Interview: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is a poet who practices her craft exclusively in the Irish language. Born in 1952 in Lancashire, England to Irish parents, she was sent to Ireland at age 5 to live with relatives in the Gaeltacht of County Kerry, and later lived in County Tipperary. She studied English and Irish literature at University College Cork, where she met her future husband, the geologist Dogan Leflef. Her relationship with Leflef, a Turk and Muslim, was opposed by her Catholic parents, who made her a ward of the court and forbade her any contact with Leflef. In 1973 Ní Dhomhnaill left Ireland for Turkey to marry Leflef and start a family.

After 7 years abroad, she returned to the island and published her first collections of poetry, An Dealg Droighinn (“The Blackthorn Bramble,” 1981) and Féar Suaithinseach (“Marvellous Grass,” 1984). In 1986, she released Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, featuring her Irish poems alongside English translations by Michael Hartnett. She has since published numerous Irish-language (Feis, “Festival,” 1991; Cead Aighnis, “Leave to Speak,” 1998) and dual-language editions (Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1990; The Astrakhan Cloak, 1992; and The Water Horse, 1999), along with plays, essays, and fiction. Her poems have been translated by Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Seamus Heaney, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and many other contemporary Irish poets and in more than half a dozen languages. She has taught and lectured widely in Ireland, Turkey, Canada, the US, and Britain.

Apart from her choice to write in a minority language, Ní Dhomhnaill’s work is characterized by its focus on themes such as gender roles, language and culture, sexuality, and mythology. Her poems are abundant in imagery from both local Irish folklore and world-famous legends. Her recent dual-language collection The Fifty Minute Mermaid (2007, trans. Muldoon) is a powerful work that begins with three poems on authoritarianism before heading off into a long series of poems examining the habits and culture of Irish merfolk. The poems cover topics from mermaid hair-washing and breastfeeding, to the merfolk’s struggles with assimilation, family dysfunction, and religious abuse and hypocrisy. I contacted Ní Dhomhnaill to talk about this collection as well as her thoughts on language, culture, and mythology.

Your poems are so rich in images and characters from folklore, fairy tales, and mythology, it makes me wonder what role these genres play in your everyday life. Do you regularly read fairy tales or books about folklore and myth, or is your knowledge of folklore drawn from memory and stories you’ve heard? What inspires you to write a poem using fairy tale/mythical images?

I haven’t read a book of fairy or folktales in years—the last one probably Italian Folktales translated from many different Italian dialects by Italo Calvino, which came into the house in the early ‘80s and was fought over so much by my children Timuchin and Melissa that they tore it in two. (It was a very fat paperback, and they are notorious for falling apart.) I remember having to call down to them once “who has the half that has the introduction?” for something I was writing.

But there were no children’s books in the house when I was growing up so I tore through a set of books left from my grandfather—Myths and Legends of the World, a series of scholarly books from the beginning of the 20th century, and it answered a deep need in me.

It seems that the archetypal level of reality is much more alive in me than any other level. The same could be said of three of my four children, one of whom writes screenplays, and the other two, who have a real artistic bent. Recently I read that, what with all the neuroscanning, etc. they can do now, that they have found certain strict patterns of brain movements, which are really a physical proof of what Jung intuited as archetypes. I got an email recently from the poet Tom McCarthy, where he mentioned my “brilliantly symbolic life.” I had to laugh. About 10 years ago my father died. He was trodden to death by cattle, which is what you would associate with the Paleolithic rather than the 21st century AD. I happened to meet the writer Nuala O’Faolain on the corner of 2nd Ave and 5th Street in New York City shortly afterwards. I told her what had happened. Her response was “How is it, Nuala, that everything that happens to you has to be so mythological?” So there you have it. I think the mythological level is more active in me than any other, say, realistic, level. So it naturally expresses itself as archetypes, in poetry.

