Gaeilge goes global: Irish-language works on world map

Irish-language writing, far from being preoccupied with Ireland and Irishness, is richly transnational, intercultural and outward-looking

No world map of Irish fiction or list of stories featuring non-Irish settings and themes would be complete without taking into account the contribution of Irish-language writers. More than 20 novels in Irish could be cited that are set either in countries of high Irish emigration such as England, the United States or Canada, European countries often visited by the Irish such as France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, or places further afield like West Africa, Cuba and Brazil.

These works of fiction range from Pádraic Ó Conaire’s acclaimed Deoraíocht (1910), set in London where Ó Conaire lived for 15 years, to Alan Titley’s An Bhean Feasa (2014), based on the life of Irish-born Ann “Goody” Glover, a native Irish speaker who was transported to Barbados as an indentured slave and was later burned as a witch in Boston in 1688.

Works of fiction based on Irish emigration to England include Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s three-strand novel Deoraithe (1986), featuring London and a fictionalised Northampton, where young Connemara men and women are depicted negotiating the labour market and multicultural social environment of postwar Britain, and Pádraic Breathnach’s As na Cúlacha (1998) about the coming of age in London of a naive young Irishman of a younger generation.

North America is represented in two novels by Nova Scotia-based writer Pádraig Ó Siadhail: Peaca an tSinsir (1996), a murder mystery set in British Columbia featuring a retired academic of Irish ancestry and his Polish-Canadian wife, and Beirt Bhan Mhisniúla (2011), a historical romance based on the life of Irish-Canadian nationalist Katherine Hughes and her possible liaison with writer Pádraic Ó Conaire. This latter work moves between North America, London and Dublin during the period 1913-1928.


Not all works of fiction set in foreign lands, however, are concerned with the Irish diaspora. Alan Titley’s early novel Méirscrí na Treibhe (1978) is located in a fictional post-colonial state in West Africa and all the characters are African. The motivation for this novel can be traced to the period Titley lived in Nigeria in the 1960s, where he witnessed firsthand the Biafran war and its aftermath.

Biologist and cultural critic Tomás Mac Síomóin’s An Tionscadal (2007) is a science fiction novel set in the Catalonian Pyrenees. Though the narrator and central character is Irish, the story concerns the values and strategies of a multinational pharmaceutical company of which he is an employee. Mac Síomóin’s move from Ireland to Barcelona in 1997 deepened a longstanding interest in Iberian and Hispanic literature, culture and politics, and this has manifested itself in a steady stream of works of fiction, poetry, and criticism. His novel Ceallaigh: Scéal ón mBlár Catha (2010) examines contemporary life in communist Cuba through the eyes of a fictional Irish journalist, while also recalling the Cuban sojourn of Irish journalist JJ O’Kelly, who, while working for the New York Herald, reported the Ten Years War of 1868-1878 and later published an account of his own experiences, The Mambi-land, or, Adventures of a Herald correspondent in Cuba (1874).

The European dimension of Irish history has inspired much recent writing. Facility with the French language and familiarity with European history and culture animate novels such as Liam Mac Cóil’s Fontenoy (2005) and Liam Ó Muirthile’s An Colm Bán la blanche colombe... (2014). Mac Cóil employs a range of linguistic styles, including use of the French language, to conjure up an eighteenth-century battle field through the eyes of an Irish participant. Ó Muirthile’s novel, on the other hand, weaves the experiences of a contemporary narrator in multicultural Paris through the story of a Cork woman who arrived in the city, via London, in 1919, and joined the dancing troupe of Les Folies Bergères only to disappear from view during the second World War. Both Mac Cóil and Ó Muirthile are adept at depicting bilingual and interlingual exchanges and this is also apparent in Mac Cóil’s depiction of Bristol in the historical novel I dTír Strainséartha (2014), the second in a trilogy of novels of political intrigue set in the years after the Flight of the Earls in 1607.

If the list of literary works set in foreign regions were to include poetry, Australia would appear in one poem in the collection by Irish emigrant Fionán Mac Cártha, Amhráin ó Dheireadh an Domhain (1954) but much more substantially in the work of poet and critic Louis de Paor who lived in Melbourne for almost 10years (de Paor’s poems Didjeridu and An Dubh ina Gheal inspired Paula Kehoe to produce a wonderful documentary on the involvement of the Irish in the assimilation practices that displaced Australia’s aboriginal communities).

Africa would be represented in collections by Liam Ó hÁinle and Brian Ó Maoileoin; China in poem sequences by Colm Breathnach and Liam Ó Muirthile; Nepal in the poetry of Cathal Ó Searcaigh. The list would include a host of works by contemporary writers featuring regions or cities in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Some of these could be termed “tourist poems”, but most of them, such as Dairena Ní Chinnéide’s Strasbourg poems and Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s poems set in France, are the product of contemporary patterns of mobility, migration and non-permanent residence. Many of them reflect the kinds of intercultural encounter made possible by multilingual competence. With longterm residence the physical and social environment of the host community become central to the work, as evidenced in the sustained engagement with the streetscape and culture of Paris in the work of Derry O’Sullivan, who has been living in that city since 1969. The title poems of the collections Cá bhfuil do Iúdás (1987), Cá bhfuil Tiarna Talún L’Univers? (1994), and Dúnann Dia a Dhoras Dé Domhnaigh (2014) are based on very specific physical features, while the surreal poem sequence An Lá go dTáinig Siad (2005) is set in an apartment block once inhabited by a Jewish family who disappeared during the Nazi occupation.

