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On a Turning Wing: Interview with Paddy Bushe

Paddy Bushe

Paddy Bushe in email conversation with Pat Boran about his latest collection of poems, On a Turning Wing, winner of the 2017  Irish Times Poetry Now Award

How important is place to your writing life, both in terms of subject matter and your actual modus operandi, the locations where poems come to you and/or get written down?

Place is of primary significance in my poems, probably the element which is most essential to them. I think this may be because I grew up in a Dublin suburb to which I felt no familial or imaginative ties, and that I have a consequent yearning to  be integrated into place, to be a part of place.  Of course the result is a willed, creative process rather than an organic, natural one, and this feeds into my poetry.  I can place the genesis of most of my poems, a genesis or place that may disappear in the poem itself, but which is very much part of how it develops and survives – if it does. Love poems, political poems, poems about the nature of art – all of these can begin as a kind of invocation of place. For many years most of my work was ‘placed’ in Iveragh in South Kerry, my adoptive home. In more recent times my focus has widened, but usually with Iveragh not too far in the back of my mind.

Your poems are often ‘set’ far from home, reflecting your interest in travel and, in particular, hill-climbing and mountain-trekking. Are you actively writing, note-taking for instance, when you’re on the move? Can you make final versions in situations like that, or is it a case of poetry being something ‘recollected in tranquillity’, as Wordsworth had it?

I’m always full of good intentions about using notebooks, voice recorders, cameras and so forth. But I’m afraid I’m highly disorganised and unsystematic. Notebooks tend to be lost or neglected fairly quickly, and voice recorders gloriously blank when I return. I do find a camera useful as an aide-memoire, and even a stimulus for some new insight after a trip. Sometimes I get a reasonably complete draft of a poem. But my poems usually “stew” for quite a while after the spark first comes, generally in the form of a line or three which move around in my mind for weeks on end. So yes, I’m actively writing, but perhaps in a way that others wouldn’t notice. That’s my usual method – if that’s not too much of an overstatement – whether my work is placed at home or away.

Of course it’s not just in seemingly adventurous things activities like trekking or visiting formerly remote places (is anywhere really remote today?) that inspiration is to be found – galleries in Madrid or Paris, or conversations with musicians and poets in the extraordinary landscape of An tEilean Sgitheanach (The Isle of Skye) can stimulate poems. The genesis and working-out of most poems is humdrum enough, as it is, I imagine, for most poems by most poets. All of which is really to partially concur with Wordsworth’s ‘recollected in tranquillity’ formulation.

It’s the business of the poet, I think, to create rather than recreate. It’s what’s on the page that’s important, not the stimulus that gave rise to it.

Can you talk a bit about being a poet in two languages, Irish and English? Translation aside, how closely related is your poetry in the two languages? Are their subjects that seem more at home or more suited to one or other language?

I suppose the first thing to say is that English was and remains my first language. That’s a matter of fact, not necessarily a matter of choice. I speak, read and write more instinctively and more fluently in English than in Irish. When I began to write, in my late teens, I tended to write mainly in Irish, for ideological reasons. When I started to write again, in my thirties, aspects of that ideological commitment had faded, and I wrote solely in English. Both choices were limiting, and both exclusivist. I began to write again in Irish, especially when the “starter lines” I spoke about earlier suggested themselves in Irish, or in echoes of Irish. These echoes are especially strong where I live, which is residually a strong Gaeltacht area, and whose landscape, culture and history speak to me in Irish more than in English. So the subject and originating circumstances usually now determine the language in which I write, as well as any social or linguistic situation which may have given rise to the poem.

On a slightly different note, I find it puzzling, and indeed a matter of regret, that poets who are capable of writing in both languages so seldom do so. Of course I understand that poetry needs sources with cultural and linguistic depth that goes beyond competence, but I cannot help thinking that the choice is still often influenced – in both linguistic directions – by a hangover from the nationalistic and political takeover of the Gaelic Revival , which I believe has done great damage to the language. I greatly regret, for example, that Michael Hartnett bade A Farewell to English rather than simply making Irish welcome. Further back, I think it’s a great pity that Douglas Hyde – who opposed the nationalistic hijacking of Irish – did not write “The Necessity for Gaelicising Ireland” rather than “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”.

