Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Of Mermaids and Changelings: Human Rights, Folklore and Contemporary Irish Language Poetry

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Of Mermaids and Changelings: Human Rights, Folklore and Contemporary Irish Language Poetry

Article excerpt

The interdisciplinary field of human rights and contemporary literature is a burgeoning sphere of research as evidenced by recent major publications including Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature (Goldberg and Schultheis Moore 2011) and The Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights (McClennen and Schultheis Moore 2016). The content of both publications attest to the dominance of narrative fiction in the analysis of literary representations of human rights issues. The intersection of poetry and human rights discourse as well as oral traditions and human rights discourse receive much less critical attention. It is this intersection of human rights discourse, poetry and folklore that is the focus of this article. The reimagining of folklore material is a recognised feature of much contemporary Irish-language poetry. With the notable exception of Nic Eoin ("Sceal"), the extent to which contemporary Irish-language poetry engages thematically with international human rights violations has, however, yet to be fully appreciated. An initial survey of the twentieth and twenty-first century corpus yields in excess of one hundred poems which refer to humanitarian crises and human rights violations including poems about the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Bosnian War and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By focusing specifically on the folklore motifs of the mermaid and the changeling in the poetry of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Louis de Paor respectively, this article will consider how oral traditions influence the form and content of Irish-language human rights poetry and to what end. Furthermore, it will be argued that the human rights discourse is a valuable critical lens in the discussion of twentieth and twenty-first century Irish-language poetry.

Although acknowledging that the relation between literature and human rights is "at once logical and fraught", editors of The Routledge Companion, Sophia McClennen and Alexandra Schultheis Moore, insist on the importance of examining "its ongoing and productive dialectical relationship" (2). Joseph Slaughter contends that the evolution of human rights discourse is intertwined with literary history. In his comprehensive study, tellingly entitled Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (2007), Slaughter traces the rise of the Bildungsroman as a literary form which expounded a normative conception of the human individual and the development of human rights discourse emphasising a free and full human subjectivity, describing them as "mutually enabling fictions... as each projects an image of the human personality that ratifies the other's idealistic vision" (4). More recent research by Hadji Bakara, however, has emphasised the inter-relatedness of poetry and international human rights declarations. Bakara outlines how Archibald MacLeish, a poet and politician centrally involved in the drafting of the preamble to the United Nations Charter (1945) and the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), resorted to poetic form to explore the tensions between the personal and the impersonal, the metaphysical and the ontological at the heart of the UDHR. Bakara argues that a close reading of one of MacLeish's draft preambles, written in lineated poem form and employing parataxis to define the subject of the Declaration, clearly indicates MacLeish's suspicion of the language of human rights based on divine or natural law (522-523). Bakara calls for a re-evaluation of the role of poetry in relation to human rights discourse and concludes his article as follows: "Seeing poetry as an escape from rather than a vehicle for bestowing upon us 'inalienable truth' thus enables a poetics of human ever more crucial to the survival of human rights today" (537).

This "poetics of human" and an alertness to issues of social justice is at the heart of much of Louis de Paor's poetic oeuvre (Mac Giolla Leith 259-261). …

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