Cathal Ó Searcaigh, By the Hearth in Mín a’ Leá

by Michael Peverett

Cathal Ó Searcaigh writes popular poetry. He has no room for indirectness, is naturally extrovert, colourful, candid and lyrical. You, the reader, are invited – in fact assumed – to go along with what the poem revels in or laments. Since sometimes the popular reader may baulk at the content this has also made him unpopular in ways that a less direct poet can never be; for example, when he writes clear-eyed paeans to gay lovers or describes a father-daughter rape in the all-too-traditional rural setting of "Gort na gCnámh" / "The Field of Bones". Some of his other work, for example his plays, has also caused ripples of offence among traditionally-minded audiences.

To get something back from these poems a gesture of assent is really required in advance, like when you show up at a party. I don't find this gesture of assent comes very naturally to me; I have grown too accustomed to being piqued and seduced by unexpected turns in what I read and these poems have a different way of going about things: they generally turn out to be more or less what you thought they'd be at the outset. So rather too often I've instead been diverted into puzzling out the Irish text, a completely absorbing activity that has significantly slowed down production of this review!

What is this assent to? I think what it is is to the poem's enactment. What I mean is that the poem is not so much a discourse as an enactment of its subject. If you don't choose to join in the enactment then it never happens.

Let's approach this from a different angle. I'm too ignorant to know if this is a feature of Irish poetry generally or just the way Ó Searcaigh writes poetry, but he tends to dwell a long time on the same spiritual moment, circling around it by employing a wide variety of epithets and repetitions slightly re-cast in order to hold the poem in one place. The time taken by the lines, in other words, is not (what we are accustomed to) proportional to the amount of information that needs to be said, but proportional to the greatness, intensity or enormity of the subject: if it is an intense feeling, then in order to enact it a certain number of lines are required. (This reminds me a little of Anglo-Saxon poetry.)

This is an example.

    ag tuirlingt ina thuilidh solais ag a chosa;
    an ghrian uilechumhachtach,
    a leannán rúin as na spéartha;
    tchínn í á mhuirniú is á bháthadh
    á mhaisiú is á mhúchadh
    á leá den tsaol
    á chumascadh lena solasbheatha féin,
    agus tchínn an seanduine ag imeacht
    lena chuid roicneacha is le leatrom na haoise;
    tchínn é ag imeacht as raon mo radhairc
    cosúil le carraig á creimeadh i dtuilidh sléibhe;
    á mionú is á meilt;
    is tchinn an ghrian ag teasú chuige go ciúin
    á géilleadh féin do thabhairt an tsrutha;
    agus sa chiúnas adaí
    tchínn an seanduine ag gabháil ar ceal,
    ag géilleadh a nádúir is a dhílseachtaí
    dá Dhianghrá.

    I'd see the sun quietly warming
    to him, landing in majesty
    at his feet in a tide, his secret
    lover from the sky. I'd see her
    caress, immerse, lick and quench,
    dissolving him into her own lifelight.
    I'd see the old man, with his wrinkles
    and slights, fade slowly from view
    like a rock gnawed by the sea,
    crumbled and crushed, surrendering
    to the current; and in that quiet,
    I'd see the old man eloping,
    giving his essence and elements
    to his true love.

    (from "Taispeánadh" / "Revelation", trans. Frank Sewell)

This is just an extract: the whole poem stands on the same spot: old man, sun, light, metamorphosis. It stays there long enough for you to forget that, for example, the sun can't always be shining and the old man doubtless listens to the radio in the evening; instead, you start to dissolve into the sunlight yourself. Sewell reduces 18 lines to 14, but he does give an idea of how the poem proceeds: that emphasis on the stealthy sounds of heat, that enactment.

