In search of the hidden, merry Ireland

February 28, 1997

Since Repossessions "is primarily for readers of poetry who have little or no knowledge of the Irish language", I represent Sean O'Tuama's target audience. My education in Dublin enabled me to pass the state exams, for which Irish was compulsory, but did not inspire me to discover the literary tradition to which O'Tuama has devoted not only his career but also his missionary zeal, his belief in the creative spirit. One essay is disarmingly called "Three lyrics I like". At the same time, Repossessions admits some kind of defeat. Despite the "million people in the Republic who claim to read and/or speak Irish at a moderate level of competence", O'Tuama (chair of a government body that promotes the language) realises that the prospects for spoken Irish are "bleak". This is why he has violated long-held principles by espousing "flexible bilingualism", by publishing a critical book in English, and by interpreting Gaelic poems through translations. Every Anglophone reader is guiltily in his debt.

Because the remarkable continuing vitality of Irish-language poetry gives him hope, O'Tuama organises his essays backwards. We move from studies of Sean n'R!ord in (1917-77) and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill (b. 1952) to 17th and 18th-century poetry, then to the early modern period. This arrangement, however, also reproduces a nationalist way of reading Irish history and literary history. Despite O'Tuama's expertise with conventions and cultural contexts, he often invokes a timeless "Irish people" or "Irish mind". Nonetheless, the schema accords with his literary-critical strengths. He is less interested in chronology or in bardic poetry, product of a "formalistic and conservative society", than in highlighting poetry of any period that challenges formulas and brings the Irish language to life - the kind of life it might have had before 1200. Thus he celebrates Ni Dhomhnaill's psychosexual reinvention of Irish myth (though I could do without phrases like "immense and pulsating feminine energy"); explains the interplay between East Clare and traditions of European bawdy that nourished Brian Merriman's wonderful Midnight Court - a satire praising bastardy, free love and married priests; and opens up the tormented poetry of n'R!ord in which reflects the impact of "post-Christian Europe (on) the traditional Irish mind from the mid-1940s on".

Yet, even here O'Tuama's historicism is patchy. He refers to n'R!ord in's "basic psychological instability which the conflict of two languages, indeed of two cultures, must have severely aggravated". This separation between self and society negates the mid-century environment in which n'R!ord in's difficulties with sexuality and Catholic guilt encountered the problematics of poetic tradition. Discussing earlier periods, O'Tuama retains postromantic baggage when he looks for "deep personal insights" or "the imaginative or exotic effects we usually associate with lyricism". His literary roots lead him to stress the "unique" qualities of poets and poems, just as his cultural-political background leads him to stress essences and places ("the old values") as distinctive Irish poetic concerns. Occasionally the result is unconscious sectarian exclusion: "Some writers, W. B. Yeats, for instance, deploy place-names coldly in a formal, rhetorical fashion to establish a certain tone of voice". In "Synge and the idea of a national literature", however, O'Tuama defends Synge against charges that he was illequipped to be "a faithful interpreter of the traditional mind" or to penetrate "the pre-Christian stratum". O'Tuama's interest in pagan trace-elements is always healthily subversive: "The Hidden Ireland was in all probability a much merrier Ireland than we have been led to believe." He has provided a rich resource, of information and illumination about poetry and Ireland.

Edna Longley is professor of English literature, Queen's University, Belfast.

Repossessions: Selected Essays on the Irish Literary Heritage

Author - Sean O'Tuama
ISBN - 1 85918 044 2 and 045 0
Publisher - Cork University Press
Price - £25.00 and £14.95
Pages - 294

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