ESSAY: Aspects of Gaelic Poetry - and its miraculous survival

Gesichter 22
by Gabriel Rosenstock

I grew up within an ass’s roar of Ardpatrick in East Limerick. There’s a hill there on which St. Patrick stood. Looking away south-west to Kerry, his missionary zeal began to falter and he said, ‘Beannaím uaim siar sibh!’ That is to say: ‘Good Christ! I’m not going into Kerry. I’ll bless ye all from here.’ Everybody in Ireland has history at their doorstep. Too much history, some might say. And regional diversity is still quite strong. Cork humour is not the same as Cavan humour. Most traditional musicians introduce a jig, a hornpipe, a march or a reel with a few words as to its provenance, such as, ‘I heard this tune from Miko Russell in Doolin, Co. Clare in the summer of ’82.’

Donegal fiddling is not Sligo fiddling is not Clare fiddling and so on. Who knows what factors feature in the subtle differences. The landscape? The people? It’s everything. Regional English-language accents in Ireland still speak volumes about a person and his or her attitudes to life while, in some quarters, the practice continues of sending one’s children to England so that they might lose their Irish brogue. Indeed, attitudes to the Irish language are often formed by the ethos of schools and by a policy, stated or unstated, which is favourable or not to the language. The recent rise in popularity of Irish-medium schools should not fool us into thinking that this in itself can create a true restoration of Irish. The Gaeltachtaí or Irish-speaking districts, have been shrinking for over a century and there is no social cohesion among urban speakers of the language.  I have been forgiven, I think, for once responding to the question ‘For whom do you write?’ with the glib but deeply-felt answer, ‘For generations past...’

Centuries ago, when English ways had eaten into the fabric of Irish society, poets such as Ó Bruadair (1625 -1698)  decided it was time to throw in the towel:

I will sing no more song! the pride of my country I sang
Through forty long years of good rhyme, without any avail;
And no one cared even as much as the half of a hang
For the song or the singer, so here is an end to the tale…

(trans. James Stephens)

Miraculously, though, the tradition survived and is still evolving. Yet societies exist today, even in Europe, which seemingly have no need for poetry. This can hardly be said about Ireland, however. Poetry in Ireland is still regarded by many of us not so much as one of life’s ornaments as central to its sustenance. It’s in the air, never far away at weddings, funerals, inaugurations and shenanigans. You insult a poet in Ireland at your peril. Irish poets – Shakespeare confirms this – were able to rhyme rats to death and the fear lives on that to curse a poet would be tantamount to cursing yourself.

Irish-language poetry will survive, I think, because of the extraordinary devotion displayed towards the language by her small troop of loyal lovers. Let me explain what I mean: if one hears an English word mispronounced in Ireland, the reaction might be laughter, or a snigger or, indeed no reaction at all. A raised eyebrow, perhaps. If Irish speakers hear an Irish word mispronounced or see a public sign that is mangled somehow (as many are), the reaction is a painful wince or a terrible groan. Why is this? It is because of an extremely sensitive relationship which poets have with the language. What harms the language harms the speaker, the writer, the guardian of the language. Poet Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916 – 1977) wrote many self-accusatory poems in which he questioned his own handling of language, as though torn between allegiance to what was well expressed in the past and an urge to make things new, even if that meant risking being contaminated by an striapach allúrach, that ‘foreign whore’ he called English!

Do English-language poets in Ireland actually love the English language with the same fervour? Whether they do or not, it is of another intensity, another flavour, to the Gaelic poet’s love of Irish. And, whether we like it or not, English was the language of the Pale in Ireland, the language which sought to wield a political, moral and aesthetic superiority over the rest of Ireland, a propaganda war lasting over seven hundred years and one which may not yet be over. We can forgive and forget, of course, but what’s history but remembering?

Our national epic, The Táin, dates from the eighth century but may be a thousand years older than that in its oral form. Naming goes on in The Táin at a fierce rate:

Then the harpers of the Venerable Tree of Caín Bile came from the Red Cataract of Ess Ruad to play for them. The Connachtmen took them for spies sent by Ulster. They hunted them until they turned into deer and vanished into the standing-stones at Lía Mór, for they were druids of great power.

Lethan – the Broad – came to his ford on the river Níth in Conaille. Galled by Cú Chulainn’s deeds, he lay in wait for him. Cú Chulainn cut off his head and left it with the body. Hence the name Áth Lethan, Broad Ford. Many chariots were broken in the fighting just before that in the next ford. Hence the name Áth Carpat, Chariot Ford …

(trans. Ciaran Carson)

This then is the ancient landscape of an ancient people transmogrified over the centuries.

Poet Liam Ó Muirthile is among the essayists writing in A New View of the Irish Language (2008) and he believes that broadcasters, not poets, are the new high priests. ‘There is little room for the real poem,’ he says, ‘that form of emotional and intellectual engagement with the world that can change our lives. A new home must be found for the poem in Irish.’ A bleak vision, is it not? A bit like those campaigns for adopting or sponsoring a child from the Third World. Anybody out there to adopt, to sponsor, to nurture poetry in Irish?

We don’t know what the future will bring. Will there be poets writing in Irish two hundred years from now? Will there be an audience? A literary festival IMRAM was set up in recent years. The old word means a mystery voyage and as long as this sense of mystery survives we have a chance.

Note: This is an abbreviated version of a longer article by Gabriel Rosenstock. The full version is available in PDF format on request: email

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