But it's obvious that Ó Searcaigh gave the translators some trouble. If you try and stick religiously with his pacing, it can easily slip into bathos. This is Seamus Heaney translating the end of "Na Píopaí Créafóige" / "The Clay Pipes":

    ....  like the forest people of Columbia
    I read about in the library,
    a tribe who smoke clay pipes, coloured pipes
    that used to have to be made from this one thing:
    basketfuls of clay
    scooped out in fatal danger
    in enemy country, in a scaresome place
    full of traps and guards and poisoned arrows.
    According to this article, they believe
    that the only fully perfect pipes
    are ones made out of the clay
    collected under such extreme conditions. 

These 12 lines represent the same number in the original, but Oh My God! how they flounder as they struggle to pad out what is all too evidently only about three lines worth of solid information. You can see why Ó Searcaigh is trying to keep us enacting this raid, though; he wants to make us spend long enough with the tribe and its customs to register many aspects of his none-too-obvious analogy with the rest of the poem (which is about an American acquaintance who was obsessed with fathoming death).

Yet the approach commonly taken by Frank Sewell and Denise Blake, of stripping out repetition and circumlocution to deliver a more concise sequence of punches, can go wrong too; it can end up surrendering the core of the poem.

I am still unsure whether "Gort na gCnámh" / "The Field of Bones" is a good poem or not. The horrors of the story are well-rendered when we are dealing with action, the father's rape of his thirteen-year-old daughter or the dreadful loneliness, at night in the field, of clandestine birth and infanticide:

    My midwife was an old dog bitch,
    Who lapped up my blood, chewed on afterbirth.

This is one of those moments that, because we at first dismiss it as a Gothic fantasy, returns with double force when the penny drops: that this is only how it was.

These awful memories are constrained within a formal frame, seven sections each of thirteen long lines. That frame reflects with a certain irony the unvarying repetition of the way of life in which the narrator is trapped, the impossibility of getting out, the isolated rural setting, the imaginative poverty that looks picturesque to a traveller. If the father is a brute the daughter is herself brutalized; that was part of what being a victim would mean. And like her the poem itself cannot move away. There was never a time when life was not unspeakable and it's a procession that never gets any less black.

But Blake makes some unfortunate decisions about how to represent the poem, especially right at the start:

    Girl, the light is fading, he barks
         out of nowhere,
    as if I had the slightest control
         over the night.
    Oh, Christ, if that churlish fool
         only understood
    half of what he said. My father, the thran
        brutal bastard.

It's true that in this opening scene the daughter (now 42) is physically a match for her father, but surely everything we learn as the poem proceeds tells us she is utterly incapable of being so energetically sassy, so comfortably superior, as the voice here suggests ("as if I had the slightest control"). Partly I blame this on Blake's reduction of circuitous meandering to clipped concision. And too much is left out – a whole sentence about the light fading in the narrator's mind, for instance. What we are left with makes a disastrously wrong entry to the poem: if the father really accuses his daughter of nightfall then he's comically senile, and if he doesn't then she's being comically irritable. Comedy is not, I am sure, one of the things we're meant to be hearing here. It's disastrous because it has longer-term effects. A narratorial "I" is always vulnerable to being read as a dramatic monologue with all that it implies of an understood audience and of exposure of the narrator's character: and Blake allows that misconception to be enforced since her brevities tend to interjections. Yet it's clear from the poem as a whole that this discourse is not even supposed to be realized as an interior monologue; instead, it needs to be grasped as an emblematic convention where the mute are made to speak their stories, like in a martyrology.

Of course I can't fully understand the translators' difficulties. Everyone seems to think they need to do a bit extra: Heaney gives us Heaneyisms ("plash and glitter", "the pitch and brawl of the sea"), Sewell introduces pop puns and allusions ("pow and glory", "Hooked, lined and sinkered", "long and winding road"); I think these compensate for an energetic language of epithets and syntactic fluidity that their English poetry can't replicate.

