September 30, 2020
Outside of the larger-than-life figure of Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), Co. Monaghan has produced only a handful of poets whose work is known and read widely. The most notable of these include Mary O’Donnell and Aidan Rooney. Also a prolific writer of novels and short stories, O’Donnell has published a half-dozen books of poems. Rooney, who teaches at Thayer Academy in Braintree just south of Boston, has just published his third book, “Go There,” with Massachusetts-based MadHat Press.
Caitríona Ní Chléirchín is thus a rara avis in more ways than one. First of all, she is Monaghan born and bred. More precisely, she hails from Gortmoney, a townland of Emyvale, a village of about 700 residents located on the N2 about halfway between Monaghan Town and Aughnacloy, Co. Tyrone. The village’s previous claim to literary fame is as the setting for “The Fair of Emyvale,” a melodramatic short story published by Tyrone native William Carleton in The Illustrated London Magazine in 1853. (Carleton lived in the vicinity of Emyvale between 1814 and 1816. Residing with relatives in Derrygola in the parish of Donagh, he passed what he remembers as “the most delightful period of my youth” while attending a “classical school” conducted by his cousin in Glennon in the neighboring parish of Truagh.) Adding to those distinctions, Ní Chléirchín writes in Irish.
The author of two books of poems published as “Gaeilge – Crithloinnir” An Bhrídeach Sí” (2014), she recently launched with The Gallery Press a facing-page dual-language volume, “The Talk of the Town.” Translated by Gallery publisher Peter Fallon, the thirty-five-poem selection introduces to English-language readers a poetic voice that is both engaging and intriguing. As the title poem makes clear, Ní Chléirchín writes as a “millennial” woman. Titled “Corgarnach” in Irish, which means “whispering,” the poem laments the plight of a woman—everywoman—who is constantly being scrutinized, evaluated, objectified:
From time to time I just
get tired of being a woman,
the cuts to the chase I’ve to put
up with, and then inattention.
Made to feel self-conscious by the gaze of others (perhaps not just the male gaze), and by the whispering, too, she becomes the object of even her own harsh judgment:
I’m tired of how my face
feels, and my fingertips,
my hair, my waist,
my very hips.
Yet Ní Chléirchín also shows how poetry with a contemporary sensibility can still stand on the shoulders of a long tradition of poetry written in Irish. That tradition includes dánta grádha—love poems—and there are love poems go leor in “The Talk of the Town” – poems of lost love and longing, of abandoned love and regret, of new love and of love renewed. Tellingly, the very titles of many of these poems resonate with the spirit of Douglas Hyde’s famous dual-language compilation of dánta grádha originally published in 1893, Love Songs of Connacht: “Drumshark (The Ridge of Love),” “My Man of the Sea,” “When You Go From Me,” “I Went Out to Find You.” Inevitably some of them even deploy tropes that recur in the poems translated by Hyde: in “Tar Liom, a Ghrá,” for example, translated as “Come Away with Me, Darling,” Ní Chléirchín locates the emotion of the poem in a bucolic landscape steeped deep in the pastoral romantic conventions of an earlier time:
Come away with me, darling,
out into the fields, into spring
pasture. We’ll make a reed bed
in a hollow and lie there a while
under a sky loud with birds’ singing.
In contrast, in “Taom”/“Swell” the speaker is unambiguously contemporary in her dismissal of a former love interest:
Don’t come within a mile
of me, nor lay
a hand near me. Don’t say
a single word to me.
Don’t cry out.
Don’t even throw an eye my way.
Ní Chléirchín also includes several poems centered on the loss of her beloved mother, Vonnie. The most overt of these is “Capall Bán”/“The Old Grey Mare,” in which she engages myth in giving her dying mother permission to “cross / the threshold, for to cross / the threshold you’re fated”:
That’s the all of it, my dearest,
and the old grey will transport you well
when you go to those Elysian Fields
where a tear has yet to fall.
Her mother is also present in the six-poem sequence titled “Trasnú na Teorann”/“Border Crossing” which reflects the proximity of Emyvale to the border with Northern Ireland where she was born. Many readers will recognize the poet’s nod toward Seamus Heaney in Peter Fallon’s literal translation of the opening lines of the first poem: “Whatever you say / say . . .” Describing her mother as “a huddle of worry, a bundle of bother, / and struggling to banish the dread // of the ‘Big Shed’ at the border,” Ní Chléirchín expresses, like Heaney before her, the sense of personal violation that the checkpoint represents. For the poet and her family it is, moreover, a site of cultural violation: “That was no place for laughter, or Irish music or— / indeed—Irish itself. The sweetest sound was silence.”
In some ways stylistically anomalous in the overall collection, Ní Chléirchín’s poem remembering a ceremonial reading of poems at the grave of Patrick Kavanagh in Inniskeen actually invites the reader to pay heed to how so many poems in “The Talk of the Town” are, like Kavanagh’s, grounded in Monaghan, the “land of the little hills.” The Irish name for Emyvale is Scairbh na gCaorach; for Gortmoney it is Gort na Móna. Kavanagh once wrote: “Naming . . . is the love-act and its pledge.” In a single poem, Ní Chléirchín names—actually incants—townlands and villages and parishes intimately familiar to her as she searches for a lost love: Derrygassan, Derryshillagh, Derryhee, Dernashallog, Ternaneill, Blue Bridge, Ballyoisin, Inishdevlin, Donagh, Castle Leslie, Lisboy, Coracrin, Cornacrieve. The reader is with her every loving step of the way.
Not surprisingly, Ní Chléirchín’s writing in Irish has earned significant recognition: “Crithloinnir” won first prize in the Oireachtas competition for new writers in 2010, and “An Bhrídeach Sí” was joint winner of the prestigious Michael Hartnett Poetry Award in 2014. Affirming “a poet with a mature confident voice,” the judges’ citation for the Hartnett Award noted: “Her mastery of Irish and sense of being at home in both tradition and modernity is evident throughout the book, in poems set in the seventeenth century, poems framed by Gaelic mythology and in intensely personal lyrics. The poems are full of passion and also quiet reflection on life and love and death.” All of this rings true to the rich gathering of poems translated in “The Talk of the Town.”
Thomas O’Grady is Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he was Director of Irish Studies from 1984 to 2019.