Remembering Language: Bilingualism, Hiberno-English, And the Gaeltacht Peasant Memoir (Critical Essay) - Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies

Title: Remembering Language: Bilingualism, Hiberno-English, And the Gaeltacht Peasant Memoir (Critical Essay)

Author: Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies

Date: 2009-03-22

Remembering Language: Bilingualism, Hiberno-English, And the Gaeltacht Peasant Memoir (Critical Essay) - Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies

The figure of the Irish peasant is seen as a central image of Irish identity in the writing of authors such as William Carleton, Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a clear attempt to dignify the role of peasant characters through portrayals that diverged from the stereotypical 'Stage Irishman', which had been used since the sixteenth century, especially in drama, by English and Irish writers alike. (1) However, although authors like Synge no doubt drew their inspiration from their own experience of the rural Ireland they had observed, (2) the insider's view, as this essay will show, was rather different: contrasting with the romantic idealizations of the Gaeltacht seen from the outside, were the hardship of (e)migration, the extreme conditions caused by poor soil, exploitation, and the inevitable distress of those who were intimidated by English, a language to which in some cases they did not fully relate. This essay examines the work of three peasant writers from Gaeltacht areas in Donegal and discusses how they create a memoir of rural life in what was very much a bilingual county at the turn of the twentieth century. The three authors that will be dealt with here, Micheal MacGabhan (1865-1948), Patrick MacGill (1891-1963), and Seamus O Grianna (1889-1969), were all born in different Irish-speaking areas of Donegal at a crucial period from the point of view of language change in Ireland. Their narratives have much in common from a thematic viewpoint. They belong to what can be considered a genre in itself, 'the Gaeltacht peasant memoir', in which life in the rural communities of the west of Ireland is described in a rich, colloquial, autobiographical style. The 'Gaeltacht Peasant Memoir' became one of the dominant genres in Irish literature largely due to the influence of the Gaelic League. (3) As A.J. Hughes states, 'the earliest example of note was that of Co. Cork priest, novelist and language activist Father Peadar O Laoghaire (1832-1920) who produced his autobiography Mo Sgeal (sic) Fein in 1915'. (4) Later came Allagar na hInse (translated as Island Cross-Talk), Tomas O Criomhthainn's diary of the years 1919 to 1923, which was first published in 1928, An tOilednach (1929), translated as The Islandman; Fiche Bliain ag Fas (1933), translated into English the same year as Twenty Years A-Growing, and Peig (1936). (5) In Donegal, the tradition of the autobiographical novel was followed by Mici Mac Gabhan, Seosamh and Seamus O Grianna in the Irish language, and Patrick MacGill and Paddy the Cope Gallagher in English. However, unlike the autobiographies from the Blasket Islands, which, as James E. Doan points out, 'became charter documents for the new Irish Free State', (6) the Donegal corpus has received much less attention from critics and historians, despite the fact that they also give voice to the experience of the Gaeltacht peasant, providing an insight into the fundamental shift that was taking place with the onset of a new century and the changing linguistic landscape. This is not to say that such works have been wholly ignored. In an article published in 1996, Joe Mulholland (7) draws attention to the importance of these authors, and Bernard Aspinwall (8) highlights the social realism contained in these autobiographical novels. However, the role played by their depiction of language usage and the clash of the Irish and the English languages has remained largely overlooked, despite the fact that they are, as this essay argues, central elements in the narratives of these authors. Rotha Mor an tSaoil (by MacGabhan), and Nuair a Bhi me Og (by O Grianna), which were first published in 1959 and 1942 respectively, were both originally written in Irish, whereas MacGill's novels, Children of the Dead End (1914) and its sequel, The Rat Pit (1915), were written in English. Apart from their autobiographical style, these accounts