A dance of words

Liam Ó Muirthile’s new novel re-locates the Irish language and its people back in the cultural fulcrum of the European imaginary


I was speaking to a Polish man the other day. His wife is Irish. His children go to the local Gaelscoil. They speak Polish and English and Irish. They are Europeans in the truest sense of the world, more than European – they visit Poland regularly and straddle East and West. They move with comparative ease between a range of milieus and cultures. Like the Cork hurling selector who “phones a friend” and goes for the “outsider” perspective when the crucial moment in the match has arrived – I sometimes run a question by this man and ask him. What do you think? What would you say about that?

This Polish man tells me that the Irish are too hard on themselves, that to use an American phrase – “they’re always beating themselves up about something or other.” “What’s wrong with them?” he says. “I want my children to grow up and be proud of who they are.” A thousand papers with the term “postcolonial” could be written on that one comment alone. Enough said…

About 25 years ago, a range of perceptive critics debated where the Irish language was going in terms of the novel. Was the paucity of novels in Irish an example of the ever-thinning inner core of the language, as it was pushed further and further towards the rocks and gulls of the Atlantic?

If a writer couldn’t fashion his thoughts or shape his metiér in the novel genre, and every Irish-language writer seemed to be a poet, a lyricist, or (more recently) a script-writer – did this mean that the language wasn’t healthy, that it was a dead duck literary-wise, that all that talk of richness and soul and “proper Irish” (whatever that was) and proper subjects for writing in Irish about – all that the Gaelic Revivalists went on with; was it all just a smokescreen really?

Was the small number of readers of Irish an indication that the language was actually a rural idiom and that it was in fact no good? – (interestingly, lesser-used languages with far greater numbers of speakers than Irish don’t sell anywhere near the number of books that their contemporaries in Irish do - the Irish language has a loyal and sophisticated readership even if the language is marginalized in many literary circles here.)

Was it all just a bluff, a tokenism, a strange and artificial game of smoke and mirrors?

The answer to that is clear for anyone who reads Liam Ó Muirthile’s An Colm Bán: La Blanche Colombe (Cois Life). Ó Muirthile has produced a novel of the highest order. Situated in Paris and straddling two historical periods, the early-1900s and the early 21st century, Ó Muirthile has gone in search of a real and engaging narrative about a woman (Nóra Buckley) who loves to dance.

From an Irish-speaking rural Ireland, this is the hidden story of an emigrant and an adventurer, a woman who tried to jettison the shackles of poverty, convention and class and dared to make it as a dancer (with the moniker “La Blanche Colombe”) in the music halls of Paris, Les Folies Bergere amongst them.

If anyone doubts that the Irish language doesn’t still have the freshness, the vitality and the youth of a “summer hurler” in its sinews, then read this novel – even if it’s the only novel you ever read in Irish.

Some of the writing here is exquisite in its rabalesian celebration of Gaelic joy and sadness, that which miraculously survived like an underground stream beneath the often-staid or puritanical veil of English for a thousand years and more.

This novel is very well-structured and its language is perfectly-pitched; it is neither dense nor overly-literary. Not every male author, irrespective of language has the ability to convey a woman’s inner world and the world of feeling in the way that this author does. It takes great courage and it is a gift that few writers are given.

Like Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Liam Ó Muirthile was given this gift: “Bhí sí ar ais ar urlár na cistine. Chuala sí glór a seanmháthar ag teacht timpeall ar na focail…Bhí na súile dúnta aici, agus í ag imeacht léi féin… na nótaí ar an gclairnéid agus ar an sacsafón ag baint cuisle a hanama féin amach, agus í ag freagairt dóibh ina lúba lúbtha, ina gcuair chuartha, ina steallta, sea, ag stealladh. Bhraith sí ina brollach é. Ina lámha sínte. Níor léi a colainn féin níos mó, cé go raibh sí in iomláine a coirp, an scairf á teannadh lena brollach aici, á scaoileadh uaithi aici mar a bheadh sciatháin, á síneadh ar fud fad na lámh sínte aici ar a leithead…”

Perfectly structured, Ó Muirthile has done a great deal with this narrative. A historical and realistic novel as set primarily in urban London and Paris – (his heroine’s quest for artistic fulfillment is itself a form of homage to the great city of Paris and all its streets and boulevards) as set at the turn of the century when Ireland itself was in turmoil, the story of an ordinary Irish woman, an emigrant who lived an extraordinary life, he has unveiled a neglected part of the Irish story and uncovered one of those hidden lives that never appears in the official historical record.

Ó Muirthile has walked the tightrope between the known and the unknown that fashions great fiction. In doing so, he has achieved what many people had deemed impossible; he has re-located the Irish language and its people back in the cultural fulcrum of the European imaginary once more.

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