Some Themes in the Irish Language Poetry of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill

Posted: January 1, 2012 in Parameters
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The first, most obvious thing that readers pick up on when reading the poetry of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill is that it is not her poetry they are reading, but that of her translators.

The second must be that to write solely in Irish is a deliberate act of political and cultural significance.

How deliberate is it? Is there a choice in the use of the language? Although she can speak six languages, how many can she write poetry in? The only poetry of hers in English we do have is that of her own translations of seven of her poems, included in Rogha Danta.

“I am not a bilingual poet,” she has said. “I would be the first to admit,” she continues, commenting on a poem she translated, “that it is a very unsatisfactory translation.”

And so we have the problem of translation. Of her three books available, the first two are selections from three previously untranslated books. This is a blessing in its way, it does away with any kind of chronology for the poems, they all inhabit the same contemporaneous dimension.

It is salutary to note how broad her subjects are, how copious the work (there are only seven poem overlaps between the two books). On the whole she has been very well represented by her translators, the Rogha Danta translator Michael Hartnett keeping closer to the original than the various ‘personalities’ of The Pharaoh’s Daughter. A comparison between the first stanza of An Crann of Rogha Danta and As for the Quince done by Paul Muldoon in the latter book will have to suffice:

An Crann

Do thainig bean an leasa                

le Black and Decker,

do ghearr si anuas mo chrann.

D’fhanas im oinseach ag feachaint iurthi

faid a bhearraigh si na brainsi

ceann ar cheann.


The tree

The fairy woman came                              

with a Black and Decker.                          

She cut down my tree.                                

I watched her like a fool                            

cut the branches one by one.                    


As for the Quince

There came this bright young thing

with a Black and Decker

and cut down my quince tree

I stood with my mouth hanging open

while one by one

she trimmed off the branches.


There is no overt reference to a quince tree in the Irish: apple, apple tree: ull, crann ull; quince, quince tree: cainche, crann cainche. The Greek and Latin referencing here is rather weighing down the piece. Those implications come later. This strikes as an unwillingness to trust the author’s structure of the poem, and a rather show-off attitude in throwing in one’s own personality: ‘This is how I would have done it.’ The racy language is caught, but at what expense?

The later book, The Water Horse is served better than the previous one; in particular the translations by Medbh McGuckian stand out as especially impressive, capturing both the racy tone and richness of the language, and economy of expression.

Of course to write solely in a minority ‘dying’ language has its modern day precedents: Sorley MacLean wrote only Scots Gaelic, as with Derick Thomson and more contemporary writers; in Wales Menna Elfyn is making a similar plea for the language. This latter writer is particularly apposite to the case of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill in that both are politically active writers, willing to take part in political action. Menna Elfyn has been imprisoned twice on Welsh Language issues; Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill took part in the Bloody Sunday march in Derry (a typescript of her evidence is available on the .net).

Sorley MacLean, in his early works, espoused support for Bolshevik causes; he did not take any active part. The impetus for his most famous book Dain do Eimhir comes from his self-recrimination for his supposed neglect of the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.

This political awareness is also evident in Ni Dhomhnail’s latest book The Water Horse, Eithne the Hun:

‘…but the lamb must still be waiting/to be led to the altar/by the mess they’ve just made/of those three in Gibraltar.’ (relating to an alleged pre-emptive strike by British Security forces on three IRA suspects entering Gibralter territory from Spain).

The language-issue seems particularly tied-in in her thinking about her family. It was her father’s side that kept the language alive. Her mother, however, perhaps thinking of her daughter’s future in a predominantly English world, played down the Irish. This becomes especially important when Nuala had taken the decision to write solely in Irish: she quotes her mother as saying her writing Irish was “mad”. She was not alone in this. At this period, the late 1960s, the very idea of basing one’s creative life on a ‘dead language’ had very little credibility in commercial terms.