Let it be said, of course, that those who would dismiss our Gaelic inheritance, for either ideological or meretriciously pragmatic reasons, do no service to our cultural life. Irish life and Irish poetry should celebrate the possibility of being genuinely bilingual, and not decide to close one eye in order to favour the other.

Many Irish language poets (who speak fluent English) prefer to have others translate their work, perhaps as a way to keep the energy within the language. How do you approach that task with regard to your own poems, a number of which appear in your new book as they did in earlier volumes?

To be honest, translating myself was a matter of necessity as much as of choice – there was no queue of translators lining up to take on the work!  But really I approach the task as I do when I’m translating the poems of, say, Cathal Ó Searcaigh or Gabriel Rosenstock. That is to respect the work, to be as close as possible to the original in meaning, line structure, sound patterns and so forth, while at the same time producing a poem which works in its own right. Obviously, as far as rhyme or other sound patterns is concerned, this can mean finding equivalence rather than exact reflection. The same applies to idioms, metaphors and so on.  As a rule of thumb, if I feel I can’t do that, I try to avoid translating the poem.

Some years back you edited the anthology Voices at the World’s Edge, a volume of poetry and prose (with photographs) inspired by the visits under your guidance of a number of poets to Skellig Michael, a place that’s part of the physical and mental landscape you inhabit. If one could put aside the crassness of turning the Skelligs into a kind of monastic Disneyland, as some Government ministers seem determined to do, how would you describe their real value in contemporary Ireland? Do you think we’ve lost the ability to admire and cherish places we are unable to master?

The island isn’t actually visible from my house, as it lies just behind Bolus Head, the northern headland of the two which enclose Ballinskelligs Bay, or Bá na Scealg, on the edge of which I live. But I suppose you could say that for a long time I have had an imaginative line of sight to Skellig, and that it has been central to my imaginative and poetic world for most of my writing life.

The value of Skellig Michael, even in a country which is increasingly post-religious, is primarily spiritual. In other words, it provides an entrance into otherness, otherness of time and place, otherness which I have seen have a profound effect on believers and atheists alike.

And of course there is the extraordinary wildlife and physical beauty of the place, which are part of that spiritual dimension, along with its role in mythology, history, folklore and the various combinations of all three which animate our perceptions of it. The commoditisation xxx of this extraordinary and place is indeed crass. One of the most shameful things I have seen in respect to Sceilg Mhichíl is a tourism promotion film, for which Fáilte Ireland actually paid €25,000 to Disney Lucas, and in which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht spoke. Neither she nor anybody else in the film even mentioned that there was an intact Early Christian monastic site on the island. It’s only quality, the viewers are implicitly told, is how well it fits into the Star Wars narrative. It would be shocking were Donald Trump to say it. To have a government with this mentality – and this went to the highest level of government – is profoundly disturbing. Significantly J.J. Abrams expressed amazement in the film that he had been permitted to film on Skellig. He must have been amazed at the gombeen mentality that secretly gave him that permission.

Your new book takes its title from a line by Hopkins. And Hopkins is something of a guiding presence in a good deal of your writing. What is it you admire in him? Is his influence more marked in your English language writing?

I had always liked Hopkins, from schooldays on. I admire his open and absorbent sensibility, and I recognise, even though I no longer share, his fear-ridden and guilt-ridden Catholicism. He makes great poetry out of feelings and thoughts that I grew up with. I am also fascinated by his intelligence and craft. It seems to me that he combines the sensibility of a romantic poet with the intelligence and craft of a metaphysical poet. When I did an MA with the Open University after retiring from teaching in 1990, I wrote a dissertation on the influence of his feelings of exile and alienation on his Dublin poems. So I read his work fairly intensively at that time. And around the same time, on Skellig Michael, I looked into an abyss (I can be terrified of height) and Hopkins’s lines leaped into my mind:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

That led to my long sequence “Hopkins on Skellig Michael” where my obsession with Skellig coalesced with my enforced obsession with Hopkins. I should make it clear that Hopkins never went there, but I used an imaginary overnight retreat by Hopkins to explore Hopkins’s mind and work, while physically exploring the island.

