By Gabriel Rosenstock
Seosamh Mac Grianna’s classic autobiographical road-trip Mo Bhealach Féin was first published in 1940. It has been a favourite of readers of Ulster Irish since then – a cult classic – but not very many Irish people outside of Donegal and Northern Ireland are familiar with it and the outside world has hardly heard of it at all.
Irish has three main dialects and, until recently, readers of Irish stuck mainly to their chosen dialect, or sub-dialect. Irish is a mandatory school subject in Ireland but oral skills and reading skills are appallingly undeveloped. So who is going to read the original?
Large swathes of Irish media ignore the language altogether and the amount of native speakers has reached a critical low of 20,000 speakers, or less. Is the writing on the wall for Irish as it is for so many other threatened languages on earth?
In his Introduction to This Road of Mine, translated from the Irish by Mícheál Ó hAodha, former Irish-language editor of The Irish Times Pól Ó Muirí writes movingly about Mac Grianna:
The Irish language was his medium; the poor benighted, ignored, miraculous, mysterious Irish that was (and is) the community language of Rann na Feirste and much of Donegal even then. It was, and is still, a language of no commercial value; English was, and remains, the language of the powerful and influential. Irish is the echo of other times: of wars, conquest and famine, of events and of people who are not to be discussed in polite society. It was the language of the poor, of the most marginal and disdained . . .
Irish is a language with a powerful oral literature, a language of striking poems, songs, tales and myths. That a written literature could survive under the very trying circumstances which Ó Muirí describes above, is something of a miracle. Colum McCann describes this forgotten, compelling classic as “stark and beautiful, the book explores the dissonance between one culture and another, one language and another, one form of survival and another . . .”
Who was the enigmatic Mac Grianna (1900-1990) – whose brother called himself Ó Grianna and wrote under the pseudonym ‘Máire’? From a family of famed storytellers and versifiers, Mac Grianna spent a term in a school in Derry in 1917 before being chucked out for unruly behaviour. As an expellee myself, I’ve always considered that achievement as an excellent passport for a writer.
He qualified as a teacher and fought in the Civil War, spending some time in prison, “for a cause that I hadn’t the slightest interest in really.” Teaching jobs were scarce if you were on the ‘wrong side’ in the Civil War. But he wasn’t cut out to be a teacher: the system got on his nerves. He made a few shillings on translation work, translating a novel by Conrad and pot boilers such as Ben Hur for An Gúm, a publishing house I’m familiar with as I spent most of my working life there.
If An Gúm were happy to pay him, irregularly, for his translations, they refused to publish his own novel An Droma Mór; they had accepted it in 1932, but the institution was known for dithering and the book didn’t appear until 1969. Too late for Mac Grianna who declared in 1935 that the well had dried up. He had put down his pen and had fallen into a depressive psychosis.
Mystery surrounds his wife Peigí who committed suicide, and their son Fionn who drowned in Howth. Mystery surrounds a missing manuscript, thought to be in private possession. There are eye-witness accounts of Mac Grianna picking up cigarette ends on the road and smoking them in his pipe. What a fate! As he says in this chronicle, “The government was running a scheme for the promotion of Irish-language books and I began working on this. Not that the government of the day was known for its promotion of poetry or art.”
In This Road of Mine, Mac Grianna describes his struggles for existence, his quest for liberation, self-knowledge and truth. I like what he says about translation work for An Gúm, itself a strange word, rarely used, which means ‘a scheme’. So, what scheme was afoot? “The way I saw it – it was willing to pay me for work that was as easy as tying your shoelaces, so that I didn’t give a damn what the place was called really or what stupidity it got up to either.”
In my days in An Gúm, I heard hair-raising tales of former employees such as the man – a relation of Mac Grianna? – who tied his leg to the desk to prevent himself from running out on the street before the hands of the clock declared it was, indeed, time for Dublin civil servants to be liberated. He tells us, frankly: “I hated An Gúm and it was this same hatred that kept the few small embers in my soul aflame – until it came time for the reckoning. I always hoped to destroy An Gúm somehow and I couldn’t have cared less about the consequences for myself either . . .”
