Some of your poems seem to come to the reader with and the patina of age already on them. Can you comment on this?
In the sickbed of Cú Chulainn, Eimhear says,“Is geal gach nua,”everything that is new is bright/interesting, and I suppose what is new for the reader is old for the poet, maybe very old and the poet. The poet tries to make the old new in language, yet nothing is new really in the human condition. So if I am writing about the Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the Countess Caitríona Magennis, married to great Hugh O’Neill, having to leave her son behind her forever and the terrible pain of that loss, I am writing about something that happens everywhere, to everyone at some time—the pain of loss and separation, the terrible dread and premonition of certain death and suffering, anxiety and helplessness.
In “Scaradh na gCompánach,” I am trying to repossess the tradition by giving a voice to a voice that was never heard in previous poems about the Earls, that of Caitríona Magnennis, the mother who had to leave her son Conn with foster parents and the wife of Hugh O’Neill, and who I feel could see it all coming: the execution of her son, the Plantation of Ulster and the ruination and death of the Earls in Rome, followed by her own death.
Also, with regard to the aging of poems, for me, I feel that unwritten poems can linger a long time in the psyche and that it sometimes take a long time to be able to let go/express them. This can be a source of torment sometimes, but when the critical superego is quieted the creative freedom can be a wonderful release.
When you began to write poetry, was there a moment when you made a conscious decision to compose in Irish?
Yes, I was about 24 or 25, and I had just broken up from a second long-term relationship that didn’t work out and poetry was the thing that saved me. I was a secondary school teacher of Irish and French at the time, and I was teaching Irish to adults up in Glencolmcille every summer from 2002 onwards. I fell back in love with the language that I had loved as a teenager, having gone up to the Donegal Gaeltacht of Rann na Feirste every summer, the happiest times of my life.
I had lived for a year in Lyon in France doing a Masters in French literature when I was 21, and I was writing poetry in French and English then, but I began to really miss Irish. For me, English seemed to be such an overworked/pressurized language, and when it came to trying to express myself poetically, I felt estranged from English, that I couldn’t say what I wanted to say in English or say anything that hadn’t been said already. Having said that, I always loved to read Kavanagh growing up and greatly admired Heaney and Kinsella; somehow they seemed to bridge the gap.
The difficult choice for me was between Irish and French not Irish and English. I was very influenced by French écriture feminine and the poststructuralist distrust of language itself, which Lacan referred to as the gap in language, and also the portrayal of amour fou in French cinema and the novels of Marguerite Duras. In the end, though, I felt that the Irish language chose me. She was the direction my life was going in. In 2005 I started a doctorate on the contemporary Irish-language poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Biddy Jenkinson focussing on the female body. I was overcome with a great feeling for the language, a love for this language that had suffered so much and that was so beautiful.
Could you tell us about the experience of seeing your poems translated? What reactions have you had to the renderings?
You can feel quite vulnerable, as you are open to being judged on the English translation; in reality, there is an almost unbridgeable gulf/gap/ ‘bearna’ between the two languages. Allowing your work to be translated involves a certain amount of letting go, like Ní Dhomhnaill’s image of hope set afloat on the little boat of language/báidín teanga. Translating one’s own work involves a huge amount of self-doubt and I prefer, I think, to be translated by others.
It has been strange and wonderful to be translated by Irish-language poets Gabriel Rosenstock, Colm Breathnach, and Philip Cummings. I was very happy with Gabriel Rosenstock’s translations of “Is tú” and “Cogar Cogar a Stór.” He is a fantastic literary translator. I was also extremely happy with and amazed by Colm Breathnach’s translation of “Scaradh na gCompánach.” The poem “Capall bán”, I feel, is almost untranslatable, a real challenge to translate as it is based on the Irish saying or idiom, “tá capall bán fút,” which means that you are going to die, there’s a white horse in store for you, there’s a white horse under you. There used to be white horses at funerals, and that’s how the saying evolved. When a person sneezed 4 times, people would say”tá capall bán fút,” ie. you are going to die, as TB was so common and people were worried about death.
Philip Cummings translated this poem for me and, again, I was happy with the translation. It was a difficult poem for me as it deals with the process of dying, of my own mother dying—something that you know is going to happen and can do nothing about it, (and the crossing of the threshold of life and death).
Do you feel that writing in the Irish language shapes your poems in particular ways?
Yes, definitely; I have always been struck by the musicality of the language, always trying to enter into the music of the language, the rhythms and the long vowel sounds á, ú, ó, í, é (For example capall bán fút, a chroí). Irish is a language of echoes and waves or ondulations. I felt that I could hear the sea in Donegal Irish, Conamara Irish and Kerry Irish, but that there was a special melody to Ulster/Donegal Irish, sweet with the wind and air off the mountains, bogs and hills. I could also hear the sound of the trees and rustling leaves in Filíocht Oirialla. Oriel is a area around south Armagh, Louth and Monaghan, where I am from, full of oak woods. For this reason I have found it much easier to be lyrical in Irish, closer perhaps than English to the earth, the body and to the emotions.
I am often overwhelmed by the emotional power of the language in terms of the lament/caoineadh, the song tradition, the poetry of Oirialla, the idiom and the wealth of folklore. I felt that there were many layers of meaning and hidden depths to words, sayings, ways of saying things, and place names in Irish often forgotten but waiting to be uncovered again.
I recently discovered a lot of folklore about the figure of the Brídeach Sí [fairy bride] from the townland right next to where I am from near Emyvale, Co. Monaghan. I was so excited when I came on this material and was very inspired by the psychic presence of the fairy bride, who came out of Tully Lake and fell in love and married the Mc Kenna Chieftan. Unfortunately, he broke all his promises and cheated on her with Maguire’s daughter from Fermanagh. Then she went back into the lake with her three children and he never saw her again. I have written a few poems about her already, “Cluain na hEorna,”, “Loch Thulaigh” and others, but I am definitely not finished with her yet. I feel she is a relevant figure for modern times and the problems within marriage, relationships and female identity.
I have also recently written poems about the oak woods mentioned in my local place names: Doire na Sealg, [The Oak Wood of the Hunting], Doire Chaoch [The Blind Oak Wood] and others, inspired by “Coillte Glasa Triúcha” [The Green Woods of Truagh], written in Irish by the blind bard Niall Mac Cionnaith around 1646. I think that was the last Irish-language poet from my area!
Irish is a language that has been greatly wronged against, and although she can be very lively and light, she is also lamenting, haunting and echoing. She is the shape of my sentences and poems, I hope.