As you say, Hopkins is an overt presence in this new collection, especially in “Of Paint and Clay and Words”, a line of which gives the collection its name. As regards his general influence on my writing, I’m sure there is, in both languages. But I think that’s for others to trace. It would feel presumptuous for me to do so.

The Scottish Gaelic poet Somhairle MacGill-Eain / Sorley Maclean has been another significant influence, and you walked in his footsteps, literally and metaphorically, when you translated his collected poems into Irish (Ó Choill go Barr Ghéarain, Coiscéim, 2013) a couple of years back. There’s great love of and understanding of place in his work, and great sadness at what is lost. Is it too much, do you think, to suggest that great poetry always walks a line between celebration and elegy?

Somhairle, whom I had the privilege of meeting a few times, is certainly an influence, in both languages. I think he was by far the greatest Gaelic poet, Irish or Scottish, of his era. That’s why I took the decision, against all good sense and reason, to translate his collected poems into Irish. I was very aware that the potential readership of poetry in a threatened minority language translated into a sister threatened minority language would be of interest to a minority of a minority of a minority. But I got enormous satisfaction from it, despite it being such challenging work over a period of three years.

I have also dedicated two poems to him, one in English and another in Irish. And, although the connections is disguised rather than overt, the poem ‘The Music Master and the Poet’ in my new collection is based on a story the poet and musicologist John Purser, who lives on Skye, told me about himself and Somhairle.

I also got great satisfaction out of working with my son, Éanna de Buis, on his film Ar Lorg Shomhairle: In Sorley’s Footsteps in which we traced Somhairle’s poetry in the landscape of Skye and Raasay which stimulated so much of his poetry, even though he rarely took landscape description as a subject for his poems. But he embodied love poems, political poems and historical poems in his landscape, in works of enormous power, beauty and above all, integrity.

I think there is a great deal of truth in what you say about elegy and celebration in great poetry. I’ll pass on whether or not it applies to all great poetry, but it certainly applies to many great works of art, be they literary, dramatic, musical, visual or whatever. And I would certainly think that all elegy necessarily implies celebration.

That sense of both celebration and elegy is certainly evident in the poem sequence here about Tech Amergin, the arts centre in which you and your wife Fíona were very much involved for many years. Arguments like this often, and rightly, take place in the public arena of a local newspaper. What are you hopes and intentions in giving it a new life in verse?

That sequence, which I found extraordinarily difficult to write, and still find difficult to read aloud, started out as an outburst of rage and of contempt for the bureaucracy which, in an act of corporate revenge and vindictiveness, got rid of the voluntary group which for a number of years, on a completely voluntary basis, had run a high-quality, wide-ranging arts programme at a tiny cost, and at no cost to the educational committee which held legal ownership of the centre, again entirely due to local voluntary effort. At the moment, four years later, there is a minimal programme which is a shadow of what there used to be.

The detail of that deliberate destruction of an arts programme is for another day. But as I was writing the poem, I realised that merely to vent my anger and contempt might give me temporary satisfaction, but would tell a very limited story. So I decided also to celebrate what there had been, and to try to show a little of how precious it had been in the community, and how the bureaucratic bullying which lay behind the destruction of that preciousness hurt the community which the bureaucracy nominally served. I hope the poem speaks for the belief that all communities are enriched by access to the arts, and becomes a plea for that access to be universal.


Link: On A Turning Wing by Paddy Bushe

Second Sight: Poems in Irish

second Sight by Paddy Bushe, Dedalus Press

Described by Bernard O’Donoghue as “the leading poet writing in both Irish and English”, Paddy Bushe is a committed, engaged and highly accomplished writer in Ireland’s two official languages. He is also a much admired translator from the Irish.

Double Vision is the umbrella title of two new books: .

