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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing September 2023
Between Worlds: Bilingualism, Poetry, and Exile – Guest editorial by Colette Nic Aodha.
However central our practice to our existence as poets and artists, we occupy a liminal space in society. Throughout my time as a student, teacher, lecturer, and facilitator, inspired by poets from both the Gaelic and English traditions, I was never far away from penning the next line or verse. Consequently, teaching (or facilitating) and composition were simultaneous events in a way that would not have been possible had I a career in Engineering, Medicine, or Science. Being a writer is to immerse yourself in lifelong learning as there are always new books to read and write, with no actual clocking off time (not even on your birthday if you believe Stephen King).
Words are our material, words in translation, syntax, grammar, editing, and rereading while revising, or rereading to revise, checking dictionary, thesaurus or grammar book, running spellcheck, the list goes on. But there is magic in words, in a turn of phrase or new use for an adjective, even in the banality of lists. Rarely a poem works ‘clean off the spoon’ and its magic depends on a myriad of mechanical activities, its success or failure on attention to the last comma.
If I were to trace my lifeline as a poet growing up in post-colonial Ireland, in my immature phase I read and reread school or college anthologies, scribbling on their margins. I was impressed by The World Split Open; an anthology of Women Poets, a gift from my sister who worked in a London bookshop-café-gallery, long since closed. I loved learning Old Irish and mimicked its ancient script in my recalling of nine-century lyrics that I regurgitated over and over while working as a shop assistant in a lonely New Jersey Mall while on a student working holiday visa in 1984. I found ‘working holiday’ to be oxymoronic while a working-drinking visa would have been more appropriate.
There is something about exile that beckons the muse, so when in London in the late eighties as an economic refugee, I nostalgically revisited national poetry heroes and turn of the twentieth-century bards writing on thorny political questions of rebellion and justice, often in two languages, Gaelic and English.
It was being wrenched (for an unspecified time) from the motherland that spurred my first foray into writing rather than reading poetry. I travelled London subways on Sunday afternoons to procure out-of-date Gaelic weekly newspapers from a shop in Archway. Working as an assistant in WH Smith’s Bookshop and Newsagent in September 1988, I dallied over the Irish poets Heaney, Durkin, and Muldoon, while witnessing the sales and rage that went hand in hand with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and noted the courage it takes to be a poet, to shape and to speak out.
My next position of employment as a civil servant working in the local Job Centre involved more time spent looking out windows and hatches, and there ensued macaronic longings peppering the pages of work notebooks. These were thinly disguised attempts to reconnect with my mother tongue as I felt the withering of minority languages and cultures at the heart of the Empire. All of us emigrants harboured dreams of returning to our native shore. Less than a year later, my eldest son was born and I was repatriated to southeast Ireland where I wrote poems in the Irish language, attended a monthly poetry workshop, and shortly thereafter, read my work publicly for the first time.
A well-established Irish language poet who was a member of our workshop asked me to perform my work at her book launch, and after much practicing in front of a captive audience of one, my life as an Irish language poet began. Linguistic and nostalgic associations are rooted in geography and our sense of place and although my first publications were in the Irish language, I also wrote English poetry and rarely translated from one language to the other. My adult life and aspirations were represented in Gaelic verse whereas nostalgic memories from my country childhood were represented in English lyrics.
Our most indelible memories are from our childhood, I hail from the West of Ireland in what is officially described as a Breac-Ghaeltacht: a compound consisting of Gaeltacht, the Irish term for a region populated by people for whom their first language is Gaelic or Irish, and breac, the Irish Irish term for speckled and, therefore, Breac-Ghaeltacht describes a region that is partly Irish speaking. The history of the word speckled is a favourite of mine, that is my own personalized history of the word which stems back to my fifth year in secondary school when we read the Irish language biography, Peig. It was incomprehensible to me why my classmates complained about the old woman of Dingle. I liked Peig, she was grey-haired, wore a black shawl, and reminded me of both of my Nanny and of a particularly kind teacher who introduced me to wider reading.
Peig, on her first day at school, had a reader; on one side of the page was ‘bo breac’ and on the other ‘a speckled calf.’ I couldn’t make up my sixteen-year-old mind which I preferred; speckled or breac. Both, equally, I think. Peig’s story reminded me of happy schooldays, and my love of language, especially the Irish language which Peig spoke. Although Peig was fluent in our native tongue and spoke it every day, at the turn of the twentieth century, Gaelic was forbidden in school, and punishment was meted out to those heard speaking it, which seemed unjust.
However, even at the age of sixteen, I understood societal differences before and after political independence from the United Kingdom. Breac or speckled are words I can associate with happy times. My mother made Halloween ‘brack’ which was a type of currant bread whose title was a borrowing from the Irish. In this ‘brack’ were hidden objects; if you found a holy medal in your slice you would have a vocation to be a nun or a priest, if you found a rag you were going to be poor but if you were lucky enough to get the golden ring you would be married. For some reason, everyone wanted the ring. More recently, an eminent Irish bilingual novelist, Hugo Hamilton, penned his memoir, with a title that resonated, The Speckled People.
Reading was inexpensive escapism for my generation growing up in the seventies and early eighties in rural Ireland with easy access to books and libraries. I whiled away many an afternoon in the second-hand bookshops of our local town and developed a love of a range of curiosities. However, it was in exile, physically and culturally, having to move to London in my early twenties to find employment, that forced me over the Rubicon from reader to writer, bringing with it the scrutiny, criticism, and judgment that becomes part of life as a writer.
My love of the Irish language (Gaelic) is closely matched by my love of English, I initially graduated with a Gaelic and History degree, and a Masters in Gaelic, returning to complete an English degree, Masters, and Ph.D. Being a bilingual writer brings with it a richer heritage and source material of an inbetween world of language, speaking and writing a minority language makes me familiar with liminal spaces and margins from a space that was on the peripheries of the British Empire, until 1922.
© Colette Nic Aodha
Dr. Colette Nic Aodha is Comhalta Teagasc / Teaching Fellow, School of Irish, Celtic Studies, and Folklore, at University College, Dublin. Colette Nic Aodha is an award-winning poet and a visual artist who resides in Galway in the West of Ireland and has just completed a Ph.D., with the University of Galway, Discipline of English. Colette had her first solo exhibition, Imbolc, at Galway City Library, February 2023. She has exhibited her work with Quest, Artspace, UachtarArts, and Arts & Disability Ireland.
She writes in both Irish and English, has fifteen volumes published which are mainly poetry collections but also include a volume of short stories, Ádh Mór, as well as an academic study of the blind poet Anthony Raftery, an 18th century bard whose songs and poems are still recited and sung today. She has one volume of English poetry, Sundial, which was published by Arlen House Press, She also has two dual language collections of poetry by the same publisher; Between Curses: Bainne Géar, and In Castlewood: An Ghaoth Aduaidh. Her work is on the syllabus in Primary, Secondary and Third Level colleges. Colette’s collected works (bilingual) entitled Bainne Géár: Sour Milk, is available in hardback and softback, published by Arlen House, 2016. Her most recent published collection of Irish language poetry and visual art, Réabhlóideach is published by Coiscéim, Dublin, 2020.