Wednesday, October 1, 2008


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 16, Number 9 (September 2005), p. 26.

Last month I wrote for these pages some musings on Louis de Paor’s moving poem “Iarlais” / “Changeling” from his dual-language volume Gobán Cré Is Cloch / Sentences of Earth & Stone. One engaging poem summoning up in the back of my mind another by this fine Irish-language poet, I let my fingers do the walking to that volume’s neighbor on the bookshelf, Aimsir Bhreicneach / Freckled Weather, and found what I was I looking for: a wonderful lyric poem titled “Seanchas” / “Old Stories.” A further illustration of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s implication that language is intrinsically a way of knowing—that we interpret the world via the linguistic tools at our disposal—this poem acknowledges de Paor’s linguistic indebtedness to a family housekeeper he remembers fondly from his childhood in Cork.

The opening lines of “Seanchas” / “Old Stories” thus register the deep-seated relationship between and among reality, imagination and language—in this case, clearly a rich rural dialect:

00000D’fhág sí boladh fuinseoige
00000is móin ag dó ar theallach oscailte
00000le scéalta aniar as clúid teolaí a haigne.

De Paor himself translates:

00000She left the smell of mountain ash
00000and turf burning on an open fireplace
00000with stories raked up
00000from a warm chimney corner in her head.

Introducing the housekeeper by alluding to her natural storyteller’s ability to bring her rural past vividly to life in his family’s urban present, de Paor uses metaphor (rather than simile) to blur the distinction between the world seen literally and the world perceived through the lens of language. As he phrases it, the virtual and the actual are one and the same: just as her strength as a seanchaí—as a teller of seanchas (old stories)—can transport her listener to an unfamiliar realm, so the “warm chimney corner in her head” is as real in de Paor’s poem as the “open fireplace” of the rustic cabin that she grew up in.

Yet, while both initially and ultimately the poem may be “about” the way language affects perception, and also about how the use of language in poetry represents a heightened version of that phenomenon, “Seanchas” / “Old Stories” opens up other intriguing thematic territory:

00000oícheanta cuirfiú tar éis céili
00000chomh hairdeallach le giorria sínte sa chlaí,
00000tormán croí
00000ag sárú ar thrudaireacht na gcarranna
00000nó go slogfaí solas brúidiúil na saighdiúirí
00000sa dorchacht ropánta.

Her descriptive recollection resonates in English too:

00000coming from a dance after the curfew,
00000lying flat in the ditch, sharp-eared as a hare,
00000a clamour of heartbeats over the stuttering
00000patrolcars until the vicious lights of the soldiers
00000were ambushed by the dark.

Recounting a time she hid from marauding British soldiers during the Anglo-Irish war, this example of one of her “old stories” may tantalize the reader into imagining the housekeeper as the embodiment of a bowed but unbroken Irish nationalist spirit. Indeed, the scene she describes even seems reminiscent of William Butler Yeats’s quasi-apocalyptic poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: “Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare / Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery / Can leave the mother, murdered at her door, / To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free.”

But de Paor’s poem quickly complicates such a reflex interpretation, as another of the housekeeper’s old stories effectually de-romanticizes Irish militant nationalism:

00000reibiliúin gan mhúineadh ina dhiaidh sin
00000a thug caint gharbh is salachar na mbán
00000ar a sála isteach sa chistin sciomraithe,
00000a chiur an tigh faoi dhaorsmacht
00000le drochbhéasa is focail mhóra go maidin.

In English:

00000later on badmannered rebels
00000brought filthy words and mud
00000on heavy boots through the spotless kitchen
00000invading the house with rudeness
00000and big talk until morning.

Casting the often-idealized republican rebels as louts themselves, as no less boorish than the British soldiers they would displace, de Paor’s re-telling of her story in his poem simultaneously casts the housekeeper as the embodiment of a spirit of independence alright—but not in the conventional manner in which Ireland has been feminized by poets and politicians alike. She is no Cathleen Ni Houlihan, no old woman transformed (in Yeats’s version) into a young girl “with the walk of a queen.”

