‘What is My Language?’, in Irish University Review [“John McGahern Special Issue”], 35, 1 (Spring/Summer 2005)

[Source: ‘What is My Language?’, in Irish University Review [“John McGahern Special Issue”], 35, 1 (Spring/Summer 2005), pp.1-12; reprinted, with some alternations, in Love of the World (London: Faber & Faber 2009), p.260-74. The pagination in Irish University Review is given here in bow brackets { } and that in Love of the World, in square brackets [ ].]

Note: The sentence ‘I believe that this island lies closer to Mount Olympus than it does to the Roman gate of heaven that we used to pray to in our youth.’ is added to the Love of the World [LW] version, while “The Koran” in that version is given as ‘the Koran’ in the Irish University Review [IUR]. Similarly, were IUR has lá dár saol é, LW has lá dár saol.


‘What is My Language?’

In James Joyce’s “The Dead” Gabriel Conroy and Miss Ivors have this confrontation:

- And why do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land?
- Well, said Gabriel, it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.
- And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with - Irish? asked Miss Ivors.
- Well, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.

What Miss Ivors is reflecting is Irish cultural nationalism, a movement fashioned by many hands throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. With the fall of Parnell, it was given a free field, and by the time of “The Dead” must have been everywhere in the air and as solidly on the ground as Miss Ivors. This can be recognized in many sources, but nowhere is it rendered more vividly than in Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound. It probably found its most pure artistic expression in Synge’s The Aran Islands and its most virile legacy in the GAA. There are also interesting aspects of the same debate in Kate O’Brien’s fine novel The Ante-Room, and George Moore took a part in the movement when he wrote The Untilled Field for translation into Irish. What Gabriel Conroy is probably reflecting is a version of Joyce’s own position at the time. If Irish was not his language, neither, it would appear, was English fully his language, his eyes turned to Europe. This is further advanced in the verbal play with the Dean of Studies in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man over the words ‘funnel’ and ‘tundish’: ‘It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra, said Stephen laughing, where they speak the best English: To Stephen’s own reflection: ‘The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine!’ Stephen is forced to acknowledge, ‘I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech.’ {1}

In Beckett, where language itself is a character and a presence, comically and sometimes even tragically aware of itself, we find the same dilemma appearing in an altered context. In the play for radio All That Fall there is this exchange:

MR ROONEY: ... Do you know, Maddy, sometimes one would think you were struggling with a dead language.
MRS ROONEY: Yes indeed, Dan, I know full well what you mean, I often have that feeling, it is unspeakably excruciating.
MR ROONEY: I confess I have it sometimes myself, when I happen to overhear what I am saying.
MRS ROONEY: Well, you know, it will be dead in time, just like our own poor dear Gaelic, there is that to be said.
[Urgent baa.]

In Beckett it is not only necessary to be dead but to be forgotten as well, the awareness of nuance so intense that the words seem to be turning in on themselves: among the many echoes and intonations it brings to mind is the father in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author :

But don’t you see the whole trouble lies here in words, words. Each one of us has within him a whole world of things, each one of us his own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within himself. We think we understand each other, but we never really do.

It also brings to mind Bergson’s essay on Laughter, which brilliantly analyses laughter in its various forms and laws, until, at the very end, Bergson is forced to rest his case on the intuition that its source lies close to a darkness at the bitter heart of the human condition.

I have set down these examples to show the awareness and the presence of the older language in our literature in English, and there are [261] many different examples that could as easily have been chosen. The references to Bergson and Pirandello through Beckett point to a difficulty beyond language, where silence becomes a part of speech, but, as Beckett suggested, silence - especially the silence of writers - cannot be measured. What can be measured, even with half an ear, is the presence of the older language in the English we speak and use in Ireland, in many speech constructions, in its rhythms and its silences, and in those words withheld deliberately or left unspoken. This is the very opposite of that pseudo Irish/English language we have from time to time been afflicted with -’The mists that do be travelling on {2} the bog’, ‘Those bright scarves of our laughter’, in which local colour is purveyed as art to an ignorant audience. I would exempt most of Synge and especially The Playboy of the Western World, which I view as a great farce, though I can understand Philip Larkin’s reaction to the first half when he decided to remain on in the theatre bar after the interval, leisurely finishing his drink, and then, when the play had resumed, walked out into the fine English evening. The Playboy conforms to all the Bergsonian laws of farce, in that an artificial language is used to reflect the unreal or unnatural happenings. If a natural or living language is used in farce, Bergson argues, emotion or recognition will inevitably filter through to render the unbelievable happenings no longer either funny or enjoyable, and the great liberating kick farce takes at reality becomes ineffectual because the farcical events aren’t hermetically sealed in an equally artificial language.