Nuala does not write autobiographical or confessional poetry; all her characters are carefully stylised in the manner of the folk tales she draws on. So when we come across a poem as hard-hitting as Mother we must make an effort to remember not to read it as personal:


You gave me a dress

 and then took it back from me.



At the miser’s dinner-party

every bite is counted.


What would you say

if I tore the dress



With your medieval mind

you’d announce me dead

and on the medical reports

you’d write the words

 “ingrate”, “schizophrenic”.

It is just as easy to read this as an attack on the Irish Catholic Church, with its communion dress and blended medieval iconography of holy mother, and thereby idealised mother; and threat of excommunication always present for strayers off the narrow way. Interestingly, the term “schizophrenic” banded about in this manner immediately dates the poem to the 1970s. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s language awareness, and sensitivity to vocabulary usage, is always up to date; and also rarely if ever does she resort to archaic terms or syntax, and never without good reason.

Whereas references to her father’s side frequently crop-up in comments, articles and poems her mother never does. This cannot but be felt. The question is, how far can one read this as an estrangement from her mother? I think Laura O’Connor has the most salient comment here: ‘… both Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and (Mebdh) McGuckian rely on “the enabling myth of the disabling mother”, citing “hostile, rather than nurturant mothering” as their impetus to art.’  It is a device for both moving on, and for subverting implied obligations to limited and limiting ideals.

In Words for the Branwen Theme she writes Civil Rights was my mother. Here we deal with an important distinction between biological parent and the parent, or agent, of awareness: political, cultural and feminist. These are shifting distinctions, I admit, but relevant to this particular case under discussion. The hostile mother here is the mother who preferred the English language, and therewith the English cultural heritage. Englishness has permeated every aspect of Irish culture: English is the language of school, commerce, business and every transaction outside the home. The inroads by the Gaelic League of the nineteenth century helped preserve the language on the ground level, the Settlement of 1921 the territory left to the language.

“The issue of the native language and its suppression has intrinsically a vast political dimension….At surface level it offers parallels with the position of Ireland’s women.”

For Nuala to take up the cause of the Irish language, she is in a way exchanging one set of cultural shackles for another. With the language goes all the iconography of nationhood, the personification of Mother Ireland, and, through the Catholic Church its conflation with the image of the suffering mother. The cult of the Virgin also has endorsed not only chastity and motherhood as womanly ideals, but also humility, obedience and passive suffering. Even more so, “The spiritualized ideal as Erin is… intensified by and linked to the puritanical and asexual ideal of woman by the Catholic Church….”

Put like this the imagery would seem to go so deep into the psyche of Ireland it would seem almost impossible to change or alter anything. Throughout the 1970s and early 80s “the assault on the traditional encoding of women…by Irish women poets…did a great deal to destabilise the conventions…” This was the period of the Innti group of Gaelic broadsheets with whom Nuala was involved at Cork University, also the nation-wide women’s’ workshop movement with which Eavon Boland was connected.

It could be argued that one of the most malleable weapons for destabilising standards and long settled traditions, is humour, whether as the waspish sting of satire or the alternative realignment of tradition into absurd or exaggerated antics. This was both Nuala’s great weapon and saving grace: “…a poet at her finest in the comic mode…”, and a saving grace in that her great gusts of laughter lift her out of the swamping of cultural iconography: “She… handled (sic) Gaelic tradition in a more subversive fashion than did (sic) the English-language poets. Her An Crann…. is infinitely more satisfying than…. programmatic assaults on the Sean-Bhean Bhocht of national tradition…”

For Nuala it would seem humour is a way of subverting the chaste, Madonna image, the suffering mother image, and also a way of laying claim to one’s own sexual identity. This last is a major tenet of second-wave feminist thinking, particularly in the writings of Julia Kristeva. For Nuala it makes its appearance in poems tackling nationalist images, as The Great Mother.

