Núala Ní Dhomhnaill

Núala Ní Dhomhnaill (NOO-la Nee GO-nal), Ireland's foremost present-day poet writing in Irish, was born in 1952 in Lancashire. In 1957, her parents returned to Ireland -- to the Dingle Gaeltacht in Kerry, Nuala

where she grew up. She writes all her poetry in Irish because she believes that Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of quick and hilarious banter. Many international scholars have commented that this language of ragged peasants "seems always on the point of bursting into poetry." (Dhomhnaill, 2)

Nuala chose to write in Irish because of her personal desire to keep the Irish culture alive by exposing her countrymen to its linguistic heritage.

Nuala has many critics who say that she should write her poetry in English. Nuala answers her critics in her poem, "The Language Issue" which I think is a really good reason for her decision:

She feels that Irish is a language of beauty, historical significance, ancient roots and an immense propensity for poetic expression through its everyday use

Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological; it is an instrument of imaginative depth and scope, which has been tempered by the community for generations until it can pick up and sing out every hint of emotional modulation that can occur between people. Many international scholars rhapsodize that this speech of ragged peasants seems always on the point of bursting into poetry. (Dhomhnaill, 2)

Nuala states that she "had chosen [her] language, or more rightly, perhaps, at some very deep level, the language had chosen [her]." (Dhomhnaill, 2) Her strong connection to Irish stems from her childhood exposure to the language from her parents and her aunt. She attributes her exposure to the language with her "farming off" to her aunt in Kerry, who became her surrogate mother, and her desire to earn her father's love:

My father's father was from West Kerry, and he was brought up in an Irish-speaking household in Cork and loved the language. I saw on their first visit to me in Kerry how disappointed he was that I wasn't speaking Irish, and part of the reason I fell in love with the language was that I saw it as a way to his heart. (O' Connor, 587)

As a child, Nuala, when living with her parents, lived in an Irish household, but not necessarily in an Irish-speaking household. Once she moved from her home of Sutton Manor Coalfield in Lancashire, she became engulfed in another aspect of her rich Irish heritage. In high school, she began writing poems in English and had two of her poems, one of Bobby Kennedy and the other on Martin Luther King, published in the school magazine. She feels it was at this time that she realized that writing in English seemed inappropriate and unnatural to her, "stupid" to quote Nuala (Dhomhnaill, 2). She then switched languages mid-poem and rewrote the same poem in Irish. Nuala sent the poem to an Irish Times competition and won a prize. She had found her inspiration and purpose.

The Irish language "is the oldest continuous literary activity in Western Europe" says Nuala, who finds she must justify her dedication to what some scholars consider a dead language. She mocks this classification of Irish by asking; if Irish is dead, "what does that make her?. . . A walking ghost? A linguistic specter?" (Dhomhnaill, 3) She sings the praises of the Irish language traditions and nuances that make it unique and therefore indispensable as a poetic medium:

The Gaeltacht language I grew up with fell out of history before the Enlightenment, and before many other things, including Victorian prudishness; and the language just isn't prudish. The language is very open and non-judgemental about the body and its orifices. Devout Catholics can have a very racy speech that easily becomes vulgar when translated in English but is just nádúr, natural, in Irish. (O' Connor, 603)

Nuala's obvious love affair with Irish is expressed countless times in her letters, writings, and interviews. This is understandably so largely in part to her criticism for writing in Irish. She quotes her mother as saying her writing in Irish was "mad" and countless other Irish people who, because of their ignorance and condescending attitudes toward Irish, force Nuala to defend her use of her native language: "Here I was in my own country, having to defend the official language of the state from a compatriot who obviously thought it was an accomplishment to be ignorant of it." (Dhomhnaill, 1) She clarifies that her dedication to the language is intensified by "the deep sense in the language that something exists beyond the ego-envelope pleasant and reassuring, but it is also a great source of linguistic and imaginative playfulness." (Dhomhnaill, 5) She refers to the otherworld of fairies, sprites and merfolk, the influence of which is deeply ingrained in the everyday life of Irish speakers. Nuala attempts to answer her critics queries into her seemingly mad dedication to writing in English in her poem, "The Language Issue" which she presents as the best answer for her decision:

IrishPage.com May, 2022
Courtesy of Vivian & Jack
Replay music: Roisín Dubh
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