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, to make way for sheep. This was the work of the chiefs, who had received so much in the way of praise, and who may be said to have accomplished a genocide which owed nothing to the enmities of blood or race, and it had the consent of the ministers. Meanwhile the Evangelicalism which predominated among these ministers probably did as much harm as the Clearances themselves. With the Education Act of 1872, a proscription of the language went ahead. The tessera—a wooden tablet handed to a schoolboy who was caught speaking Gaelic, and who was thrashed at the end of the day—is still remembered in the North.
The Edinburgh Enlightenment of the eighteenth century thought of the Highlander as a savage: he is now acknowledged to have been the possessor of a valuable cultural heritage, which has instilled an unusual respect, and feeling, for poetry. And yet there is also, in his history, a worship of hostility which lent itself to the destruction of his world. When you look over this wall, what you may see is “our own fighting our own”: the words were used lately by a Catholic Ulsterman to describe the civil war which broke out after Independence. Kinship does not come all that well out of the story, and it is easy to understand why a number of the independent-minded among later Scottish Gaels have been attached not only to kinship but to socialism.
Those who know about the matter are clear that the death of the language is now in sight in Scotland, and yet a school of gifted Gaelic poets continues to be active there. Thomson belongs to this school, and his magazine Gairm has been a focus for their efforts. The leading poet is Sorley Maclean, now an old man. In the Thirties, he turned, as did Hugh MacDiarmid, to socialism and to Scottish Nationalism, and, while always more retiring, he became, for Gaelic Scotland, what MacDiarmid was for the rest of Scotland: an exemplary seeker of new form in poetry and in politics. Thomson speaks of these contemporary Gaelic writers as “non-traditional.” But Maclean is no less traditional for the ways he found of projecting an equal awareness of the Clearances, of the repressive piety which took hold of the Highlands, of the anti-Fascist struggles of the Thirties, or for attending to modern English and European poetry: he is a pedigreed Gaelic poet—the descendant of other Gaelic poets—who is also a Modern poet.
Thomson writes cautiously, and as if defensively, about Maclean and the others, but it can hardly be doubted that they did what had to be done in compelling the tradition which they wished to preserve to take account of a new environment in which bilingualism has gained ground relentlessly, in which an attention to foreign literatures is more than ever required, and in which new things have to be written about. These are virtuous men, and their efforts deserve, but have rarely obtained, the earnest attention of the English-speaking readership, some of whom will themselves be faced, before long, with much the same simultaneous need to preserve and to invent. The language may die, but the literature need not pine away into the province of a remote specialism. It may be that these men will be reckoned to have saved their literature from that fate, provided it is taught in Scottish schools, as it hasn’t been in the past, and is not forgotten in the English-speaking universities.
Scottish Gaelic verse would seem to be difficult to translate into English, and Derick Thomson does not have the knack, if there is one, though it is useful that he translates so frequently in this book. One of the few successes that I know of, or feel able to recognize, is Maclean’s own translation of his poem “Hallaig,” written in 1954. Here again the landscape is loved, and it is fused with its human inhabitants. This is a metaphysical poem of exceptional beauty (perhaps also a Metaphysical poem—Maclean was a pupil of Sir Herbert Grierson’s). There is an epigraph which reads: “Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig.” And the poem begins:
The window is nailed and boarded
through which I saw the West,
and my love is at Hallaig Burn
a birch tree, and she always was
between Inver and Milk Hollow,
here and there about Balachurn:
she is a birch, a hazel,
a slender straight fresh rowan.
In Screapadal of my people,
where Norman and Big Hector were,
their daughters and their sons are a wood
going up beside the burn.
The poet, who has come to what may be the village where he was born, sees the girls of the place as a wood of birches, then sees them walking as in the beginning, which is also eternity—the world of light to which the poem aspires. The poem ends:
and when the sun goes down behind Dun Cana
a keen bullet will come from Love’s gun
and will strike the deer that goes dizzily,
sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes;
his eye will freeze in the wood:
his blood will not be tracked while I live.