I turn to a work that has no obvious artifice, and was written in Irish, Tomas Ó Criomhthain’s An tOileánach, translated into English by Robin Flower. When I first became interested in The Islandman, and I had read it a number of times - easily and quickly in English, but slowly in the original, as my Irish is far from fluent - I was puzzled by the difference between the original and the translation. In that lazy fashion when faced with difficulty, when it is easier to substitute judgement for understanding, I was inclined to blame this on the literalness of Flower’s translation; but when I tried to translate parts of it myself, I came to realize how [262] good a translation Robin Flower’s is and that the difficulty was deep in the language itself, in the style.

If we think of the style as the person, the revelation of personality in language, and that the quality of the personality is more important than the material out of which the actual pattern is shaped, then the opposite can be argued: style itself must be the outcome of a view of reality.

Ó Criomhthain has a definite style, in the sense that a persistent way of seeing and thinking falls naturally into an equally persistent form of expression. This is further reinforced by the fact that his view of reality is at no time a personal view and is never at variance with the values of his society as a whole. We find him boasting that never once fit a whole lifetime did he infringe custom, and custom was the law of that civilization. There are people in the book who disagree with Ó Criomhthain, who do not respect custom, and he always looks on them as degenerate.

Nowhere in the work does he attempt to describe the little island he lives on. Flower draws attention to this in the introduction to his translation, and he goes on to describe for the benefit of his readers the island group of the Blaskets, a benefit it never occurs to Ó Criomhthain to confer, though he is continually addressing himself directly to the reader. I believe this fact to be linked with Ó Criomhthain’s view of his {3} world, his view of reality. Within that view such a description would be pointless. The island is simply there as a human habitation, a bare foundation of earth on which people live and move. The scenery furnishes the necessary frame and sustenance for life. Places are seen in their essential outline, which is inseparable from their use or function. Sometimes a place is seen as friendly to whatever action is happening, more often it is hostile, but place and action are always inseparable. One cannot subsist without the other. There are no idle stretches to be filled with contemplation of the daffodil. A mountain is there to be climbed, turf has to be cut and won and creeled home. It is remarkable that no description is ever given of the turfcutting, other than what helps or, more often, hinders it. There are no ‘turf banks stripped for victory’, as in Kavanagh, no scattering, footing, clamping. All we are told is how well he is working, how much he has succeeded in getting done by a certain time of day. Movingly, we are told that his mother brought home the turf so that he could attend school; otherwise the book we are now [263] reading would never have been written. A field is described only as it is reclaimed and cultivated; a strand is there to be crossed, a sea to be fished, a town to be reached, a shore to be gained, walked upon, lived upon. These are all near and concrete realities but so stripped down to their essences because of the necessities of the action as to seem free of all local characteristics. One conditions the other to the same simplicity of form. So elemental is the vision that it can only be rendered into the English we now possess in a weakened half-light.

In a famous but not quite accurate remark, Borges argues that a proof of the authenticity of the Koran is that you can find no camels in its pages; they were so taken for granted that there was no need for them to be mentioned. Borges was arguing slyly against the substitution of local colour for reality in South American writing, but even on this small count Ó Criomhthain is constant. There were donkeys on the island, but they are only mentioned twice and would not have appeared at all had not a creel been blown out to sea off one of the donkeys when drawing home the turf; and when the bailiffs came to seize property, all they could find was an old donkey at the other end of the island with nothing alive but the two eyes in his head. Such is the simplicity of the vision that sometimes even people and the elements are equated, as the drunkards are with the spent storms in Dingle. In full cry they had both converged to prevent him from concluding his business in the town and returning to the island.

So free is the action of everything that is not essential that it could as easily have taken place on the shores of Brittany or Greece as on the Dingle Peninsula. In a very different fashion, coming as he did at the end of the great modernist movement and having worked his way through its many allusions and complications, Beckett, too, can be {4} said to have reached an elemental spareness that was equally shorn of local characteristics.

