Last Wednesday, I turned in my last paper of the semester. It was a good moment. But it also really brought it home to me that this semester has gone by at light speed. I feel like I might have missed large portions of it by blinking too often. But I’ve also done a lot in these few months, some of which I’ve posted about here and others that I haven’t had time to post about. Like my trip to Concord and Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. Or my trip to Salem. Or going to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Or what’s been going on at school. Well, I’m not going to try and go through all of that. But I do want to share some of the things I’ve learned, though I think that my reflections might take more than one post. So I’m going to start with what I learned at school, and I’ll warn you that this is going to be a heavily academic post and some of you might want to skip it altogether.
I started learning the Irish language, and I learned that I love it. It’s such a beautiful language. But because Irish is a conceptual language, I learned a lot about Irish culture and thought. And I had a fantastic professor, so I had a pretty good time in the process. I’m looking forward to continuing next semester.
I also learned that using a fourteen-year-old, out-of-print text book for an advanced research class is . . . probably not a good idea. And that nothing will allow a group of disgruntled grad students to bond faster than arbitrary research exercises that are rather out of date.
My favorite class this semester, though, was my Irish heroic literature class. All I can say is that you people who haven’t read any of Ireland’s heroic literature are missing out. [Okay, really, a lot of you wouldn’t like it. Some of you wouldn’t make it past the Irish names. Try pronouncing Medb or Aoife. You won’t even get close.] I think something that sets Irish heroic lit apart from other heroic literatures is the humor. The Irish material is dark, but kind of bizarrely funny at the same time, and intentionally so. I’m not really widely read enough to make this statement, but other heroic lit. that I’m familiar with takes itself much more seriously. I had read a number of the important Irish tales already, but I really enjoyed reading them again, and reading others that I wasn’t familiar with.
But the focus of the class was actually on adaptations, rather than the original tales, and I was really fascinated to study the ways that 19th and early 20th century writers adapted the heroic material. I read most of the major adaptations, a number of which were from authors I’d never heard of like Aubrey DeVere and John Todhunter. Others were from more famous authors like Lady Gregory, Yeats, Synge, and Heaney. And I liked them all. Even the ones that were kind of awful. It’s just the kind of geek I am.
It was fascinating to me to see how the adapters tweak [or in some cases, totally change] the original tales and characters. Most of the time, the plot of the stories were changed very little, but a completely different set of cultural and personal values shines through the adaptations. Although many of the adapters claimed to be using the material to help re-establish a Gaelic culture in Ireland, the original culture was lost in their translations, and a much more Victorian, anglicized culture is what came through instead. This was a pretty important revelation for me, because I’ve always thought of the Literary Revival in Ireland as an important movement for Irish nationalism and the creation of a national identity–which it certainly is. But I’d never noticed before how much most the literature produced during this time was mimetic of British literature.
In the very early stages of writing my thesis, the question I started with was, what makes Irish writing distinct from other anglophone literatures, especially British? Of course, that’s not the question I ultimately attempted to answer then, but it comes back to me now as I’m thinking about the anglicized nature of these adaptations, which took very distinctly Irish medieval literature and made them more generally palatable (as many of the adapters admitted to doing) by making them less Irish and more English. They translated the stories into English linguistically and culturally. And I’m thinking that this is part of the reason that the question of what makes Irish writing distinct is really difficult to answer. Because the Revival–in many ways the most seminal period in the Irish literary tradition–was so informed by English culture and aesthetics instead of becoming distinctly Irish, everything after it has existed inside a sort of identity crisis. When Irish writers who write in English attempt to express the problem that the language they have and write in is not their own native tongue (and most of them do at some point, it seems), I wonder if they are struggling not only with language but also with an entire literary tradition that has been colonized and translated–linguistically, aesthetically, and culturally.
The semester ended too soon in that we barely began to get beyond the revival to see the way that later writers used the heroic material. I didn’t finish reading Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, though I’m going to, and we only had a few chapters from Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds, which I am now trying to find a copy of without much success. Success being a good copy for less than $40. These and other writers were responding not so much to the original heroic material as to the Revivalists use of and I’m really fascinated to see what they do.
Anyhow, that’s some of what I learned this semester in school.