Among Irish people alive today, my mother is rare in that English was not her native tongue. She was born in the Gaeltacht, the ever-waning sliver of the country where Irish is spoken daily, in a place whose name translates to “Step of the Deer,” after the moss-obscured legend of a stag’s miraculous leap in flight from the hunting hordes of ancient days. In the village of her birth, speaking Irish was unremarkable, as water is unremarkable to the fish that breathe it.
But when as an adult my mother moved to America, there was no one to speak her native language with, and a curtain fell across this part of her life; slowly, by degrees, the words faded from her mind as dew goes from the grass. By the time my siblings and I were born, I doubt she ever seriously entertained the notion of teaching it to us. As I grew older, old enough to register a lack, I would ask her about this and receive a fatalistic response: “There’s no point in learning it,” she would answer. “It’s going extinct.” Our mother’s first language became to us like an heirloom once treasured but now lost, or like a member of the family who remained now only in sepia pictures: a wedding photo, a grainy beachside snapshot, a picture of childhood sport, the laughter and movement rendering their features nothing more than a blur.
And so when I began to make a serious effort to study Irish in college, I could not help but feel at times that the process was less one of starting from zero than of anamnesis, the slow recollection of a dormant inborn knowledge. In certain phrases, certain twists of grammar, I saw shadows of the English my relatives spoke, where traces of the fossilized Celtic forms lay dormant but preserved. This sense that I was somehow recovering and uncovering something that was fundamentally a part of me got me through the time spent memorizing irregular verbs and relative clause structures. Though I was studying alone, online and from books, the project of learning itself was fundamentally one of finding my way back to a community I had long felt separate from. When I first encountered Irish-language poetry soon thereafter, there was a similar sense of familiarity: a feeling that these writers—Seán Ó Ríordáin and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in particular—were writing against the same sense of cultural precariousness that I had long felt, that had motivated me to learn Irish in the first place. In the medium of verse, I saw them working through—with insistence and uncertainty, respectively—questions I had found myself confronting: What does it mean to use this language today, and to do so authentically? The threat of linguistic extinguishment against which their poetry takes place is what lends much of their work an emotional quality I have never encountered anywhere in the poetry of English.
The deliberate choice to shun English in favor of a language with a dwindling number of speakers has inevitable consequences for the stakes of a literary project. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, which explores the potential power of a minority writing in a majority’s language, argue that Irish writers writing in English constitute a minor literature. And it is minor literature, they argue, that has within it the seeds of a true literary revolution; they count Joyce and Beckett among these avant-gardists—writers who, with expansiveness and reserve respectively, pushed at the boundaries of a language that was not, in some sense, altogether theirs.What, then, of Irish writers writing in Irish? The revolutionary potential that Deleuze and Guattari see in minor literature lies in its ability to effect change upon great languages, major languages, and thus upon their speakers. But Irish cannot do this; it is the language of no one’s power; it is dispossessed even in its own land, among its own people. If my mother’s dark predictions about the fate of her native tongue saddened me when I was growing up, it didn’t come as a surprise: similar claims abounded in the media as well as in common talk. In 2007, the journalist Manchán Magan released a television program documenting his attempts to travel across Ireland’s four provinces speaking only Irish. The show, No Béarla (“No English”), takes a deeply pessimistic view of the nation’s linguistic capabilities, not just in heavily Anglo Dublin (where such a state of affairs might be expected), but in more outlying areas as well. In what is perhaps the series’ most infamous scene, Magan decides to test the Irish proficiency of Galway—a city proud of its continued Irish-speaking heritage—by posing as a busker and improvising a song with the dirtiest lyrics he can think of; if people react, he reasons, it shows that they understand. Yet as he graphically describes sex acts “sa sráid” and “ar nós na madraí,” the camera registers a sea of blithe faces.
Magan’s methodology was hardly scientific, but taken as a whole, his two-season documentary series paints a grim picture: a native Irish speaker himself, Magan reiterates throughout the show’s run that he feels Irish to be teanga marbh, a dead language—a phrasing which lacks even the cold comfort of the present progressive. When I started learning Irish in earnest, No Béarla was one of the first things I saw, and if I were a person of less stubbornness, it might have been enough to make me quit altogether.And it is an easy thing to want to quit, with its gender, with its cases, with its strange word order, with its thicket of improbably juxtaposed consonants and double or even triple vowels that manage to make only one sound between them. While none of these, with time, is impossible to master, to the beginner taking a preliminary measure of their uphill climb, they can easily make the prospect of ever holding a conversation seem impossibly remote. What sustained me as a college student sitting at my laptop and repeating the forms of the conditional mood to myself was the iridescent thought that I, in my own small way, was resisting the dominant current of linguistic erasure that had started under the British but long outlasted their rule. I cannot help but feel that the same thought animated the poets I would come to admire in the years that followed.
