“What is important is to continue believing in the Irish language as a vibrant creative power while it continues to be marginalised in the process of cultural McDonaldisation.” — poet Michael Davitt

Michael Davitt, born in Cork on this day, didn’t grow up speaking Irish at home. He learned it at school. Munster Irish! His academic background in the Irish language gave him a different perspective than a person who grew up bilingual from the beginning, hearing Irish spoken in the home, etc. Irish was a language to be learned and conquered, which he did.

Davitt (who sadly passed away far too young in 2005) was an Irish language poet. Unless you speak the language, you must content yourself with reading his work in translation. Luckily, some great contemporary Irish poets have done wonderful translations of his stuff (Paul Muldoon – my post about him here, Mícheál Ó hAirtnéide – my post about him here, and others), but Davitt’s work is meant to be read in the Irish. Something is always lost in translation.

To him, Irish was not a purely rural language. This set him apart from many others, who connected the Irish language with a pre-Industrial-Revolution society, untouched, rural, and pure. He used the Irish language for contemporary and urban subjects. He started writing and publishing poetry in the 70s, when a lot of Irish language poets started cropping up – a way to reclaim their history in a time of strife. The Irish language had been stomped out long ago, and these poets took it off the shelf. Michael Davitt was against “cultural McDonaldisation”, yet he also disagreed with the thought that the Irish language should be isolated, or even COULD isolate those who spoke it. It was not a “dead” language to him, not at all. Davitt was loose with his Irish, he did things with it other more traditional writers wouldn’t, he treated it like a living language, as opposed to an artifact in a museum.

Davitt founded a magazine – Innti – dedicated to Irish language poets (including Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, whom I saw read once at the The Ireland House in New York City: an unforgettable night). and was also a television producer and director at RTÉ. A vibrant man and also a huge intellect, he died suddenly and unexpectedly. His work comes out with translations attached on facing pages, but all you need to do is scan what it looks like in Irish and you can see how beautiful it is. He was a master. Those who thought of the Irish language as limited, isolated, or backwards-looking – about mud and potatoes and the Aran Islands or what have you, were surprised at how vital it became, through poets like Davitt.

I’ll post his poem Ciorrú Bóthair (Shortening the Road). First in Irish, then with the translation by Irish author Philip Casey below it. One of the tensions in his work was dealing with modern subjects in the Irish language, which had rarely been done before. Here, you can see him address some of that tension directly. Also, he incorporates English words in his Irish – which gives the humorous (if you’re Irish, anyway) impression that ENGLISH is the foreign tongue here, the tongue that “doesn’t fit”, the language that “sounds weird”. A subversion there. Of course I can’t read it, but I do get excited, though, when I recognize words. As my sister Jean said as we drove around the outskirts of Áth Cliath (ie: Dublin), reading the dual-language street signs as we whizzed by them, “Well as long as we’re headed an lár …” (“city center”, “downtown”). She said it so casually, so over it. We still laugh about that. Yes, Jean, we are headed an lár.

Ciorrú Bóthair

Dúirt sé liom gur dhuine é
A bhí ag plé le diantalmhaíocht,
A d’oibrigh riamh faoin spéir;
Bhí an chuma sin ar an stróinséir
Ó dhubh a iongan is ó bholadh an fhéir ghearrtha
Ar a Bhéarla deisceartach.

Cith eile flichshneachta;
Ansin do las an ghrian
An bóthar romhainn trí an Uarán Mór
Soir go Béal Átha na Sluaighe
Is bhí an carr ina tigín gloine
Ar tinneall lena scéalta garraíodóireachta.

Bhí roinnt leathanta caite aige
La gaolta taobh thiar den Spidéal:
‘Tá Gaelige agat, mar sin?’
‘Níl ná Gaeilge acg Gaolainn…’
Múscraíoch siúrálta, mheasas; ach níorbh ea,
‘Corcaíoch ó lár Chorcaí amach.’

Ghin san splanc; phléase comhrá Gaeilge
Gur chíoramar dúchas
Is tabhairt suas a chéile,
Is a Ghia nach cúng í Éire
Go raibh na bóithríní céanna canúna
Curtha dínn araon:

Coláiste Samhraidh i mBéal Átha an Ghaorthaigh,
Graiméar na mBráithre Críostaí,
Tithe tábhairne Chorca Dhuibhne,
Is an caolú, ansin, an géilleadh,
Toradh cúig nó sé de bhlianta
I gcathair Bhaile Átha Cliath.