But what I really love to do is to go in to the Department of Irish Folklore in University College Dublin and read the stories in the manuscripts there. These give me a physical pleasure so strong, it is all I can do sometimes not to break into tears. This is the oral tradition at its best, what I heard the tail-end of when I was sent to Kerry from England at age 5. A richness of tradition cultivated by the works of thousands of scribes, who wrote down much of the medieval corpus in little copybooks, right up to the time of the Famine, mostly in Munster [province in the south of Ireland] and East Ulster [province in the north of Ireland], so that the oral tradition was enriched enormously. An example, I once spent an afternoon talking to a farmer, Mickey Long, as he dug up potatoes in the autumn. We were looking out over the expanse of Ventry harbour. He told me how, as a young boy in 1912, the whole British Atlantic fleet had come into the harbour and were at rest there. He told me the names of the flagships, the Indefatigable, the Defence, etc. He said he and his friends had rowed out to them and given them mackerel and got cigarettes in return. Then he used a phrase that translated means “the ships were so thick on the water that you could walk from the farthest out of them right into the shore without wetting your feet,” which I recognised at once as a line from the medieval text “The Battle of Ventry,” written in Regensburg in what is now Germany by an Irish monk in 1353. That kind of richness, that was kept alive for centuries, is what I absolutely exult in.

You’ve suggested in essays and other interviews that there’s a connection between expressing yourself in Irish and deeper emotional accessibility compared to writing or conversing in English. Can you talk about that? Is it the same for poetry, since you’ve written more poetry than you have any other form of writing? Do you find poetry a more accessible means for writing about emotions or about the mythical world than other kinds of writing?

I write poetry exclusively in Irish. I can only write poetry in Irish, as it seems to be where my emotions are located. I think rationally mostly in English, because most of the books, etc that I have around me are in English, but that only engages one part of my brain. Feelings come out in Irish. Imagination also. I luckily discovered this at a very young age, at 16, when in the middle of writing a poem in the study (instead of doing my French exercise) I suddenly realized that I was actually writing Irish prosody in English, and that was a stupid thing to be doing, why don’t I write it in Irish? Which I did, and I realized it was much better. The words seemed to sit more naturally on the emotions. I realized I was only a poet in Irish, not English. I never looked back. Irish, for better or worse, is the language of my emotions and imagination, and as I have said earlier, the imagino-emotional level is the most alive part of my psyche, so, ipso facto, it has to be in Irish. Mind you, I didn’t know any of this when I started out. It was by the very act of writing that all this became conscious.

I have written the odd short story in Irish also, which I am about to bring together this summer in a collection called after the longest story in the collection, “Sean-chathracha na hAise Bige,” which could be translated as “The Ancient Cities of Asia Minor.” I owe it to Bord na Leabhar Gaeilge [Irish Books Board], so I just have to finish it and clear the decks before I do anything else. My son is always at me to write a memoir, in English, so that the things that happened to me back in the early 1970s do not happen, even in a different form, to anyone else. I am collecting material for it, like going into the Wards of Court office etc, but I see it a few years down the road. In the meantime I am working on a new collection in Irish, Urú, which means an eclipse of both the grammatical and celestial kind.

Do you think there’s something that makes Irish unique in terms of storytelling about the Otherworld, the unseen and unproven, the subconscious or subliminal? Do you think this is an advantage or characteristic of minority languages in general or something special to Irish?

Well, in a post-religious, increasingly rational and empirical world, anything that keeps the imagino-emotional part of us alive, and allows it to function, is to be cherished and cultured. After all this is what makes us different from, and superior to, robots. Mind you, rationality has its time and place also. After all I was married to a very exact scientist for 40 years, and he was always pulling me up on my “woolly” thinking. And rightly so. I am a great believer in science and what it can discover and create, but it is not the whole picture. We are, rightly or wrongly, only occasionally rational animals. You only have to look at Brexit and the election of Trump to see that. And all the “hooha” in Irish society about illegitimate children throughout the large part of the 20th century is another proof. Think of it, your daughter gets pregnant at 16. The rational reaction should be to be delighted, as it means you have a fertile daughter, and the next generation is accounted for. Instead you had this whole collective reaction of shame and the madness of locking poor young girls in penal institutions, often for their whole lives, and stigmatizing both them and their children ad infinitum. How logical or rational is that? If our emotional and imaginational levels are expressed freely, for instance through the arts, then maybe we can learn not to mix up things and have our emotions express themselves in all kinds of inappropriate manners. I have a very basic theory—that when Irish people switched language to English, their emotions were left behind in the Irish they refused to use or teach to their children. That is what my mermaid poems are all about. When you read the material in the manuscripts in the Department of Folklore, the sheer imaginative richness that pervaded people’s lives is astonishing. And because the medieval manuscript tradition was kept alive for so long, sometimes by ordinary farmhands, who copied them down into paper copies, at night, by the light of seal-oil tapers, Irish does have a long and very rich repertoire for discussing the non-rational and sometimes downright uncanny. I’m sure all languages do, Irish is not an exception. But minority languages, that haven’t undergone the rationalizing effects of Aristotelian schooling, have maybe an advantage.

