Caitríona Ni Chléirchín poetic credentials were secured when her first poetry collection, Crithloinnir (Coiscéim), won the Oireachtas Prize for New Writers in 2010. Her reputation was consolidated when An Bhrídeach Sí (Coiscéim, 2014) was awarded the 2015 Michael Hartnett Prize. Her adroit, often feminist, literary critiques are widely published. However, such are the vicissitudes of writing in a minority language that it was not until her poems appeared in Calling Cards (The Gallery Press, 2018), an anthology of younger Irish-language writers, that the verve of her sustained achievement reached a wide readership. Now, with The Talk of the Town, she has attained the prestigious milestone of a selected volume, a judicious sweep of a life’s work translated by Peter Fallon.
Among the hallmarks of Ni Chléirchín’ s work are her skill at making the ordinary resonant, her control of the minor key of melancholy, and her glorious lyricism. She has that stilly, greeny capacity for capturing nature at its most serene, reminiscent of Patrick Kavanagh or Patrick Deeley. Such snatches of luminous tranquillity are evident in, for example, ‘Clapsholas i nGort na Mona’ / ‘Duskus, Gortmoney’, and are all the more remarkable in a collection that constantly navigates contested boundaries.
Perhaps the speaker’s apologia and the collection’s fulcrum is the title poem, ‘Cogarnach’ / ‘The Talk of the Town’ The poem begins: ‘Uaireanta tuirsim / de bheith i mo bhean’ (‘From time to time I just / get tired of being a woman’). It embodies many of the collection’s preoccupations: secrecies, psychological strains, the straitjackets of gendered identity, and the ever-present spectre of that shape-changer, translation. The rendering of ‘cogarnach’ (whispering, conspiring), as ‘the talk of the town’, underlines that inter-linguistic tension.
Writ large is impatience with ‘constant / pretendings, / charades / and the concealment of things’, of female experience. Memorable are the book’s love poems, always haunting and erotic (‘Cuimhne’ / ‘Remembering’ is one), and sometimes damning, as, for example, when they lay bare the poison pearls of an abusive relationship (as in ‘Muince’ / ‘Torc’). The domestic ‘Nóiméad ar Maidin’ / ‘A Moment, One Morning’ offers a gentle alternative perspective on living and loving. Like Elizabeth Bishop, Ni Chléirchín has mastered the art of losing love and lovers and turning over a new leaf.
Other poems recuperate historical experiences that have been wilfully displaced, as in the heart-rending ‘Scaradh na gCompánach’ / ‘The Parting of the Ways’. Foreboding haunts Hugh O’Neill’s wife at the pivotal historical moment of the flight of the earls, as O’Neill obliges her to ‘abandon our son to the grip of English’/ ‘ár mac a fhágáil faoi láimh an Ghaill’
A further series of poems addresses the violations implicit in border crossings, whose routines and routine terrors were second nature during the Troubles. A poem like ‘Moill’ / ‘Hold Up’ graphically plots each humiliation and outrage as border officials line children against a wall and interrogate their mother in a ‘Shed mór’ near Aughnacloy. ‘Trasnu na Teorann’ / ‘Border Crossing’ concludes that, within earshot of border posts, ‘Ba bhinn béal ina thost’ / ‘The sweetest sound was silence.
The sounds of silence are everywhere discernible, most notably in ‘Firinne’ / ‘The Whole Truth’, an elegy for language, for words deadened, frozen, locked up. Particularly mourned are ‘focla rúnda’, rendered here as ‘code words’. One apprehension of ‘focla rúnda’ is that they conceal dangerous resistance, similar to the mantles that outraged the poet-coloniser Edmund Spenser. These ‘focla rúnda’ are keys to ending a linguistic lockdown.
Ni Chléirchín’s minimalism is a strategic, voluntary act of selfpreservation. It implies finding ways of speaking parallel to the dominant semiotic code. By mining the physical reality of women’s experience, she inserts herself into the company of Ní Dhomhnaill, Boland, and McGuckian. Adopting the marginalised Irish language is a further act of defiance against the normalising (codification) of experience. The movement towards silence can be creative, productive, and even necessary, as both Beckett and Yeats (I have ‘Long-Legged Fly’ in mind) indicate.
The Talk of the Town is predicated on contradictions: the Irish version of Emyvale, Ní Chleirchin’s home town, is Scairbh na gCaorach, meaning the shallows fording the river where sheep congregate; as such, it embodies possibilities that crossing borders imply. That the physical identity embedded in the Irish toponyms is lost in translation is not lost on Ní Chléirchín. Breaking silence presents a female dilemma: how to express the uncertain, the contradictory, the unthinkable. The paradox of ‘Fírinne’ / ‘The Whole Truth’, which writes out the failure of language, is therefore inescapable. Underlying it is the vulnerability of identity and the traumas inscribed on the female body and on the landscape.