Second Sight draws attention to his achievement in Irish, presenting in a dual-language format the poet’s own selection from three previous books, together with his own English language translations.

In Peripheral Vision, meanwhile, Bushe’s latest collection of poems in English, he explores the relationship between seeing and vision, between the often solitary pilgrimage of the artist and the collective journey of the arts in their many expressions and forms.

Together, these two books offer a comprehensive and timely overview of the work of one of the most significant of contemporary Irish poets.

The two books, Second Sight and Peripheral Vision, are available in paperback form while both together, in the single volume Double Vision, are available only in hardback.

Despite the tough tone of Bushe’s poetry, reflecting its material, there is an intelligent sensitivity always at work that does justice to the more tender of human experiences.
— The Irish Times

Peripheral Vision

Peripheral Vision by Paddy Bushe

Described by Bernard O’Donoghue as “the leading poet writing in both Irish and English”, Paddy Bushe is a committed, engaged and highly accomplished writer in Ireland’s two official languages. He is also a much admired translator from the Irish.

Double Vision is the umbrella title of two new books: In Peripheral Vision, Bushe’s latest collection of poems in English, he explores the relationship between seeing and vision, between the often solitary pilgrimage of the artist and the collective journey of the arts in their many expressions and forms.

Second Sight, meanwhile, draws attention to his achievement in Irish, presenting in a dual-language format the poet’s own selection from three previous books, together with his own English language translations.

Together, these two books offer a comprehensive and timely overview of the work of one of the most significant of contemporary Irish poets.

The two books, Second Sight and Peripheral Vision, are available in paperback form while both together, in the single volume Double Vision, are available only in hardback.

Despite the tough tone of Bushe’s poetry, reflecting its material, there is an intelligent sensitivity always at work that does justice to the more tender of human experiences.
— The Irish Times

On A Turning Wing

Paddy Bushe’s latest collection of poems opens with a stirring suite on music and art, seeing them not as rarefied experiences but as fundamental and nourishing encounters for both their makers and their audience. The distinction between here and elsewhere is blurred, and the playing of an Irish piper seems echoed by that of other musicians in far-flung parts where the poet’s enthusiasm for travel and hill-walking takes him.

The transition from such open, light-filled spaces to the more uncertain areas of Irish political life makes perfect sense in Bushe’s work, the poet’s freedom bringing with it a responsibility to engage. And Bushe’s defence of a local arts centre is lifted far above what might have been a parochial dispute into a passionate argument for access to the arts beyond favouritism or political interference.

On a Turning Wing contains some of Bushe’s finest sketches of the natural world, as well as touching lyrics on the birth of a grandchild and the joy and consolation of companionship and love.


for Ciairín, three months pregnant

The scissoring blades had come so close
That I almost sliced the nest and its three
Speckled blue eggs, suddenly and brutally
Exposed, balanced, on a few new shoots
Of the hedge I was cutting. And I thought
She would never return, that the nest
And eggs would shrivel away into a sad
Might have been. But less than an hour
Saw her brown tail again cocked over the nest,
Her yellow beak and accusing eye willing me
Not to betray her again, willing the wind
Not to capsize her world, willing the blades
To hold off awhile. And now a gale has come
And gone, and she is still sitting on the eggs,
And I am holding my breath day after day,
Willing her just a few more weeks of grace.

May 2013

To Ring in Silence

To Ring in Silence. Paddy Bushe. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world
To Ring in Silence is Paddy Bushe’s New and Selected Poems, drawing on all of his previous English language collections and including a number of Irish language poems, accompanied by the author’s own translations.
To Ring in Silence: New and Selected Poems gathers work from all of his previous publications, and, as Bernard O’Donoghue suggests in his Introduction, shows Bushe to have assumed Michael Hartnett’s mantle as “the leading poet writing in both Irish and English.”
“This book does a magnificent service to Irish literature and the Irish language, by showing them to be anything but parochial. Its humanism reaches out to all times and cultures and places. We should take note. And it is something of a miracle that a work which is so instructive and thought-provoking is at the same time so riveting and enjoyable.”

