Feature Articles

THE IRISH CATULLUS / CATULLUS GAELACH

(Poetry Ireland News, May/June 2011)

On 16 April this year in Newcastle West I listened to Paul Durcan’s panegyric upon the unveiling of Michael Hartnett’s statue in the poet’s native town. He recalled, inter alia, that they’d met in First Arts in UCD in 1961/62. Michael had taken English, Philosophy, Economics and Latin.

The Irish Catullus bears this dedication: 'In memoriam Michael Hartnett, pro Michael Longley'. On behalf of Michael Longley because he opposed the decision of the Senate of Queen’s University, Belfast in 2002 to close the classics department in the university. In memory of Michael Hartnett because his translations form the cornerstone of the project.

In the Eighties I lived on Leeson Park, Ranelagh, Dublin 6, which adjoins Dartmouth Road where Michael and Angela Liston lived. We frequented O’Brien’s of Upper Leeson Street, The Leeson Lounge and the far-famed much lamented Northbrook Hotel. One word borrowed another. One night in 1997 in O’Brien’s I asked Michael to translate Catullus.There and then I wrote him a cheque for £40.Three days later he telephoned, at 8.30 am.

“Ronan, I’ve done the first three poems. Can you leave another cheque into O’Brien’s?”

I never saw him again. He moved from the area, to Dundrum. He became ill. I became ill myself. The next thing I heard was that he was dead. A year later we held a modest commemoration in O’Brien’s. There were reminiscences, recitations, songs.We put a photo of Michael up on the wall. And there was something else. Angela told me she had found many translations of Catullus, perhaps between thirty and forty, among his papers. Michael Hartnett had kept his word.

In 2007, at Aquileia in northern Italy, I addressed a European Centre For Latin (CLE – Centrum Latinitatis Europae) conference upon ‘The Future Of Latin’ in Europe. I finished with the story of Michael and the translations. Loredana Marano, director of CLE, motioned me outside the hall. She was in tears.

“Ronan,” she said. “The reason that your friend translated Catullus was that he loved you.”

I held back the tears myself and tried to think of someone in O’Brien’s who would see it that way.

I was on the Board of Poetry Ireland in 2002 when the Senate of Queen’s University made its ghastly decision. Later that year, my mother died. As a child, she had showed me the family-tree of her Dolman ancestors. Thomas Dolman of Yorkshire had founded Pocklington Grammar School in 1510 and helped to found St John’s College, Cambridge through providing the first scholarships and sizarships. Grammar meant Latin grammar. The Board of Poetry Ireland adopted my proposal that we support Michael Longley by protesting Queen’s decision. We would seek to affirm Ireland’s tradition in the classics with an appropriate project. We would commission a translation of Catullus into Irish and English.

The concept derives from the mediaeval Irish translation of The Aeneid, Imtheachta Aeniasa or The Irish Aeneid. This was commissioned by Tonnaltagh McDonagh from Solamh O’Droma in the late fourteenth century and forms part of the Book Of Ballymote. It is the first translation of The Aeneid into a vernacular language, but it is not a literal translation. It is a reshaping of the entire epic into the literary idiom of late mediaeval Ireland. It was destined for an audience. It expresses the confidence and independence of mind of our ancestors. They saw themselves on a par – at least! – with the people of the ancient world. I invited the writers whom I approached to write in the spirit of their mediaeval forbears.

In 2003 I lost my job, became ill again. When making a slow recovery the following year, it became clear to me and to others that Poetry Ireland was not in a position, for one reason or another, to pursue this project. I decided that I must try to manage the business myself. I had no grant. Mannix Flynn’s application on my behalf to Aosdána had not been successful. But I was encouraged by the response I got from various people, especially poets, to the idea. They felt that the University was unwinding a sacred thread in Irish culture and it had to be vigorously opposed.

My beloved cousin Margaret generously supported my endeavours in the years to come in every way she could. Without her help the project would not have come to fruition.

I wasn’t qualified to edit the Irish language dimension. Pádraig Ó Snodaigh started operations then passed the baton to Pádraig Breandán Ó Laighin. Irish language writers had a concern, born of bitter experience, that they might be marginalised by their English language counterparts in a project involving the two languages. I proposed that we should have two books: Catullus Gaelach in Irish and Latin, The Irish Catullus in English, Latin and with the same Irish language text (published by A & A Farmar). Last June (2010) at Foras na Gaeilge in Merrion Square, Coiscéim’s superb Catullus Gaelach (ed. P Breandán Ó Laighin) was launched. It featured Gaeilge from every part of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Canada. Some twenty-three translators attended from all over Ireland and were recorded. They had faithfully answered the call to represent the oldest vernacular literature in Europe and its relationship with Latin, the language which had enabled Irish to be written in the first place.

A moment to stir the blood. Ave atque vale.

Ronan Sheehan was born in Dublin and educated at Gonzaga College, UCD (BA English and Latin), and the Incorporated Law Society (Consultant Copyright Law). He is the founder of the Dublin Branch of the European Centre For Latin (Punto Robert Emmet Centrum Latinitatis Europae).

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