‘Caithfidh gur breá an jab sa tsamhradh é?’
‘Sea mhuis ach b’fhearr liom féin an tEarrach,
Tráth fáis, tá misniú ann,
Agus tá míorúiltí datha sa bhFómhar
A choimeádfadh duine ón ól…’
D’éalaigh an splanc as a ghlór.

Ach bhí an ghráin aige ar an Nollaig,
Mar a bhí ag gach deoraí singil
Trí bliana is dhá scór ag déanamh
A bhuilín i bparthas cleasach an tí óil.
‘A bhfuil de thithe gloine á ndúnadh síos…
Táim bliain go leith díomhaoin …’

Níor chodail sé néal le seachtain,
Bhí sruthán truaillithe ag caismirneach
Trína cheann, ba dhóbair dó bá.
Bhí air teitheadh arís ón bpéin
Is filleadh ar Chamden Town,
Bhí pub beag ag baintreach uaigneach ann.

Thai Sionainn soir trí scrabhanna
Faoi áirsí na gcrann méarach,
Dár gcaidreamh comhchuimhní
Dhein faoistin alcólaigh:
Mise im choinfeasóir drogallach
Faoi gheasa na gcuimleoirí.

Stopas ag droichead Shráid Bhagóid.
Dúirt sé gur thugas uchtach dó,
Go lorgódh sé jab i dtuaisceart an chontae,
Go mba bhreá leis a bheith
Chomh socair liom féin,
Go bhfeicfeadh sé arís mé, le cúnamh Dé.

Ar imeacht uaim sa cheobhrán dó
Taibhríodh dom athchaidreamh leis an stróinséir
Ar imeall mórbhealaigh san imigéin:
Ach go mba mise fear na hordóige
Is go mb’eisean an coinfeasóir –
É chomh socair liom féin,
Chomh socair liom féin.

Shortening the Road

He told me he had spent
His life in horticulture,
Had always worked in the open air;
That was clear about the stranger
From his black nails and the smell of cut grass
Off his southern English.

Another sleet-shower;
Then the sun lit up
The road before us through Oranmore
East to Ballinasloe
And the car was a glasshouse
Warming to his gardening lore.

He had been spending a few days
With relatives west of Spiddal:
‘You have Irish then, I suppose?’
‘Not Irish, but Munster Irish … !’
A Muskerry man definitely, I thought; but no:
‘A Corkman out of the heart of Cork.’

That lit a spark, exploding into Irish
And we combed through our backgrounds
And upbringings,
And God it’s a small world
That we both could have travelled
The same backroads of dialect:

A Summer College in Ballingeary,
The Christian Brothers’ Grammar,
The pubs of the Dingle Peninsula,
Then the compromise and watering down
Of five or six years
In the city of Dublin.

‘It must be a great job in the summertime?’
‘Yes indeed, but I prefer the Spring,
A time of growth, it’s reassuring,
And there are miracles of colour in Autumn
That would keep a man off the booze …’
The spark had left his voice.

But he hated Christmas,
As would any single exile
Reaching forty-three
Loafing in the deluded paradise of the pub.
‘They’re closing the glasshouses down …
I’m a year and a half on the dole … ‘

He hadn’t slept for a week,
A polluted stream was meandering
Through his brain, he had nearly drowned,
He was running from the pain again
Going back to Camden Town
Where a lonely widow had a small pub of her own.

East across the Shannon through squally showers
Under the arches of fingery trees,
What had become an exchange of memories
Had become an alcoholic’s confession:
I the reluctant confessor
Under the spell of the windscreen wipers.

I stopped at Baggot Street bridge.
He said I’d given him hope,
That he would look for a job
In the north of the county,
That he’d love to be as steady as me,
That he’d see me again, please God, someday.

As he walked away into the fog
I imagined meeting the stranger again
On the verge of a foreign motorway
But I was the hitch-hiker
And he the confessor –
As steady as me,
As steady as me.

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