THE LANDSCAPE OF LANGUAGE by Colette Nic Aodha
(Poetry Ireland News, May/June 2006)
The difference between writing in English and writing in Irish is like the difference between spending St. Patrick’s Day in Louisburgh and spending it in Temple Bar. It’s a whole different landscape. Since I have started writing poetry I have always written in both languages but, as my first English collection has just recently been published, I am perceived to have commenced writing in the language of the majority. I was born in what is termed a breac ghaeltacht in Co. Mayo. Officially this means there are some pockets where Irish is still spoken, though it is perhaps nearer the truth to say that many Irish words speckle the Hiberno-English of its inhabitants. As children we thought we spoke the language of Enid Blyton, and scoffed at outsiders who didn’t understand all of our words. Irish played a major part in my education; for me it was the language of books, the language of the heart. Most writers love to read and, although I didn’t begin to write poetry until I had graduated from University, I spent my youth rifling through the second-hand bookshops of Galway city, which was just a bus ride away. The Pedlar was my favourite.
As a writer in the Irish language I feel cherished and part of quite a small, caring family on one hand, and marginalised on the other hand. It is definitely easier to have your work published in Irish as there is only a small pool of artists, and new writing is always in demand. There are also more financial supports available than for those who write exclusively in English. However, writers in Irish do not have the same opportunities as their counterparts in English, their market is limited to the small number of native speakers or those learning the language. There is no international market. There is no international audience. It is lovely when people from outside of Ireland, or those who can’t speak Irish, approach you after a reading and tell you how much they liked the sound of the verse although they didn’t understand any of it. But we write to be understood. Some have purist’s views when it comes to language; others have purist views when it comes to genre. I was taken aback when a friend of mine who supported all of my Irish books refused to attend the launch of my English collection. I have heard others express contempt for those who step away from poetry, even temporarily, to diversify into prose. I don’t believe in the imposition of boundaries when it comes to either language or genre. Art should exist without borders. I view writing as an individual sport, not a competitive one. It’s not something I chose to do, more a compunction than anything else. Similarly, I don’t choose to write in Irish or English but automatically write in English when I am thinking in English and write in Irish when I am thinking in Irish. Although not a native speaker, there are parts of my existence that I only experience through Irish. I work in an all-Irish environment and have almost always done so. I have certain friends that I only converse with through Irish. On the other hand, all I have written about my childhood experiences is exclusively in English, as English was the language of my youth. Language is also associated with place; Louisburgh or Lecanvey manifest themselves in English on the page whereas Rosmuc, Monaghan or Armagh are more likely to appear in Irish. I have fallen in love in both languages. Irish transformed itself from a language that I read and comprehend to a spoken language when I studied Irish in Galway University. Most of my friends were from the Gaeltacht and all of the lectures were in Irish. It took a few weeks to adjust. When during my first year in college in the Gaeltacht, I dreamt in Irish, I felt it was a watershed. In retrospect it was probably more of a too-much-Guinness-consumed-in-An-Chistin-shed!
I feel a rich history hidden in Gaelic words, one that reaches back to our ancestors and our unique heritage. The dilution of our pagan culture with the arrival of Christianity is a theme that is important to me. English as a spoken language is a recent enough phenomenon in Ireland. When it did set down roots it was viewed by the majority as the language of politics and commerce. The relatively recent Anglo-Irish literary tradition has put the English literature of Ireland firmly on the map and has given an impressive foundation to contemporary Irish writers in the English language who excel at their art. I have enormous respect for poetry in any language. To me, it is the medium through which beauty and harsh reality are most vividly expressed, the literary equivalent of ‘stopping and staring’. Different languages evoke different feelings and associations but poetry is word-music, it’s universal.
Colette Nic Aodha has published four collections of poetry, three in Irish, the most recent being Gallúnach-ar-ropa, Coiscéim 2003. Her English collection, Sundial, was published in 2005 by Arlen House. She also has a collection of short stories, Ádh Mór, published by Coiscéim.