There is a haunting phrase that echoes like a refrain throughout, lá dár saol [é]. Flower translates it simply as ‘a day of our lives’, but it is probably untranslatable. The phrase conveys the whole life of a person as being formed by a succession of single days. When he apologizes for the waste of a day in Dingle, in relief of hardship through drunkenness, there is the physical sense of the day being taken out of the succession of [264] days and squandered like money. Throughout the book the basic unit of time is the day.

If the interdependence of scene and action serves to reduce one another to bare essentials, the sense of timelessness that the book has -of being outside time - comes from the day, a single day breaking continually over the scene and the action. This law conditions even mealtimes. There are only two meals, the morning and evening meal. They eat enough in the morning to get through the day, and restore themselves again at its end. There is a continual setting out and a returning. The concerns are immediate: a boon to be won or lost, a constant alertness to take advantage of any sudden windfall - copper bolts from a wrecked ship, barrels of oil, chests of tea; the same alertness to thwart danger - the sudden shock of the shark in the net, the storms, the constant danger of the sea. No two days or two persons are alike. There is no way to foretell what the day may bring. To plan ahead is as useless as to look back in regret. Certainly, there are disappointments, but they are always greeted in the same way. Events, we are told laconically, often turn out differently from what people expect, which is as applicable to misfortune or death as it is to good fortune. There seems to be a superstitious fear of predicting events, as if the very human attempt itself may be enough to incur the wrath of nature. Motives are of no importance. Ó Criomhthain never examines why people behave in such and such a manner, why an event turns out one way and not another. What happens is all. The same view is taken of the spending of money:

If we had been as careful of the pounds in those days as we have been for some years past, it is my belief that poverty wouldn’t have come upon us so soon ...
People say that the wheel is always turning, and that’s a true saying, for in the part of the world that I have known it has turned many times; and if the world improved a bit round the Blankets at that time, and God gave us that much good fortune, I fancy we didn’t take the care we should have done of it, for ‘easy come, easy go’ is always the way. {5}

What comes through is that when they had plenty they spent it gratefully and joyously, without thought for the morrow they might never see. When they had to go without, they tried as best they could to endure. [265]

If the strong sense of the day, the endlessly recurring day, gives to the work its timeless quality, it is deepened still more by the fact that people and place seem to stand outside history. There is no sense of national pride. The rumblings of a new Ireland are brushed aside as distant noise, O’Malley’s Ireland, or Parnell’s or Redmond’s or Yeats’s or Pearse’s:

Just at the time that these companies were sending their boats to us, the talk was beginning throughout Ireland about self-government, or Home Rule, as it is called in another language. I often told the fishermen that Home Rule had come to the Irish without their knowing it, and that the first beginning of it had been made in the Blankets now that the yellow gold of England and France was coming to our thresholds to purchase our fish, and we didn’t give a curse for anybody.

The same harsh independent materialism is reserved for the language he writes and speaks: ‘I hear many an idle fellow saying that there’s no use in our native tongue; but that hasn’t been my experience. Only for it I should have been begging my bread!’

They pay no taxes. They’ll let the boats rot in Dingle before they’ll pay rent. A woman in her madness to prevent the bailiffs coming ashore will lift her own child to hurl when she cannot lay hands on a rock. The State cannot punish or reward. They can hope for little fame. Fame is literally the news that sticks to any remarkable event, insofar as it happened and was witnessed:

... a woman of the Manning family, a marvellous woman. She it was who finished the bailiffs and the drivers who used to come here day after day mining the poor, who had nothing to live on but famine. A bailiff climbed on to the roof of her house and started knocking it down on her and on to her flock of feeble children. She seized a pair of new shears and opened them - one point this way, the other that. A stout woman and a mad woman! The bailiff never noticed anything till he felt the point of the shears stuck right into his behind. It wasn’t the roof of the house that came in through the hole this time, but a spurt of his blood. That’s the last bailiff we’ve seen.

Even the boon of the pension is viewed with deep suspicicion: ‘I have only two months to go till that date - a date I have no fancy for. In my {6} eyes it is a warning that death is coming, though there are many people who would rather be old with the pension than young without it.’ [266]

Such far-flung places as Dingle and America are brought in and ruthlessly reduced to the simplicities of the island frame. America is the land of sweat, deor allais . His sister had been there and could live where a rabbit could, like all the rest who had spent time in America. His brother had been there. We see how it has changed him as they fish for lobsters:

... how I should have had to sweat in America to make two shillings, and all I have to do here is to pull up a pot through two fathoms of water! ... there are people in America who, if they could come by money as easily as this, would never slumber or sleep. They’d be pulling up all the time.

