‘Like the 9th-century Irish Vikings, I see myself as a Gall-Gaedil or a foreign Gael’
Norway is the focus country of ILFD 2019. Why is literature so important to it and what are its links with Ireland?
Norway’s ambassador to Ireland Else Berit Eikeland
Being a small country with three languages, the written word matters to most Norwegians. The written languages are bokmål, influenced by Danish as a result of the 400 years of Danish colonisation of Norway, and nynorsk, a written language based on the Norwegian dialects, reflecting how ordinary people spoke in the countryside in the late 1800s. In addition, the Sami language is an official language spoken by the Sami people, the indigenous people of Norway. All Norwegians would understand the two types of Norwegian, while the Sami language is completely different and has to be learned. Like the use of Irish and English here in Ireland, there are prominent writers and poets writing in all the three languages.
Ireland and Norway are two small countries on the periphery of Europe. Historically the ocean united us, but later the sea divided our two countries. For most Norwegians, Ireland gradually became the island behind the bigger island. This perception is changing now. Norwegians want to rediscover the Irish-Norse roots, and to study how early Irish scholars and monasteries influenced Norway’s emerging Christian and written culture.
The Irish and the Norse are among the neo-classical peoples with a similar development of oral prose narrative. Even though the Norse sagas differ widely from the similar Irish texts, the mythology and the earliest prehistoric stories are very similar. This seems to suggest a common origin in relatively early times, perhaps before the Viking raids developed. A new research project in Norway is looking at how Norse poetry, skaldic verse and the use of kennings and perhaps also the composition in itself, were modelled on early Irish poetry.
The work of French-Norwegian poet Caroline Bergvall typifies linguistic and cultural hybridity. Her new commission for the festival, Conference (after Sweeney), takes as its starting point the well-known medieval Irish epic poem of mad King Sweeney (Buile Suibhne). In a live conversation piece at the festival on Saturday, May 25th, Conference will explore issues of location, poetic performance and multiple languages. The migration of people and languages echoes throughout history, and is so relevant to the present day.
The integration of the mainly male Norse population in advanced Irish society at that time must have led to hugely important cultural and religious influence being brought back to the Norwegian homelands. From the middle of the ninth century a mixed people of Irish and Viking stock appear in the Irish annals as Gail-Gaedil which means foreign Gael. A 10th-century Irish text speaks of their language as gic-goc which in modern terms would be pidgin Gaelic. This group of people were important culture bearers of the developing Norse society; the people in between.
Later developments in Ireland and in Norway were similar. Both nations gradually ended up under foreign rule and a foreign official language was introduced. Norwegian literature was virtually nonexistent during the Danish-Norwegian union. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen defined this period as four hundred years of darkness. The comparison to Ireland is obvious.
With the advent of nationalism and the struggle for independence in the early 19th century, a new golden period of Norwegian literature emerged. The literature was closely connected to a developing new Norwegian identity, opposed to foreign rule, but at the same time critical of the established Norwegian society. Maybe Ibsen is the best known author internationally, but others like Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was well known in Ireland and influenced a new generation of Irish writers. The young James Joyce mentioned Ibsen in several essays and short stories, and he learned Norwegian to be able to write directly to Ibsen. Regrettably Ibsen and Joyce never met. At this year’s Bloomsday this relationship will for the first time be discussed in a presentation at the National Library of Ireland.
We have all experienced that language is all about your own identity on a personal level. A nation’s identity is in the same way linked to language. For small countries like Norway with our own language, the national literature is hugely important. The national languages of a country make the people of the country unique from other people and express the character of the country. Literature written in the native language is more accessible and reaches out to all groups in society. Maybe that is part of the reason for the huge numbers of readers in Norway.
After living in Ireland for some years, I regard myself as a Gall-Gaedil or foreign Gael. To read contemporary Norwegian and Irish literature has given me the feeling of being in between two very similar cultures. To present Norwegian literature in Ireland is important to strengthen the cultural connections between the two countries, but also on a political level. Our national experience expressed through literature is important to build a close political relationship between Ireland and Norway.
Else Berit Eikeland is the ambassador of Norway to Ireland
Norway is this year’s ILFDublin’s Focus Country