This is beyond me, but it seems to be suggesting, in the manner of allegory, that love will abolish time: the image, at any rate, is one that permits the village (like the Gaelic language) to be both dead and alive. The poignancy of the poem has to do with the living presences—landscape and past people, Macleans and Macleods—which are involved with the bad news it conveys. A life is lamented, and yet has not gone. Seldom has what was lost been so sharply sensed: you find yourself asking whether or not the village may only be half-deserted. It follows that the poem is without nostalgia, or pastoral longings. Maclean is not looking back, or over any wall. He has not left this life. The English which he chooses says that this is so, and carries a sweetness and a wandering motion which seem to come from the Gaelic, and perhaps from its old syllabic meters.
The many translations from early Gaelic poetry which are supplied in John Montague’s Faber Book of Irish Verse are by several practiced hands, and they are one of its chief attractions. Montague’s deft introduction explains his attempt to execute an anthology which would ensure that the bilingualism of Irish verse, and the English-speaking writer’s perception of the Gaelic tradition, would get their due. Much of the best Irish poetry has come of late from Ulster’s two cultures, where the “sweet wee maternal tongue” has always been more than merely vestigial, though the poetry I am referring to is written in English. I am thinking of Seamus Heaney, who has written of Edmund Spenser, one of Ireland’s former conquerors, and of Spenser’s
poor churls, who creep
“out of every corner
of the woodes and glennes”
towards watercress and carrion.
I am also thinking of Paul Muldoon, who is still very young. Ulster’s troubles have given rise to war songs, to the praise of dead heroes, and to a poetry of reflection which would have suited Mr. Montague’s book, though some of it may have been published too late for him to consider.
As with similar anthologies, the editor appears to run into an embarrassment of competing claims when he reaches his own time, and I would say that he has put in too many names for the last stretch. The opening lines of the last poem in the anthology are these:
Who wd. cope in this Quick
a tightfist to bear.
Why should this be in and Seamus Heaney’s “Limbo” not in? Heany’s poem reads:
Fishermen in Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,
A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly
Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.
She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be
A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.
It is as if the important writers of recent times had been damped down in deference to a kind of Proportional Representation. Yeats is underrepresented, and so is Patrick Kavanagh. But an indispensable passage (as might be thought) from “The Great Hunger” is given—in which another of the Gaeltacht’s dreams of fair women is recorded:
Going along the river at the bend of Sunday
The trout played in the pools encouragement
To jump in love though death bait the hook.
And there would be girls sitting on the grass banks of lanes.
Stretch-legged, and lingering star- ing—
A man might take one of them if he had the courage.
But “No” was in every sentence of their story
Except when the public-house came in and shouted its piece.
As in Maclean’s poem, the girls are figures in a landscape, but Kavanagh’s are lost girls in a way that those of Hallaig are not, and his great hunger is in large part a sexual hunger. The farmer in the poem, Maguire, has been made to starve by his landscape, by his mother, and by her priest. Some of the Irish anger of recent years may appear to have been caused, not by what was done to Ireland by its enemies, but by what was done by Ireland to its Maguires.
In the preface to his Collected Poems Kavanagh spoke almost regretfully of “The Great Hunger,” declaring it to be a public poem of a kind “visible to policemen.” Two of them called on him when it was published: “Did you write that?” He took the view that the policemen had a point: whatever “liberalism” may say, a poet should be “detached,” and had better not write, tragically or messianically, about “the woes of the poor.” I gather that Patrick Kavanagh, who is now dead, and who thought of himself as an outcast and victim, could be thought by Dubliners to be difficult and rather frightening—detached, certainly. And the disheveled baby face that Flann O’Brien turned to the camera in his later years is a little frightening too: this might be a portrait of the artist as a touching ominous old child who has been hurt and disappointed. Whereas Kavanagh believed, or affected to believe, that it was fitting he should be inquired about by policemen, O’Brien disliked policemen. And in certain varieties of the native melancholy and malice it has been possible to see detachment, disappointment, and a consciousness of official inquiries—these being another case of “our own fighting our own.”
Such inquiries may not have counted for less than the injuries inflicted on the society by its neighbor—injuries which are still widely credited with something of their old capacity to determine character. To say this may be to provide fresh evidence of the rancorous fascination with which the new Ireland, which has not been the most repressive country in the world, has tended to be seen by “liberal” outsiders. But it seems unmistakable that this is a country which has worked its talent very hard, and worried its wits.
(This is the second of two articles.)
May 15, 1975