Ó Searcaigh's writing is good at creating a static image which may be a state of mind or a style of life or may be a fragile position that the poem manages to occupy without moving away from it. One of the best poems is "Do Isaac Rosenberg" / "For Isaac Rosenberg". The poem switches guilelessly between evoking the horrors of Rosenberg's war and celebrating Ó Searcaigh's happy love:

    I never saw fresh-faced soldiers thrown like straw sheaths
    in the fertile fields of warfare; smelt a deathly stench
    rising as a plague from the rotting flower of youth,
    never wore the carnage-soaked muck of a battleground,
    lost my mind in the sound of explosions, nor felt the hot sting
    of a bullet, like a wasp sucking out the wild honey of my life.
    No, don't be offended, Isaac Rosenberg, by my using your name,
    I who am shielded by my poems in this sanctuary of love
    while the red wound of war still festers in the heart of Europe.
    For my soul was joyous from the closeness of that wonderful body.
    My lover at my side; each limb, each muscle, each promontory,
    each portion of him from his crown to the ground – all so enticing.

This was written during the Balkan war. Like another good poem here, "Duine Corr" / "Odd Man Out", this probes unerringly into that unease that we now feel at witnessing conflict in other parts of the world from a comfortable distance. The ending risks exposure as vacuous, as in bad taste, as sheer cheek:

    The Larks sing to me what they used to sing to you
    before you were blown to the heavens –
    companionship and music surpass rivalry and conflict.
    Although I have never been in the jaws of combat,
    and I have only ever frittered away my paltry lifetime
    hibernating from current events in my cloistered corner;
    I would like to assure you, beloved poet, who was unwavering
    with your words, who spoke the stark truth amid the slaughter –
    I am with you on the side of Light, with you on the side of Life.

   (trans. Denise Blake)

Yet surprisingly and triumphantly it does get away with that. And when (asks Seamus Heaney somewhere – I forget where) did a poem ever end with its last words? The irrepressible high that runs through the poem, perversely admitted as it must seem, actually makes it possible to speak again about the nearly unspeakable. War, then as now, is – as actual as the larks. At the same time the poem's achievement feels of its time: the 1990s. The motives of the Bosnian war seemed invisible to foreign eyes, all wars were then analogous to each other. But since 2001 our concept of war has been re-politicised; I don't think Ó Searcaigh could write this poem today.

For the rest, there are poems about Gealtacht countryfolk, about being inspired by the Beats, about highs and lows as a gay outsider in London, about writing poetry, about heartbreak, death, dignity and ecstasy. Hope (dochas) is constantly being blighted or re-ignited. These what we call "big" words, and we hardly ever use them in poems, get used quite hard here.

Irish as a living language now stands, Ó Searcaigh laments, on the very brink:

    To-day it's my language that's in its throes,
    The poet's passion, my mothers' fathers'
    Mothers' language, abandoned and trapped
    On a fatal ledge that we won't attempt. 
    She's in agony, I can hear her heave
    And gasp and struggle as they arrive,
    The beaked and ravenous scavengers
    Who are never far... 

    (from "Caoineadh" / "Lament"  trans. Seamus Heaney)

There is an urgency both to writing poems in Irish and to reading them. It is said that some writers in Irish resist being translated into English, and I'm pleased to be given the chance to read this. I wish I could value more highly Ó Searcaigh's evident qualities: his extroversion, directness, variety. I might feel more excited about some other Irish-language poetry, I don't know, but even so, given this opportunity to read one contemporary Irish-language poet at length and with parallel text, given the fertility of the questions it arouses, I do now want to know.

[The following notes on the Irish language were compiled from various sources – some of which may not be authoritative – during preparation of this review. Readers as unprepared as I was may find them interesting.}

The Celtic languages, relics of Northern Europe's dominant culture two millennia ago, are all now extinct or threatened with extinction. The healthiest by far – where none are healthy – is Welsh, rural Wales having escaped (if not much else) the clearances and the great famine of 1846, the inhuman policies of dispersal that fell most heavily on the Gaelic-speaking populations of Scotland and Ireland.

