Noel Monahan – Writing in Irish

Noel Monahan - Writing in Irish - Live Encounters Magazine  June 2014

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Writing in Irish by Noel Monahan, Celebrated Irish Poet.

The history of the Irish language has been preoccupied with its decline for centuries. The Anglicization of Ireland was a political matter in the past, a policy of plantation where by land was taken from the Irish speaking natives and given over to the English speaking planters. The Penal Laws of the 18th. century targeted the Irish language and Irish culture in general. The Great Famine of 19th. century severely challenged the Irish language. During the famine, death and emigration hit hardest in the Gaeltacht areas, the Irish speaking areas of the West, South and North of Ireland. In short, history has been unkind to the survival of the Irish language. That is as minimalist a history of the Irish language as is necessary here.

I am a bilingual poet writing in English and Irish and living in Cavan, Ireland. I was not born into an Irish speaking family and the Irish I have is: School Irish. I only started to write in Irish in the last ten years when other Gaelic writers encouraged me to do so. Some of the subject matter of my poetry deals with the Irish language. This poem entitled: Boochalawn Buí, a Hiberno-English name for the plant ragworth. I see the Boochalawn Buí as a living metaphor for the Irish language. Despite all official efforts to eradicate the plant, it continues to flower in remote places.


The wild bee tosses my yellow hair where
I reside along a closed railway line
Since government surveys mapped my decline,
From that day forward pain was always near
Living as I do in mist, fog and fear
Staggerweed, stammerwort, names from outside
With their intended power to deride
Can’t rob me of pollen and nectar here.
I love the risk, pleasure of the abyss
I am the shomeer come out of darkness,
Forsaken, I close my daisy yellow eye
On the grey incontinent Irish sky,
Whisper my name whenever you need me
Boochalawn, Boochalawn, Boochalawn Buí.


What I love most about writing poetry in Irish is the fact that the Irish language is much more musical than English. The Irish language is an inflected language and you decline the nouns and you have varying sounds to express the relations of case, number, gender in Irish. It is similar to Latin in that respect. Take for example the simple poem of mine :Bealtine / Spring:


Is leanbh í an aimsir
Ag súgradh liom faoin spéir,
Cam an ime, solas gréine
An ghaoth ag séideadh
Gúna buí an aitinn,
Is caisear bhán mar gealach ar strae
Is rún na gcloch sa chré.


The month of May is the child in me
Playing outside.
Buttercups are full of the sun
The wind lifts the yellow dress
Of a whin bush for fun
And the dandelion is like
A moon that lost her way
And the stones have secrets
Buried in clay.


A journey across the Irish landscape takes us to Irish place-names and the language itself.  The whole area of Dinnseanchas ( the knowledge about and meaning of place-names ) is a study in itself. In the poem Drumlins I deal with the celebration of place-names and how rooted they are in Celtic culture and the Irish language. Cavan, where I live, is punctuated with Drumlins. The word Drumlin means a little ridge in Irish.


When ice moved on at the end of an age,
Piles of stones stood naked, longing for grass.
The hills hand down root words, the people say.
Song of utterance, underworld of names:
Drumalee, Drumkerry, Drumamuck, Drumbo.
Ghostly ridges of calves, sheep, pigs and cows,
Story-book of hills, fields of fairy-tales
Cling like a last good-bye.
I watch them sleep
Below woollen  clouds, rivers flow, lakes rest.
A beauty all to themselves, no fine curves,
No straight lines, oblique packages of earth,
Dropped, abandoned to an outspoken wind.
Hills too old for our clocks, they stand like
Unsent parcels waiting for the ice to return.


I am more optimistic about the survival of the Irish language these days. We have had increased demand for Gaelscoils (schools teaching through the medium of the Irish language) Our television channel TG4 is very popular and has excellent programmes in the Irish language. To conclude I see the Irish language with survival instincts as strong as those   of a Ciaróg Dhubh/ A Cockroach; and capable of surviving nuclear radiation.


Bhí na ballaí ag éisteach linn
Oíche amháin a chasadh orm é,
Blaincéad dhubh ar a dhroim
Ag taisteal faoi scáth na hoíche
San dorchadas chiúin.
Duine den teaglach
A théann I bhfad siar.

Dia duit, A Chiaróg
Bhí tú ann romhainn
Gan bheith ró chraiceáilte
Cé go n-itheann tú gach ní,
Taos fiacla,  gliú, bun toitíní …
Is tá sé ráite go maireann tú
Gan do cheann ar feadh seachtaine
‘S is féidir leat tú féin a choscaint
Ó radaíocht núicléach.

In dúirt an chiaróg liom:
Bí ciúin,
Mairim san spás idir na bhfocal.



The walls were listening to us
One night I bumped into him
A black blanked over his shoulders
Travelling in the black silence
Of disguise by night
One of the household
That goes a long way back.

Hello, Cockroach
You were here before us
Although you weren’t much crack,
Eating all around you,
Toothpaste, glue, cigarette butts,
And it’s said that you can survive
Without your head for a week
And that you can protect yourself
Against nuclear radiation.

And the cockroach said to me:
Be quiet,
I live in the space between words. 

Noel Monahan has published extensively and his work has been translated into: French, Italian, Romanian and Russian. A selection of his poems, translated by Emmanuel Malherbet, “Celui Qui Porte Un Veau&AutresPoemes” will be published in France by Alidades later this year. Noel is part of a team of translators of the Irish poet: Seán Ó Ríordáin. The book, Selected Poems by Seán Ó Ríordáin, was published by Yale University and Cló Iar-Chonnacht in 2014. Noel’s sixth collection: “Where The Wind Sleeps, New & Selected Poems” was published by Salmon Poetry in May. Noel Monahan will read from his sixth collection in the Irish Embassy in Rome in June 2014 and in autumn he will read in a number of universities in the USA.

Check out Noel Monahan’s interview on a United Ireland in Live Encounters Magazine Volume One December 2013 

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