* * *
Modern Irish-language writing necessarily takes place in a world where the threat of profound cultural loss—indeed, the possibility that its very medium may vanish from the earth––is not merely theoretical but actual and acute. As such, it can never take its existence for granted, and in some sense it can never not take as its subject itself. Like a rough clay amphora, the potter’s fingerprints unsmoothed and the rough bits of straw still embedded in the earthen walls, the fabric and facture of an Irish-language poem is always evident; just as I have never read an English poem conscious of the fact of its Englishness, I have never read an Irish poem without being conscious (deeply conscious, heavily conscious) of its Irishness. No matter the subject, no matter the style, these poems’ elemental Irishness is always there, inhabiting their vessels like a shade.
In the case of Ó Ríordáin, the poet born not far from my mother’s childhood home who is widely credited with being Irish poetry’s great modernizer, the question of his language and its future was so pressing and inescapable that a great deal of his artistic output takes up this theme directly, obsessively, like a moth circling a flame. Despite the iconoclasm that the term “modernizer” suggests, Ó Ríordáin’s poetry reveals him to be not only tied to tradition but firmly yoked to it; like the religious mystic whose radical upending of dogma serves merely to preserve an always-present, latent truth visible only to him, so Ó Ríordáin remade the landscape of Irish poetry precisely because it was so precious, because he saw in it a thing worth fighting to keep. His verses sometimes express agony at what he deems a kind of linguistic faithlessness on his part: the creeping in of Béarlachas, English-isms. It is a sense of unease and uncertainty that I recognized from my own experience with the language, when untangling what was a new mode of expression to be accommodated and what was simply unidiomatic frequently seemed like an impossible task. But Ó Ríordáin also castigates himself for what he perceives to be his excessive Englishness, born in part of his own upbringing as a native English speaker. In a poem addressed to “the Irish in my pen,” he writes bitterly,
You are sucking
at the foreign harlot’s breast,
and I offer you thoughts
I stole from her,
your likeness I see,
and your opposite in my eyes.
Against a background of an English-centered world that seemed to be ceaselessly eroding the culture to which he had bound himself, Ó Ríordáin’s works evince a sense of unease at the notion of refashioning, a suspicion that transformations hollow out their object: “Will all my days / be the changing of skins?” Formally innovative, his poems are yet frequently traditionalist in content, sometimes impossibly so. His most famous poem, “Fill Arís,” inveighs against the increasing Anglicization of Ireland; commanding readers to “remove from your mind / the civilised halter of English,” the speaker exhorts them to find themselves and their intellectual freedom via a return to the Irish language, closing the poem by painting an idyll of a western Gaeltacht town where “you will see shoaling there / the Dual Number, and the Subjunctive Mood, / and the vocative case on people’s mouths.” Unexpressed in the poem, however, is the idea that the romantic, unspoiled Gaeltacht life it eulogizes was in many places already gone by the time of the poem’s composition, if indeed it ever existed at all.
Despite the bold imperative voice of poems like “Fill Arís,” the emotional register in which I most frequently find myself when reading Ó Ríordáin’s poems is that of a diffuse melancholy, a melancholy that it is tempting to trace to the uncertain status of the poem’s linguistic fabric. Ó Ríordáin’s “Women’s Christmas,” often read as a wish for a defiant spirit in the face of death, seems tempting to interpret in light of a different kind of quiet contemplated by its author:
I’d like if that storm would come again,
a night I’d be feeling weak
coming home from the dance of life
and the light of sin dwindling,
that every moment be full of the screaming sky,
that the world be a storm of screams,
and I wouldn’t hear the silence coming over me,
the car’s engine come to a stop.
Ó Ríordáin’s Irish is always and inevitably inward-turned, and if there is a revolutionary seed in it then it is this: the dawning of a new emotion, an oceanic sadness, the sadness of a world that feels itself to be in its winter. His poetry is a minor literature in the sense of being written in a minor key. Ó Ríordáin’s verses are insistent upon the vitality of Irish, upon the necessity of it as a medium of life, yet this insistence is itself another kind of mourning; the necessity of asserting presence serves only to underscore a vital absence. Fill arís, Ó Ríordáin writes, “come back,” “return,” and yet who can read this exhortation except those who do not need it, who are already within the fold he seeks to swell the ranks of, who have no direction to go but away?
Is there anything in this poetry that is not a dirge?
