Some Thoughts on the Poetry of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill
By Michael Murray
The first thing you pick up reading Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill is that this is not her poetry, but that of her translators.
The second must be, 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 included in ‘Rogha Danta’, her first collection of translations.
And so we have this problem. 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 now space.
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 Pharoah’s Daughter’. A comparison between the first stanza of ‘An Crann’ of ‘Rogha Danta’ and ‘As for the Quince’ by Paul Muldoon in the latter book, will have to suffice:
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. The racy language is caught, but at what expense?
The last book, ‘The Water Horse’ is served better, in particular the translations by Medbh McGuckian stand out, capturing both the tone and richness of the language, and economy of expression.
To write solely in a minority ‘dying’ language has its modern day precedents: Sorley MacLean and Derick Thomson in Scots Gaelic. In Wales Menna Elfyn is makes a similar plea for the language.
This latter writer is particularly apposite to the case of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill: both are politically active writers. Menna Elfyn has been imprisoned twice on Welsh Language issues, and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill took part in the Bloody Sunday march in Derry.
This political awareness is also evident in her 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.’
Born in Sutton Manor Coalfield near Burnley (“What did you do in England, Nuala?” “Watched t.v.”), she returned early with her family to the family home on the Dingle peninsula in the far west of Ireland. Here it was a matter of being “farmed off” amongst relatives for years. Her aunt became a surrogate mother.
The language-issue seems particularly tied-in with her family. It was her father’s side that kept the language alive. Her mother perhaps thinking of her daughter’s future in a
predominantly English speaking world, played down the Irish. This becomes especially important when Nuala had taken the decision to write solely in Irish. At this period, the late 1960s, the very idea of basing one’s creative life on a ‘dead language’ had very little credibility.
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.
You gave me a horse
which you sold in my absence.
You gave me a harp
and then asked me back for it.
And you gave me life.
At the miser’s dinner-party
every bite is counted.
What would you say
if I tore the dress
if I drowned the horse
if I broke the harp
if I choked the strings
the strings of life?
I walked off a cliff?
I know your answer.
With your medieval mind
you’d announce me dead
and on the medical reports
you’d write the words
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.
Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s awareness of vocabulary is always contemporary; 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.
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 destabilize 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 is 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’ .
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
who still lacks a lump on your shoulder
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:
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
: 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
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.
Read more on Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill here.