Gentle Stories of Loss and Longing

Book Review by Julie Breathnach-Banwait

Dymphna Lonergan: As Gaeilge, Irish short stories with translations, Dymphna Lonergan, Immortalise, Adelaide, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-6488957-8-7

RRP: $20

I was very excited to receive a copy of Dymphna Lonergan’s book As Gaeilge: Irish short stories with translations. As a fellow Irish language writer living outside of Ireland, writing in the Irish language can sometimes feel like a rather lonely isolating task. It is reassuring our little circle in Australia is expanding and I must admit it raises the spirits. I push aside the tea and feast upon its contents with fervour.

As Gaeilge consists of a collection of 5 short stories, varying in length, presented in both languages side by side. The cover is eye catching with a similar consistent theme running throughout the book of pictures of shadows with a deep green forefront, serving for me as an opportunity, a full stop if you like, to allow for realignment and to prepare for the next story in turn. I enjoyed flicking for a second peek to confirm its connection after I had read each story.

The author hails from Dublin. She migrated to Australia in the 70’s. In 1994 she was awarded a Masters Degree by Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia for her study of Irish language words in Anglo Irish writing. In 2002 she was awarded a PhD from Flinders for her thesis on ‘The Irish Language in Australia.’ Vicipéid informs me that she has been instrumental in drawing attention to the usage and influence of the Irish language in Australia in the 19th century and has published many articles in various esteemed journals both in Australia and Ireland on this.

Further online digging informs me that she has contributed Irish derivations for English words to the Oxford English Dictionary. Dr Lonergan continued to work as a lecturer in Professional English at Flinders University in Adelaide until her retirement in 2019. Having such academic accolades, a bilingual short story book that focuses on the nature and complexities of relationships may seem a slight digression for this high achiever. One that I must admit, I welcome wholeheartedly.

‘An Crann Lillipilly’ is our first story. This story oozes yearning and longing. Is it a tale of reminiscence, of time past. There is a peace and stillness in the story that I found calming, themes of loss filter throughout, a shifting of identity and of belonging to two places, a common experience with many immigrants who have left and lost and have also come and gained. The ending is quite sad as she wonders if she’ll see her homeland again as she imagines the snow covering all that she feels she has lost. Will she ever see it again? Will she ever feel it again?

ag titim….Ar ucht agus ar lámha na n-aingeal a raibh créachtai piléar fós orthu. Ar an Life.

Anois bhí sé ag titim ar na buachaillí óga go léir, ar theach Damien, ar laethanta na Nollag

ar fad. Ar uaigh a hathair agus a máthair. Ar an gCraoibhín Aoibhinn agus ar an nGaeilge. Ar

na beo agus ar na mairbh’

(falling….On the Liffey. On the breasts and hands of the angels still with bullet holes. Now it

was falling on all the young boys, on Damien’s house, on all the Christmas days. On her father and mother’s grave. On the Craoibhín Aoibhinn and on the Irish language. On the living and on the dead)

We are left with a powerful image in that very last sentence. One of acceptance and peace. One of coming to terms with things lost.

The longer story ‘Splendour in the Grass’ centres around Bríd and Nóirín who are on a journey together, Bríd seems to want to recapture some of earlier feeling about Trá na Rosann, viewing
it now through a different lens. She meets Sam Johnson. A brief romance ensues with Bríd yearning for an opportunity to continue to see Sam after their parting. The ending is bitter sweet as it turns out that her desires seems to have been reciprocated in a way that she had not anticipated. It is again a sad ending full of longing and loss. Similarly ‘Passing Ships’ centres on young love and relationships, female close friendships and the meeting of potential lovers.

Relationships and engagements between people seem for the most part to be central to the Dr Lonergan’s stories, which for me, are always the most interesting to read about anyway. The story ‘An Duine Ceart’ is similar in style and theme, a story told from a number of different perspectives and outlooks, sewn together nicely at the end, a further twist in the story’s end that lends itself to a delightful surprise. It is the final story; it strays from the others in length and is broken into easily digestible chunks.

‘Na Cinnlinnte’ is also a delightful little story depicting a mornings dream, with a little twist at the end; it jolts the reader to reassess. I enjoy this in a story.

The themes are universal and similar in many stories, the search for love, the finding of love, the complexity of love and love lost.

As with most dual language books I very much enjoyed flicking between languages to explore expressions and nathanna cainte. Dr Lonergan’s fluency in both languages is evident. Her
maintenance of the Irish language is quite remarkable. A language needs nurturing, love and polishing to keep it present. This is no easy feat when we are far away from the home country where pieces of it spill into our daily lives whether on road signs, TV or generally in the way we speak English in Ireland and how we express ourselves. She has done very well with this and deserves praise for her intrinsic determination and persistence.

There is a tenderness to this little book. I looked forward to dipping in daily. It makes for a gentle comfortable read, perfect for an afternoon with a coffee in a quiet café. The characters are presented clearly with ease. I would have loved more information on some of them as I enjoyed reading their perspectives, Saoirse for example in ‘An Duine Ceart.’

Both the English and Irish language versions have a beautiful simplicity to them in terms of theme and language which makes it easy to connect to and a very peaceful read. Dr Lonergan’s ties to her home country seem still strong, placing many of her stories there with some links also to Australia or transitioning between the two as many of us immigrants do. Belonging to both and neither.
I look forward to more from Dr Lonergan in the future.

Julie Breathnach-Banwait is a writer and poet from the Connemara Gaeltacht area now living in Western Australia. Her article ‘Why Do You Write in Irish’ that we published in August 2021 was recently re-published in The Irish Times.