Asking myself by what sort of license a translator would do that, I was pleased to discover the answer in Ní Ghearbhuigh’s own translation of the poem she executed when it was named Ireland’s European Union Presidency Poem in 2013. (It was also shortlisted in 2015 for RTÉ’s “A Poem for Ireland” competition.) In her version in English, which differs line by line from Quinn’s anyway, she actually leaves “Faoiseamh a gheobhadsa” untranslated . . . a decision which led me to learn that the exact phrase is the title, and the first line, of a poem by celebrated mid-twentieth-century Irish-language poet Máirtín Ó Direáin. Translated into English most recently by Frank Sewell, Ó Direáin’s poem appears to be a simple lyric expressing the longing for home of an Aran Islander unhappily transplanted to Dublin:
Peace I’ll find
For a short while
Among my people
On a sea island,
Walking the shore
Morning and evening
Monday to Saturday
Home in the West.
But is Ní Ghearbhuigh’s interpolation of Ó Direáin’s line into her poem as simple as it seems? A quarter-century ago, Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomnaill explained in an essay published in the New York Times Book Review the richness of the linguistic medium she works in: “Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological; it is an instrument of imaginative depth and scope, which has been tempered by the community for generations until it can pick up and sing out every hint of emotional modulation that can occur between people.” Indeed, just as Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh herself “references” Ó Direáin’s poem, translator Quinn recognizes that Ó Direáin is probably referencing Yeats’s poem.
In fact, the thematic sensibility of Ó Direáin’s poem aligns very neatly with Yeats’s. In his Autobiographies, Yeats, who had been “very homesick in London,” recalls how his poem was prompted in 1890 when “walking through Fleet Street . . . I heard a tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree. . . .” A half-century later, Ó Direáin evidently feels just as lost in Dublin, and his poem “Faoiseamh a gheobhadsa,” whose title Sewell translates simply as “Peace,” seems to involve on Ó Direáin’s part a conscious dovetailing with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” (Celtic Studies scholar Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith has written about the deep cultural implications of this nexus in a fine article published in the journal Scottish Studies.)
Thus directing readers not only to Ó Direáin’s poem, where the speaker imagines the comforting familiarity of his community on Inis Mór (the largest of the Aran Islands) but also to Yeats’s poem, written deep in the London suburb of Bedford Park where the speaker finds solace in memories from his teen years of an idyllic setting in County Sligo’s Lough Gill, Ní Ghearbhuigh’s speaker, far from the madding crowd that Ó Direáin and Yeats both long to escape, actually misses desperately, and projects her return to, the vitality to be found in the heart of a city. The poem opens this way in Quinn’s translation:
Tonight I’m coming back.
I taste the city’s sweat around me,
And it tastes good.
The whole thing’s present tense,
And heat throbs from its walls
In the late afternoon.
Apparently the city in question is Bordeaux in France, where Ní Ghearbhuigh spent meaningful time betwixt and between her studies. How millennial is that?
And how telling about the state of contemporary poetry written in Irish is her “talking back” to the sentiment of poems by such eminent precursors as Yeats and Ó Direáin? Titling her New York Times Book Review essay “Why I Choose to Write in Irish, The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back,” Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill concluded by quoting in its entirety her best-known poem, “Ceist Na Teangan”—literally “the language question” but translated deftly by Paul Muldoon as “The Language Issue.” Valuing the distinct spirit expressible only by the Irish language, the poet inscribes her desperate hope for the future of that spirit in terms of the Old Testament story of the infant Moses abandoned in a basket “amidst / the sedge / and bulrushes by the edge / of a river”: poetry in Irish, she suggests, is the basket that, having been “borne hither and thither,” may eventually end up “in the lap . . . / of some Pharaoh’s daughter.” Indisputably, Ní Dhomhnaill was (and continues to be) such a daughter.
By the evidence of The Coast Road, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh is too, a status and a stature affirmed by Ní
Dhomhnaill herself in 2017 when she presented to Ní Ghearbhuigh the so-called “Parnell Stick” that Seamus Heaney had presented to her in 1998. (Cut in Avondale Wood by Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1889 or 1890, this ferruled whitethorn walking stick at some point came into the hands of novelist Brinsley MacNamara who at some point passed it on to poet W. R. Rodgers who relayed it to politician and historian Conor Cruise O’Brien who presented it to Heaney. Someday Ní Ghearbhuigh will recognize another writer in turn by passing that baton, as it were, of honor.) Clearly, Ní Dhomhnaill saw and heard in Ní Ghearbhuigh’s millennial poems that vibrant spirit—that élan vital, perhaps—expressed in “Filleadh ar an gCathair”/“Back to the City”:
But neon signs
light up the strangest corners
of my heart.
And peace comes dropping slow
on the moonlit window ledge,
my ear lulled to the traffic’s song.