The Novel in Irish since 1950: From National Narrative to Counter-Narrative

Article excerpt

No matter how often a book is praised, the praise is meaningless for English-language readers without Irish until they can read the text in translation. (1)

This essay describes the main trends and developments within the Irish-language novel in the period 1950-2000. It is intended for those interested in the genre but hindered by a dearth of translations. (2) This essay does not seek to bring salt to Galway by duplicating the scholarship currently available in such articles, nor will it depict the novel decade by decade or comment on the major authors in a summary of their works. Rather, I hope to provide an overview of the novel in Irish since the mid-century by considering some major themes. Such a thematic approach will inevitably offer but a limited perspective: genuine appreciation can be achieved only by reading the novels in the original and consulting the criticism, the vast majority of which is also written in Irish. My approach to the Irish novel of this period is to consider two major thematics: a counter-narrative tradition writing against perceived stereotypes, and the tradition which seeks to expand and contemporize the novel through lexical experimentation. While the format I have adopted goes beyond an author-by-author approach or one focusing on a handful of novels, it is not without its flaws and limitations. But, absent the ability to read original texts and consider critical writings in Irish, it may serve to familiarize readers with trends in the modern novel in Irish.

The Free State Narrative

Before considering the counter-narrative, we must briefly consider the national narrative which modern writers are seeking to destabilize. Ensuing from the Revival and Free State efforts to offset centuries of negative portrayals, this narrative attempted to elevate the national culture by imbuing the nation with pride in its achievements and by emphasizing the dignity of its language, its culture, and its beliefs. The idealization of Irish native speakers, inhabitants of An Ghaeltacht--the official term for the Irish-speaking districts, i.e. a region in which Irish is the first language--and their wholesome lifestyle and oral culture was a central aspect of this cultural nationalist project. Maire Ni Annrachain, a literary critic and theorist, posits that the veneration of native speakers and cultural values of An Ghaeltacht derives from

the favouring of relentless realism, combined both with romantic, anti-industrial attachment to the supposedly pre-industrial life, and with the demands of cultural nationalism, [which] together meant that in so far as literary interest continued in traditional Gaeltacht life, that interest found most expression in a steady stream of regional, Gaeltacht, autobiography. (3)

An outstanding illustration which captures the dreary national narrative and the reaction against it is novelist and journalist Breandan O hEithir's recollection of the excitement Mairtin O Cadhain's Cre na Cille [Churchyard Clay] (1949) generated when first published:

Young Gaeltacht people, like myself, who had long tired of 'an teach beag in ascaill an ghleanna' [the small house in the corner of the glen], the sexless Nabla and the gormless Tadhg, could hardly believe our eyes when we read in the pages of this whirlwind of a book that the man with the dole form to fill, coming silently to the school after three o'clock, saw An Maistir Mor [The Big School Master] having it off with his assistant in the classroom. (4)

The Free State novel (1922-49) was by and large a genre which reflected the conservative Catholic and Gaelic agenda of the Statelet's various political administrations. The novel during this period retreated from the promise offered by Revivalist novelists such as Padraic O Conaire and Liam P. O Riain. That retreat, coupled with the censorship enacted most particularly on Sean O Caomhanaigh's Fanai (5) [Wanderer], and with the delays in publishing works by Seosamh Mac Grianna, (6) ensured that the Free State Irish-language novel was an innocuous and inoffensive object which re-enforced Catholic doctrine and offered no challenge to the Free State. …