ISBN 978 1 904556 88 6 Paperback
140 x 216 mm
February 2008

My Lord Buddha of Carraig Éanna

My Lord Buddha of Carraig Éanna. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

Commencing in Norwich Cathedral where “organ-pipes, sunstruck by the last rays / Through the high cathedral windows, beamed / Beyond sin or sanctity”, the poems in Paddy Bushe’s new collection explore questions of identity and self- knowledge, particularly in the light of time spent in places such as the abandoned monastic settlement of Skellig Michael, or the mountains of Nepal. The coming together of here and there, of East and West, is alluded to in the title poem, centred around a plastercast of the Buddha in the poet’s garden “Rooted in all this betwixt and between!”

The fourth section is made up of poems that deal with mortality, fragility, the threat of loss and “utter absence”, as well as poems of joy and transcendence. The book closes with The Howl for Art Ó Laoghaire, the poet’s translation of the great eighteenth-century Gaelic poem, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire

“Despite the tough tone of Bushe’s poetry, reflecting its material, there is an intelligent sensitivity always at work that does justice to the more tender of human experiences” – The Irish Times

ISBN 9781906614522 paperback
97 pp, 216 x 140 mm / 5.5″ x 8.5″
February 2012

Voices at the World’s Edge

Paddy Bushe (ed.)
Foreword Marie Heaney
Photographs John Minihan

For some 700 years after its foundation in the 6th century, the monastery on Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast (a climb of 670 steps above sea level) was home to a vibrant monastic community, and one of the earliest of such settlements in Ireland.

For this unique and fascinating anthology, Dublin-born Paddy Bushe (long since living within sight of the Skelligs) invited some of Ireland’s best-known poets to spend the night among bee-hive huts, puffins and gannets, and to write of the experience at the one-time ‘edge of the world’.

Paddy Bushe, John F. Deane, Theo Dorgan, Kerry Hardie, Biddy Jenkinson, Seán Lysaght, Derek Mahon, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Bernard O’Donoghue, Cathal Ó Searcaigh and Macdara Woods.

Special Collector’s Editon

A Special Collector’s Edition of this book is also available. Casebound, it comes in a matte grey slipcase, and is limited to 50 numbered copies only, each of which is signed by all of the contributors, the photographer and the publisher.

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Ráth Éisc / Shoaling Fish – Writing Poetry in Irish

poetry from Ireland, Dedalus Press,

Ceaití Ní Bheildiúin is an Irish-language poet whose Rogha Dánta / Selected Poems entitled Lig don nGiorria Suí / Let the Hare Sit, with English translations by Paddy Bushe, was recently published by Dedalus Press. Here she considers what it means to write in Irish, and to see her poems translated into English (her mother tongue), as well as many other aspects of the fascinating and complex relationship between the two languages.

How is it for you to be writing poetry in Irish, a minority tongue and a language which is not your first language? Conas a théann sé seo i bhfeidhm ar do phroiseas scríbhneoireachta?

I will answer this first question in Irish.

Sea. Gaeilge is ea an chré as a mhúnlaím mo dhánta. Tá sé deacair an chúis do seo a mhíniú ina hiomlán agus mé tógtha le Béarla amháin. Aithním go maith an bhéim atá ar Ghaeilge mar mhionteanga, go háirithe nuair a thagann sé chuig cúrsaí foilseacháin. Ach, chun an fhírinne a rá, fad a bhím i mbun mo chuid chumadóireachta, ní bhím ag cuimhneamh uirthi mar mhionteanga ach go bhfuil sí ina dara teanga agam. Trí Bhéarla amháin a bhí mo shamhlaíocht ag oibriú nó gur bhogas go Corca Dhuibhne im’ dhaichidí. Ansin a chromas chun scríobh as Gaeilge. Thuigeas go maith mar sin, gur i ndara teanga a bhíos ag saothrú ón tús.

