúman agus pic
            bheith cuimilte lena thóin

            ansan é a leagadh síos
            i measc na ngiolcach
            is coigeal na mban sí
            le taobh na habhann,
            féachaint n’fheadaraís
            cá dtabharfaidh an sruth é,
            féachaint, dála Mhaoise,
            an bhfóirfidh iníon Fhorainn.
[‘The Language Issue’ trans. by Paul Muldoon]
I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant
in a basket of intertwined
iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,
then set the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river
only to have it borne hither and thither,
not knowing where it might end up;
in the lap, perhaps,
of some Pharaoh’s daughter.

This is a brilliant poem in English, and my intent here is not at all to disparage it on the level of literary achievement. But here is Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem in very literal English:
            I set my hope floating
            in the little boat of the language
            like you’d lay an infant
            in a basket
            that would be woven together
            from iris leaves
            with bitumen and pitch
            plastered on its bottom

            then to have laid it down
            among the reeds
            and fairy women’s distaff
            by the side of the river
            seeing, you don’t know,
            where the current will take it
            seeing, like the story of Moses,
            will Pharaoh’s daughter save it
For all its poetic faults, this literal version points up a couple of things that got buried in Muldoon’s poem—the specificity of the plant name coigeal na mban sí ‘fairy women’s distaff’ and the earthy solidity of the phrase ‘cuimilte lena thóin’ ‘rubbed or plastered on its bottom’, among others. I personally think, on the pure linguistic level, that’s a loss, that these are things I’d rather keep alive on whatever tongue they’re translated to, as they’re still alive on the Irish tongue.
 Anyway, as I reach the end of this talk, I realize that whatever questions I’ve raised here, I haven’t so much given answers to them as much as align myself with a series of hopes I find compellingly interlinked in the poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Among them would be the hope that out of the maelstrom of postmodernity the vivifying differences of languages, cultures, genders and spiritualities can retain their unique virtues without descending into chauvinsim and exclusivity. Is it too much to hope for a reasonably bilingual Ireland a generation from now?
We can hope anyway, on a day like today. How improbable is it that in Portland, Oregon, scores of people have gathered to meet the Irish language? I give Nuala the last word. This is from her poem Feis:
            Osclaíonn rós istigh im chroí.
            Labhrann cuach im bhéal.
            Léimeann gearrcach ó mo nead.
            Tá tóithín ag macnas i ndoimhneas mo mhachnaimh.

            A rose opens in my heart.
            A cuckoo calls in my mouth.
            A fledgling leaps from my nest.
            A porpoise is playing in the depths of my thinking.

[A Talk Given At Marylhurst University’s Irish Language Day (c) Ger Killeen]