From memoir to crime fiction, short stories and novels to poetry and bird watching, 2023 has been a bumper year for Irish language literature. The range includes well known names like Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Alan Titley as well as a few welcome newcomers.
Memoir has always been central to litríocht na Gaeilge. From Peig Sayers and Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s reflections on island life to Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s Amhrán an tSaighdiúra/A Soldier’s Song or Dialann Deoraí/An Irish Navy, memoir opens a window on the past.
This year, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, the Irish-language publishing company, unlocks two more recent windows.
In Fáinne Gheal an Lae, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne reflects on growing up in Ranelagh, Dublin 6 before it became the trendy place it is now. Those were the days of outdoor toilets, biscuits sold out of tins with glass window-lids, not to mention the need to raise your status by imitating posh accents from Clonskeagh.
Pádraic Mac Donncha’s An Dá Shaol traces the author’s life in Ráth Chairn, Co Meath, a Gaeltacht set up by the State in the 1930s when a number of families relocated from Conamara. Known as Pádraic Sheáinín or Pádraic Chóil Neaine Pháidín, Mac Donncha was born into a Connemara family but grew up in Ráth Chairn. If you want the full explanation of who Seáinín, Cóil, Neaine and Páidín were, read the first chapter. It’s not as complicated as it sounds…or is it?
Thirty pages of photographs include the arrival in Ráth Chairn while a newspaper headline from 1934 sums it up as ‘Filleadh as Ifreann nó as Connacht’ (Return from Hell or Connaught).
More photos in Maitiú Ó Murchú's Éanlaith Iarthuaisceart Thír Chonaill (LeabhairCOMHAR). Ó Murchú walked the whole of Donegal to photograph more than 100 different species of bird. He also includes placenames, seanfhocail and some fascinating bird-related folklore.
Two collections of short stories worthy of a place on this year’s Christmas list.
Of the 16 stories in Alan Titley’s Ag Dul i Bhfad (Cló IarChonnacht), seven have won Oireachtas awards. Titley’s signature offbeat humour is obvious throughout. In Trí Sheans, I wondered if the class wit, Cathal, might have been based on Titley himself. When studying On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, the teacher asks who was the first person to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean. The class nerd is praised for his response of “Cortez” but Cathal argues that surely, the locals must have seen it first.
A new edition of Seosamh Mac Grianna’s An Grá agus an Ghruaim (Éabhlóid) took me back to my Leaving Cert days (when students read actual books in Irish rather than snippets and excerpts). While remaining faithful to the local dialect, Mac Giolla Bhríde has updated the language slightly, making the stories easily accessible to the modern reader.
Other well-known names include Gabriel Rosenstock, Gabriel Fitzmaurice and Catherine Foley – all with bilingual poetry collections published by Arlen House.
Paddy Bushe captures Rosentock’s voice to perfection in his translations of Garsún: Boy, while Foley (Amhrán Sráidbhaile/Village Song) and Fitzmaurice (Gan Focal/Frugal Speech) do their own translations. Foley celebrates the everyday rituals of rural life, Fitzmaurice’s themes range from the cat to questions of faith, while Rosenstock’s collection reads like a literary memoir. He takes us on a journey through life, from childhood family reflections through secondary school (where a fellow student has a plastic screwcap statue of the Virgin Mary filled with vodka). All three collections are excellent, although I felt that the second voice in Garsún: Boy added an extra dimension.
A welcome new voice to the poetry scene is Laoiseach Ní Choisdealbha with her first collection, Solas Geimhridh (Barzaaz). Whether writing about language, love or the challenges of the female body, Ní Choisdealbha’s voice is already polished and mature.
I have long been an admirer of Celia de Fréine’s poetry. Aoí ag Bord na Teanga (LeabhairCOMHAR) is a mix of poems (selected and new), all with a strong sense of social awareness.
Two award-winning novels have been published in the past few months. Fionntán de Brún’s Béal na Péiste (Cló Iar-Chonnacht) recently won the prestigious Gradam Uí Shúilleabháin Book of the Year 2023. The story centres on Réanonn Prút who returns to Ireland in the 1980s, having spent much of his life abroad. Naive enough to think he can be an innocent bystander in the second World War, he worked as a translator in Berlin for a Nazi radio channel. The story shifts easily back and forth between the 1940s and the 1980s.
Sa Pholl Báite (Cló Iar-Chonnacht) is Anna Heussaff’s fourth page-turner crime novel. Already familiar with some of the characters, this time we join them as they follow the mystery surrounding the disappearance and murder of Emer Ní Ghríofa. An earlier draft of Sa Pholl Báite won an Oireachtas award in 2022.
I’m delighted to be introduced to the works of Michela Murgia, an award-winning Sardinian novelist who died earlier this year. In Áthmháthair (Éabhlóid), translated by Máire Nic Mhaoláin, Maria’s life is transformed when she is adopted by her new “soul mother”. However, all is not as it seems.
If want to drop some light humour into the Christmas stocking, Joe Ó Dónaill’s Sin Ceann Maith! (Éabhlóid) is a collection of jokes
Two stories intertwine in Annette Byrne’s Cumar an Dá Shruth (Coiscéim). The modern-day Saoirse takes time out in Brú Bhríde, a spiritual retreat centre, built on the site of St Brigid’s 5th-century monastery. Saoirse’s story links with that of Dar Lughdach, who took over from St Brigid as abbess. Saoirse’s story is told mainly through an internal monologue while Dar Lughdach’s is told in the form of a dialogue with her handmaid.