Éilíonn an Ghaeilge am sa bhreis orm mar go maireann neamhchinnteacht ionam i gcónaí mar gheall ar mo líofacht sa teanga. Ach ní shamhlaím go mbeinn níos siúrálta ná seo in aon mhórtheanga a bheadh ina dara teanga agam. Fad a bhíonn dán á shaothrú agam, bailím chugam an réimse focal agus foclóra a bhaineann leis an ábhar, chun go mbeinn ábalta iad a láimhseáil le solúbthacht. Bíonn gá agam le foclóirí níos mó sa dara teanga ná sa chéad teanga – chomh maith le téacsanna údarásacha ón litríocht ar amanta, chun brí, úsáid agus litríú na bhfocal a thomhas dom féin agus a chinntiú. Ní bhraithim ar aon mhíbhuntáiste ó thaobh bheith ag scríobh i nGaeilge mar mhionteanga. Tá saibhreas neamhghnáthach i mbéaloideas na Gaeilge atá bailithe agus cláraithe chomh maith le saibhreas i gcanóin litríocht na Gaeilge, idir fhilíocht agus phróis, saibhreas nach mbíonn ar fáil i gach mionteanga. Ní beag an achmhainn iad seo don scríbhneoir. Foilsiúchán is ea scéal eile. Ní féidir braith ar airgead le dealramh, nó d’aon saghas, a thuilleamh as filíocht i mionteanga. Níl na léitheoirí ann.

Fuaireas mé féin báite i nGaolainn na háite tar éis bogadh go dtí Iarthar Chiarraí. Bhí tréimhsí ann tar éis mo theachta anseo ina raibh sraitheanna cheardlanna filíochta ar siúl. Bhí an chéad cheardlann trí Ghaeilge agam le Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Thaibhsigh mo chéad dánta chugam ansin trí cheo na neamhchinnteachta, gan líofacht ná siúráltacht sa teanga agam. Stiúraigh Louis de Paor ceardlann eile a fhreastlaíos air agus ina dhiaidh sin bhí sraith de cheardlanna le Bríd Ní Mhóráin ar siúl. Tamaillín ina dhiaidh sin arís, bhí Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill thar n-ais agus í ina stiúrthóir ar shraith cheardlann a lean ar feadh bhliain go leith. Bhíos san áit cheart ag an am ceart chun an Ghaeilge a phósadh isteach lem’ iarrachtaí scríbhneoireachta. Is dóigh liom gurb í an Ghaeilge a bhí dom’ sheoladh thar tairseach an neamh-chomhfheasa agus go raibh buntáiste ann dom bheith ag scríobh i dteanga a bhí úr dom. Bhraitheas leochaileacht sa Ghaeilge féin, a thuigeas a bheith oiriúnach don leachaileacht a bhí ionam ag an am, dea-thréith inti a bhí oiriúnach chun mo mhothúcháin a iompar.

 An cuimhin leat i mbolg na hoíche
 gur thánamar ar phram
bán, díomhaoin, ar thaobh an ché?
Pram ramhar cuartha den seandéanamh
is spócaí fé.

– ‘An Pram’ (An Teorainn Bheo,  Coiscéim 2007)

poetry from Ireland, Dedalus Press, Let the Hare Sit

And with the publishing of your poetry, are there particular considerations when it’s in a minority language? Cad iad na gnéithe le cur san áireamh agus tú ag foilsiú i mionteanga?

When composing a poem in Irish, I don’t think about its publication. I more imagine, if I think about it at all, that I’m communing with somebody who has an understanding of Gaelic, someone who’ll grasp what the poems are about. It’s when I’m editing and preparing for publishing that all my angst relating to who the final reader of these poems might be, flares up.