A dual-language text such as The Talk of the Town is de facto two volumes under one title. Ni Chléirchín’s transfigurer, Peter Fallon, is an accomplished poet and experienced translator: in 2004 he took on the might of Virgil’s Georgicswith what Bernard O’Donoghue called ‘exemplary precision’, and followed it in 2018 with a version of Hesiod’s Works and Days. He is also The Talk of the Town‘s publisher and a farmer, and shares Ní Chléirchín’s elegiac sensibility and respect for Kavanagh’s rural landscapes and poetry.
Fallon implicitly accepts that perfect congruence between languages is impossible, and opts to remain faithful to the sense of the originals, though not the form. He makes his own of poems by introducing subtle, elegant stanzas, as in the delicate ‘A Moment, One Morning’ The aesthetic impact of ‘In the Middle of the Day’ is as intense as that of ‘Mean Lae, ag Uaigh an Chaomhánaigh’, evoking not only the luminous serenity of a memorial ceremony at Kavanagh’s grave, but also Kavanagh’s presiding presence. Fallon used his formal licence to good effect in translating ‘corcairghorm’ (the colour violet) as ‘orangy’ (‘Gealach na gCoinleach’ / ‘Harvest Moon’). Confusion gives way when the reader recognises the clever play on the shape of ‘ -orcairgh-‘
Fallon is adept too at deploying rural colloquialisms reminiscent of Ní Chléirchín’s ‘caint na ndaoine’· ‘since God knows when’ is surely right for ‘le fada’. His divergences from that path, therefore, are significant. Translating ‘amharcaim amach’ (literally, ‘I look out’) as ‘I plenish my sight’ enables him to shape ‘Craobh Liath’ into a fine haiku; it is an example of Fallon making his own of the original.
Fallon encounters a mammoth obstacle, in that the translation process necessarily intensifies the loss that is one of Ní Chléirchín’s thematic concerns. This is exemplified in, for example, ‘Chuaigh Mé do Do Lorg’ / ‘I Went Out to Find You’. Here, a complex historical, pastoral narrative is rooted in a series of lrish-language toponyms, but this enriching, contextualising sub-narrative is unreproduceable in English. There’s a world of historical difference between Caisleán Ghlas Locha and its translation, Castle Leslie.
The paradox of a male poet — Ní Chléirchín’s dual-language publisher to boot — translating the linguistically embodied female experience adds what Aifric Mac Aodha called a ‘perplexing gendered twist’ (in her introduction to Calling Cards). There is no resolution to that paradox of a male articulating ‘focla rúnda’. Furthermore, the centralising shift implicit in the anthologising process and in the landmark ‘selected’ volume, steer Ní Chléirchín away from border territories close to her heart. But other gifts have followed, for such loss abundant recompense. This is ‘a field of bright / / gold’
— Mary Shine Thompson, Poetry Ireland Review
The Talk of the Town is an intriguing and beguiling bilingual collection, hollowed out of the bedrock of inspirational love, its location in nature, and in the care for life in its broadest sense.
At the outset, it would be remiss of me not to contextualise this volume’s importance in literary terms as a sister publication of Calling Cards (The Gallery Press, 2018), a vibrant anthology that includes prize-winning authors of several collections as well as three poets who have yet to publish a book. This volume of Irish-language poetry and translations, a joint venture between Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann and The Gallery Press, co-edited by Peter Fallon and Aifric Mac Aodha, is a critical milestone in the appreciation and study of Irish-language poetry of the millennium. The Talk of the Town is the first volume from Gallery of one of the ten “Calling Card” poets since its publication, but it follows seamlessly from the previously published The Coast Road (2016, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh and various translators), and Foreign News (2017, Aifric Mac Aodha/David Wheatley). This set of four books is a critical resource in Irish-language poetry post-2000 for readers and students alike, and their arrival has begun a process to better map the Irish-language poetical landscape of this millennium.
Like The Coast Road, this edition is a landmark publication in the literary career of Caitríona Ní Chléirchín. It brings together a selection of poems previously published by Coiscéim: Crithloinnir (Shimmer) (2010) and An Bhrídeach Sí (The Fairy Bride) (2015) in a single volume, bolstered with excellent translations. Her poetry speaks of love, and engages with mind, body, and soul, moving from the modern to the traditional, drawing inspiration from Irish-language folktale and story, encompassing both the personal humanity of love in its caring sense, and the corporeal erotic attraction between loving partners. Similar in some ways to Mac Aodha’s work, Ní Chléirchín’s poetry is sensitive and subtle. She has the capacity to be very precise, exact and concise. Her verses are neat, highly strung, full of conviction and rich in interpersonal suggestion. Ní Chléirchín acknowledges that love comes in many forms and is not reluctant to evidence the wounds that are advanced by a love that has painfully dissipated or separated.
