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Crossing the Boundaries

Máirín Nic Eoin

Bliainiris 11, edited by Ruairí Ó hUiginn & Liam Mac Cóil, Leabhar Breac, 231 pp., €15, ISBN 978-1911363-095

A feature of recent Irish-language periodical history has been the appearance of quality literary journals in which academic research is presented side by side with examples of creative writing and works of cultural and political analysis and commentary. By adopting such an eclectic approach journals such as Scríobh (1-6, 1978-1984, edited by Seán Ó Mórdha) and Oghma (1-10, 1989-1998, edited by Seosamh Ó Murchú, Mícheál Ó Cearúil and Antain Mag Shamhráin) functioned as showcases of the finest contemporary scholarship, while also keeping Irish-language literary and cultural criticism in close contact with broader fields of academic enquiry and creative endeavour.

Bliainiris (2000 – ), edited by Ruairí Ó hUiginn, professor of Modern Irish in Maynooth University until his recent appointment as senior professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and Liam Mac Cóil, a novelist and critic with close associations with Maynooth University, followed the model established by Scríobh and Oghma by embracing academic multidisciplinarity and juxtaposing criticism and creative practice. An innovative feature of Bliainiris is its inclusion also of the work of visual artists, which features in a dedicated “Dánlann” (Gallery) section, with an accompanying critical commentary. The volume under review, Bliainiris 11, illustrates the approach admirably, as it includes an essay by economic historian Cormac Ó Gráda, a short story by Seán Mac Mathúna set in Roman Britain in the time of Patrick, an excerpt from a novel by academic and critic Fionntán de Brún, a series of new works by painter Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh with a critical reflection by Mary Cremin, as well as scholarly essays by literary critics and cultural historians. 

Though historians tend to be apprehensive about the effect of commemorative projects on the interpretation of major historical events, a number of contributions to this volume would suggest that the interest generated by commemoration has resulted in very productive and ongoing engagement both with primary sources and with past interpretations of particular events. The essay by Cormac Ó Gráda, himself no stranger to commemorative history circuits, is a case in point. “Cecil Woodham-Smith agus Charles Trevelyan tar éis Caoga Bliain” is a measured and dispassionate assessment of the importance of the work of Cecil Woodham-Smith fifty years after the initial publication of her best-selling book The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 (1962). By focusing on the depiction of Trevelyan, the essay chronicles the critical reception of Woodham-Smith’s book in the 1960s as well as its long-term impact on academic interpretations and literary representations of the Famine.

The longest contribution in the volume, the essay ‘Tadhg Ó Cianáin agus Loreto’ by Rome-based literary historian Mícheál Mac Craith, is an example of the kinds of archival research that accompanied and followed the quatercentenary commemorations of the 1607 departure from Ireland of the Ulster Earls, Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell. Fresh interpretations followed the appearance of Turas na dtaoiseach nUltach as Éirinn: From Rath Maoláin to Rome (2007), a new edition by Nollaig Ó Muraíle of the account of the Earls’ voyage by Tadhg Ó Cianáin, the chronicler who accompanied them on their journey from Rathmullan to Rome. Moving beyond the long-held view of their departure as the tragic ‘Flight’ into exile of the defeated leaders of Gaelic Ireland, scholars now focused anew on the Earls’ central objective, which was to garner the political and military support of  Philip III of Spain, an objective thwarted by Philip’s reluctance to endanger the peace treaty of 1604 between Spain and England. After a sojourn in Spanish Flanders, instead of proceeding to Catholic Spain, the Earls made their way to Rome.

Mícheál Mac Craith places Ó Cianáin’s account in the context of an extensive multilingual literature of travel and pilgrimage, and sees the Earls’ activities on arrival in Italy in the cultural and political context of post-Tridentine Catholic Europe. This article focuses on Ó Cianáin’s account of their visit to the famed Marian pilgrimage site of Loreto in April 1608, discusses the significance of the site for Counter-Reformation Catholicism and illustrates how closely Ó Cianáin’s account of the buildings and traditions associated with the Marian cult at Loreto draws on contemporary Italian sources. The fact that forty per cent of Ó Cianáin’s text, which covers a period of over thirteen months, is devoted to two particular days – the day devoted to the Loreto site and a day spent on the pilgrim path of the Seven Basilicas in Rome (discussed in two earlier essays by Mac Craith ) – is highlighted as indicative of the political significance of pilgrimage as a form of self-representation that would help establish the credentials of O’Neill as Counter-Reformation prince and military leader in the eyes of the pope and the Spanish ambassador to Rome. In foregrounding the importance of Ó Cianáin’s text as an Irish representation of the culture of Counter-Reformation Europe, Mac Craith’s essay also demonstrates the close engagement with diverse multilingual sources necessary for an understanding of the transnational socio-religious environment in which Irish political interests were played out in the early years of the seventeenth century.

This transnational dimension is also apparent in the essay by Art Ó Maolfabhail on the story of the iconic catchphrase “Fág an bealach”, whose provenance spans centuries and continents and whose emotive force transcends political ideology. From its association with patriotism and military activity in nineteenth-century nationalistic ballads and among Irish regiments in the British army, its international dispersal mirrors the transnational routes and contexts of Irish nationalism and British imperialism. It appears among regiments fighting on both sides in the American Civil War; it is employed by the Fenians; it is in use by the Irish Fusiliers regiment of the British army as they face the Boers in South Africa. Its association with energy and speed sees it become the name of a famous race horse, a Bianconi coach, a cross-channel steam boat service, emergency services in Canada, mines in Australia, a fast rowing boat in New Zealand. It is used by GAA clubs and rugby clubs, and the list goes on and on. This meticulously researched essay combines analysis of a vast range of textual and visual sources with a sensitive understanding of the ironies of history, and particularly the manner in which the power of language and iconography can be harnessed politically. 

