It may be a bold statement to make but Galwayman Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (born Eugene Rutherford Watters) is one of the most important writers Ireland produced in the first half of the 20th century. History decreed that this true artist of the word never received the critical acclaim that accompanied other seminal writers of his era.
His importance lies in the way that he explored the big questions that convulsed the nascent Irish state of the first decades of the 20th century in particular. He was especially interested in how the newly independent Irish people developed a shared sense of identity and belonging out of the ashes and violence of the first World War, the War of Independence, the Civil War and explored this question courageously and head-on before anyone else, writing in Irish or in English, had the temerity to do so.
Ó Tuairisc’s acknowledgement of the complexity of Irish identity and the myriad of stories, half-myths and narratives, social, religious and ideological, that shaped us as a people was both prescient and courageous. As he himself so eloquently put it once with reference to the Irish, a people who’d finally achieved some measure of independence after centuries of colonisation:
Reared in the glorious myth of 1916, we recoiled at the prospect of losing it … we therefore acquiesced in the rewriting of the past; and yet we were at the same time secretly traumatised by the loss of our inherited sense of where we had come from.
And there was no one more appropriate to write this “where we had come from” than Ó Tuairisc, given the range of influences and traditions that shaped him as an individual and as an artist. Ó Tuairisc was born Eugene Rutherford Watters in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, in April 1919, the eldest of two sons and two daughters of Thomas Watters, shoemaker, who had been wounded in 1916 while fighting with the Connaught Rangers at the Somme, and Maud Watters (née Sproule), mother, seamstress and sometime clairvoyant.
An excellent student at St Joseph’s College, Garbally in Ballinasloe, Ó Tuairisc excelled at languages and he read widely across the whole spectrum of European literature. Family circumstances meant that he was unable to take up a university scholarship but he managed to attend St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra where he qualified as a primary teacher in 1939. He later joined the army and taught National School in both Rathfarnham and Finglas where he worked until 1961, studying humanities in UCD as an evening student.
From the strangely ignored Dé Luain (1966) to An Lomnochtán (1977) as discussed here, Ó Tuairisc’s fluid and open-ended narratives consider the way in which historical circumstances and national myths shape the responses of ordinary men, women and children to the contingencies of the historical moment.
Particularly timely in terms of recent debates on collective identity, memory and the past is An Lomnochtán, which I recently had the pleasure of translating into English for the first time as I Am Lewy - the inaugural title published by newly founded Bullaun Press. Set in a market town during the turbulent 1920s, I Am Lewy sees Ó Tuairisc reveal the inner, imaginative world of a young boy, Loodeen Winders, whose family, like so many other Irish families of the era, is a diverse blend of inherited loyalties and traditions, Protestant and Catholic, Irish and English, working-class and aspiring middle-class, town and country, poor and rich.
Violence and the threat of violence, both real and imagined, loom over everything in the six-year-old Lewy’s life: the Republicans are on the attack; the Free State soldiers patrol the front of the workhouse. Lewy’s father, a sometimes taxi driver who suffered severe injuries in the war, is trying to keep everyone, irrespective of background or political affiliation, “on-side” in order to find occasional work, as does his mother, working away into the early hours in the kitchen sewing clothes.
At the same time, young Lewy tries to work out the differences of class and creed - from the “bullockocracy” of the emerging farming middle-class to the piano-nuns, the townies to which he himself belongs, and the orphans - ‘slobbery, weak and raggy’. Innocent encounters or sexual awakenings with Violet and ‘Brazenface’ Rosaleen McInally in the woods play on his mind, even as he tries to fathom the death of his beloved grandfather in the war and the legacy of injuries, both physical and psychological, that fighting for the British Army has left his father.
Peace or healing comes in the form of art and the magical world of music - the “Jazzdrums” - and the imagination that encompasses the travelling fit-ups, the circus and the fair. With echoes of Joyce, Dostoevsky, Proust and more latterly Toni Morrison in its stream of consciousness mode, Ó Tuairisc has done for the Irish provincial town what Joyce did for the city. Lewy’s voice has a vibrancy that echoes as if it was only written yesterday and in a strange twist of fate - given the conflict and displacement affecting one side of Europe again - his child’s anxieties and fears prelude the tribal divisions that accompany violence and war, irrespective of where they rear their ugly head. Like all great writers, it is in the majesty, beauty and power of the word that Ó Tuairisc, the artist, finds meaning.
‘The car stopped, something blocking the road, a farmer’s cart overturned, one wheel in the air you could see, the black Masks came in under the light from the headlamps. Something bein said. Black blindfolds on them, with holes in them, you could see their eyes through the holes. His Father cursing that he was damned if they’d move, that he could shove his gun up his arse for himself – that he wasn’t afraid of him or of twenty thugs like him either. Sorry Tommy but we wants de car too. His Father swearing by Christ but he wouldn’t get out of the car, he wouldn’t leave them have it, that he had a family to rear. A country voice urging them to clock that devil Winders on the head with the Webley. The D.J. spoke. He was standing in the light of the headlamps on the side of the road, his big hands in the air. Go Tommy and take the child.’