The poems taken from An Bhrídeach Sí contain many references to folklore, and to love at one with nature. In a similar way to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Ní Chléirchín is very adept in using mythology to engage with deep feelings in life. Such poems are ably read and appreciated without knowledge of the literary pedigree of such concepts. However, for anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the Irish literary and song tradition, they are an added enjoyment, giving depth and resonance to the poems. The persona of a “Brídeach Sí” allows Ní Chléirchín to relate to love, loss, illness, death from a distance, at arm’s length. The abbreviated version of the poem “Bean Róin” (seal-woman or selkie), for example, also manages to summon up Ní Dhomhnaill’s versatile “mer-women” or Ní Ghearbhuigh’s elegant “swan-woman” (éan-bhean).
While both her previous collections are represented, the poems in An Bhrídeach Sí, a winner of the 2015 Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry, take precedence. It is worth reminding the reading audience that the style of sometimes lighter, and more contemporary, multi-locational poetry evidenced in her first collection, Crithloinnir, is one that should equally be lauded in its exposition of the realities of love at the heart of the human psyche. The title poem “The Talk of the Town” is the translation of “Cogarnach” from Crithloinnir, where Ní Chléirchín reflects the ennui of the female persona, turning honesty into an art form, and lightly brushing away the perceived disadvantage from that same persona.
My feeling is that the Irish-language poetical canon has always benefited from a wish both to preserve the riches of Irish-language poetry and make it available for those who could not read the original versions. However, can the translations in this volume be understood as “raiders” or “settlers”, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s terminology? My sense of this collection is that Ní Chléirchín’s original work has been teamed with the distinct voice of a sympathetic translator, forming an advantageous bilingual duet. Peter Fallon respects the style and depth of Ní Chléirchín’s poetry, without swallowing or engulfing it, responding very successfully to the prompting of the originals. The new “works”, therefore, adorn the original verse, enabling the reader to be treated to a second set of dependent, but paradoxically free-standing, poems. In a poem such as “Amharc Orm” and its companion “Look at Me”, Fallon is able to minutely extend the expressive function of certain lines, allowing an additional or variant emphasis to grow.
With The Talk of the Town, Fallon is to be applauded for now publishing, under the Gallery imprint, a trio of millennial women poets (Ní Ghearbhuigh, Mac Aodha, Ní Chléirchín), each embodying an écriture féminine in their writing in the Irish language. Ní Chléirchín is a welcome addition to this canon: a feminine voice, delicate at times, but most deliberate; showing an echo of writers such as Eavan Boland, Sylvia Plath and Marguerite Duras. While there may be an occasional poem imbued with an uneven sense of sentimentality, her poetry enriches the literary landscape by its examination of how love meaningfully envelops life in its fullest sense.
Once again, The Gallery Press has produced an admirable and high-quality anthology; one that is a calling card for the introduction of Ní Chléirchín’s poetry to a wider audience. For this, all those involved deserve our thanks.
— Liam Mac Amhlaigh, Dublin Review of Books
Translated Quotes from Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith’s Review of The Talk of the Town (Feasta, June 2020)
‘This book will, I hope, add to the well-deserved recognition Caitríona Ní Chléirchín has achieved among readers of Irish in recent years.’
‘The question of gender is to the forefront here, as is often the case in Ní Chléirchín’s poetry and indeed in much of the best poetry of those modern Irish-language writers who have most influenced her, including Máire Mhac an tSaoi.’
‘Ní Chléirchín, like Mhac an tSaoi before her, gives new voice to female personae from Irish history and the literary tradition, such as Caitríona, the countess of Tyrone, wife of Hugh O’Neill, during the Flight of the Earls in her powerful poem ‘Scaradh na gCompánac’.’
‘Athough Ní Chléirchín, for the most part, favours the short lyric, the staple of modern Irish-language poetry, her long poem ‘Trasnú na Teorann’/ ‘Border Crossing’ is notable. The poet grew up in Gortmoney near Emyvale in County Monaghan at the height of the Troubles. While specific echoes of Seamus Heaney resound here, she has her own unique perspective on the plight of her mother as she anxiously negotiates a border checkpoint with her young children in the car. There is a linguistic sophistication in the account of the driver’s unease as she does her best not to say the wrong thing to an armed soldier.’
‘Although the influence of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is also evident, Ní Chléirchín has her own unique and recognisable voice, as we see in her poem ‘Cluain na hEorna’.’
