Irish speaks better of fragility


MAGAN'S WORLD:Manchán Magan on writing as Gaeilge

THE LOGIC of using Irish as a medium to explore remote cultures first struck me while travelling through Rajasthan because of its ability to communicate the fragility and complexity of other cultures, particularly waning ones.

I’ve written about Rajasthan and its haunted quality of tarnished lustre in both Irish and English, but it was far easier in Irish. Somehow conveying the death-rattle of a great culture is more convincing in Irish.

The moth-eaten resonances of splendour, the final tiger hunts, the last purdahhed women and fading princes all seem more convincing in the first official language – one that harks longingly back to its own golden age, one that is more allied to the oppressed than the oppressor.

Rajasthan was always the most exotic and flamboyant state in India. Its plundering, blood-lusting maharajas imbued the state with a megalomaniac swagger and amassed unseemly wealth which they revelled in until the Indian princes were stripped of their status and wealth after independence.

Nowadays, the potent sense of a once glorious past is still evident in things like the lofty bearing of its farmers and the silk scarves and rich-hued saris of its women.

It’s surprising how many people have found that Irish is a natural medium through which to explore other cultures. Long before TG4 brought us Hector and Dermott Somers, Irish language writers were veering towards travel literature.

In fact, more travel books are published in Irish than in English in this country.

The latest is Favela, Alex Hijmans’ illuminating account of moving to one of the poorest slums in Brazil and marrying a local man. Mícheál de Barra won a Glen Dimplex award for his An Bóthar go Santiagoabout walking out of a classroom after 40 years teaching and heading on a 900km walk along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Eoghan Ó Néill’s Cathrachaexplores cities that inspire him from Cóbanhávanto Prágto Sairéavó, while Alan Desmond’s Seal sa Pholainnexamines Poland’s post-Communist identity.

Before these, came Gabriel Rosentock’s playful, philosophic travelogue Ólann mo mhiúil as an nGainséis(My mule drinks from the Ganges), or Micheál Mac Liammóirs hilarious account of touring the Mediterranean with an acting troupe, Aisteoirí Faoi Dhá Sholas: dialann mheanmhara.

Cathal Ó Searchaigh’s Seal in Neipealprovides a sense of what the poet was really looking for in Nepal, with some wonderful passages on the beauty of the Himalayas.

Even, back in the 1960s when Dervla Murphy was defining Irish travel literature for Béarlóirí, Gaeilgeoiríhad Úna Ní Mhaoileoin’s gleefully malicious books which even her publisher admitted were disrespectful and impatient. They were described in the Sunday Dispatchof 1965 as the most amusingly outspoken books ever to have appeared in the Gaelic language. Ní Mhaoileoin revelled in linguistic ingenuity, blending the local language of wherever she was with Irish to give sentences like: “ Síléar espléndido ón oriente antiquo, in all its glory, indubitablemente,” from Turas Go Tuinisabout a journey by land and sea to Tunisia.

For more a vernacular style, look to Ger Ó Ciabháin’s Cogarnach Ár gCósta, a lyrical account of his 2,000km circumnavigation of Ireland in a naomhóg, a Ballyferriter curragh, in 1975.

Unfortunately, most of these books are now out of print, and will require library searches, but they are well worth rooting out. I’m still trying to get my hands on Seal ag Ródaíochtby Francis MacManus, currently lost somewhere in the stacks of Coolock library.

Next week’s Dublin Writers Festival, will be taking a closer look at travel literature in Irish in an evening called From Beyond Our Shores (or Bíonn Adharca fada ar na buaibh thar lear). It takes place at the Project Arts Centre on June 3rd, where four Irish language travel writers (including myself) will explore the subject and read some samples (