In 1835 the number of Irish speakers was estimated at 4 million, comprising the vast majority of Irish people "beyond the pale". That was no doubt an unprecedentedly high figure as the rural population was exploding. Then came the terrible famine and subsequent mass emigration. In the United States Irish, like other northern European languages, tended to be displaced by English, though around 25,000 Americans still speak Irish at home. By 1891 the number of speakers in Ireland was 680,000, but this was an ageing population. Thirty years later when the partitioned Eire won independence there may have been only 250,000.

Even so, Eire adopted Irish as its official language and it could have gone a different route if advice from the supporters of Irish Gaelic had not been rejected, as it was in 1926.

The high official prestige of Irish, its compulsory study in schools and its wide use for ceremonial and sentimental purposes has done little so far to halt the decline of Irish as a truly living language. The poet Máirtin Ó Direáin (1910-88), who was brought up in the Aran Islands, spoke only Irish until his mid-teens, but that's unimaginable today. The formidable currency of English is the enemy. Though nearly 1.5 million Irish people claim some measure of competence in Irish, in those very small and fragmented areas known as the Gaeltacht – the only places where Irish can feasibly be used as a medium of communication outside private life – it's thought that the number of people fluent in Irish, optimistically 80,000 according to the last census, may really be nearer to 20,000. Nevertheless a revival of sorts is under way, and the new Irish-speaking schools (outside the Gaeltacht) are fully subscribed.

Despite the large number of native Irish speakers in the 18th-19th centuries, the prestige of Irish among the educated classes had steadily declined. It was perceived as the language of economic deprivation; nearly everyone who spoke it was illiterate and during this period the only poetry in Irish was folk-poetry. No standard orthography for modern Irish existed until the Second World War.

It's been remarked that the poet who writes in Irish today is often placed in the curious position of being asked to justify that "choice" of language; sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly. The supposition is that anyone who writes in Irish today is bound to be fluent in English too and that a non-obvious choice has been made. In theory the prestige of Irish in the new Republic could hardly have been higher, yet many in literary communities did not buy in to this somewhat half-hearted official window-dressing: was this archaic language of ceremonial and sentiment appropriate for so serious a business as modern literature? So a vestige of that unpleasant snobbery remained. The decline of Máirtín Ó Direáin's poetry as he gradually withdrew into an extreme rejection of threatening urbanism was seen as an example to be avoided. But what was the alternative? Hadn't Seán Ó Ríordáin let the cat out of the bag when he admitted he wrote poems in a language that couldn't fully encompass his modern experience?

But is there in fact a language anywhere on earth that can fully encompass our experience? Surely all but the most naïve of poets now know that their own language (whichever it happens to be) is very far from being a neutral or transparent medium for the transmission of what is around us; that on the contrary it always tries to constrain what is out there to be said; that, subtly or not, it needs more than a little destructive maintenance?

The writer in Irish may find common cause with other minority languages, may naturally respond to a sympathetic international interest in her/his own minority language and may also as it were win a moral victory over the notoriously monoglot native English-speaker by developing an international engagement with other languages. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, for example, is fluent in six languages including Dutch and Turkish. There is also a growing (though still small) interest in translations from foreign languages into Irish, exemplified by Gabriel Rosenstock's translations from the German of Peter Huchel. It's an endeavour that strengthens Irish while at the same time fostering an international outlook among Irish writers.

Nevertheless, the growth of Cathal Ó Searcaigh's reputation is associated with the appearance of his poems in bilingual English translation, in Homecoming/ An Bealach 'na Bhaile (1993) and Out in the Open (1997), from which the current volume is selected. If from one point of view English is the enemy, from another point of view it's too important to ignore. It is thus that most poetry readers in Ireland and now in Britain can be made aware of Irish-language writers and of their literature's existence.

Cathal Ó Searcaigh's By the Hearth in Mín a' Leá, translated by Frank Sewell, Denise Blake and Seamus Heaney, is published by Arc Publications, 2005 (ISBN 1 90461421 3)

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