Middle Earth: Poetry in Irish at Mid Century

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This essay looks at the development of Irish poetry from the depleted folk forms of the nineteenth century to the beginnings of modernism from the start of the twentieth and into the middle of that century. It concentrates, in particular, on three major figures, Mairtin O Direain, Sean O Riordain, and Maire Mhac an tSaoi, who exemplify the struggle towards modernity. Although sharing a time and a language, they never really shared an imagination. While steeped in tradition, they had no real difficulty in establishing a personal voice. O Direain developed his own out of the normal speech of his own people in Aran, largely and unexpectedly ignoring the easy embrace of the folk tradition. His is a romantic Aran, but one which accords with the genuine simplicity and happiness of his own youth. The city is, for him, a place of horror and inauthenticity, and to his credit he wrestles a fine body of work from this tired cliche. O Riordan, on the other hand, is wracked by questions of religion and of authority, questions he takes to the verge of delirium. He is saved by a dark humour, while his poetry slides towards normality. Maire Mhac an tSaoi marries the glories of tradition with the passion of youth, of middle age, and beyond. There are others, but these mark a middle Ireland, as real as now.

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Many aspects of Irish literature had degenerated by the beginning of the nineteenth century. That is to say that the hard graft of intellectual activity had by then drifted into English and the idea that somebody would sit down and write a prolonged meditation on life in Irish prose with an eye to the present and to the future seemed absurd. A native Irish speaker such as William Carleton never entertained the idea of writing a novel in his native language, and why should he? But a poet such as Colm de Bhailis, who had the rare distinction of being born in the eighteenth century and dying in the twentieth could comfortably compose in a local and a national tradition. (1)

The movement which we generally know as the 'Irish Revival' in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century forged a meeting of the Irish and the Anglo-Irish traditions in which the Anglo-Irish was clearly the winner. While composing in Irish was an attempt just to keep going, Yeats and his colleagues were mining the tradition for wonder and for sustenance and for inspiration. Apart from the works of what in Scotland they call 'village poets', poetry in Irish was soft and sentimental. Modernism hardly existed.

The historian Eamon Cuirteis / Edmund Curtis (1881-1943) published a representative selection of the best of poetry in Irish in the open decades of the twentieth century in Cuisle na hEigse (1920). (2) It contained just over thirty poems, few of them hugely memorable, although many were worthy and fine. It included Pearse's muchabused 'Fornocht do Chonac thu' (3) and Padraig de Brun's sassy translation of Gogarty's 'The Ship', (4) a translation which because of its inclusion in school anthologies became more well-known than the original. There was also Liam S. Gogan's 'Na Coisithe', (5) a mysterious jingle which in its simplicity slaps the Celtic Twilight on to an urban street, and the really scary 'An Leanbh Baite' by Padraig O hEigeartaigh on the death of his son in America. (6) What is remarkable, however, is that nearly all of them are written in traditional metres, or in echoes thereof. There is no sense of the break-up of the traditional line, of the loosening of the corset of the previous century, or of the opening of the gown of the twentieth. It is not that there is not beauty, but that it is a conventional beauty; or that there is not life, but that the life is rattling around in old skeletons.

Prose in Irish dominated the Revival period because it had to, and it was worth it. Ordinary, quotidian, daylight prose had been shut out for hundreds of years. When the novel grew as the democratic voice of ordinary people in the nineteenth century, its clamour in Irish came late. …