Saturday, September 7, 2019

Our literature? What are we missing?

I recently visited the incredible Charlie Byrne treasure trove on Middle Street in Galway. It is truly a remarkable place and there as yet many undiscovered treasures hidden in a Labyrinth of passages, rooms and annexes.

(People say there is no need to look of cases or forms of English - I found that I had to search for the plural form of "Annex!" But I'm drifting away from what I initially wanted to say! In one section I found a selection of books in Irish and it set me thinking.)

Irish literature in Charlie Byrnes Bookshop 6 September 2019

While there browsing I came across a section with books written in Irish and this started me thinking. What IS Irish literature? Surely this collection should be regarded as Irish Literature in the true sense.

Is literature regarded as the nationality of the writer or that of the language? I remember the great German writer and Nobel Laureate, Heinrich Böll was interviewed on British television. He was asked why he did not write in English and his reply was interesting. "If I wrote in English I would be more English than the Prime Minister!" He appeared therefore to regard writing in English as an English thing.

Perhaps we might say that writings on Irish subjects or topics are Irish Literature. If that is the criteria then perhaps the famous book of the same German author, Irisches Tagesbuch, could be classed as Irish Literature? Or conversly one of the most entertaining books I have read in recent times, "An Tionscadal" by Tomás Mac Síomóin (Coiscéim) could be classed as Catalan Literature? I understand the French regard Samuel Becket's work as French literature.

Irish, Dutch or Brazilian?
Can the short story collection "Gonta" written by Netherlands native, Alex Hijmans (Cois Life) about people in Bahia be Dutch or Brazilain literature? Recognised  as the best collection of short stories since 2000 by the critical journal Comhair in 2013. Can literature be multinational then?

Recently Iris Murdoch has been called an Irish writer and like Elizabeth Bowen she may be described as such by birth. But can their work be described as Irish Literature? Their topics can hardly be described as Irish.

Looking at the literature publications in Ireland few acknowledge, except in a passing reference, to the literature in the National Language. Full of references to Yeats, Joyce, O'Casey, Wilde or more recent authors. Yes, these and the more modern authors in English are worth reading. Study of them can be enriching. They do display a certain aspect of life in Ireland in the last two hundred years but they build almost exclusively on the giants of English literature. But if you look book reviews in the English language media in Ireland, these are almost exclusively what they regard as "Irish Literature." (An honourable exception is Children's Book Ireland who place both Irish and English publications together on their own merit as literature rather than place them in a linguistic ghetto!)

So what am I saying.

There is a hidden treasure in our country. It is a thriving rich literary tradition in Ireland in our National Language. Rich not materially, as Máirtín Ó Cadhain adverred but in tradition going back not 200 years but nearly two thousand years (if not more). It is in fact the oldest written language in Europe which is still a spoken language too. It has perhaps been enriched with its contact with European literature especially pre 1700 and by English literature since that time. But drop into any book shop  - I exclude specialist shops here* - and you would be hard pressed to find any of this uniquely and indisputably Irish literature.

I remember seeing another author, Alan Titley, address a meeting in the Oireachtas (The parliament not the festival) on the lack of true understanding that ignorance of literature written in Irish hinders. How many histories of the period, the centenery of which we are celebrating in these days, have been written with out reference or even knowledge of the works published in Irish? How many of our historians have read the three volume autobiography of Ernest Blyth or the works of Pádraic Ó Conaire?

Does not this ignorance render our nation so much the poorer? There is a real lacuna in how the literary establishment treat Irish authors. Awards, when they acknowledge works in Irish ghettoise it - "The Irish Language award!" They appear never to judge it on equal terms with the works in English as the "Best poetry Award, " or best work in fiction.

Surely we should commemorate and support it for what it is - true Irish literature.

* Such as An Siopa Leabhair on Harcourt Street in Dublin or Cló Iarchonnacht's Shop behind the Ceardlann in An Spidéal.

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