If memoirs and travel accounts were also to be taken into account in the mapping process, all major continents would again be represented. Some autobiographical accounts have become classics, such as Micí Mac Gabhann’s Rotha Mór an tSaoil (1959) with its description of the Klondyke Gold Rush. Travel accounts by artists and creative writers include Mícheál Mac Liammóir’s impressions of Egypt in Aisteoirí faoi dhá sholas (1956) and Úna Ní Mhaoileoin’s wonderful evocation of Arab culture in Turas go Túinis (1969). Nigeria and Malawi would feature in Pádraig Ó Máille’s autobiographical Dúdhúchas (1972), and Korea in Pádraig Ó Murchú’s Idir Dhá Shaol (1989). Certain cities and regions of India are evoked in prose and verse in Gabriel Rosenstock’s Ólann mo Mhiúil as an nGainséis (2003).

Whether the motivation for writing is cultural, as in Liam Ó Rinn's Turus go Páras (1931), spiritual, as in Donncha Ó Céileachair's Dialann Oilithrigh (1953), humanitarian, as in Frank Reidy's African travelogue Ó Chósta go Cósta (2009), or vocational, as in Aodh Ó Canainn's account of his experiences in Romania in An bhfaca tú Dracula? Dialann Thransalvánach (1997), a common feature in all this travel writing is a sympathetic engagement with local communities and cultural practices.

Short stories set in non-Irish locations are also numerous, with certain authors addressing questions of Irish emigration and settlement in new environments, while others eschew Irish themes and characters. Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Pádraic Breathnach and Micheál Ó Brolcháin wrote short stories based on the Irish experience in Britain, but a political satirist like Mac Síomóin is more likely to use a foreign location to present his critical vision of contemporary culture as he does in the dystopic Cín Lae Seangáin, set in the New York underground, or in the savagely satiric Fiacla an Tíogair, which depicts an Irish member of the global business elite on a flight between Tokyo and Moscow, both stories from the collection Cín Lae Seangáin agus scéalta eile (2005).

The stories in the collection Gonta (2009) by Dutch-born journalist Alex Hijmans are all set in working-class Brazilian communities and the reader is encouraged to empathise with the victims of violence, injustice and inequality. Australian writer Colin Ryan’s debut collection of short stories Teachtaireacht (2015), on the other hand, eschews social realism in favour of more surreal psychological studies. Though particular locations such as Melbourne are mentioned in some of the stories, the overall impression created by the collection is of marginal individuals of diverse backgrounds negotiating unsettling landscapes or embarking on uncertain journeys. The publication of Teachtaireacht clearly bears a relation to the existence of a transnational Irish-speaking community, but it is notable that there are no references to Ireland, the Irish or Irish-Australians in the collection. Where else but in Australia, however, can we locate it on our world map of Irish fiction?

In discussing his own African novel Méirscrí na Treibhe, Alan Titley affirmed that the Irish-language writer can accommodate “an uile ábhar agus an uile mhúnla agus an uile théama agus an uile mheon agus an uile stíl is mian leis ó íochtar an domhain go huachtar an domhain” (every subject and form and theme and attitude and style that he wishes from the top to the bottom of the world). There is plenty of evidence that he is right, as a full listing of modern Irish-language texts located in non-Irish settings would run to hundreds of examples. What is apparent from this whistle-stop account is that modern and contemporary Irish-language writing, far from being preoccupied with Ireland and Irishness, is instead a richly transnational and intercultural space of encounter.

Prof Máirín Nic Eoin is Cregan Professor of Irish in St Patrick’s College/ DCU


(Not including works for young readers of which there are many set in foreign locations)

Pádraic Ó Conaire Deoraíocht (1910). London, working-class Irish emigrant community in London.

Seán Óg Ó Caomhánaigh Fánaí (1927). US Dakotas.

Seán Ó Ciarghusa Onncail Seárlaí (1930). North America, tale of adventure.

Úna Bn Uí Dhiosca Cailín na gruaige doinne (1932). Part of the story set in Saskatchewan, where they author lived for a number of years.

Barra Ó Caochlaigh [pseudonym of Art Ó Riain] Lucht Ceoil (1932), beginning of the story set in London before the character returns, his health ailing, to Ireland and the Wicklow mountains

Pádhraic Óg Ó Conaire Éan Cuideáin (1936). Story opens in Montreal before the main character returns with his Canadian wife to Connemara.

Tarlach Ó hUid Adios (1975). Set in Mallorca, with Troubles in Northern Ireland as back-story.

Alan Titley Méirscrí na Treibhe (1978), set in a fictional post-colonial West African state

Pádraig Ó Fiannachta Ag siúl na teorann (1984), Wales.

