'You can identify with Irish or not. It’s just a language, not an ideology'

The Irish language is constantly under attack but artistically has never been more vibrant and outward-looking, argues IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival’s director


“Identity is the crisis, can’t you see?” So sang Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. What does this have to do with the Irish language, or literature, you might ask. Nothing and everything. There have been many public spats about Irish of late. A bar worker in Cork leaves his job after being told only English can be spoken at work. Paul Williams evokes language “fundamentalists” by aping a cartoon German Nazi accent. Newspapers routinely use an image of Peig on any article on Irish, when she hasn’t been on the syllabus for years.

On and on it goes. When I announced Réaltneach/Starman (IMRAM’s show of David Bowie in Irish) on Facebook, one chap posted a lengthy tirade about how this was a vile insult to Bowie, Irish was completely the wrong register for the songs. Never mind that Bowie himself sang Heroes in German and French, or that he sang English translations of Brecht and Brel.

Irish speakers being told they can’t use their language on a football pitch in the Gaeltacht – why can’t they speak English? The blithe assumption that Irish speakers are all rabid republicans. Then the inevitable backlash from some Irish speakers, calls for boycotts and court cases. The vicious cycle kicks in again. We all know there have been and are linguistic obsessives, we’ve all read The Speckled People (a wonderful book). Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has spoken of “grey men with grey minds” and once told me of a man who corrected his wife’s Irish grammar on her deathbed. But she and her work – and the work of almost every writer in Irish I know – is beyond that mentality.

It’s tiresome, and it’s time we moved on. You can choose Irish as part of your identity, or not. It’s a choice. It’s just a language, not an ideology. But that choice is an important one. To me, it is a matter of amazement that so many Irish writers still choose it as their medium. What is to be gained? Their books are ignored by the mainstream media, relegated to the farthest corner of the bookshop – if they’re in the shop at all.

There is little glory for Irish language writers. Yet we have a young poet like Séamas Barra Ó Súilleabháin, who will read poems from his début collection Beatha Dhónaill Dhuibh at this year’s IMRAM, fusing them with sonic effects from Czech sound sculptor Slavek Kwi. He is compelled to write in Irish because his voice and his thoughts are in Irish, not English. In his tour-de-force poem about an Irish emigrant child in London, Bunscoil i Lundain, he explores racism, childhood crushes, school playground politics and imperialism There is madcap humour, surrealism, alienation. It’s a world where sean-nós meets WWF, Playstations and zombie films. He’s a true poet – deeply knowledgeable of tradition, form and pace, yet form-breaking and full of energy.

How many readers are aware of Seamas Mac Annaidh’s Cuaifeach mo Londubh Buí? It’s a pioneering novel, a tale of teenage life in the punk era with echoes of the Gilgamesh myth, Frankenstein, and the work of Séamas Mac Grianna and Flann O’Brien. Its themes of death, life and rebirth are explored through multi-lingual wordplay. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Russian translation.

I was delighted to hear Doireann Ní Ghríofa won the Rooney Prize – and to hear Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin make it known the award was both for her poetry in English and in Irish. Paul Williams speaks of how clerics “beat” Irish into him. But in Ní Ghríofa’s incisive poems on institutional abuse, Irish is the voice of the abused, not the abuser. It is more complex than Williams thinks.

Ní Ghríofa is a poet who puts in the work – as an Irish poet she sees it as her duty to know the Irish language tradition, poets such as Caitlín Maude. This year IMRAM will celebrate Maude with Aisling Gheal, a bilingual multi-media show with her original poems and English translations; and song versions of her work. Maude was one of Ireland’s most outstanding poets in any language, a dramatist, actor, sean-nós singer, educator and political activist. It’s a shame that some Irish poets can’t be bothered to discover her work. I would suggest there is a wound, or a fracture, between Irish poetry in English and Irish that needs healing. Paul Muldoon’s first poems were in Irish, and in his recent collection, Rising to the Rising, he flawlessly weaves English and Irish. There have always been poets equally gifted in both languages, acting as important linguistic bridges – Paddy Bushe and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, for example. Doireann Ní Ghríofa is another in this brave line, seeking a real voice in two languages.

While we’re at it, let’s just separate the language from Irish nationalism (not that there’s anything wrong with being a nationalist Irish speaker). There are Russians, Brazilians and Germans all speaking perfectly fluent Irish. In east Belfast, Linda Ervine’s Turas has classes packed with learners who identify as British. This year’s IMRAM will see the launch of Alex Hijmans’ novel, Tearmann. Alex is Dutch, came to Ireland, learned Irish (he worked for TG4’s Nuacht). He now lives in Brazil, and his novel deals with a conflict between a native tribe and local landowners.

The truth of the matter is that Irish speakers are like anybody else, with international as well as national concerns, Why is Aodh Ó Domhnaill’s new play Lón Leningrad about Russian poet Akhmatova? Because his concern is literature and its power in a troubled society. IMRAM’s Czech night will feature contemporary Czech poetry and extracts from Jaroslav Hašek’s dark political comedy, The Good Soldier Švejk translated into Irish, as well as poetry by Nuala Ní Dhomnaill, Máirtín Ó Direáin and others rendered into Czech.

The Irish language is part of the flow of everything – and it is that flow that is celebrated at IMRAM. The flow of how good literature in any language touches what is human, and transcends concepts of identity. The flow of a language that still produces vibrant literature. I’d love to have a chat with Paul Williams about this, so I’d like to invite him to our David Bowie Project, and I’ll buy him a pint afterwards. Are you up for it, Paul?

IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival programme is at www.imram.ie

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