Three voices in one literature


IRISH-LANGUAGE FICTION:IT IS SAID THAT St Patrick used the shamrock to illustrate the point that there were three persons in one God.

Perhaps, then, it would not be inappropriate, given the time that is in it, to use three Irish-language novels to illustrate three distinct voices in one literature: those of Liam Mac Cóil, Pádraig Ó Siadhail and Éilis Ní Anluain (who have all appeared in the columns of this newspaper at one time or another).

Mac Cóil’s An Litir(Leabhar Breac, €15) is a swashbuckling adventure set in Galway in 1612, with an evocative cover that speaks of action and adventure. Then again, perhaps using the word “swashbuckling” does Mac Cóil a disservice. He has written a fine novel that makes Irish very physical – that is to say, reminds the reader that vigorous descriptions of action, movement and violence are as much a part of the language’s repertoire as the reflections and loftier moments found in its poetry. You can feel the boots and blades in Mac Cóil’s Galway.

In Lúcás Ó Briain, Mac Cóil has fashioned a believable and likable hero, a young student who is entrusted with the letter of the title, which must be delivered to the earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill, in Rome. The English have got wind of the letter, and an assassin is soon in pursuit of Ó Briain as he tries to negotiate his way through Galway’s narrow streets to the harbour and a waiting boat. The story is well told and well paced, and Mac Cóil introduces characters with ease and expertise, giving just enough information to round them out but not so much that it slows the story. An Litir is a significant achievement that brings Walter Mackin’s best work to mind.

THREE CITIES – London, New York and Dublin – form the backdrop for Pádraig Ó Siadhail’s Beirt Bhan Mhisniúla(Cló Iar-Chonnacht, €12), a novel about the writer Pádraic Ó Conaire and two women in his life, one who really existed (Caitlín Ní Aodha) and the other imagined by Ó Siadhail (Mary Morrison).

Ó Conaire’s work will be familiar to many, and he is widely regarded as one of the most important writers in Irish. The novel is set between 1913 and 1928. The main character, Morrison, undertakes an odyssey to discover what exactly happened between Ó Conaire and Ní Aodha. Ó Siadhail brings the bustle of the big city to life and charts a clear course between the characters. It is no insult to say that it is a very traditional novel in its development; it is also one that contains moments of great pathos and passages that are wonderfully observed and well written.

A note of caution, though: it might well be worth the reader’s while to read the author’s short endnote before starting the novel. This is a work of fiction rather than a biography, a distinction that Ó Siadhail blurs with great artistry and a little devilment.

ÉILIS NÍ ANLUAIN’S Filleann Seoirse(Leabhar Breac, €18) is her first novel, wonderfully produced, and a rare tale in Irish, as it concerns a triantán suthain – or menage à trois. Whereas Ó Siadhail’s book has two women dancing around one man, Ní Anluain has two men, Muiris and Seoirse, dancing around one woman, Lís, in a relationship in modern Ireland that ebbs and flows between marriage, friendship and sex.

The three, and their friends, are well educated and bourgeois, with an interest in wine, chess, poetry, art and travelling. The more basic needs of human existence are also there, however, and the clash between intellect and emotional yearning is well drawn out.

The writing is cool and precise, but the story has some unexpected moments that stun the reader – as when, for example, two characters hold hands illicitly under the robes of a child while she is baptised.

Whereas Ó Siadhail and Mac Cóil have their characters’ pucking dialogue up and down the page like a sliotar, Ní Anluain’s characters are altogether more reserved in their pronouncements, whatever about their behaviour. That is not to say that their conversation is any less engaging.

Ní Anluain’s ability to catch day-to-day life and nuanced feeling is enviable, and she has crafted a very contemporary dialect but one in which the mother tongue is not bleached out of all recognition.

And while there is much to admire in her story, equally exciting are the authority and grace with which she writes it. Here is an accomplished author. One looks forward to her next book.