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The Canon in Irish Language Fiction

Brian Ó Conchubhair and Philip O’Leary

In April 2015, a group of more than fifty writers, scholars, and readers came together in Dublin to discuss the canon of the twentieth century novel in Irish at a conference sponsored by the University of Notre Dame. The aim was to compile a list of the most important and significant novels in the Irish language since the first such work was published by Father Patrick Dinneen in 1901. At first, the intent was to compile a list of ten titles, but the number soon grew to, and was capped at, fifteen. Even so, there were several titles that deserved critical attention but didn’t find a home in the final fifteen ‑ to the anguish of some on the advisory committee: five academics and novelists. It was then decided to organise an international conference at the University of Notre Dame’s O’Connell House in Merrion Square, Dublin at which a leading expert in the field of twentieth century Irish language prose fiction would be charged with discussing one of these selected novels in terms of their continuing significance and influence as well as literary merit. Below is a list of the fifteen novels and the experts who spoke on each of them at the conference, followed by a slightly more detailed consideration of each of the works.

Séadna (1904) by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire (Alan Titley)
Deoraíocht (1910) by Pádraic Ó Conaire (Ian Ó Caoimh)
Mo Bhealach Féin (1940) by Seosamh Mac Grianna (Liam Ó Dochartaigh)
An Béal Bocht (1941) by ‘Myles na gCopaleen’ (Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith)
Cré na Cille (1949) by Máirtín Ó Cadhain (Máire Ní Annracháin)
Néal Maidine agus Tine Oíche (1964) by Breandán Ó Doibhlin (Tadhg Ó Dúshláine)
Dé Luain (1966) by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (Máirín Nic Eoin)
Caoin Tú Féin (1967) by Diarmaid Ó Súilleabháin (Éamon Ó Ciosáin)
An Uain Bheo (1968) by Diarmaid Ó Súilleabháin (Antain Mag Shamhráin)
Fuíoll Fuine (1970) by Máirtin Ó Cadhain (Feargal Ó Béarra)
Méirscrí na Treibhe (1978) by Alan Titley (Máirtín Coilféir)
Cuaifeach mo Londubh Buí (1983) by Séamas Mac Annaidh (Pádraig Ó Siadhail)
An Fear Dána (1993) by Alan Titley (Pól Ó Muirí)
Éagnairc (1994) by Pádraig Ó Siadhail (Gréagóir Ó Dúill)
Desiderius a Dó (1995) by Pádraig Ó Cíobháin (Gearóid Denvir)

Séadna (1904): Rooted in Irish folklore, An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire’s novel is closely related to the German legend of Faust and countless Christian folktales such as motif number M211 and M210. The plot concerns a cobbler, Séadna, who runs out of leather to make shoes and consequently strikes a deal with the Devil, who offers him endless resources to prosper financially. However, because he uses his newfound wealth for the benefit of others less fortunate than himself rather than for himself alone, Séadna, due to the individuals he helps, is able to trap the Devil at the novel’s conclusion, renegotiate the deal and escape with his soul and life. Regarded as the first “novel” in Irish and written in vernacular rather than classical Irish, Séadna’s historical significance cannot be overstated. Cois Life published Liam Mac Mathúna’s definitive edition of the text in 2011. (Translated into English in 1998 by Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín and published by the Glendale Press.)

Deoraíocht (1910): An expressionistic novel set in London, Pádraic Ó Conaire’s Deoraíocht details the exploits of a Galwegian who emigrated to London and was maimed in a traffic accident. The loss of a leg and a hand as well as major damage to his face mirror the internal trauma he experiences as a rural emigrant in an urban setting. Having flittered away his accident compensation on false friends, the protagonist performs as a freak in a travelling circus. During the protagonist’s time with the show, the circus manager, the “Little Yellow Man”, contrives a marriage between him and his daughter, the ‘Big Fat Woman’ – ‘the most obese woman in the world’ ‑ as a joint new attraction. Later, on tour in Galway, he encounters former friends. When his past and present collide, he destroys the circus in a rage. Destitute once again, he returns to London, rejecting all efforts to rescue him. The narrative, readers discover, is a reconstruction from letters found on his dead body in a London park.  (Translated into English as Exile in 2000 by Gearailt Mac Eoin; into French as Exil in 2000 and into Czech as Vyhnanství in 2004.)

Mo Bhealach Féin (1940): A first person subjective account of the narrator’s experiences living in rented accommodation in 1930s Dublin. It describes his involvements with landladies, and adventures with the IRA, Salvation Army and stealing a rowboat to sail to Wales. Often compared to Liam O’Flaherty’s Two Years (1930) and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Down and Out in London and Paris (1933), Mo Bhealach Féin is a profoundly honest and often scathing critique of the Irish Free State that examines the role of the nonconformist artist in the pursuit of “truth”. Written prior to the author’s tragic breakdown, it provides a frightening insight into a brilliant and bellicose but dark and disturbed mind.