Irish women writers are already speaking and thinking in terms of generations: Maura Dooley can reference Peig Sayers in full knowledge that her work is accessible and available. Of the generation of Gaelic women writers preceding Nuala, Ni Dhomhnaill Maire Mhac an tSaoi was held to be the “most technically gifted…of her time.” She used the lyric-parody, another humour-based form, for subverting Catholic traditions. Her lyrics were found too complex for easy translation. She “gave her blessing” to Nuala, and whereas her own poetry has found few translators, Nuala has now a wide and international readership, partly through an accessible and vernacular vocabulary but also through her great humour.

By using humour to subvert tradition, and by using the Irish language she is also preserving a tradition. Like all old traditions the Gaelic is full of its own stereotypes and male dominance. The Ulster Cycle reeks with testosterone; this she takes issue with in her Cu Chulainn series from Rogha Danta:

  Cu Chulainn 1

Small dark rigid man




Don’t threaten us with your youth again

small poor dark man

 and goes on to be portrayed as a mithering brat who treats his mother to his rudeness.

The Connaught Cycles however are much more amenable, Queen Mebd figures hugely and her position as royal equal to Aillil forms the backbone of ‘The Tain’. The poem Mebd Speaks is very telling here:

Mebd Speaks

War I declare from now

on all the men of Ireland

on all the corner-boys…..


on the twenty-pint heroes……


just looking for a chance

to dominate my limbs –



I will make incursions


my amazons beside me

 (not just to steal a bull


but for an honour-price


my dignity). 


: that is, the “integrity of the body”

Eibhlin Evans writes: “Poetry is not required to be oppositionalist and the writing of the women does include other motivations…” For Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill these “other motivations” she finds already embedded in Gaelic culture and language. The Gaelic Heritage she describes as “… a relationship between people and their objects of desire…” According to Helene Cixous “the discovery of desire necessarily precedes the discovery of a writing practice grounded in female pleasure and power.” The grounded female embodiment of pleasure and power is the dominant figure in all of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s writing.

“The Gaeltacht language I grew up with,” she writes, “fell out of history before the Enlightenment, and before many other things, including Victorian prudishness; and the language just isn’t prudish. The language is very open and non-judgemental about the body and its orifices.” Here again is the issue of the ‘integrity of the body’.

In the opening poem of ‘Rogha Danta’, We are Damned, My Sisters she writes of:


 we who swam at night

 on beaches, with the stars

laughing with us


without shifts or dresses


who accepted the priests’ challenge


We who didn’t darn stockings

we who didn’t comb or tease


We find the female stereotypes, the Church control, all cast away as with the shifts and dresses, the ‘sisters’ laugh with the stars; this is a poem of challenge, but also triumph whilst at the same emphasising the on-going nature of the struggle for self identity and fulfilment: to be damned is to be on the outside of the community, and the sisterhood image an alternative community in the making, whether in material terms, or imaginative terms, both are equally valid at different times.

The Irish language, she says, “…can pick up and sing out every hint of emotional modulation that can occur between people.” This is the plus side of tradition. It is as though, for Nuala, the language both written and spoken become an unbroken link between people at all points in history, it is as though to use the language is to transcend tenses, to embody all or any historical moment, to inhabit a contemporaneous dimension.

Unfortunately, the Irish language has also picked up the cast of the image of the colonised. This has proved a major stumbling block for many wishing to use the language as their own with some kind of native purity.   “…the crucial function of language as power demands that post-colonial writing define itself by seizing the language of the centre…” I paraphrase the piece here: there is no way the Irish language will ever seize autonomy again, and so the only way to utilise the language as power is to centre one’s own not-inconsiderable gifts in it.

This is precisely Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s position: the passage continues, “The most effective way of reappropriation is not a return to native linguistic purity… but the conscious combative use of the vernacular and/or deliberate, resisting use of the hegemonic master discourse to contest the imperial traditions on their own terms.”

This is what, in fact, I would argue, one of many of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s achievements.






























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