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Although Irish has been used as a literary language for more than a thousand years (see Irish literature), and in a form intelligible to contemporary speakers since at least the sixteenth century, modern Irish literature is thought to begin with the revival movement in 1896.

Contents

Early revival

To start with, the revivalists preferred the style used at the latest stages of classical Irish, notably by Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Céitinn) in his History of Ireland, or Foras Feasa ar Éirinn. However, Keating's Irish was soon ousted by popular dialects especially championed by the priest and native speaker from the Coolea-Muskerry area, Peadar Ua Laoghaire, who in the 1890s published, in a serialised form, a folkloristic novel strongly influenced by the storytelling tradition of the Gaeltacht, Séadna. His other works include the autobiography Mo Scéal Féin and retellings of classical Irish stories as well as a recently reissued adaptation of Don Quixote.

Ua Laoghaire was soon followed by Patrick Pearse, who was to be executed as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Pearse learnt Irish in Rosmuck and wrote sentimental stories about the Irish-speaking countryside, as well as nationalistic poems in a more classical, Keatingesque style.

Pádraic Ó Conaire wrote realistic, even naturalistic, stories about the life of Irish emigrants in England about the turn of the century; he was also one of the first people ever to use Irish for journalism. His most important book is his only novel, Deoraíocht (Exile), which combines realism with absurd elements. He was to die in the nineteen twenties, not yet fifty years old. Ó Conaire became something of a mythical figure of the folklore.

Writing from the Gaeltachtaí

In the nineteen twenties, researchers went to the Gaeltacht to record the lives of native speakers in authentic dialect. The best-known books of this crop were the autobiographies from Great Blasket Island, Peig by Peig Sayers, An tOileánach ("The Islandman") by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, and Fiche Bliain ag Fás ("Twenty Years a-Growing") by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.

Arguably the most interesting of the Gaeltacht autobiographies is Micí Mac Gabhann's Rotha Mór an tSaoil – translated into English as The big wheel of life, written in Ulster Irish. As the English title shows, it deals with the Klondike gold rush, "ruathar an óir", at the end of the nineteenth century, but also with the hardship Irish gold-rushers had to endure on their way to "tír an óir", the gold country.

Another newcomer of the nineteen twenties was the prolific writer of rural novels, Séamus Ó Grianna (pen name "Máire"). Séamus Ó Grianna's most important contribution to modern literature in the language might be the fact that he persuaded his brother Seosamh (who called himself Seosamh Mac Grianna in Irish) to write in Irish. Seosamh was a less prolific and less fortunate writer than his brother, and was stricken by a severe depressive psychosis in 1935, so that he had to spend the rest of his life – more than fifty years – at a psychiatric hospital. Before his psychosis, however, he was able to finish a novel about the arrival of modern times in his own Gaeltacht, called An Druma Mór - "The Big Drum", or "The Fife and Drum Band", as well as an introspective travelogue, Mo Bhealach Féin - "My Own Way". His last novel, Dá mBíodh Ruball ar an Éan - "If the Bird Had a Tail" – a study of the alienation of a Gaeltacht man in Dublin – was left unfinished, a fact suggested by the book title.

Both brothers were acknowledged translators. In addition to Walter Scott's Ivanhoe into Irish, Seosamh's work in this field includes the Irish versions of Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly, in Irish Díth Céille Almayer, as well as Peadar O'Donnell's Adrigoole, in Irish Eadarbhaile.

Irish-language modernism

Modernist literature was developed further by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a schoolmaster from Connemara, who was the Irish-language littérateur engagé par excellence. He was not only active in the IRA - he spent The Emergency years, – i.e. the years of the Second World War – at a detention camp in Curach Chill Dara (Curragh, County Kildare) together with other IRA men. At the camp, he wrote his modernist masterpiece, the novel Cré na Cille – "The Clay of the Churchyard". Reminiscent of some Latin American novels (notably Redoble por Rancas by Manuel Scorza, or Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo), this novel is a chain of voices of the dead speaking from the churchyard, where they go on forever quarrelling about their bygone life in their village. The novel is a resounding refutation of the romantic view of the Gaeltacht typical of the early years of the linguistic revival: Ó Cadhain shows clearly that there are social conflicts inside the Gaeltachtaí, too.

In addition to Cré na Cille, Máirtín Ó Cadhain wrote several collections of short stories (one 'short' story, "Fuíoll Fuine" in the collection An tSraith dhá Tógáil, can count as a short novel): Idir Shúgradh agus Dáiríre, An Braon Broghach, Cois Caoláire, An tSraith dhá Tógáil, An tSraith Tógtha, An tSraith ar Lár. An important part of his writings are his journalism, essays, and pamphlets, that can be found in such collections as Ó Cadhain i bhFeasta, Caiscín, and Caithfear Éisteacht.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain was a great stylistic innovator. Although his Irish was very much his native dialect – even in such contexts where a less dialectal style would have been appropriate – he was not afraid of enriching his Irish with constructed neologisms and loanwords from other dialects including Scottish Gaelic.

Modernism and renewal were also represented by several writers not of Gaeltacht descent, such as Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin, and Breandán Ó Doibhlin. Ó Tuairisc wrote poetry and plays, as well as two important novels about historical themes: L'Attaque, and Dé Luain. Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin authored a realistic depiction of a de facto divorced man's dilemmas in a country where divorces do not officially exist, Caoin Thú Féin, as well as several other novels, including a jail journal, Ciontach. Breandán Ó Doibhlin introduced introspective writing into Irish with Néal Maidine agus Tine Oíche.

Contemporary literature in Irish

Among the most important contemporary writers in Irish also being native speakers are Pádraic Breathnach, Micheál Ó Conghaile, Pádraig Ó Cíobháin, and Cathal Ó Searcaigh. The first three are novelists and short story writers. A poet of outstanding ability in terms of language and imagery is Diarmuid Johnson whose Súil Saoir still awaits adequate criticism and appreciation in literary circles for its sheer depth of vision and understanding of the Irish literary tradition, one of several traditions which inform much of the language and metaphor of the collection. One of Johnson's most distinguishing traits is the ability to left unsaid (in words) that which most other poets struggle in vain to say. This he achieves through his ability to verbalise through imagery. This is an imagery which he paints onto a landscape which more often than not evades those unfamiliar with the rich tapestry of Irish language writing which began to be woven in the Old Irish period (700-900) and continues to the present day in the Irish language of the Gaeltacht. Cathal Ó Searcaigh's work has mostly been lyric poetry, but his most important and accessible creation is certainly his engaging travelogue about Nepal, Seal i Neipeal. Lorcán S. Ó Treasaigh has written a popular autobiography called Céard é English? (What is English?) about growing up as a native Irish speaker in Dublin. Described by Tomás Mac Síomóín as the Irish Language's first post-modern novel, Colm Ó Snodaigh's novella, Pat the Pipe - Píobaire, charts the days of Pat, mad-cap Dublin busker and his adventures around Dublin's streets in the nineties.

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