There are considerations for those of us who publish works in Irish which don’t arise for someone publishing in English or in any other major language. Firstly, when one writes in a minority tongue it means a limited readership. The publishing of poetry as opposed to prose also makes for a restricted readership, making publishing a doubly compromised proposition for the Irish language poet. Monolingual editions of original Irish language poetry find their market. Indeed they sell well among certain interested and supportive communities. Some Irish language poets and publishers are content to work within this sphere. How to augment this readership has nevertheless become an increasingly pressing question for others. Broadening the appeal of minority language poetry by making it available in a second language offers a way forward. The chief question that arises then relates to whether or not Irish language poems should have English translations published with the original poems. There is a growing demand for such translations to be provided alongside Gaelic poetry. It does facilitate a greater audience and readership. I was for a long time without translations and learned that a lack of them limits the range of the poems I could draw on for many publications and reading events. While many appreciate the access that English translations allow them to Gaelic poems, it also raises fears. Will the Gaelic itself fall further into the shadows of the major language when what we need is that light be thrown on the Gaelic and on the way of thinking which it is deeply rooted and inherent in the language itself.

poetry from Ireland, Dedalus Press, Ráth Éisc / Shoaling Fish. Writing poetry in Irish and being translated into English. Photograph courtesy Pexels / Arthur How Wong.
Ráth Éisc / Shoaling Fish. Writing poetry in Irish and being translated into English. Photograph courtesy Pexels / Arthur How Wong.

I’m not a monoglot. Why can’t I provide translations with each of my poems and be a poet in two languages? I‘ve been asked this particular question more than once. I feel expected to conjure up English translations of my poems without a problem. Gaelic poets each react differently to this pressure. We can have certain insecurities about our work when it’s suggested that it needs the support of another language. It can feel threatening. And providing a translation in another language is a daunting proposition for many poets. Keeping the Irish language fairly and squarely in the picture, by presenting the Gaelic poem alongside its translation on the page, goes someway towards holding the ground for the Irish poem. Line-for-line style translations can be very much appreciated by readers with an interest or a fluency in the minority tongue and can enhance for them the experience of the poem. Some poets work bilingually, they themselves translating between the languages as they go, creating conjoined-twin poems, Irish and English. For others it is how to summon up translations. For my part, I have translated a few of my poems to English. It really does take time. Often longer than the writing of the original poem. And my translations only lead me to feel insecure in two languages instead of one. I worry as to how they sit as poems rather than being able to abandon them as translations made to facilitate the access to poems. Unfortunately, readers often judge a translation for its poetic merit and reflect that onto the original poem. Yet, if we do go for it, I know that translation to English opens up a whole new universe for a poem to live in.

Is it disconcerting for you to find your thoughts brought over to another language? An gcuireann sé isteach ort do smaointe bheith aistrithe go teanga eile?

Tugann an t-aistriúchán spléachadh eile dom ar mo dhánta féin. Cuireann seo sceitimíní orm.

I have found being translated exciting – even though I was wild with doubt and uncertainty about that possibility until recently. I’m now very pleasantly surprised by the translations of my poems by others. They mean that I read my own work afresh. Sometimes I catch a stirring of the Irish poem under an English translation and recognise that the Irish poem is alive in the skin of the English one. This can all be so reaffirming.

The option to work with a person who is both a translator and a poet, with a fluency in both Irish and English, always sounded to me like the ideal thing. I finally did get this option and it has worked out well in my case. I’ve two volumes of poems out there now which are presented bilingually. A good relationship with my translators has allowed for wholesome discussion around the intentions of my original writing and the scope for various interpretations. These discussions have meant that my involvement and consent have been drawn into the translations in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling dispossessed of the poems but rather enriched by the effect of the mirroring of them. The presentation of English translations alongside my Irish poems has meant that each original poem is platformed in a new light. Line for line transpositions are in the main what have been provided. While not always possible, when these work they give a transparency to the relationship of the two versions of the poem. I’ve found new resonances in my own work through these translations.

It’s true that not everything can be carried over to another language. There are losses. But I find that the gains can be more than compensatory. Translation can add a new perspective, even a new layer of meaning, or give an aspect of the poem a shine. If this turns out to be ‘overcolouring’ the original it can be reined in – especially where there’s a cooperative process between translator and poet in progress. And if translation doesn’t provide the very same experience as in Gaelic, it should provide a parallel one. The process of translation can also be a means of investigating a poem’s integrity and credibility. It has the potential to question the original, to identify flaws. It may, on the other hand, fully endorse it. While I can worry that a translation will show up a weakness in the original poem, once a poem is endorsed, it’s really helpful. I feel verified as a poet by the recent translations of my work. I also feel more certain that there’s no betrayal of the Gaelic tongue with these interpretations for a new readership. I see that the English translation can be an invitation to visit the original poem. A call to those apprehensive but curious about Irish. As Meg Bateman has said, “Translation can be a door ajar.”

