Imram: a festival celebrating the Irish language
Liam Carson reveals the myths and legends appearing in this year’s programme
Liam Carson: It might surprise many that between 1987 and 1992 all of Ulysses was finally translated into Irish by Séamas Ó hInnéirghe and Séamas Ó Mongáin
In Irish, an imram is a literary genre in Irish in which a hero sets out on a great voyage, is faced with dangers and challenges, and finally returns home to tell the tale of his adventures. In Homer’s stories, we learn that ‘all life is a battle and that all life is a journey’ (Alberto Manguel), and the tale of Odysseus and his magical wanderings home to Ithaca after the Siege of Troy could easily be described as an imram. Homer’s The Odyssey has cast a spell on readers for over 2500 years. The text has been translated by countless poets over the centuries, including Monsignor Padraig de Brún’s exquisite version in Irish.
Last year, I read Emily Wilson’s new translation to English of The Odyssey. Here was a new Homer for the 21st century. It was fresh, shorn of pretension and pomposity - and, most importantly, highly readable. It occurred to me that it was high time we had new versions of Homer in Irish, that would lend themselves to being read aloud in a public performance for a general audience. So a highlight of this year’s IMRAM festival will be the staging of An Mhuir Fhíondorcha/The Wine-Dark Sea: The Homer Project. The show will feature two key stories - that of the Cyclops, translated by Darach Ó Scolaí; and Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, translated by Réamonn Ó Ciaráin. Darach and Réamonn have a deep understanding of mythological material and oral literature, having both produced critically acclaimed versions of The Táin. Their versions of Homer will be performed by two stars of the Irish spoken word scene - poets Ciara Ní É and Séamas Barra Ó Súilleabháin.
Beyond the translations, Homer’s shapeshifting narrative surfaces again and again, forming the basis of countless retellings, not least James Joyce’s Ulysses. Flann O’Brien once attempted to render Joyce’s modernist masterpiece into Irish. Of his attempt, he said: ‘If they won’t read it in English, I said to myself, bedamn but we’ll put them in the situation that they won’t read it in Irish either’, and noted that ‘the acute difficulty in translation lay in the lucid conveyance of obscurity’.
It might surprise many that between 1987 and 1992 all of Ulysses was finally translated into Irish by Séamas Ó hInnéirghe and Séamas Ó Mongáin in twelve small pamphlets. ‘Sea, ‘sea, ‘sea/Yes, yes, yes features extracts chosen by Eoin P Ó Murchú, and read by Hilary Bowen-Walsh, Eoin Ó Dubhghaill and Sean T. Ó Meallaigh. It will also feature songs associated with Joyce’s time, performed by Noel O’Grady; and will feature on-screen projections of photos of early 20th century Dublin by Margaret Lonergan.
IMRAM further explores Ancient Greek literature in Duanta Goil is Gáire/Bitter-sweet songs: Fragments of Sappho. Born around 630 BC on the Greek island of Lesbos, Sappho was a musical genius. Her poetry was lyric, meant to be sung to accompaniment on the lyre.
Her songs and poems explored love, desire, marriage, exile, bees, old age and the passage of time, and her love for her daughter. Of the nine books she wrote, only some two hundred fragmented poems remain - but the potent clarity of these still cast a remarkable spell after thousands of years. Some of the fragments have an almost haiku-like beauty:
Chonaic mé tráth,
cailín beag séimh
ag bailiú bláthanna
Bhain an grá croitheadh as mo chroí
cosúil leis an ghaoth ar an tsliabh
ag deifriú thar na daracha.
Tá iníon álainn agam
órga mar a bheadh bláth ann
Cleis ionúin dhil
dise, ina háit ní ghlacfainn
iomlán an Lidia
This multi-media show features new versions in Irish by poet Caitríona Ní Chléirchín, which will be read and sung by Caitríona O’Leary to accompaniment by percussionist Mel Mercer. Screen projections by Margaret Lonergan feature art depicting Sappho over the centuries, including artists such as Gustave Moreau, Felician Rops, Vanessa Bell and many others.
IMRAM further explores mythology in Irish and English in Laochra Móra na Seanlitríochta/Earriors, Wizardy and Wonders. Of Liam Mac Cóil, Alan Titley has commented: ‘there is no other novelist in Irish today who writes with the same care, precision and clarity’. His latest novel, An Choill, fuses philosophical debate with Arthurian mythology - and is written in the style of the 15th century, at the beginning of the age of printing and publishing. The novel tells the tale of one of the knights of the Round Table, one who doesn’t find the Holy Grail; it is also the story of everyman.
Tuatha Dé Danann is a energetic retelling of the Battle of Moytura - an account of the invasion and conquest of Ireland by the Tuatha Dé Danann by Diarmuid Johnson, the acclaimed prize-winning author of Conaire Mór. Writing in Books Ireland, Cathal Póirtéir said ‘the author finds the language and rhythms to give the modern language a feeling of ancient authenticity while shaping a story that has a central drive and pace’. This reading features screen projections by Margaret Lonergan of visual interpretations of the myths