* * *
If Ó Ríordáin’s poetry has a tendency to fight change tooth and nail, the verses of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, born roughly a generation after, take instability as their dwelling place. In her collection Fifty-Minute Mermaid (featuring elegant translations from Paul Muldoon), Ní Dhomhnaill first hits upon and then develops the rich metaphor of the sea maiden—a creature of both-and-neither worlds—as a means of exploring cultural trauma, including the trauma of linguistic loss. “A Recovered Memory of Water” relates the story of the mermaid’s daughter who feels the sensation of water but lacks the capacity to describe it: “‘A thin flow,’ she calls it, / casting about gingerly in the midst of the words. / ‘A shiny film. Dripping stuff. Something wet.’” The quietly tragic image of the sea maiden trying to name that most elemental substance gives powerful allegorical body to the sense of alienation-from-the-self produced by the loss of one’s ancestral language.
Less direct in her approach than Ó Ríordáin, with his extensive use of the first-person and his penchant for unalloyed excoriation when he felt it necessary, Ní Dhomhnaill nevertheless uses the figure of the mermaid to forceful rhetorical effect—including as a demonstration of the limitations of Ó Ríordáin’s idealism. In “The Mermaid in the Hospital,” the poem’s central character awakens to find that her tail is nowhere to be found, and that two human legs are now in the bed with her. Terrified, she throws the strange appendages out of her bed—and promptly falls out after them:
It was the sister who gave her the wink
and let her know what was what.
“You have one leg attached to you there
and another one underneath that.
One leg, two legs…
A-one and a-two…
Now you have to learn
what they can do.
In the image of the mermaid who accidentally throws herself out of the bed because she fails to understand that her new legs are attached to her, it is easy to see a reflection of Ó Ríordáin’s calls to reconstruct Irish and Irishness by casting off English. Though Ní Dhomhnaill is not blind to the pain that such adjustments necessarily engender (“I wonder if her heart fell / the way her arches fell, / her instep arches”), she is hardly naive about the possibility of uprooting all traces of Englishness from Irish culture and the Irish language—nor, for that matter, does her poetry seem animated by the same nationalistic fire that burns in so much of Ó Ríordáin’s work.
Working in twilight tones of subtlety, uncertainty, and unease, Ní Dhomhnaill nevertheless somehow evades the sense of melancholy that Ó Ríordáin’s poems, unwilling to acknowledge their own precariousness, are sometimes suffused with. Her work is at its best when it carves space for itself within doubt and stays there, as in “The Language Issue,” where the fate of Irish is likened to Moses’s basket of bulrushes, placed on the Nile “only to have it borne hither and thither, / not knowing where it might end up; / in the lap, perhaps, / of some Pharaoh’s daughter.” By allowing herself to contemplate and give voice to doubt, Ní Dhomhnaill also creates the possibility of sustaining hope unalloyed by denial.
The cautious optimism that Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry permits finds its mirror in the curious historic moment in which Irish now finds itself. A little over a decade ago, when I first became cognizant of the phantom-limb ache of the language that could have been mine, projects like Magan’s No Béarla were symptomatic of a high-water mark of pessimism in Ireland about the fate of the national language. But in the past five years or so Irish has undergone a major change in public perception, a change my mother could never have predicted when she decided that raising us with Irish would be of no use. Spurred by the ease of organizing such events online, “Popup Gaeltachts”—informal gatherings of Irish-speakers and language enthusiasts in pubs, restaurants, and other public places outside of officially designated Irish-speaking regions—have recently become popular recurring events not just in Ireland but around the world. Within Ireland, Irish-immersion schooling has seen a major rise in popularity, to the point that many such schools maintain long waitlists. Last year, when I was living in London, the language classes I took at the Irish Center in Camden were at capacity, and course alumni founded a language-immersion crèche for their children. Duolingo’s Irish course has almost four million learners at the time of writing, with vocabulary including the words for “download,” “profile,” and “selfie.” A little over a century after children caught speaking Irish at school could expect to be beaten and publicly shamed, my mother’s native tongue has become something it has never been before: cool.
Yet Irish remains in a strange position today. There is no such thing—and has been no such thing for a long time—as a monolingual Irish speaker; as such, it is impossible to envision a future for Irish that does not take stock of the influence of English in the back of people’s minds, its push and its pull, its ability to shape pronunciation and phraseology as the moon controls the tides. But as Irish mythology is a mythology of transformation—of flux and flow, of one wave of invaders superseded by another, of endless changes of form and passages between this world and the next—so too has the Irish language always been a language of changing forms: a morphological tic called “initial mutation” renders the beginning sounds of words apt to shift depending on what comes before or after. As changes inevitably continue to work themselves upon Irish in the coming years, the writing produced by Irish poets working at the time of their language’s greatest waning testifies to a literary tradition that has learned to thrive in the flinty soil of its own unsure fate. Beneath its rhythm, another rhythm; beneath its meter, a second, subtler meter, the syncopated iamb of the human heart: I am I am I am.