An Béal Bocht (1944): A parody of Gaeltacht autobiographies and Irish language novels that distort the daily lived experience of native Irish speakers. Drawing on a variety of sources, An Béal Bocht satirises established canonical autobiographical texts such An tOileánach, Peig, Fiche Bliain ag Fás and Nuair a Bhí Mé óg as well as An Gúm-published novels. In keeping with generic expectations, the novel describes the archetypical experiences of a Gaeltacht youth: his first memories as a child, first day at school, a physical description of the family house, his first experiences with match-making and alcohol and encounters with cultural nationalists and the annual cultural fair. But in critiquing social and literary expectations, it punctured cultural nationalist ideals of the heroic Irish-speaker and the idyllic linguistic heartlands. The novel concludes with the narrator being arrested and sent to prison, where he meets his long-lost father who is just being released. Readers are left to reflect on endlessly repeating social and literary cycles. (Translated into English in 1973 by Patrick Power as The Poor Mouth and published by Dalkey Archive Press.)

Cré na Cille (1949): Regarded by many as the definitive twentietht century Irish language novel and often compared to Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915) and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy (1936), Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille (Soil of the Grave) is written entirely in the form of fragmented dialogues in which a cast of over thirty characters frequently and violently interrupt each other to contradict and refute countless allegations and assertions. Set in a Connemara graveyard where each new corpse brings news of events transpiring in the world of the living, Cré na Cille captures the claustrophobic nature of the Second World War period in Ireland and the changing nature of Irish society as it encounters internationalism, atheism, racism, national insurance and health plans, modernisation and improvements to social conditions and education. The corpses’ incessant vicious quarrelling about their previous lives acts as the ultimate refutation of the state-sponsored idealised Gaeltacht. (Translated into Norwegian in 1995 by Jan Erik Rekdal as Kirkegårdsjord (Med etterord), and in English in 2015 by Alan Titley as The Dirty Dust (Yale University Press)).

Néal Maidine agus Tine Oíche (1964): Written by Breandán Ó Doibhlin, recipient of Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite and Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur, Néal Maidine agus Tine Oíche is a stylistic tour de force. The novel tells the odyssey of a people in the form of an allegory and thus lacks a clear plot, dominant characters and a precise location. Moving from primordial epic to romanticism and then to intellectual and philosophical analysis before finally offering a surreal vision of the future, it draws on the Iomramha/Voyaging tales of Middle Irish as well as biblical literature and includes as its literary influences a wide range of European literature, including Victor Hugo, Curzio Malaparte, Gertrud von le Fort, Aeschylus, Saint-Exupery and Julien Gracq.

Dé Luain (1966): Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s work is a modernist and richly imaginative reconstruction of the twelve hours leading up to the 1916 Easter Rising. The narrative emerges through the stream of consciousness of some of the Rising’s main participants on both sides of the political spectrum: PH Pearse, James Connolly, Eoin Mac Neill and Matthew Nathan. It captures the uncertainty and confusion of the final fateful hours, from the word of Casement’s arrest reaching Dublin Castle to frantic efforts to undo the countermanding order. Part fiction and part recreated chronicle, Dé Luain employs contemporary newspaper accounts and official documents to recreate the confusion, excitement and terror of the final hours leading up to the declaration of the 1916 Republic on the steps of the General Post Office. Described in 1966 as the best 1916 novel in English or Irish, Ó Tuairisc’s work is a rich and rewarding read for anyone familiar with the events of the Easter Rising.

An Uain Bheo (1967): Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin’s An Uain Bheo focuses on the critical events on a few hours in the life of Louis Stein, a failing Irish-Jewish medical student whose father wishes him to go into the family legal business. Devoid of any religious belief, either Catholic or Jewish, and estranged from his family after learning that his birth was an accident, Stein’s only sources of salvation lie in physical love with Orla, his girlfriend, and a spiritual connection with Darach Mac Giolla Rua, a local teacher and IRA member with a drunken wife. A car crash on the Dublin quays after a party at Orla’s house to celebrate a victory at the Curragh races leads to her death and Stein’s disgrace. His inability to act decisively and save her from drowning haunts him. As Louis retreats to live in isolation on a lighthouse, the State arrests and imprisons Mac Giolla Rua in the Curragh for subversive activities. Both men’s plight provide revealing contrasts in citizenship, ethics, duty and civic responsibility.

