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Letters to the Editor: Irish-Language Lit as a Curio?

April 19, 2011

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In the Guernica feature “The Accidental Tagore,” Amit Chaudhuri discusses Rabindranath Tagore’s life and poetry, as well as Bengali’s development as a literary language. Chaudhuri writes, “Bengali encompassed more than nationalism. It became—in lieu of English—a respectable vehicle for cosmopolitan self-expression by the 1860s. It is the latter development that failed in Ireland and Wales with regard to Gaelic and Welsh, and nationalism alone…didn’t succeed in turning those languages into viable literatures or prevent them from becoming, essentially, curios.” Below, a reader of Gaelic literature responds.

Amit Chaudhuri’s revealing insights into the life and work of Rabindranath Tagore were spoiled for me by his reference to modern Irish-language literature (or Gaelic) as nothing more than a curio, an ethnic badge, of no interest to lovers of world literature today. Here is a short list of some of my fellow-poets writing in Irish, the first three now deceased: Seán Ó Ríordáin, Máirtín Ó Direáin, Michael Davitt, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Liam Ó Muirthile, Biddy Jenkinson, Colm Breathnach, Tomás Mac Síomóin, Gréagóir Ó Dúill, Louis de Paor, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Celia de Fréine.

There are others, such as Paddy Bushe, Dairene Ní Chinnéide, Peadar Ó hUallaigh, Caitríona Ní Chleirichín, Aifric Nic Aodha, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, Proinsias Mac an Bhaird, Derry O’Sullivan, Pearse Hutchinson, Seán Hutton and many more. Some are bilingual and write in Irish and English.

Writing in A New View of the Irish Language, edited by C. Nic Pháidín and S. Ó Cearnaigh (Cois Life, 2008), Liam Ó Muirthile states, “Much has been achieved in the poetry of the past forty years in Irish. It has seen much individual achievement, international performance and recognition. While the main English-language focus in that period has been on the poets of Northern Ireland, a coherent and highly significant body of work continued to evolve in Irish, giving voice to another very contemporary Irelandness…”

And that’s just the poetry. The prose is dealt with in another essay in the above-mentioned volume. It’s a great pity that the best of this work is not widely available in other languages and we must ask ourselves why this is so. Some of these poets can be found on the website of Poetry International, itself a testimony to the world significance of a lot of this poetry, a poetry which transcends national boundaries, a poetry that belongs to one of the great ancient languages of the world, still clinging on to life with a tenacity and vigor which art itself generates.

—Gabriel Rosenstock

To respond to this letter or send a note regarding other Guernica content, please email editors@guernicamag.com or guernicablog@gmail.com.

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