Leabhar na hAthghabhála: Poems of Repossession, Irish-English bilingual edition, Louis de Paor, Bloodaxe Books, 544 pp, £15, ISBN: 978-1780372990
Leabhar na hAthghabhála (Poems of Repossession), published by the suitably prestigious Bloodaxe Books, is a bilingual English-Irish anthology that breaks new ground with its critical survey of modern Irish poetry, with parallel translation into English. The 544-page paperback takes up where Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella left off with their pioneering 1981 selection of poetry in Irish, and in English on each opposite page. Ancient and anonymous folk scraps were gathered with classic accentual verse from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The achievement of that anthology, An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed is extended in Leabhar Na hAthghabhála, which introduces a monumental range of twenty-six poets’ work, written from 1906 to the present day. Clearly Ireland’s poets, no longer colonised subjects, had finally come into their own by the time this resonant centenary-year compilation is released.
A class of filidh undergoing twelve-year apprenticeships emerged in pre-Christian Ireland. They used structure to memorise extensive information for the purposes of genealogy, history and law. This oral tradition stretches back much farther than written poetry, fragments of which date from the sixth century onwards. Poetry progressed from alliterative groups to rhyme and rhythm, using stresses and syllables, by the seventh century. An eighth century Latin influence of asyllabic forms were combined with lyrical styles and pastoral preoccupations, establishing the Irish approach for a millennium, until Norman invasions cumulatively almost extinguished such practices and professions. An Duanaire’s woes of enforced emigration still reverberate elsewhere, but the new book confirms not just the survival but the flourishing of indigenous Irish literary traditions.
The title also ties in with The Book of Invasions (Leabhar Gabhála, or Lebor Gabála Érenn), an ancient text of poems and prose ambitiously depicting the origin legend (seanchas) for the Irish people. The narrative runs from the world’s dawn to the Middle Ages, through The Flood, when Noah’s daughter Cessair is cited as the first overwhelmed invader, to more successful settlers, including the Parthalon, Nemed, the Fir Bolg, and Tuatha Dé Danann. Then the Milesians took over, giving the country its ruling families. Different versions evolved, all imaginatively aligning Irish with biblical history.
Among the Milesians on their uncertain arrival was the druid Amergin, whose song invoked the spirit of Ireland to calm a storm conjured by the Tuatha Dé Danann. This mystical lyric inspired the poem Mise Éire, included in Leabhar na hAthghabhála. The author, Pádraig Mac Piarais, led the 1916 Rising, and is not to be confused with the seventeenth century poet Pádraig Piarais. The latter and others like Geoffrey Ó Donoghue, the first of the Four Kerry Poets, were omitted from An Duanaire, though the remaining three, Ferriter, Ó Rahilly and Ó Sullivan were featured. Padraig Ó Heigéartaigh (1871-1936) is found in both, with My Sorrow, Donncha, the moving lament for his drowned son. This poem ends An Duanaire, and opens Leabhar na hAthghabhála, as Irish poets put centuries of oppression behind them and stand tall again. In 2007, Irish became the twenty-third official language of the European Union.
Women poets forge ahead. Compared with only one poem by one woman poet, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire/Lament for Art Ó Laoghaire, by Eibhlín Ní Chonaill, in An Duanaire, fifty-five poems by six female poets enrich the latest compilation. Their increasingly familiar names attest to their cultural sway: Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Caitlín Maude, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Aine Ní Ghlinn, Deirdre Brennan and Biddy Jenkinson. Mhac at tSaoi, scholar and diplomat from Dublin, set the bar high, employing her erudition to illuminate people and social dynamics. Ní Dhomhnaill subsequently accepted her baton and notably reinvigorated the Irish poetry enterprise.
An influential actress from Connemara, Caitlín Maude addresses social wrongs. Amhrán grá Vietnam/Vietnam love song, shows this empathy. Dubliner Deirdre Brennan focuses on the topic of children. “Treacherous undertow of my own body / that took you when I wasn’t looking”, she keens in Marbhghin/Born dead. From Tipperary, lecturer and journalist Áine Ní Ghlinn grapples with hurts such as unfaithfulness in An chéim bhriste/The broken step.
Three poems near the end were composed by poet and Irish language scholar Louis de Paor, who edited the book’s selections and translations. His contributions strongly reflect the plural world of Irish poetry today. The first, Didjeridu, confirms the international scope. The second, An cruthaitheoir/The creator, a joyous domestic sketch, conjures the common driver, while the third, Corcach/Cork, encapsulates the dominant birthplace. The Inntí movement synonymous with that southern city crops up repeatedly.
In 1970, while a student in University College, Cork (UCC), Michael Davitt founded Inntí, the poetry journal baptising the new school. Like the Beat poets in America, this group purposely pursued modern expression of modern issues. Professor Daniel Corkery (1878-1964) nurtured many literary figures, including Seán Ó Riordáin and Seán Ó Tuama, who in turn became lecturers there. Davitt’s poems, like Ciorrú Bóthair/Shortening the Road, exhibit experimentation with idioms and language.
Concerns about relationships, emotions, and social dynamics are frankly explored in poems by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Liam Ó Muirthile, two more Inntí poets from the UCC stables. A one-time broadcaster, drawn to the supernatural, Ó Muirthile dedicated Na Deilgní Broid/Spurs, to Davitt. Though Dublin-born, Tomás Mac Síomóin temporarily lectured at UCC. He claimed far-flung muses – Ceol na dtéad/The music of the strings, mentions ‘the wild wastes of Hungary’.
Derry Ó Sullivan addressed injustices such as his baby brother’s banishment to limbo. This ex-priest contrasts with the many ordained writers in An Duanaire: further signs of a changing society. Colm Breathnach carries the Inntí torch into the next generation. There are several tender elegant poems to his parents, and a famine lament likening the fate of words to that of the dead.
From the Aran Islands, Máirtín Ó Díreáin (1910-1988) detailed in a pioneering way the challenging aspects of rapidly changing roles in society and a loss of community. Also from the West, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc gained linguistic confidence through teaching studies and became obsessed enough with Hiroshima to write a long Mass for the dead, Aifreann na marbh. Seán Ó Curraoin from Bearna, a teacher who worked in the state’s translation office, entertains with his long prose poem about hapless explorer Beairtle/Bartley. A Connemara native, Micheál Ó Cuaig writes delicately about interpersonal concerns, such as “the great station of love” in Traein/Train.
Honing his grasp of Irish through Celtic studies, Liam S Gogan from Dublin bemoaned the plodding pettiness of the Irish state after the fight for independence. Born in Newcastlewest, Co Limerick, Michael Hartnett famously switched from English to Irish composition in protest at the state’s language policies. Hartnett completed major translations of dead Irish poets, and his own poem, Fís dheireannach Eoghain Rua Uí Shúilleabháin/The last vision of Eoghan Rua O’Sullivan, displays his passion.
Many of the poets spent formative years in Gaeltachts, although the last presented, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, evolved his astute reflexive style from a shaky start at a secondary school in Belfast, followed up by Gaelic League membership. His poem Sruth teangacha/Stream of tongues, is dedicated to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and this homage of cross-reference recurs, for example Biddy Jenkinson’s Codail a laoich/Sleep, my prince. Intriguingly, Jenkinson’s identity remains unknown, but she’s probably of planter stock given her name and other textual clues.
A Carlowman who taught in Belfast, Conleth Ellis tackled the institutionalisation of Irish literature in, Naoi dtimpeall/Nine circuits, addressing “you who are troubled by the mute / want of your own roots’! Northern too, from Donegal, Cathail Ó Searcaigh vividly communicates intimate sentiments, occasionally harking back to artistic predecessors, as in Ceann dubh dilis/Dear dark head, which, the notes inform, “imitates the popular traditional love poem”.
Besides these insightful editor’s notes on individual poems, additional sections of Leabhar na hAthghabhála conveniently supply information on the twenty-four translators: Brendan Kennelly, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and Paul Muldoon among them. These translators furnish their own notes on individual poets. Also provided is a chronology of publication dates, lists of references and acknowledgements, and an index. There’s even a list of place-names. The apt cover picture, Out of the Head, is by Brian Bourke.
De Paor’s introduction serves as a useful guide and rationale for layout and choices. After a short discussion about translation and dialect, he divides Irish poetry of the twentieth century into five periods: 1900-1920, optimistic non-Gothic revival of the language; 1920-1940, post-idealistic reality; 1940-1960, integration of the past and growth of world consciousness; 1960-1980, diversity of individual voices and visions, and 1980-2000, confident mastery by Irish poets despite official neglect of the language and the Gaeltachts.
Even for “fine days” with just the cúpla focail, this book is an attractive showcase of works that fearlessly confront our lived experiences, both at home and abroad. It consolidates the state of poetry in Ireland today. Anyone with Irish blood or an interest in the Irish will find something to satisfy here. Leabhar na hAthghabhála is a tremendous achievement bound for classic status far into the future.
An earlier version of this essay referred to Derry O'Sullivan as being single. He is in fact married with two children.
The introduction to the book can be read here:
Caroline Hurley lives near an Irish bird reserve where contact with nature inspires ideas, and occasionally poems. Some have appeared in Poetry 24, anthologies, and elsewhere.