It was Paddy Bushe, both an Irish language and an English language poet as well as an experienced translator, who made the English translations for ‘Let the Hare Sit / Lig don nGiorria Suí’, Dedalus Press 2022. This comprises a selection of poems drawn from my four original Irish language collections (published by Coiscéim) and is presented as a bilingual edition. Through this translator’s consultations with me I found trust in the process.

Fo-amhrán thíos fúm
sa ghorm dhorcha, faoi ghloine
a leánn. Leá a scuabann uainn
na huile nasc idir chuimnhe is an saol

– ‘Gúna mo Mháthar’

There is an undertone of song
in the deep blue, under glass
that dissolves. Dissolves all
the ties of life and memory.

– ‘My Mother’s Dress’

Another very positive translation experience for me has been with the translator David Knowles, and this has also culminated in a publication, ‘Translating Brandon Mountain / Agallamh leis an gCnoc’. Again, it was the cooperation between translator and poet which yielded a more than satisfying result, this time in a short selection for a limited edition by Ponc Press 2022, printed on a Heidelberg printing press.

Díríonn siad a gclochamharc
i dtreo na gaoithe i gcaitheamh an lae
ag ligean don ngiorria
’s don gcaora stánadh isteach tríothu
go dtí an taobh eile.

– ‘Súile faoin Spéir’

[They]… pan their stony gaze
to the daytime winds
letting the tranced hare
and the statued sheep gaze through
to the fabulous elsewhere.

– ‘Eyes to the Sky’

This has all confirmed for me that a good translator will find and reflect the sound and sense of a poem and create a parallel realm within a translation. I think we must trust translators and allow them to be brilliant, knowing that the translation of any poem to another language anticipates a new, and sometimes eager, audience.

poetry from Ireland, Dedalus Press
Teanga / Tongue. From Lig don nGiorria Suí / Let the Hare Sit. English translation by Paddy Bushe.

The Book of Life

The Book of Life, poetry from Ireland, Dedalus Press,

The Book of Life: Poems to Tide You Over is a major new anthology, in an attractive pocket-book format, charts the journey of life from birth to death in poems drawn from almost 40 years of publications from one of Ireland’s most respected poetry imprints.

The best poetry is a form of spiritual autobiography – poems that stand as way-markers along a poet’s soul journey. Such poems tend to narrate a particular life-experience, but somehow in their telling they touch the soul of the reader. They remind us not so much of a shared experience but rather a shared knowing. They resonate with a mood or tone within ourselves that we instantly recognise as true.

Such potent writing is a rare thing, but the poems gathered here [drawn from the extensive range of Dedalus Press books in print] are such poems – way-markers and turning points along the journey of our becoming. Each one captures an important rite of passage, or the closure or beginning of a personal epoch. Though the experience may be unique to its author, the poems resonate with a far wider sense of soul knowledge …  It is not the voice of one particular poet that we come away with, but rather the collective voice of our shared humanity.

GRACE WELLS, from The Introduction

Includes poems by Leland Bardwell, Pat Boran, Paddy Bushe, Catherine Ann Cullen, Patrick Deeley, Katherine Duffy, Erin Fornoff, Francis Harvey, Ann Joyce, John Kelly, Paula Meehan, Gerry Murphy, Ceaití Ní Bheildiúin, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Mary Noonan, Paul Perry, Mark Roper, Gerard Smyth, Mutsuo Takahashi, Ross Thompson, Jessica Traynor, Grace Wells, Joseph Woods, Enda Wyley and many more.

The Book of Life: Poems to Tide You Over
Edited by Grace Wells
170 x 105 Paperback, ISBN 9781915629074
203 x 127 Hardback, ISBN 9781915629067
11 November 2022
174 pp

See also: