Gaelic Guardian

Burns Scholar Ni Dhomhnaill, a Leading Irish-Language Poet, Helps Sort Collection

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

If the Irish language has undergone a revival of late, says Burns Library Visiting Scholar Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, its decline must have been one of the slowest in history.

"There was a bardic poem back in the 1500s which said that Irish was dying out," quipped Ni Dhomhnaill in a recent interview. "I suppose it's a truism that is always operative. We may be hearing that Irish is dying for the next few hundred years, too."

Few embody the current vitality of Irish Gaelic more than Ni Dhomhnaill. Considered one of the leading Irish-language poets today, she has published several collections since 1981 - including Ceid Aighnis , which had its official launching last fall at Boston College - and has three children's plays and two screenplays to her credit. She also has appeared frequently on radio and television, and taught, lectured and given readings in several countries.

Burns Visiting Scholar Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill-"This has been a wonderful experience ... BC has the most extensive program in Irish Studies in this part of the world, and I have equal respect for the teachers and the students." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
Ni Dhomhnaill has been no less active in her stint as the 1998-99 Burns Scholar in Irish Studies, presenting readings and lectures and teaching courses in Irish literature. In addition, she is helping sort the collection of papers and manuscripts Burns Library acquired from her three years ago, and collaborating on another project with Irish Studies Music Programs Director Seamus Connolly.

"This has been a wonderful experience," said Ni Dhomhnaill. "I jumped at the opportunity when it became available, because I'd been quite impressed with Boston College during my previous visits. BC has the most extensive program in Irish Studies in this part of the world, and I have equal respect for the teachers and the students."

"Nuala's eminence in Irish language is certainly enough to make her an ideal Burns Scholar," said Burns Librarian Robert O'Neill. "Her enthusiasm, warmth and overall brilliance simply adds to the pleasure we feel in hosting her. Nuala's presence also offers us a unique opportunity: It's very rare to have a prominent writer assist us with her papers. This will serve to strengthen our Irish language holdings considerably."

Born to Irish-speaking parents in Lancashire, England, she moved to a Gaelic enclave in Kerry when she was 5 and, as she jokes, "never recovered." At that time, the Irish language was undoubtedly at low ebb, despite the attempts of the Irish government to preserve its usage. But things had changed by the time Ni Dhomhnaill went to study Irish and English at University College Cork in the late 1960s.

"We Irish are the most anarchic, subversive people around, so any kind of state-driven initiative was bound to fail," Ni Dhomhnaill explained. "What works is when the effort is grass-roots, and that was happening when I came to UCC. It became a commonplace thing to go out to a pub and hear someone bawl out poems in Irish."

That period saw a popular revival of Irish music, including more traditional forms like "sean-nos," an ornamental style of singing utilizing a heavy Gaelic repertoire.

"When the singing came back, so did the poetry - the two are inseparable," Ni Dhomhnaill said. "But over the years, and especially during the Great Famine, the lyrics of many songs were lost. So while people were again playing these melodies, the slow airs, the words were all but forgotten."

One of Ni Dhomhnaill's major works-in-progress is to set lyrics to a collection of these airs, with the assistance of Connolly. She envisions this project as the basis for a dramatic production that would be performed in Dublin's Abbey Theatre. However, Ni Dhomhnaill sees this task as restoring more than words; it will commemorate those who died during the Irish famine 150 years ago.

"There's a tendency to talk of famine 'victims,'" she said. "But to me that is an unfair description. They were not victims: They had a strength of spirit, a rich inner life. That is something one finds in these songs."

For now, Ni Dhomhnaill finds enjoyment in sharing her poetry, and the legacy behind it, in the classroom.

"I love the teaching," she said. "The students who come here to learn Irish are talented, intelligent, and hard-working, and you can't help forming a good relationship with them."

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