A FEATURE by Colin Ryan
Writing in Irish in Australia is an attenuated tradition – hardly a tradition at all. No future can be assumed for it. It has few readers here and fewer writers. Yet let us suppose that works in Irish (and in the richer local literatures of Spanish, Greek, Vietnamese, Yiddish and a dozen other languages) are part of the broader Australian literary tradition. This is a proposition rarely considered by Australian critics. The works in question tend to exist in a world apart, the voice of those whose cultural assimilation is seen as inevitable. Even highly educated Australians are seldom able to read languages other than English. Furthermore, the best of Australian writing in English constitutes a canon of undeniable importance, and therefore commands the bulk of critical attention.
Australian writers in other languages have sometimes made an impression through translation. An example is the Greek-Australian writer Dimitris Tsaloumas (who also writes in English). Australian-born writers were influenced by the Yiddish-language writer Pinchas Goldhar. There are also writers in community languages whose work is seldom seen in English and who (as in the case of Spanish) have enjoyed a cultural infrastructure which includes literary festivals, competitions and journals and even Australian-based publishers. This has never been true of Irish.
Irish-language writing in Australia is unusual in not being dependent on a local community of fluent speakers. This once existed, but left few written traces, most such immigrants being literate only in English. Yet Irish speakers in Australia tend to think of the language as their own, a part of the native landscape, a view at odds with the Irish tendency to think of the language as being relevant only to their own national identity.
Australian writing in Irish in the broader sense encompasses both journalism and literature. The former would include the cultural journalism of Nicholas O’Donnell early in the last century, the bilingual journal The Gael/An Dord Féinne of the 1920s, an contemporary electronic newsletter (An Lúibín) and the contributions of Bearnaí Ó Doibhlin to the on-line magazine Beo and Raidió na Gaeltachta. The literature would encompass Irishman Michael Timoney’s short story Féidhlim Ó Néill (1907) about life in the Queensland outback (a region he knew well) and nothing thereafter until the work produced by Irish poet Louis de Paor when living in Melbourne in the 1980s. Another immigrant poet, Emily Cullen, recently launched a bilingual collection in Melbourne. Yet another immigrant, Muiris Ó Scanláin (Mossie Scanlan), has published a remarkable autobiography spanning Ireland, England and Australia. The present writer, an Australian, has published prose and verse in Irish.
A comparison can be made with Scottish Gaelic, whose 19th century immigrant speakers were commonly literate in their own language (a consequence of the evangelical Protestant emphasis on Bible reading) and who in the 1850s had a colonial newspaper in Gaelic. Yet little followed from this, though Hugh Laing’s miscellany Gu Tìr Mo Luaidh (1964) is worthy of note.
Publication in Irish is generally only possible abroad. Tinteán is the only Australian journal to accommodate material in Irish. There are Irish language literary magazines in Ireland, now in some disarray because of a decision by funding body Foras na Gaeilge to remove current subsidies and aim for consolidation. And there is An Gael, an American-based magazine with international scope, and beholden to no one but itself.
It might be asked if Australian writing in Irish is especially Australian in character. This writer’s personal answer would be that he aims to produce work which reflects both the environment where he lives and imaginative worlds which have nothing to do with Ireland. This implies a view of Irish as an aesthetic medium worth cultivating in itself. The ideological function of Irish in Ireland has little relevance here.
Whether such a literature could sustain itself is unclear. There are Australians who have learnt or who are learning Irish and fluent immigrants will occasionally arrive. From these might come the writers of the future. Only a few are needed and the examples are there.