Caoin Tú Féin (1968): This experimental novel by Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin narrates the story of a teacher, Ian Murphy, awakening from a drunken stupor to recall his wife interrupting a kiss between himself and a house guest residing with them for the local Fleadh Cheoil. His wife’s immediate departure from the house with their children leads to an introspective analysis of his life ‑ a Midday Court ‑ and an interrogation of the formative experiences that brought him to this point in his life. Relying on a mixture of straightforward narrative, stream of consciousness and interior monologue as well as hyperbole and irregular syntax, Caoin Tú Féin offers a unique insight into mid-century Ireland, the role of Catholicism in maintaining social coherence, the impact of college and the educational system on students and middle class mores and attitudes. The novel concludes with Murphy finding salvation just as a knock on the door informs him, presumably, of his wife’s suicide.

Fuíoll Fuine (1970): Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Fuíoll Fuine, published in the collection An tSraith Dhá Tógáil, is the story of N., whose job in the Civil Service not only dominates his life but has obliterated his personality. Excused from the office to arrange his wife’s funeral, N. experiences a combination of anxiety at being judged, fear of failing at work and inability to act or perform. Dreading his two sisters-in-law who await his return home, his chief task is to arrange the funeral and locate an undertaker. Unable to make any decision regarding the funeral in case he errs or fails to meet the expected standards, he wanders around the city seeking a cut-price deal. Worried about the cost, seeking a deal, his plight is compounded when his wallet is stolen. In desperation, he continues to seek someone, anyone, who will help him in his predicament and save him. Often considered a long short story or short novel, the stream of consciousness technique dominates throughout, depicting N. as a pathetic, perhaps arrogant, civil servant seeking a personal saviour. Finally he participates in the production of a long-planned TV shoot and spends the night with the director’s assistant. A sailor he encounters advises him to emigrate before stealing his whiskey. Fuíoll Fuine is often compared to Ó Cadhain’s An Eochair (translated into English in 2015 as The Key by Louis de Paor and Lochlainn Ó Tuairisg and published by Dalkey Archive Press) and Kafka’s surrealist fiction.

Méirscrí na Treibhe (1978): Alan Titley’s novel is set in an African state and traces the fortunes and destruction of one family. Assuming opposite political sides in the developing civil war, the European-educated son comes to realise that the modernist agenda of the country’s leader is little more than cant used to disguise the neocolonialist ideology of a brutal dictatorship. Abandoning what he has learned in Europe, the westernised son joins his brother and allies himself in a struggle to overthrow the dictator ‑ a futile effort that leads to the family’s destruction. Powerfully written and with some staggeringly dense stylistic passages, this powerful novel depicts the crux of post-colonialism and the search for political, cultural and linguistic independence in Africa which resonates with Ireland and other recently independent states.

Cuaifeach Mo Londubh Buí (1983): Séamas Mac Annaidh’s Cuaifeach Mo Londubh Buí is a postmodernist metafictional text of staggering energy and imagination. With at least four intersecting narrative strands, it combines schoolboy antics, Irish language autobiographical tropes, the Frankenstein story and the Gilgamesh epic. Centring on a typical day in the life of a Séamas Mac Anna (rather than Mac Annaidh) in which the protagonist engages in a Joyce-like trip around town, the novel is intertwined with an Irish language retelling of the Gilgamesh epic. Mac Anna’s storyline is layered with the narrative of Siamais Mac Greine (sic), who has recently arrived from the Middle East with a packet of antique parchments after discovering the secret of eternal life at Newgrange. Mac Greine assumes an old man’s brain, a young man’s body and a paperboy’s face to become Gilly. As Gilly, he undergoes typical Irish educational rituals before forming a punk band and being killed at the band’s first performance by his girlfriend. The narrative then returns to the former character, Mac Anna, who is teaching Irish at a summer college to an uncooperative student who refuses to speak Irish. Rich and innovative in its use of slang, literary allusions and colloquial references in English, Irish, and a bizarre interlanguage, Cuaifeach Mo Londubh Buí offers a deceptively simple and humorous insight into immortality, false reality and death.

An Fear Dána (1993): Titley’s novel is based on the life of the thirteenth century bardic poet Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh who reputedly quarrelled with and murdered a tax-collector. The novel traces the poet’s exile from Ireland to Scotland and his subsequent participation in a crusade to the Holy Land. As the poet attempts to atone for his crime, the novel sensitively probes the ethical issues of right and wrong, forgiveness and repentance, justice and injustice. While based on a historical personage and inspired by the gaps in the historical archives, this work is a powerful engagement with perennial social and philosophical issues: it ponders restorative justice and asks if compassion and clemency are ever possible, if they can only be earned by the truly repentant, and what repentance, recompense and redress look like. The role of literature and the poet in society are also examined as is the writer’s role in speaking out and holding society, and patrons, accountable.