‘Fallon deserves praise for his commitment to the dissemination of contemporary Irish-language poetry through the medium of English, a commitment dating back to Ní Dhomnhaill’s trailblazing bilingual collection Pharaoh’s Daughter (1990) thirty years ago now. Other such volumes published by the Gallery Press include books by Aifric Mac Aodha and Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh. Like them, this fine collection is to be heartily welcomed. ‘
‘The translator (Peter Fallon) has a particular fondness for end-rhyme, sometimes this pays off spectacularly, as it does in his well-wrought version of ‘Spealadóireacht’/’Mowing (with Scythe)’.’
Caitríona Ní Chléirchín writes about her latest collection of bilingual poems
‘To be translated involves another level of vulnerability, which allows great room for creative exploration and possibility.’
As an Irish-language poet, to be translated means to have become visible to a wider audience. Being visible brings with it recognition, which gives hope to the poet that what she says is heard. And to be heard is a fundamental human need. I choose to write in Irish because it is in this language that I find my poetic voice and am able to truly express my creative being.
Writing poetry for me is about translating emotion and experience into language. Most of the time our experiences of love and loss elude language altogether, but in the chasm between language and emotion, poetry happens. Writing in the first instance involves vulnerability, opening up the inner core of being and psyche to the reader. To be translated involves another level of vulnerability, which allows great room for creative exploration and possibility.
The Talk of the Town includes work from my previous collections Crithloinnir (2010) and An Bhrídeach Sí (2014), poems from Calling Cards and some new poems. I am speaking in this collection about my experience as a woman and giving voice to female experience like many of the best modern writers in Irish who have influenced me, like Máire Mhac an tSaoi. I am acutely aware of how women’s voices have been silenced for centuries and their identities continue to be taken away from them.
The question of gender is important when it comes to translation, I believe. Are we not always already translating ourselves, as women, as people, as poets? Fallon approached the challenge of translating a feminine poetic voice with sensitivity, elegance and respect. He also navigated carefully and wonderfully the fraught landscape of linguistic tension between the Irish and English languages, given the postcolonial aspect of that relationship.
I have attempted to give new voice to female personae from Irish history and the literary tradition, such as Caitríona, the countess of Tyrone, wife of Hugh O’Neill, during the Flight of the Earls in my poem ‘Scaradh na gCompánach’. Her voice is absent from history and I was interested in exploring her sense of intuition and foreboding at having been forced by her husband to leave her five-year-old son behind her and board the ship.
Throughout the book, I am speaking about the emotional complexities of loss and Irish is the perfect language to express the depth and resonance of multiple losses and traumas. I was particularly moved by Fallon’s translation of ‘Capall Bán’ to ‘The Old Grey Mare’, which captures the wonderful transformative possibilities through translation.
When faced with the common dilemma of how to translate Irish place names, Fallon is once again both understanding and ingenious. He understands when to capture the sound in the litany of place names: ‘I went out to find you in Derrygassan, in Derryshillagh, in Derryhee and in Dernashallog’ and when to capture the meaning, and often succeeds at both. Fallon understands the love of the landscape, the land, the place names and how I use the folklore and myth of my native area to show my love for this haunted landscape. Fallon translates my poem ‘Cluain na hEorna’ to ‘Barley Aftergrass’, allowing the reader to taste the rich light of the barley meadow where the fairy bride is furtively making her way.
I grew up along the border in Gortmoney near Emyvale in County Monaghan at the height of the Troubles. As children, we often crossed the border at Auchnacloy, with my mother driving when we were journeying to visit my grandmother in Tyrone. We thought it was completely normal to be stopped and searched and asked to step out of the car and questioned by soldiers at the checkpoint. We were not immune, however, to my mother’s terrible anxiety and the importance of not saying the wrong thing to an armed soldier with three young children in the car.
In his translation of my/the series of poems ‘Trasnú na Teorann’/‘Border Crossing’, Fallon perfectly captures that sense of tension, unease and anxiety. Crossing over from Irish into English, he leaves a physical space, where another translator might have written ‘nothing’. ‘Whatever you say, say .’ I am very moved by his translation of ‘Tost’, which captures all the intimacy and violence language that a poet who grew up along the border experienced in terms of stories untold, codes of silence and ‘differing ways of telling a tale’. Maybe it was this emphasis on being silent and saying nothing when I was growing up that made me (want to find a voice as) a poet.
I would like to thank the Gallery Press for publishing my first bilingual collection The Talk of the Town and to specially thank Peter Fallon for all the care he took with the translations of my poems from the original Irish. He has shown great commitment to the publication of contemporary Irish-language poetry translated into English, which has made all the difference for poets like Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.
— Caitríona Ní Chléirchín, Books Ireland