Dónall Mac Amhlaigh Deoraithe (1986), Kilkenny, Northampton, London. Three-strand narrative, set in 1950s Northampton, London and Kilkenny, featuring working-class Irish of rural background. Unlike Mac Amhlaigh’s account of his early years in England in Dialann Deoraí, Deoraithe includes an insightful and empathetic portrayal of the life of young female emigrants from Ireland, and also their interaction with other immigrant groups such as the post-war Lithuanians.

Conleth Ellis Aoibhinn an galar (1986), Belfast and Kenya.

Pádraic Breathnach As na Cúlacha (1998), London

Diarmaid Ó Gráinne An Traimp (1991). England, France, Germany.

Alan Titley An Fear Dána (1993). 13th century Ireland, Scotland, Egypt (5th crusade)

Pádraig Ó Cíobháin, Desiderius a Dó (1995), Cork, London, France.

Pádraig Ó Siadhail Peaca an tSinsir (1996), British Columbia, with Irish back-story.

Máire Mhac an tSaoi An Bhean Óg Ón... (2001). 17th century England (London, Woburn, Bedfordshire).

Tomás Mac Síomóin An Tionscadal (2007), Catalan Pyrenees

Alan Titley Gluaiseacht (2009), North Africa, Meditteranean, Europe (though written for young readers, it has been deemed a good example of cross-over fiction)

Tomás Mac Síomóin Ceallaigh: Scéal ón mBlár Catha (2010), Cuba

Pádraig Ó Siadhail Beirt Bhan Mhisniúla (2011), North America, London, Dublin.

Pádraig Standún I gCóngar i gCéin (2011). Venice, back-story Troubles in NI.

Pádraig Standún Ar nós an pháiste (2012). Amsterdam and Ireland.

Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé Punt Isló (2013). Chicago and Germany.

Alan Titley An Bhean Feasa (2014). Barbados, Boston

Liam Ó Muirthile An Colm Bán la blanche colombe... (2014). Cork, London, Paris.

Liam Mac Cóil I dTír Strainséartha (2014). 17th Ireland, Bristol.

Alex Hijmans Tearmann (2016), Brazil.

Autobiography/ memoir

Micí Mac Gabhann Rotha Mór an tSaoil (1959). Donegal, Scotland, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Butte, Montana, Klondyke.

*Scotland (and seasonal labouring) features in several other Donegal autobiographies.

Dónall Mac Amhlaigh Dialann Deoraí (1960). Northampton, other sites in England.

Pádraig Ó Murchú Idir Dhá Shaol (1989). Korea.

Pádraig Ó Máille Dúdhúchas (1972). Nigeria, Malawi.

Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé A Thig ná Tit Orm (1995). West Kerry, London,Chicago.

Muiris Mossie Ó Scannláin An Mám ó Dheas (2009). West Kerry, the Navy, London, Australia.

Alex Hijmans Favela (2009). Brazil.

Travel accounts

Liam Ó Rinn Turus go Páras (1931). Paris.

Seosamh Mac Grianna An Bhreatain Bheag (1937). Wales.

Éamonn Mac Giolla Iasachta An Afraic Theas (1947). South Africa.

Mícheál Mac Liammóir Ceo Meala Lá Seaca (1952). Sections of this book are travelogues featuring New Mexico, Germany.

Donncha Ó Céilleachair Dialann Oilithrigh (1953), Rome

Proinsias Mac Maghnuis Seal ag Ródaíocht (1955). US

Mícheál Mac Liammóir Aisteoirí faoi dhá sholas (1956). Egypt.

Úna Ní Mhaoileoin Le grá ó Úna (1958), Italy.

Úna Ní Mhaoileoin An maith leat spaigití? (1965), Italy.

Brian Ó Baoill Idir Huron agus Hudson (1965). Canada.

Úna Ní Mhaoileoin Turas go Túinis (1969), Tunisia, via France, Spain, the Mediterranean

Dóirín Mhic Mhurchú Bealach na Bó Finne (1994). Santiago de Compostela.

Aodh Ó Canainn An bhfaca tú Dracula? Dialann Thransalvánach (1997), Romania

Manchán Magan Manchán ar seachrán: ó Bhaile Átha Cliath go Nairobi i seanleoraí airm (1998).

Mícheál Ó Bréartúin Gnóthaí Eachtracha (2000). Numerous countries.

Gabriel Rosenstock Ólann mo Mhiúil as an nGaisnéis (2003), Dubai, India, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia

Nellie Nic Giolla Bhríde Mise agus na Maighigh (2003). Guatemala.

Cathal Ó Searcaigh Seal i Neipeal (2004). Nepal.

Manchán Magan Baba-Ji agus TnG: Seachrán san India (2005), India

Micheál de Barra An bóthar go Santiago (2007), Spain

Alan Desmond Seal sa Pholainn (2007). Poland.

Frank Reidy Ó Chósta go Cósta (2009), Africa, various countries.

Frank Reidy Seal san Aetóip (2013). Ethiopia.

Short stories

Alex Hijmans Gonta (2009), Brazil

Colin Ryan Teachtaireacht (2015) Different settings (Melbourne, Paris), some stories placeless.