Rapping as Gaeilge about priests, hunger, emigration and alcohol abuse
‘Beatha Dhónaill Dhuibh’ heralds arrival of a new voice breathing new life into writing in Irish
Séamus Barra Ó Súilleabháin: themes include old dark favourites. Photograph: Gráinne Gillen
Beatha Dhónaill Dhuibh
Séamus Barra Ó Súilleabháin
Séamus Barra Ó Súilleabháin, 2011/2012 victor of the All-Ireland Poetry Slam, is an Irish language rap poet based in Listowel, Co Kerry. He is a regular performer of his work on various stages and with the help of varied media. He has previously published in The Willow’s Whisper: A Transatlantic Compilation of Poetry from Ireland and Native America and in Iris Comhar.
Beatha Dhónaill Dhuibh might be the first of many volumes to come from young Ó Súilleabháin, but its title happens to be one which knowingly nods to a hagiographical tradition which has accompanied Irish history through most of two millennia. It is a tradition that Ó Súilleabháin has boldly innovated upon. Instead of conforming, for example, to the medium of Hisperic Latin as in such canons of Irish biography as Vita Sancti Patricii, Vita Columbae or Vita Sanctae Brigidae, he has chosen to write Beatha Dhónaill Dhuibh in his own brand of mellifluous Munster Irish, without ever neglecting other Irish languages such as Jailic, Hiberno-English and even Polish, once or twice. And of course, the Irish word beatha, figuring in the title, is a cognate cousin of Latin vita. Quite a claim is made for Hiberno-English of which the Limerick variety is said in a poem entitled Fóineolaíocht to be more Gaelic than any form of prescriptive college society Gaeilge could ever aspire to be.
The following specimen of Gaelic English is from Ó Súilleabháin’s native Listowel via a composition entitled Cuimhne ar Shean-Dhónall wherein the poet explores an instance of the evasion of fees “owed” to a foreign church: “Right boys, when I was a garsún, I usht have a dacent seait. I’m 83 years of age now an don’t tink I’ve failed much. SO if ye two graoisíns aren’t out of dis yard in 2 minutes, I’ll pump yere holes with LEAD.”
Ó Súilleabháin arrests his readers’ attention by addressing them directly from the opening line of the collection, eschewing the formality of a scholarly introduction which would in fairness befit a poetic work of such quality.
The themes covered include some of the old favourites – priests, hunger, unemployment, emigration, alcohol abuse and illicit love interests. There are also some newer avenues of discussion – dark matter, drug use, space exploration and internet culture.
The thematic diversity matches the postmodernist plurality of voices to be discovered, and it is a feature of the collection recalls Mairtín Ó Cadhain’s novel Cré na Cille or, as Alan Titley’s recent translation would have it, The Dirty Dust. Cré na Cille is of course a novel, and so, to speak of literary genre, Beatha Dhónaill Dhuibh as a collection includes poems ranging from traditional metre to free verse, and from short story form to a foray even into the niche of Gaelic rap with a composition entitled Ar Theacht na Samhna, which was aptly performed last Halloween live on TG4 during the course of an occasion which marked the first utterance of the phrase “motherf**king” broadcast on that station. The collection takes it leave with a series of Gaelic haikus entitled Gunsaku Tuathail.
Kerry rap poet performance and interview
But just who is this Dónall Dubh, anyway? One would normally expect the subject of such works of hagiography as described above to be both a saint and dead. The Dónall Dubh referred to in the title is well and truly alive, according to the almost bewildering variety of evidence presented throughout the collection. He does seem to be depicted as somewhat of a messiah – the capitalisation of pronouns referring to him are a dead giveaway in that regard. The birth of Dónall Dubh is discussed in a poem whose title, which may be translated “The birth of Dónall according to his father”, is worded in such a way as to suggest that this would indeed be an ecumenical matter. It is to be noted that Dónall’s death is not alluded to at any point from beginning to end. In fact, the immortalisation of a non-Christian figure in hagiographical terms initially, and later in regal terms such as in “Rí Dónall” (king Dónall) in the poem Baile Fearthainne, quite clearly link Ó Súilleabháin’s work to the messages inscribed on the remaining ogham stones across the country, which almost invariably refer to the births and deaths of kings.
Despite his apparent invincibility, the suggestion that Dónall Dubh in this collection might represent some kind of saviour, or “super-hero” as per the words of Liam Carson who has already written in The Irish Times about Beatha Dhónaill Dhuibh, seems as incongruent to me as the usual portrayals of Jesus Christ seemed to Tommy Tiernan, who infamously quipped that our Lord would probably have been more akin to Danny DeVito than the images presented to Christians on chapel leadlights.
Although Dónall Dubh might well assume the role of prophet in one of the poems, and is referred to as an archangel in another, he is far from saintly. Rather, I would prefer to characterise him as a jealous, gun-toting, street-fighting terror, serving in most instances as an analogy for depression, or An Galar Dubhach as it is termed in the title of one of the poems. And during this period of Irish history wherein the debate on mental health has only just begun, multi-faceted fictional Dónal, along with the arts in general, may represent arguably the most effective medium to provoke discussion of the issue.
One such discussion Ó Súilleabháin foresees taking place in a kitchen in the South Kerry Gaeltacht of Uíbh Ráthach, and leads to an insight which Séamus summarises in the phrase “tá a Dónall féin ag gach aon chlann”, which may come to find its way into future Irish dictionaries as an apt translation of the English expression “every family has its skeletons”.
Incidentally, would-be readers of Beatha Dhónaill Dhuibh will more than likely seek recourse to the admirable database of Irish language dictionary resources available at teanglann.ie, which happen to have been based substantially on the work of a 20th-century lexicographer by the name of Niall Ó ‘Dónaill.
Beatha Dhónaill Dhuibh heralds the arrival of a new voice breathing new life into the world of writing as Gaeilge, and it does so by drawing amply on the words, proverbs and rhythms of a traditional dialect of Gaeltacht Irish as spoken in Kerry.
Many clever references to Irish literature and history throughout the collection bring forgotten folkloric figures such as Dónall na nGeimhleach and Tadhg an Dá Thaobh back into focus.
We could even go as far as to claim that Dónall Dubh’s most famous namesake, the historical Hebridean Domhnall Dubh of the Lordship of the Isles who died in Drogheda, has received new life from Ó Súilleabháin’s collection, whether or not this was the author’s intention.
Indeed, Ó Súilleabháin with all his west of Ireland modesty seems to disclaim all authorship in a poem entitled Oilithreacht where he ascribes to a residency in Cill Rialaigh the epiphany that when one speaks, the voice manifesting itself is not quite his or hers but rather that of our people.
With this idea in mind, the collection may not inaccurately be described as a veritable anthology in the true sense of that word, and that is to say, a collection of poems from several different authors – Séamus Barra Ó Súilleabháin, Dónall Dubh in all his incarnations, and the people of Ireland, at home and abroad, past and present.
Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh is a PhD student finishing his thesis on Irish folklore in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick