From An Claidheamh Soluis, September 24, 1904.
A recent writer, to whom, though ignorant of Irish, it has been given to discover that ‘no great secret of nature has been confided to the keeping of Gaelic poets,’ infers from this discovery that a great literature is impossible in Irish. Some amongst us who, perhaps because knowing a little more about the subject, are less confident in their speculations, are commencing to worry themselves seriously over the fact that the language movement has not yet produced a great poet or a supreme dramatist. ‘We are ten years at work,’ they say; ‘we boast that, in proportion to our numerical strength, we are producing far more books than the Béarlóiri; yet of what piece of original work in Irish that has been done since the language movement commenced can we say with confidence, ‘This, at any rate, will live’?’
People who talk thus forget that literatures do not spring up, like mushrooms, in a night. Great literary moments presuppose long formative periods. It takes centuries to make a poet, and the poet generally precedes the prose-writer. A Shakespeare was possible only after the English language had been spoken and written by many generations of educated Englishmen; and a Ruskin was not due for three centuries afterwards. Shakespeare was not the product of the Elizabethan Age; he was the product of ten centuries of English history. France did not give a supreme writer to the world, nor did Spain, nor did Italy, until the languages of these respective nations had been assiduously and continuously cultivated for many centuries.
This is the substance of a conversation which we had with a fellow-worker in the language movement on a certain evening some six weeks ago. It was during one of the breathing-spaces of Oireachtas week. Our friend was inclined to despond because Ireland had not yet found her Ibsen or her Tolstoy. We put forward the view that Ireland’s Ibsen and Tolstoy might reasonably be expected in the days of our great-grandchildren. We admitted that the language movement had, as yet, not produced any literature that could be called great, but we claimed that it had at least produced works which amply showed that great literature was possible in Irish; and we instanced, if we remember aright, An tAthair Peadar’s ‘Aesop,’ Conán Maol’s ‘Buaiceas’ and An Craoibhin’s ‘Pósadh,’ as indications that a literary period of great vigour and with a spacious outlook was at hand. The appearance of such books, we argued, foretells a future literature as surely as the arrival of the first batch of swallows on our coast foretells the coming summer.
Next day, strangely enough, ‘Séadna’ came into our hands. We had read Part I in the now dim long ago when it appeared in the Irisleabhar; we had read Part II when it came out in book form a few years ago; we had occasionally happened on copies of a southern newspaper containing instalments of Part III. But to receive ‘Séadna,’ whole and complete, into our hands was a new sensation. We read it straight through, commencing it on the top of a city tramcar, continuing it in a train bearing us swiftly westward, and finishing it on the slope of a Connacht mountainside; and when we had read the last time we longed for the presence of our friend of Oireachtas week, for, laying our hand on ‘Séadna,’ we should have said to him in triumph, ‘Here, at last, is literature.’
The appearance of ‘Séadna’ marks an epoch, for with it Ireland has once again become creative. True, the story is built on the theme, as old as Christianity, perhaps older, of the man who sold himself to the Evil One; true, the speech of the interlocutors claims to be, and is, a photographic reproduction of the homely speech heard by Muskerry firesides; nevertheless, in thought, and speech, and form, ‘Séadna’ is so entirely original and characteristic, so much the product of An tAthair Peadar’s individuality, that it is, in the highest sense, a creation. We have here, indeed, the everyday speech and beliefs of the folk, and yet we have something entirely different from the folk-tale. The folk-tale is an evolution; ‘Séadna,’ like all works of art, is a creation.
The formative influence of ‘Séadna’ is likely to be great. Some of our most distinctive writers have declared that it was the early chapters of ‘Séadna’ which first taught them how to write Irish. Not that they admit themselves mere imitators of Father O’Leary, but rather that ‘Séadna’ showed them how to be themselves. Before ‘Séadna’ was written men thought that the way to produce Irish prose was to slavishly follow Keating; the lesson ‘Séadna’ taught was that, in writing, your prime care must be, not to imitate this or that dead or living writer, but first and foremost to utter yourself.
Whilst style, in the ordinary acceptation, is essentially personal and peculiar to an author, there is such a thing as the ‘style’ of a period, or the ‘style’ of a national literature. What, in this sense, is to be the ‘style’ of the Irish prose in the future? We think that in ‘Séadna’ An tAthair Peadar points the way in which Irish writers should march. And if ‘Séadna’ may be taken as a foretaste, then we may say that the Irish prose of tomorrow, whilst retaining much of the lyric swing and love of melody of later Irish prose, will be characterised by the terseness, the crispness, the plain straightforwardness, the muscular force of what is best in medieval Irish literature. Its distinctive note will be strength. It will be founded on the speech of the people, but it will not be the speech of the people; for the ordinary speech of the people is never literature, though it be the stuff of which literature is made. Let us illustrate what we mean; there are passages in ‘Séadna’ in which, whilst they contain no word or phrase which is not in everyday use amongst the people, yet ideas and images and words and phrases are marshalled with a sequence, an economy, a picturesqueness which we should look for in vain in the ordinary utterances of men either educated or uneducated. In other words, a master of storytelling has given literary form to the talk of the people. We shall quote, not only as illuminating our point, but also as illustrating what is, perhaps, the prevailing note of An tAthair Peadar’s style – muscular force – a passage in which the easy strength of the writer reminds one of the superb strength and vigour of the horses he is writing about, – we refer to the passage in Chapter 4 in which the horse-race at the fair is described. It is assuredly no dead or dying language in which can be written prose so instinct with life and movement as this:
‘Nuair a shroiseadar páirc an aonaigh agus chonaic Séadna na capaill go léir, do tháinig mearbhall air, agus ní fheidir sé cad ba mhaith dhó a dhéanamh. Bhí capaill mhóra ann agus capaill bheaga, seana chapaill agus capaill óga, capaill dhubha agus capaill bhána, capaill ghlasa agus capaill bhreaca, capaill ag siosaraigh agus capaill ag léimrigh, capaill a bhí go deagh-chroicinn groidhe cumasach agus braimíní gránda giobalacha. Eatortha uile go léir, bhí sé ag teip air glan a aigne do shocarughadh ar an gceann a thaithneóchadh leis.
Fé dheire, do leig sé a shúil ar chapall dheas chíor-dhubh a bhí go fuinte fáisgithe ag falaracht ar fuid na páirce agus marcach éadtrom lúthmhar ar a mhuin. Dhruid Séadna suas, agus do bhagair sé ar an marcach. Sul a raibh uain ag an marcach é thabhairt fé ndeara, do ghluaiseadar triúr marcach eile thairis amach, agus ghluaiseadar a gceathrar an pháirc siar ar a léim-lúth. Bhí claidhe dúbalta idir iad agus an pháirc amuich, agus d’imthigheadar a gceathrar go h‑éasga éadtrom seólta de dhruim an chlaidhe sin, gan bárr coise tosaigh ná deirigh do chur ann. Siúd ar aghaidh iad lom díreach agus gan órlach sa mbreis ag aoinne acu ar a chéile. Siúd ar aghaidh iad, ucht agus cúm seang gach capaill ag cimilt nach mór do’n bhfeur glas a bhí ar an bpáirc, ceann gach capaill sínte go h‑iomlán, ceann gach marcaigh cromtha anuas agus iad ag gluaiseacht mar ghluaiseóchadh sídhe gaoithe.
Ní raibh duine, óg ná aosda, ar an aonach ná raibh ’na choilg-sheasamh ag faire ortha ach amháin fear na méaracán. Nuair a bhíodar ag déanamh ar an darna claidhe, thug gach aoinne fé ndeara go raibh an capall dubh buille beag ar tosach. Nuair a bhíodar ag glanadh an chlaidhe, do ghluais an capall dubh agus an capall ba ghiorra dhó d’á dhruim, mar a ghluaiseóchadh an priachán, gan baint leis. Do chuir an dá cheann eile na cosa ann. D’imthigh an fód ó chosaibh an chapaill ba shia amach, agus thuit sé féin agus a mharcach ar an dtaobh eile ’chlaidhe.
“Ó!! Tá sé marbh!” do liúghadar na daoine go léir. Ní raibh an liúgh as a mbeul nuair a bhí sé thuas airís, ach má ’seadh bhí a chapall bacach agus b’éigean dó filleadh.
Siúd ar aghaidh an triúr agus an t‑aonach ag faire ortha, na daoine chómh ciúin sin gur airigh Séadna go soiléir na buillí fuinte ceólmhara tómhaiste cruadha a bhuaileadh cosa na gcapall san ar fhód na páirce, díreach mar bhéadh rinnceóir ag rinnce ar chlár.
Thug Séadna fé ndeara um an dtaca so go raibh an capall dubh go maith ar tosach, agus é ag déanamh, ceann ar aghaidh, ar bhata a bhí ’na sheasamh ’sa pháirc agus éadach éigin dearg ’na bhárr. Siúd tímpal an bhata san é. Siúd ’na dhiaigh an tarna capall. Siúd ’na dhiaigh sin an trímhadh capall. Siúd ar aghaidh i ndiaigh a chéile iad, i leith na láimhe clé, soir ó thuaidh, an capall dubh ar tosach, agus é ag bogadh uatha. Do ghéaruigh an capall deirig agus bhí sé ag breith suas ar an darna capall. Do ghéaruigh san, agus bhíodar araon ag breith suas ar an gcapall ndubh. Ansan do chonaic Séadna agus an t‑aonach an radharc. Do shearg an capall dubh san é féin, do bhog an marcach an tsrian chuige, agus siúd amach é mar a ghluaiseóchadh cú agus gur dhóigh leat ná raibh cos leis ag baint le talamh, ach é ag imtheacht i n‑aice an tailimh mar a bhéadh seabhac.
Le n‑a linn sin d’eirigh liúgh fhiaigh ó’n áit thoir thuaidh go raibh na capaill ag déanamh air. Do tógadh an liúgh mór-thímpal an aonaigh. B’éigean do Shéadna a mhéarana do chur ’na chluasaibh nó go sgoiltfí a cheann. Bhí gach aoinne ag ruith agus gach aoinne ag liúirigh. Do rith Séadna agus do liúigh sé leó agus ní raibh a fhios aige cad ar a shon.’
We need have no misgivings as to the future of the literary movement which, in its infancy, has given us ‘Séadna.’ The seeds of life are here.