We see Ó Criomthain’s wariness, and how America too is etched into the island frame: ‘I believed him well enough so far as that went, though he blethered a lot generally, and I often had some difficulty in believing him. I wasn’t so ignorant that I couldn’t understand how it was in countries overseas - hard work, and the ganger spying on you, two of them sometimes.’

America coarsens manners and, with the emphasis on self-seeking, endangers custom, and custom is their only law, the guardian of their delicate and fragile interdependence. We hear the clear tone of exasperation. This makes no human or island sense: ‘You might think there was something in what he said. Still you have to consider that a poor sinner can’t keep at it night and day alike.’

Pats, the brother, brings no respect to the table of strangers. He is dirty and does not care. We see the difference:

I was rather shy, being so smudgy and dirty in a place like that, but the other chap never gave it a thought; all he wanted was to fill his belly; he’d left all the shyness and nervousness of his early days in foreign lands, and he told me, too, that if I’d been away from home a bit, I wouldn’t have cared what sort of a place I got food to eat in.

I have attempted to show how the individual is left very much to his own devices in a setting provided mostly by nature. His concerns are always near, a living to be won or lost, some small advantage to be gained. They live hardly differently to beasts, always at the mercy of what the day might bring; but custom brings in the social, and here again we find the same view of reality, the same simplicity of form conditioned by [267] the same necessity. As the day is the unit of time, the family is the moral unit. E. R. Dodds generalizes with beautiful simplicity in The Greeks and the Irrational, when he writes that ‘religion grows out of man’s relationship to his total environment, morals out of his relation to his fellow- man.’ [‘fellow-men’ in Love of the World] {7}

In the moral unit of the family, the parents come first and are inviolate. When Pats’s sons disappear into America, abandoning their father, Ó Criomhthain’s shock at the impiety is palpable. This is the worst possible offence, since a son’s life is seen as a continuation of the father’s. Brothers and sisters come next in the moral unit, which extends to blood relations and to those linked to the family through marriage, and finally to good neighbours: ‘I was terrified for the boat that had left me and no wonder for some others of my kin were in her and besides even if I had no relation on board a man is often worried about good neighbours.’ The sexual instinct, too, is subordinate to the family. It is a healthy instinct. We see it so in the nights of dancing, the uninhibited encounter with the girls on the mountain, and Ó Criomhthain boasts that in all his years on the island, in spite of health and youth and the long nights, not once did a sexual irregularity occur. As an observant outsider, Synge notes about the Aran Islanders:

The direct sexual instincts are not weak on the island, but they are so subordinated to the instincts of the family that they rarely lead to irregularity. The life here is still at an almost patriarchal stage, and the people are nearly as far from the romantic moods of love as they are from the impulsive life of the savage.

Ó Criomhthain’s own marriage is made in an identical mode. He was in love, if we can call it such in this context. It is with a sense of inevitability that he turns away from the girl of his heart (’The most lovely girl on blessed earth at that time’) and watches his marriage being arranged as if he were observing a separate person, a person in a drama. What interests him most is the pull and tug of the different family factions as they battle to decide which girl will get him, in the hope that the house will be more useful to them if they can install their own favourite. His sister wins. She persuades the parents that the family of the ‘most lovely girl on blessed earth’ lives too far away. They live on Inishvickillaun, an island a few miles to the south, an eternity away in an [268] emergency. She argues that anybody making an alliance with such a family was taking on a great responsibility as they would never be in a position to lend much of a hand. She herself had picked an excellent, knowledgeable girl whose people lived in the village and could be relied upon when needed. Once it was arranged, we hear no more about the marriage; it is tombstone writ: ‘A week from that day we were married - Tomás Ó Criomhthain and Máire Keane - the last week of Shrove in the year 1878.’ All we hear afterwards of the marriage is a catalogue of troubles, his wife’s failing health and death, the deaths of their children. {8}

