by BERNARD O’DONOGHUE
1986 was a dramatic year in the history of anthologies of Irish poetry in English. There were several well-regarded anthologies already, by Donagh MacDonagh and Lennox Robinson (Oxford), by Derek Mahon and Peter Fallon (Pan), by John Montague (Faber) and Brendan Kennelly (Penguin). But two of these four publishers produced new anthologies in 1986, each of them controversial in different ways. Paul Muldoon edited the Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, and Thomas Kinsella edited the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse. Muldoon’s book was controversial because it contained only twelve poets, the majority of them from Northern Ireland (Kinsella was included in the small Southern representation), and because it contained only one woman (Medbh McGuckian: a striking absentee was Eavan Boland). It also had a curious prologue by way of some degree of explanation: a short extract from a 1939 BBC conversation between F.R.Higgins (South) and Louis MacNeice (North) discussing modern poetry (written in English since 1918, and the place of Irish poets within it.
Kinsella’s book was entirely different, both from Muldoon’s and from anything else. Its coverage extended from the sixth century to writers born in the middle of the twentieth century (including himself; Muldoon had decorously left himself out of his twelve). But what was most remarkable, and contentious, about Kinsella’s anthology was that all the extracts from the Irish Language were translated by Kinsella himself, even when there were celebrated existing translations – for example by Frank O’Connor. As a translator himself, Kinsella had major form: his revered translation of the great medieval Irish epic, Táin Bó Cuailnge as The Tain in 1972, and his translations of the Irish poems in the parallel-text An Duanaire in 1982, An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed, edited by Seán Ó Tuama and Kinsella himself which was a major moment in the editing of Irish language poetry of the post-Bardic period. Kinsella’s translations, which some commentators praised as ‘plainstyle’ were universally admired, though once again the absence of some classic translations was regretted (O’Connor’s Aogán Ó Rathaille, or Thomas MacDonagh’s ‘Bonnán Buí’, ‘The Yellow Bittern’ for example).
Nevertheless, Kinsella had every justification for giving prominence to his translations in the New Oxford Book. It was rationalised partly as providing a level pitch for poets and poetry of all periods, by representing them all in the same style and voice, and there was some justice in that claim. More importantly, in his introduction to the New Oxford Book, Kinsella quotes Osborn Bergin’s claim that ‘Practically all Bardic poetry is written in one standard literary dialect, which remained almost unchanged for five hundred years.’ And there was an even more important consideration which Kinsella developed in his short book The Dual Tradition. An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland (Carcanet 1995). This was the development of a famous argument voiced in Kinsella’s introduction to the New Oxford Book:
The Irish tradition is a matter of two linguistic entities in dynamic interaction, of two major bodies of poetry asking to be understood together as functions of a shared and painful history. To limit a response to one aspect only, as is often done – to the literature in Irish, through specialised academic concerns or out of nationalist emotion, or to the literature in English as an annexe to British literature, an ‘aspect of the Anglo-Saxon experience’ (as I have heard it put), or out of mere convenience – is to miss a rare opportunity: that of responding to a notable and venerable literary tradition, the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe, as it survives a change of vernacular.
It is a very grand claim, and it attracted some vigorous opposition. Conor Cruise O’Brien particularly declared that the closing idea makes no sense: a single literature as a whole can only be in one vernacular. A change in the language means a change in the literature written in that language. Of course some of its writers (like Samuel Beckett) can write in more than one language; but can a vernacular itself change? Kinsella’s anthology ends with an extract from Michael Hartnett’s ‘A Farewell to English’ which does present itself as a determination to write poetry in Irish only from now on. But he is not changing his vernacular when he makes a promise to ‘Dinny Halpin’ at ‘Doody’s Cross’ that he will write only in Irish.
Kinsella’s dual tradition is a sophisticated notion; the ‘rare opportunity’ the change of vernacular offers is not an unqualified benefit. He also says:
To write in Irish instead of English would mean the loss of contact with my own – present – abandonment of the language I was bred in for one I believe to be dying. It would also mean forfeiting a certain possible scope of language; for English has a greater scope than an Irish which is not able to handle all the affairs of my life.
Declan Kiberd ends his Idir Dhá Cultúr (‘Between Two Cultures’, 1993) by quoting this concession. It feeds back into a major debate from the time of the Young Irelanders in the 1840s. The very terms of Kinsella’s concession – ‘abandonment of the language I was bred in’ – recall a much-quoted declaration of an ambition expressed by Denis Florence McCarthy in his introduction to The Book of Irish Ballads in 1846:
That we can be thoroughly Irish in our writings without ceasing to be English; that we can be faithful to the land of our birth without being unfaithful to that literature which has been ‘the nursing mother of our minds’.
Similarly, Yeats in his ringing ‘General Introduction for my Work’ even more famously said ‘Gaelic is my national language, but it is not my mother tongue’.
Putting all this evidence together – the Young Irelanders, Yeats, Michael Hartnett – it seems perfectly appropriate to speak of a dual tradition in various ways. There is a tradition that embraces both Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire and the various translations of it in whole or part by many modern poets in English – Muldoon’s ‘Elegy’ and so on. Even more definitely, the poems in Irish by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and the translations of them by multiple writers – some of whom, such as Derek Mahon, like Yeats did not know Irish – are surely part of a single ‘literature’ in some sense. A striking recognition of this was Niall MacMonagle’s including in his anthology Windharp Ní Dhomhnaill’s ‘Ceist na Teangan’ next to Muldoon’s translation of it ‘The Language Issue’, and Breandán Ó Beacháin’s ‘Jackeen ag Caoineadh na mBlascaod’ before Seán Hewitt’s translation ‘A Jackeen Keens for the Blasket’. Also in that anthology is Muldoon’s haunting ‘Anseo’, the meaning of whose Irish title is essential to the understanding of the poem. On a far larger scale of course, the Field Day Anthology in 1991 had a quite substantial (if insufficient, according to some commentators) representation of writing in Irish.
Kinsella’s dual tradition is an attempt to bring coherence to this complex and multi-stranded situation. It is describing a cultural reality, not proposing an eccentric chimera. And there is a strong case for having a whole anthology in English, the language he was ‘bred’ in, representing in the same mode (if that is a word that might apply to Kinsella’s own translating voice) the various elements that joined the components of the tradition together. But that is a secondary point: the main point is to recognize the coherence of the enterprise as an attempt to account for a complicated cultural situation over a millennium of history.
This text was first read by the author at the Irish Literary Society’s Kinsella night 28 February 2022.
Bernard O’Donoghue is a Professor and Emeritus Fellow in English at Wadham College, Oxford. He is a poet and literary critic, and author of Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (1995) – he succeeded Heaney as President of the ILS. His most recent poetry collection is The Seasons of Cullen Church (2016). Previous volumes include Farmer’s Cross (2011), Gunpowder (1995), Here Nor There (1999); Outliving (2003), Selected Poems in 2008. O’Donoghue was winner of the 1995 Whitbread Poetry Award and Cholmondeley Award in 2009.