In fact, as the next lines reveal, in her defeat by the very values of the “modern” Ireland that the Irish rebels helped to put into place, the housekeeper emerges as a wistful symbol of a different claim for “self-government.” In this respect she is a spiritual sister of old Abby Driscoll in Frank O’Connor’s well-known short story “The Long Road to Ummera.” When her son Pat finally pronounces over her grave “Neighbors, this is Abby, Batty Heige’s daughter, that kept her promise to ye at the end of all,” the old woman comes to represent the triumph of traditional values—specifically, a sense of decency and respect for the past—over a post-revolutionary society increasingly defined by philistine pettiness masquerading as progress. Embodying Oscar Wilde’s incisive definition of a cynic as “someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Abby’s son himself represents a particular manifestation of the dominant forces that O’Connor’s and de Paor’s fellow Corkman Sean O’Faolain described in the 1930s: “To put the things in a few words—the figures of the new Ireland are the petty capitalist, native stock . . . ; the priest, native stock again; and the politician, almost always native stock. . . . Sanctity and salvation are on our banner. Security and stability are in our hearts. If we can have hard cash in our pockets we shall feel not merely holy but happy.”

De Paor’s housekeeper is not so fortunate as old Abby:

00000bhí sí neamhspleách rompu
00000agus ina ndiaidh
00000nó gur cheansaigh dochtúirí,
00000dlíodóirí, banaltraí is mná rialta
00000a hanam ceannairceach.

Her mettle stronger than that of either the British soldiers or the rebels, she yet eventually becomes the victim of a by-product of modernization—institutionalized treatment of the elderly:

00000she was independent before and after them
00000until doctors, lawyers, nurses and nuns
00000broke her heart.

For de Paor, then, his housekeeper’s linguistic example—itself an expression of her vital personal spirit—proves to be not just a useful gift for the future poet but a legacy for which he has been appointed, or anointed, custodian. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has written famously of the responsibility the contemporary Irish-language poet bears with regard to the native idiom. Translated by Paul Muldoon as “The Language Issue,” her “Ceist na Teangan” answers its own question about the future of Irish:

00000I place my hope on the water
00000in this little boat
00000of the language, the way a body might put
00000an infant

00000in a basket of intertwined
00000iris leaves,
00000its underside proofed
00000with bitumen and pitch,

00000then set the whole thing down amidst
00000the sedge
00000and bulrushes by the edge
00000of a river

00000only to have it borne hither and thither,
00000not knowing where it might end up;
00000in the lap, perhaps,
00000of some Pharaoh’s daughter.

Clearly, by virtue of the vibrant and vigorous form of the language that she passed on to Louis de Paor, his family’s housekeeper was just such a Pharaoh’s daughter.

But, recalling Padraic Colum’s poem “A Poor Scholar of the ’Forties,” in which the poet imagines fragments of the Latin and the Greek taught in nineteenth-century hedge schools showing up occasionally in twentieth-century conversation (“Years hence, in rustic speech, a phrase, / As in wild earth a Grecian vase!”), the surprising ending of “Old Stories” / “Seanchas” reveals that she played even that role with a characteristically singular twist. For tearing the veil of innocence from the seemingly innocuous English verb “mobilise,” she bequeaths to young de Paor in a private malediction against the fascist Blueshirts—yet another heavy-booted mob, active in Ireland in the post-revolutionary period—an altogether original battle cry that he would instinctively use under schoolboy duress. In effect, she invigorates, even renovates, the English language as well as the Irish:

00000Chuir sí fiúise is buachallán buí
00000ag gobadh aníos tré stroighin
00000is tarra im chaint
00000is chloisfí stair a cine gan chlaonscríobh
00000im ghlór fuilteach i gclós na scoile:

00000“I’ll mobilise you, you bloody Blueshirt.”

Little gets lost in de Paor’s translation:

00000She set fuchsia and ragwort
00000peeking through concrete and tarmacadam
00000in my talk and you could hear
00000the history of her people unrevised
00000in my blood-spattered voice in the schoolyard:

00000“I’ll mobilise you, you bloody Blueshirt.”

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