Another essay with a diasporic dimension is “Pádraic agus Mrs Ó Conaire” by historian Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh, who has made a hugely significant contribution to modern Irish-language literary history and, in recent years in particular, to research on individuals and events of the revolutionary period. Ó Cathasaigh characteristically fills important gaps in the historical record, in this instance in relation to the biographical details of Dublin-born Molly McManus, with whom Galway-born Irish-language author Pádraic Ó Conaire fathered four children between 1905 and 1911 in London. Though new information did come to light during the centenary of Ó Conaire’s birth in 1982, and Ó Conaire scholar Pádraigín Riggs had established birth dates for the children, details of the writer’s relationship with McManus both before and after his return to Ireland in 1915 remained sketchy. In this essay Ó Cathasaigh presents Ó Conaire’s circumstances as recorded in the 1901 and 1911 Censuses, including an inaccurate reference to the couple’s status as “married” in the 1911 Census return. Ó Cathasaigh was also able to establish that the testimony of Ó Conaire’s daughter Kathleen to a marriage having occurred at some stage was true. A marriage certificate confirms that Patrick Joseph Conroy and Mary Agnes McManus were married on January 30th, 1926 at Lambeth registry office. The certificate also allows Ó Cathasaigh trace Molly’s own family to 6 Dromard Ave in Sandymount in Dublin and to establish that her father was Scottish, her mother a Dubliner.

This essay is a most welcome addition to Ó Conaire scholarship, providing further grounds for a re-examination of domestic tensions and gender relations in Ó Conaire’s stories. Other recent accounts of Ó Conaire’s bohemian lifestyle and sexual liaisons – such as Pádraig Ó Siadhail’s accounts of his relationship with Anne Gordon and the Rudmose-Brown circle in Dublin and his possible love affair with Irish-Canadian Katherine Hughes with whom he co-authored a play – and his reputation as a drifter and a heavy drinker, would suggest that he was not the marrying type. Yet he did marry Molly, and evidence of visits he made to London between 1926 and his death in 1928 include a reference to the family address at 6 China Square, Lambeth. After Molly McManus was killed during the Nazi bombardment of London on January 4th, 1945, her death certificate described her as “Widow of Patrick Joseph Conroy a Journalist”. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh has given long overdue recognition to the life of this abandoned literary wife, while not diminishing in the slightest our interest in that remarkable if flawed individual who was Pádraic Ó Conaire.

Other essays in this volume of Bliainiris illustrate a range of approaches to textual criticism. Isobel Ní Riain applies Tönnies’s concept of Gemeinschaft to life on the Great Blasket Island as depicted in the diary of Eibhlín Ní Shúilleabháin, sister of Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, author of Fiche Blian ag Fás (1936). Aingeal Ní Chualáin’s essay on the use of traditional song texts to discuss sexual relations in the fiction of Connemara native Pádhraic Óg Ó Conaire is illustrative of a recent application of sociological and musicological insights to the explication of literary texts. Marie Whelton’s analysis of Seán Mac Mathúna’s short story “Triúrmhilleadh” (“Destruction of Three”) – a story comparable to Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s well-crafted novel on the theme of abortion Aisling nó Iníon A (Aisling or Miss A, 2015) – recognises the power of realist fiction to dramatise a moral dilemma in such a way that the reader is forced to contemplate the issue from a number of conflicting perspectives. Where Ní Dhuibhne’s novel juxtaposes the perspectives of a mother and a daughter, Mac Mathúna’s short story features a middle-aged woman and that elusive character in narratives of unplanned conceptions, the male partner.

The challenge of responding critically to abstract art is a question of finding a language adequate to the visual experience. For this reviewer, the most evocative images in the exhibition of paintings by Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh reproduced in this volume, where the recurring visual concept is “Ardán” (Platform), are a number of un-titled works where large crystalline forms balance ominously and boulder-like on top of dark and sparsely sketched landscapes with horizon lines very close to the bottom of the canvas. There is a creative tension throughout the exhibition between geometric shapes and organic or mechanical processes, and Mary Cremin’s interpretative essay draws attention to the architectural element in the artist’s combination of forms and textures, be they abstracted from nature or purely imaginary. 

Bliainiris 11 is the first volume of the journal to appear under Darach Ó Scolaí’s Leabhar Breac inprint. This is a welcome development, particularly in light of Ó Scolaí’s interest in visual art as well as the company’s diverse and innovative approach to literary publication. The present volume, like all the volumes of Bliainiris to date, is expertly edited and may it long serve as a regular platform for original research, analysis and creative production.

1/5/2017

Máirín Nic Eoin is one of the editors of the two-volume Litríocht na Gaeilge ar fud an Domhain (LeabhairCOMHAR, 2015). Emerita Professor of Irish, Dublin City University, her publications include Trén bhFearann Breac: An Díláithriú Cultúir agus Nualitríocht na Gaeilge (Cois Life, 2005).  

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