It’s National Poetry Month, so I thought I’d highlight poet AND playwright, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.
I first discovered Dhomhnaill as a graduate student when I read her poem “An Bhábóg Bhriste” (“The Broken Doll”) as part of my Ophelia obsession. Dhomhnaill was born to Irish parents in an Irish mining community in England. She went to live with an aunt in Ireland at the age of five and grew up speaking the Irish Gaelic language.
Dhomhnaill is known as one of the most famous of Ireland’s Innti poets – poets dedicated to writing in the Irish language – and was among the University College Cork students who published Innti Magazine in the 70s. She even wrote a poem explaining her reasons for not writing in the English language; “Ceist na Teangan” translated (in English – irony?) as “The Language Issue.” The poem uses the Biblical image of Moses being sent down the Nile River in a basket to Pharaoh’s daughter to evoke the idea of survival. Dhomhnaill’s dedication to her native tongue is built upon the idea that if she casts forth her work in what is considered to be a dying language (one I’ve studied super briefly and hope to return to), that others will receive it in the same way Pharaoh’s daughter received the Hebrew child as her own. She hopes that we will not settle with English translations, but embrace the language in which her work is meant to be read.
Which would explain why her plays are also in Irish…and why I have, unfortunately, not read or seen any of them.
But I hope to someday. As I said, I briefly dabbled in the Irish language (we had free access to Rosetta Stone for a brief period; time ran out before we even finished the first course) and knowing that such a revered poet-playwright has written in this language really makes me itch to start learning it again. According to the Poetry Foundation, her plays include an adaptation for children, Jimin, as well as An Ollphiast Ghranna (produced by Deilt Productions) and Destination Damien (performed in Paris in 1993). Now, I could give you the title translation for Jimin and An Ollphiast Ghranna – but where would be the fun in that? This poetry month, let’s consider the plays and poems we’re missing because they’re written in a language we don’t understand; plays and poems (and books! and movies!) that we can never truly and fully appreciate without understanding the language in which they were written. Don’t get all depressed by it or anything; but maybe think of it as a challenge. What wider world of art and beauty lies before us if we open our minds beyond the language we know best?
I think Dhomhnaill is just one poet/playwright who gives us good reason to try.