Proinsias Mac a’Bhaird’s Flaitheas (Leabhar Breac) moves up a century and tells the fascinating story of Criomhthainn (the young Colmcille) who is destined for the life of a warrior king. When tragedy strikes, he struggles to adapt to the changes in his life.
Also from Leabhar Breac, Darach Ó Scolaí's Deirdre is a scholarly retelling of Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach, based on the oldest version available (from the 12th century Book of the Dun Cow). Magnificent artwork from Cork-based Ukrainian artist Anastasia Melnykova makes this the perfect coffee table book.
Cathal Póirtéir’s An Tiarna George Hill agus Pobal Ghaoth Dobhair (Cló Iar-Chonnacht) brings us forward to the 1800s and is a dramatic account of the actions of Lord George Hill who bought half the parish of Gaoth Dobhair in Donegal. While he did much to improve the area, in terms of farming reforms and improving roads, his relations with the local people took a downturn in the years after the Great Famine.
If want to drop some light humour into the Christmas stocking, Joe Ó Dónaill’s Sin Ceann Maith! (Éabhlóid) is a collection of jokes (old and new). You’ve probably heard many of them before, but not ‘as Gaeilge’.
For lovers of music and song, Pól Ó Seachnasaigh’s Amhráin Anna John Chiot (Four Courts Press) is a wonderful collection of songs recorded by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s and 1940s. Anna John Chiot was one of the commission’s most important sources with a repertoire of 128 songs in all. Some of these can be heard on the accompanying CD, recorded by six of the best sean-nós singers from Donegal (including Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Máire Ní Choilm and Lillis Ó Laoire).
Young adult fiction is in relatively short supply this year. For readers 12+, Maedhbh Ní Eadhra’s Bláth Fiáin (Cló Iar-Chonnacht) is set in Spiddal and takes place mainly on the night of the Junior Certificate results. Ní Eadhra explores the social and emotional issues facing young people and shows an in-depth and compassionate understanding of the teenage world.
For the slightly younger reader (10-12) Tristan Rosenstock’s Inis Mara (LeabhairCOMHAR) is a modern adventure story about climate change. Éabha reminds us of the need to work together if we want to save the world.
For readers 8+, you can’t go wrong with Laureate na nÓg, Patricia Forde’s An Mactíre Deireanach (Futa Fata), illustrated by Lauren O’Neill. Cromwell has declared war on wolves (as well as people) but the brave young Úna is determined to save just one wolf from Cromwell’s soldiers.
Also for little hands, Mo Chuid Uirlisí Ceoil (My Irish Books) is a push-button board book about traditional Irish instruments
For the very young (3+), Ríta, the little girl with big ideas and an even bigger imagination, is back with two more stories. Ríta agus an tEachtrán and Ríta agus an Díneasár (An tSnáthaid Mhór), both written by Máire Zepf and illustrated by Mr Ando. In the former, Ríta discovers that befriending an alien will “literally” turn her world (and book) upside down. In the latter, no ordinary pet will satisfy Ríta. She wants a dinosaur but, as always, she hasn’t quite thought this through! Watch out for Rita’s adventures coming soon to TG4.
For a similar age group, Gealach agus Grian (Futa Fata), written by Muireann Ní Chíobháin and illustrated by Brian Fitzgerald, is a perfect night-time story. Luna and Sol can’t agree on their bedtime story, so their mother tells them the story of Sun and Moon who learn to deal with their differences.
I don’t generally recommend books translated from English as I prefer to focus on original work as Gaeilge. However, Sophie Beer’s picture book, Croí an Teaghlaigh an Grá (An Gúm), translated by Shanna Ní Rabhartaigh & Gillian Nic Ionmhain, deserves a mention. Whether you have one parent or two, two mothers, two fathers or one of each, simple text and strikingly beautiful illustrations remind us that all that really matters is love.
For babies to 7+, Sadhbh Rosenstock (Picnic Press) has produced Teach Teidí, a collection of songs and rhymes, colourfully illustrated by Ciara Ní Dhuinn. Scan the QR code to listen and sing along. Two smaller books for little hands, Teidí agus an Foghlaí Mara and Teidí agus an Dineasár are based on two of the songs.
Also for little hands, Mo Chuid Uirlisí Ceoil (My Irish Books) is a push-button board book about traditional Irish instruments. Delightfully illustrated by Tatyana Feeney, the recordings of the various instruments are high quality, although Emer Ní Scolaí's text is more suited to the adult reader.
Finally, if you’re looking for a gift for children of any primary school age, you can’t go wrong with Púcaí Schmúcaí (Futa Futa), a selection of Gabriel Rosenstock’s poems for children. With stunning illustrations by Tarsila Kruse and Úna Woods, you can click on the QR code to listen to the poems brought to life by Sinéad Ní Uallacháin and the children of Scoil Naomh Gobnait, Dún Chaoin.
With so much to choose from, why not buy at least one Irish-language book this Christmas?
Áine Ní Ghlinn is a poet and children’s writer and was Ireland’s Laureate na nÓg/Children’s Literature Laureate 2020-2023. Her most recent book is Óstán na bhFeithidí (An tSnáthaid Mhór).