Mac Grianna informs us that he wouldn’t give An Gúm the satisfaction of rejecting his novel An Droma Mór: “So I went down to the office one day and took the book away with me. Maybe they’d never seen someone angry in that office before, but they saw me raging that day, that’s for sure. I don’t remember everything I said to them but anyway I asked for the manuscript back and was forced to grab the man who had it by the scruff of the neck and half-throttle him in the end. And I was delighted that I did this too . . .”
You have to applaud him. Writers can often be cowed by publishers and when that particular publisher is an arm of the state, so to speak – and your chief source of income, to boot – it took a good deal of self-belief on the part of Mac Grianna to act as he did. The inner torments he must have suffered to regain his manuscript, his mental and emotional stability gnawed away by civil servants in an office in the nation’s capital – and he from a part of Donegal in which ancient Brehon Laws “are still followed on strictures relating to the raising of sheep . . .” This is a bizarre tale in more ways than one.
Translator Mícheál Ó hAodha has done world literature a service. Why has it taken so long? As far back as 1940, a writer in The Bell commented: “If the book is not translated the loss will be that of the rest of the world.” This is 2020. Why did we have to wait so long? There was a belief that if notable works of Irish were translated into English, no one would bother to read the original Irish. This farcical doctrine is still being propagated as an excuse not to fund translations into English of notable Irish-language works of literature. Cultural and literary bodies in Ireland must finally take a serious look at this perverse protectionism. As Ó hAodha himself says in his Translator’s Note:
It is a truism to say that literary translation helps us to engage with the world and to shape our understanding of it in new and essential ways. It is a truism that bears repetition nonetheless. And nowhere is translation more essential than in the case of a postcolonial country on the outermost margins of Europe such as Ireland, a relatively young nation historically speaking and one where two different languages and cultures have co-existed for centuries but where for a complexity of reasons – economic, historical and cultural – the Anglophone world long ago assumed dominance.
Mac Grianna’s escape from a lodging house without paying the ten pounds owed is a well-told, picaresque adventure. Then he sets himself up as Eli Ben Alim, a fortune teller – because no one would believe that a Mac Grianna could have occult powers – and advertises his services as an Arab prophet who has read the fortunes of the good and the great, Mahatma Gandhi among them!
We find tragi-comic sketches here of Dublin characters, the religious and political atmosphere of the time, everything from Communism and the IRA to the Salvation Army, grinding poverty and the author’s own state of mind. He seems to have been the type of character who might embark on foolhardy or pointless expeditions at the drop of a hat, in the hope of finding something – anything – better than the conditions of the hour.
Like all of the finest Irish women and men I’ve known, he was suspicious of the system, his heart answering not to it but to the open sea and the sky. Writing in An Phoblacht, a Republican publication, he gave out stink about An Gúm, stating that he was fearful of leaving his hat behind him in the office lest he would be forced to fill in several application forms to ensure its return: a separate file on the matter would have to be opened, perhaps even a separate department, An Roinn Um Seanhataí (Department of Old Hats).
Mac Grianna had quirks and faults galore. He could be scornful of learners of Irish who spoke the language, he said, as if their mouths were full of brúitín – mashed potatoes!
This Road of Mine is a rollicking read from start to finish and the translator has served the author well – though I’m unhappy with a few phrases such as ‘blow your mind’ and ‘on a high’ which are completely out of register, unless Mac Grianna had time-travelled forward to the hippy Sixties. (Nothing would surprise me).
Half way through this book, almost, and a cheque arrives from An Gúm. Great. He can go to Algiers! Why Algiers? No idea. Who does he hope to meet there, Eli Ben Alim? Then he decides on London instead, see some Turner paintings while he’s at it. He feels hemmed in there and opts for Wales. In Cardiff he steeps himself in Garveyism, a precursor of the Black Power Movement. As they say, you couldn’t make it up. And there we’ll leave him. I’m not going to spoil the rest of this quixotic road-trip. It awaits you.
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