In the same way as lá dár saol, another equally haunting phrase - rithe mo laethse or rithe mo bhearthain - runs throughout the book. ‘In the running of my days’ is Flower’s literal translation, but it has more the sense of a great tide, filling the strand with the vigour and glory of youth coming to a fullness, and then gradually and weakly withdrawing. He goes to extraordinary care, as if it were a religious rite, to point out the time in his life when the tide turned. It seems to me that it is here that the religious, the poetic and the superstitious instincts are very close. He marks the point between the day the poet kept him from cutting the turf and the girls fell upon him on the mountain: ‘From the day out, for the one day that went with me six went against me.’ [See note, infra.] Up to that time the strand was filling, there was the great heart and the fun, mórchroí ages scléip, but from that marked time on, we are in the ebb tide, and there [269] was much he had to endure in that withdrawal. He found solace where he could. Of his son’s death: ‘We had only one comfort, there was no wound or blemish anywhere on his body though it was a steep fall from a cliff, and we had to put up with it and plough on and be satisfied’; and he leans on the old constant truisms, ‘Those that pass away cannot sustain the people who remain’, and ‘We too had to put our oars out and drive on’: A bheith ag treabhadh linn.

It is no different when his wife dies, or when his son dies trying to rescue the Dublin girl from the sea. All that concerns him is that the girl’s parents shouldn’t think him stupid enough to feel enmity towards them because his son died trying to save their daughter, because he understood well that his son had to die sometime anyhow and the occasion was not important since it could not have been foreseen. Death is like a roll call. There is nothing for it but to endure and go on. Each new day will break on the world with its own claims, demands that care nothing for sorrow. Sorrow, because it blinds and weakens us, is an impairment, and the action required by the new day will demand all our faculties and our strength. Here the family unit brings help once more. Each night Uncle Diarmuid calls to the house in an attempt to lighten trouble with news of worse - a ship lost at sea with hundreds on board, a wall of rock falling on all the workers of a mine - to put heart in them and to renew their courage.

The only thing they seem unable to deal with is madness. Death is a fine thing, Ó Criomhthain says, besides certain things that hang over poor sinners. When Diarmuid’s son goes mad, the community appears to be afraid to help or touch the insane person. Ó Criomhthain, who is usually so boastful of his readiness to give help, when asked to make up a crew to take the boy to Dingle, says mournfully that at such moments all one can do is to stand up and be counted. When the boy drowns himself and they find the body and bring it ashore, it is with a tentativeness, haste and deep unease that he is left with God in Castlepoint. {9}

In Ó Criomhthain’s world all things are reduced to their essentials and are immediate and concrete. Place only exists in so far as it is necessary to the action. All mysterious and far-flung places are brought in and reduced to the island frame. The single day breaks over this world to bring light for the action. This immediate action, its hope and its fears, [270] its stresses, its ebb and flow, fill the one day without regard to what went before or will come after. Everything runs to its conclusion in that single frame. Actions that require months or years are so reduced that they seem to take on the rhythm of the day. The following passage could be the material of a novel or a long story running to many pages, by George Moore, say:

Martin lived only a year after his marriage, and then my sister had to return to her own people, for one of Martin’s brothers came back to live with the old people. They wouldn’t give Máire anything, although Martin left a boy child. Máire left the boy with us and went off to America. After three years there she came back home again. She had the law on them, and got the father’s share for the son.

The shape and rhythm of the story are that of a single day. People, too, are presented only in their essential outline, and that is only in so far as their striking identities are visible to the eyes of those around them. What emerges finally is a simple, heroic poetry, not in the sense of any striking metaphor or image; on the contrary, when we come on such an image towards the end of the book - the ‘crag in the midst of the great sea, and again and again the blown surf drives right over it’ - we are almost inclined to suspend belief, at least to become suspicious, since it is so out of character with the style. The poetry, rather, seeps through the book as a whole, like water or the sea air round the place itself; so persistent is the form of seeing and thinking that it seems always to find its right expression: unwittingly, through the island frame, we have been introduced into a complete representation of existence.

At the end, he speaks of the actual writing of the book. He has, he says, rescued the days from forgetfulness, those days he has seen with his own eyes and whose burden he has borne, a rabhas ag broc leis, another phrase that cannot be properly rendered into English. Then he looks forward to a dream of eternity, when all this will have vanished, and all that will be left is his account of his own life and the lives of his neighbours, without a bitter word ever having passed between them.