Éagnairc (1994): Pádraig Ó Siadhail’s novel works on two parallel tracks. On the first, readers learn of the narrator’s daily experiences of living in 1990s Dublin as a Northern nationalist married to a woman who neither understands nor wishes to understand the political conflict which formed and influenced him. Simultaneously, a parallel narrative introduces the narrator’s formative memory of a civil rights protest march in 1972 Derry that turns out to be Bloody Sunday. In an effort to integrate his Dublin life with his youth, the narrator seeks out former friends now living in Dublin despite veiled warnings from in-laws who work in the Irish security forces. The novel explores the gap between memory and reality, truth and fiction, when the narrator’s former friend turns out not to be an IRA activist but a Garda informer. Éagnairc, meaning “a funeral mass”, captures the unspoken tensions and stresses in social and political life in the years before the Good Friday Agreement. One of the finest novels in Irish to deal with memory, loss, repression and integrating trauma and repressed memories into lived experience, it offers a subtle critique of Ireland and the treatment of northern nationalists in the Republic.

Desiderius a Dó (1995): The title of Pádraig Ó Cíobháin’s novel refers to Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire’s seventeenth century translation of the post-reformation text Desiderius: Scáthán An Chrábhaidh. Desiderius a Dó takes the reader from Cork to London to a French monastery and back to Cork. Structured musically with an Overture and a Caidéinse, it is a plotless, almost characterless novel that recounts the meeting of Peadar and Susan as freshmen in University College Cork in 1969. Falling quickly and passionately in love they spend their summer in London where Peadar teaches English as a second language. After six weeks he leaves for a monastery in France. On his return to Cork, they reunite and eventually marry. The intervening events and their lives together are gradually revealed and reconstructed through their memories and stream of consciousness.

The organisers acknowledge that they had inadvertently omitted Liam Mac Cóil’s An Dochtúir Áthas, short-listed for the Irish Times 1995 Literary Prize.

Liam Mac Coil’s 1995 An Dochtúir Áthas, despite its focus on psychotherapy and Jungian analysis, is surprisingly readable and accessible. The novel’s plot consists of a series of thirty-three sessions with a psychoanalyst who deconstructs the past with Freudian enthusiasm. It is less the patient than society that is on the couch. Together, the “patient” and therapist come to terms with the unnamed disease that afflicts the former. Combining a challenging work that contains elements of both a patient’s diary and detective novels, this novel draws on Freud and psychoanalysis to produce some of the most hilarious and insightful commentary on Irish culture at the close of the twentieth century.

As one might notice, there are no novels by women on the list ‑ a situation discussed by Róisín Ní Ghairbhí, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Michelle O’Riordan in a session chaired by UCD’s Regina Uí Chollatáin. The consensus was that for much of the time covered by the conference (1900-2000), women simply lacked the free time and personal and professional independence to devote themselves to the novel, although they made significant contributions to poetry, theatre, and other genres in Irish.

The conference concluded with a spirited discussion of the proposed canon and any potential amendments or changes. Acting as referee was Cathal Goan, who explained and enforced the rules of the “game”: 1) discussions of the very concept of a canon were to be excluded as subjects for another time and place and 2) while anyone could suggest adding a title to the list, (s)he would then be obliged to suggest a title to be removed. To facilitate the process, a list of all novels in Irish published between 1901 and 2001 was included in the conference programme. Among the questions raised in the discussion were whether it was fair to have two books by the same author on the list, as was the case with Diarmaid Ó Súilleabháin and Alan Titley, whether the list would be significantly different if the time limit for inclusion were extended to the present, and whether a book’s historical significance should weigh as heavily as its artistic achievement. Some discussion dealt with twenty-first century novels that may, or may not, merit consideration in future reconsiderations and whether their inclusion would eliminate the current occupants or if the list should be expanded to twenty novels. There were several legitimate suggestions for addition. Among them were Pádraig Ua Maoileoin’s Bríde Bhán (1968), Kinderszenen by “Robert Schumann” (1987), Breandán Ó hEithir’s Lig Sinn i gCathú (1976), Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s Deoraithe (1986) and Pádraig Standún’s Súil le Breith, (1983). Still despite these suggestions, however, no participant met the standard by balancing additions with deletions, and so the list, while slightly battered, survived for future discussion. Lists like the one proposed here have two purposes. The first is to instruct. The other of course is to enrage and in the process engage. And that, ultimately, was indeed the point of the whole exercise as the organisers envisioned it. The debate at the conclusion and in social media in the aftermath confirms that the event succeeded admirably.

1/6/2015

 

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