Within the Pale

The Faber Book of Irish Verse

edited by John Montague
Faber & Faber, 400 pp., £3.50 (to be published in the United States by Macmillan)

In the previous issue [NYR, May 1], I wrote about certain works by the Irishman Flann O’Brien—in particular, his novel The Poor Mouth, in which the Gaelic language is put to wonderful use, in which “the sweet wee maternal tongue” (a description once borrowed by O’Brien) tramples on its false friends among the folklorists and Gaelfanciers. I want now to add a few words, from the standpoint of someone beyond the Gaelic-speaking pale, about two recent books which contain translations from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic respectively.

Gaelic was brought to Scotland by colonists from Ireland in the fifth century AD. The poetry that ensued was for a long time largely oral, while belonging to a culture which was dependent on Christianity and Latin learning. Throughout the “Gaeltacht,” or Gaelic hinterland, a tribal system grew up in which key functions were assigned to a two-tiered caste of poets. This was a poetry given over to public works of praise and hate (praise of the clan, of the chief and his pedigree, of might and muscle, hate of other clans) and of commemoration, and to what, in the light of my last article, may be called a self-sufficing aestheticism. The tradition was lodged in dynasties and in seminaries. Contemplating their meters and their metaphors, poets served an apprenticeship of seven winters in a windowless hut. Women poets were a marked feature of the tradition. In Scotland eventually, with the classical verse technique of the bardic schools outshone by a vernacular practice, the Gaelic of the schools seems to have become incomprehensible to the ordinary Gaelic-speaker.

This was reported to be the case in the eighteenth century, which saw great changes in Scottish Gaelic society, and the arrival of celebrated poets. The nonliterate Duncan MacIntyre, who flourished then, was the author of the “Praise of Ben Dorain,” a panegyric to a mountain. Landscape, the local landscape, the hills of home, has always mattered to the Gaelic poet, and a comparable strain can be found in the fiction of Flann O’Brien. Alexander MacDonald also flourished then, and his was the first printed collection of secular verse. MacDonald’s Jacobitism was a call for Gaelic independence. Eve’s Gaelic, he joked, flowed sweetly in Paradise: but his own Gaelic Millennium was canceled (though he did not give up hope) by the battle of Culloden. These poets, and William Ross, who lived a little later, are treated at length in Derick Thomson’s Introduction to Gaelic Poetry.

During the second Jacobite rebellion of 1745, a crucial aspect of the old Gaelic manner (to borrow an expression from O’Brien) was exhibited in the fact that as many of the clans fought on the Hanoverian side as on the other. The rebellion, and the repressions and administrative reforms which followed it, inflicted a deep wound in Gaelic society, and worse injuries were inflicted soon afterward by the Clearances, when human beings were forced abroad, and to the south, off their small holdings …

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Letters

The Troubles October 16, 1975