An uninhibited boasting runs through the book. The conclusion must have disturbed the original editors. Much of it has been either toned down or edited out. This can be seen in Flower’s translation, which is [271] {10} based on the version that the Seabhac put together. In the 1929 edition, Ó Criomhthain says, ‘I am proud to set down my story and the story of my neighbours: ‘ But the original text is: ‘One other thing’ - a characteristic addition: ‘There’s not a country or neighbourhood or nation in which one person doesn’t triumph above all others! Tugann an craobh leis .’ He continues: ‘Now, from the first time the fire was lit on this island no one has written about its life or its people. That leaves the craobh or the branch of victory with the person who did it.’ And that is, namely, an t-uasal Ó Criomhthain. Then, at the conclusion, with that sure instinct which I find throughout the book, a persistent way of thinking and feeling finding the right expression, he returns to the final dream of eternity, and the last sentence gathers in all the primary characteristics:

My mother used to go drawing turf when I was eight years old, so that she could have me at school. I hope that she and my father [ the two inviolates] will inherit the blessed kingdom and that I and every single person that will read this book will meet up with them again in the island of paradise.

I believe that this island lies closer to Mount Olympus than it does to the Roman gate of heaven that we used to pray to in our youth. [See note supra.]

I have dwelt on this work written in Irish because I believe it to be a true work. Such books always cast their own light, reflecting outwards. Besides, more than any single work in English it reflected the reality of the lives of the people I grew up among and who brought me up. One of the marks of that society was that when people were removed from the necessities of the landscape, like Ó Criomhthain’s brother Pats, and the unwritten laws of the civilization were no longer enforced by church and custom, in places like England and America, those old manners and morals and beliefs quickly degenerated. In our new world of sudden prosperity, something similar appears to be happening in Ireland.

I have taken the original argument - that style itself must be the outcome of a view of reality - from Paolo Vivante’s great work, The Homeric Imagination. Ó Criomhthain’s style is such an outcome, and while it would be foolish to compare him to Homer, he did give vivid utterance to a society brought to refinement by the conditions of an unchanging reality over many days and generations. [272]

What, then, is my language?

I will not resort to the very Irish strategy of arguing that since there are no answers to any really profound questions, all we can do is rephrase the question differently. That, in some way, I have already done - I hope not too evasively or at too great a length.

The speech my mother gave me was the English spoken on the Iron Mountains. That language still contained within it at least the ghost of the Irish language. It was a slow, careful, humorous speech, grounded and practical, with a strong Northern accent, its rhythms almost entirely Gaelic, and Gaelic words were retained in the English usage. Her speech was not as earthen as her mother’s speech or that of her brothers and sisters; it was refined by years of schooling with the nuns and girls from rich families in the Marist Convent in Carrick-on-Shannon {11} and in the training schools of Trinity College. Many of the families from the mountain had been weavers in Armagh and Fermanagh, undercutting the established Protestant weavers. In an uprising in Armagh towards the end of the eighteenth century, their homes had been pillaged, their webs and looms broken, and they fled west and south. Though low-grade seams of coal and iron had been mined on the Iron Mountains for generations, nobody thought a living could be won from the slopes until those Northern families came and settled there. It was the realities of their precarious existence I found reflected in An tOileánach . Naturally there were differences as well. They were careful with money, had a horror of display or extravagance, and were extremely political. Motives and character came at all times under intense scrutiny. The localities I grew up in were all within sight of these mountains. The speech in these places was not greatly different but was softened and obscured by the gentler influences of the West. As my mother’s speech was refined by education, my speech was probably tempered in turn by an indiscriminate reading of books in English and by the prayers and ceremonies of the Catholic Church. If I have used that language in any way well, it will in its turn have used me.

I think of the aged Tolstoy being driven past great Russian estates and asking, ‘Who owns these woods, that river, those fields, that walled estate?’ On being told the names of the landowners, he replied, ‘They don’t own them. God does.’ Or do the people who have power and [273] dominion own them - those people who write our histories and absorb our languages and who, in time, will fall prey to the laws of change and decay and be appropriated into some other form or language? Or does language belong to all who use it, in both its great and humble manifestations, and in turn use us as it grows and dies and is renewed? [274] {12}


Note: A lengthy note in the version of this article printed in Love of the World (presumably written by the editor, Stanley Van De Ziel) explains that McGahern’s translation of the phrases deviate substantially from those in Robin Flower's standard English translation of An tOileánach which reads: ‘For the fact is, for one day that went well with me, five would go wrong for me from that day out’ while further quotations from this point seem to follow McGahern’s own translation also. As an earlier note explains, that translation was printed in part in conjunction with McGahern’s article on O Criomhthain in the Irish Times on 2 Nov. 1991.

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