Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

From Inis Fraoigh to Innisfree ... and Back Again? Sense of Place in Poetry in Irish since 1950

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

From Inis Fraoigh to Innisfree ... and Back Again? Sense of Place in Poetry in Irish since 1950

Article excerpt

   I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
   And a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made.
   Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
   And live alone in the bee-loud glade. (1)

Many generations of Irish schoolchildren have had Yeats's famous poem, 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', drummed into them. Despite its hackneyed overexposure on school curricula and tourist brochures, and indeed despite the older Yeats's embarrassment at its success, (2) it remains a wonderful poem, particularly when recited aloud. Through the almost hypnotic incantatory use of sound and rhythm, allied to the sense of romantic relief from the filthy tide of the modern world suggested by the end syllable '--free' in Innisfree, Yeats creates an imagined space in which he discovers a real peace 'in the deep heart's core'.

Innisfree is in one sense, however, in the English version of the name, a doubly imagined space. Inis Fraoigh in the original Irish means 'The Island of Heather' and has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom. Indeed, as the name implies, it is very much rooted in a physical, tangible world through the descriptive element of the place name. Yeats, however, through in this instance the happy but coincidental added value of the transliteration (as against translation) of the original, can actually add a layer of metaphoric significance to his poem not achievable in the Irish version of the name. Thus, though Inis Fraoigh does exist in the real physical world, and has a linguistic, cultural, and cartographic or spatial meaning as island of heather, Yeats's Innisfree is at a double remove from that same reality. (3) John Montague, in his poem 'A Lost Tradition', just like the schoolmaster in Brian Friel's Translations, claims that the language shift from Irish to English, from Inis Fraoigh to Innisfree, leads to a sense of psychic, physical, and cultural loss or shattering:

   All around, shards of a lost tradition [...]
   Scattered over the hills, tribal--
   And placenames, uncultivated pearls [...]
   The whole landscape a manuscript
   We had lost the skill to read;
   A part of our past disinherited;
   But fumbled, like a blind man,
   Along the fingertips of instinct. (4)

In the Irish tradition, from the earliest literature down to the oral literature of the Gaeltacht (5) today, Dinnseanchas, topography, the lore of place-names, or as it were the 'skill to read the manuscript of the landscape' is of fundamental importance, and I will argue here that it is also a significant theme in much modern poetry in Irish. The term Dinnseanchas refers specifically to a corpus of material relating to places assembled in manuscript form in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and known as Dinnseanchas Eireann. These texts constituted a fundamental part of the body of knowledge required of Irish bardic poets and their importance is attested to in the amount of such material found in the major manuscripts.

Place-names are explained in the Dinnseanchas--indeed sometimes pseudo-etymological or fictitious stories are invented to explain names--and this naming process not only explains but also validates and vindicates the cultural, social, and indeed political environment in which it operates. Such a process is, in a sense, a foundation mythology, and landscape, and indeed the land itself, are therefore loaded with ethical, epistemological, and aestheticized meanings of deep significance for those within the tradition. Place is thus, as Yi-Fu Tuan puts it, an organized world of meaning, 'a center of felt value'.

Landscape is personal and tribal history made visible. The native's identity--his place in the total scheme of things--is not in doubt, because the myths that support it are as real as the rocks and the waterfalls he can see and touch. (6)

Sean O Tuama, identifying the familial link with their own territorial lands, common in Ireland even to this day, and alluding to the nuptial-like inauguration ceremony of an Irish chieftain, argues:

It seems that it is the sacred wedding of territory to chieftain--and by extension of territory to kin--which lies near to the heart of the passion for place in Irish life and literature. …

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