Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1998 – Cead Aighnis, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

The poet’s ethical concerns are evident throughout this landmark collection

Major voice in Irish poetry: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Photograph courtesy of RTÉ

Major voice in Irish poetry: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Photograph courtesy of RTÉ

 

Since the publication of her early collections An Dealg Droighin (1981), Féar Suaithinseach (1984) and Feis (1991), Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has been recognised as a major voice in Irish poetry, renowned in particular for her self-conscious engagement with folklore and mythology as rich sources of imagery and insight.

Ní Dhomhnaill was born in Lancashire to Irish-speaking parents, and her poetry bears the imprint of complex personal and community histories of migration and intercultural encounter. Family circumstances brought her to Tipperary, and she went to secondary school in Limerick, studied at University College Cork (where she was associated with the Innti poets: see the entry in this series for 1983) and lived in the Netherlands and Turkey before settling in the south Dublin suburb that has been her base since the 1980s.

Although the west Kerry Gaeltacht, where she was sent to live with an aunt at the age of five, can be seen as her cultural Heimat, many of her poems depict the individual’s relationship with home and kin as a deeply conflicted one. Traditional and contemporary images are combined and juxtaposed to dramatise problematic emotional and psychological states, and dislocation and liminality are often presented as the defining conditions of modern existence.

The collection Cead Aighnis contains some of Ní Dhomhnaill’s most harrowing poems. The opening sequence of poems, Mo Mháistir Dorcha (“My Dark Master”), is a sustained study of human suffering and abjection, characteristically intertwining an intense first-person narrative with the imagery and language of myth, history, politics and science. The archetypal conflict between Eros and Thanatos is played out on a European canvas that encompasses aspects of the poet’s personal history, Irish and Greek mythology, biblical narratives and the atrocities of the Balkan conflict.

Ní Dhomhnaill’s ethical concerns, and her ability to situate personal traumas within a much wider emotional frame of reference, are displayed throughout. In An Obair the impending death of a close friend and the critical illness of her husband evoke the narrator’s equally visceral response to crimes against humanity in north Africa and the Balkans.

In the powerfully resonant poem Plutóiniam the narrator flees in terror when she sees a warning about radioactive gases at the entrance to the underground temple of Pluto at Hierapolis (beside Pamukkale in present-day Turkey). She is reminded of the experience later when, in the ravings of her demented kinswoman, she recognises the repressed memories of the Irish potato blight, soup kitchens and proselytising missions.

While acknowledging the violence at the heart of contemporary civilisation, and admitting that human love or the wonders of the natural world can offer only temporary solace or relief, Ní Dhomhnaill nevertheless affirms a belief in the transcendent nature of poetry in the final poem of the sequence, Aurora Borealis, where poems themselves are presented as wonderful natural occurrences, darting across the fluorescent screen of the mind like the dancing marvels of the Northern Lights.

In her use of folk material Ní Dhomhnaill typically personalises and psychologises the objective third-person accounts of the oral tradition. The early poem An Mhaighdean Mhara (“The Mermaid”) in An Dealg Droighin, for example, depicts a young woman left high and dry in an inhospitable and threatening environment. Ní Dhomhnaill returns to this scene of displacement and alienation in Cead Aighnis with the major poem sequence Na Murúcha a Thriomaigh, whose title poem was aptly translated by Paul Muldoon as The Assimilated Merfolk. It is the predicament of a whole community of displaced people that is under scrutiny in these poems.

Although the experience of the post-Famine Irish has been identified as a theme, it is clear that the social and psychological processes explored in these poems are not limited to any one example of forced or economic migration.

Unsurprisingly, this sequence of poems has received much critical attention, especially since its republication, in 2007, alongside Muldoon’s masterly translations in the dual-language The Fifty Minute Mermaid.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie

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