The Fifty Minute Mermaid is my favorite collection of yours. It’s so sharp and complex in observation and emotion, and also so beautiful and evocative in imagery. Most of its poems are about mermaids and merfolk, and many of them are humorous, but there’s also an underlying sense of trauma throughout the collection. Of the merfolk suffering and surviving, and even inflicting, various forms of trauma. The title of the collection suggests the time of a typical therapy session. I’ve heard you speak about this collection and about Irish folk beliefs in general as a projection of the Irish people’s inner landscape, as the unconscious of the community. Can you talk about about that notion and how it affects your use of mythology and folklore in your work? Is there a relationship in your view between folklore or fairy tales and trauma?

I’m glad you like my mermaids, as a lot of people don’t seem to understand or appreciate them. Because they are not really mermaids, they are my birth family, with scales and gills attached. You see, in Ireland confessional poetry of the kind often written in America is really a no-go, as we are so hugely and deeply related to and networked with each other on this tiny island, and so madly curious about each other. So I take Emily Dickinson’s dictum to heart: “Tell the whole truth, but tell it slant.” Also by changing everyone into merfolk, I can perhaps reach at a truth that goes deeper than just something depending on the significant details of my own life. This is what poetry has always done for me. In doing so, it has helped me from going mad.

Only now, as I recover from my husband’s death, do I realize that a lot of this madness is still within and around me, and that only by writing can I still keep myself sane. And the folklore material, which I am convinced is a projection outwards of our collective paysage intérieure, is the perfect “objective correlative.” To express many things. Including trauma.

Many of your poems feature islands, either specific ones like the Blaskets (or Ireland of course) or unnamed, mythical islands. Is there a place or landscape you find more inspiring to write about? Where do you most like to write?

The fact that many of my poems feature islands, well, that has of course a lot to do to the place I was exiled to at age 5. The parish of Ventry, with the Blaskets just around the corner, and a view out at sea to the Scellig Rocks (about to be made famous worldwide by their use as a background in the next Star Wars). I wrote a series of poems called “Imramm” when I was dreaming a lot of islands. I think, retrospectively, that it was about a part of my personality that had been cut off, like an island, and that was emerging from the subconscious and becoming part of my main personality. I find walking Ventry strand a marvellous aid to writing poems, or rather getting the main action of the poem going. I finish it off then later, in the quiet shelter of my tiny little southwest-facing room in Dublin. And I mean tiny—six feet by eight feet. I am very loath to leave it, and will refuse to move anywhere else until I get a suitable substitute.

Do you have a favorite fairy tale or folk tale? If so, which one and why?

Yes, it is known in Irish as either “An Gadharaín Bán” (“the little white dog”) or “An Gabairin Bán” (“the little white goat”). There are a few versions of it in the Department of Folklore material. There is a version from Peig Sayers which I love, but my all-time favourite version is a version by Máire Ruiséal, also known as Cú an Tobair. Actually I found out that it is from a book of Norwegian stories translated into English sometime in the mid-19th century, where it is about a white bear. Of course, there are no bears in Ireland, so the story was naturalized as being about a different animal. P.J. Lynch has illustrated a version of it as East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which I managed to pick up one time for my kids in America. It is a modern version of the Amor and Psyche story and a wonderful girl’s quest story. It is interesting that it is the story picked by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne for inclusion in the women’s volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature. The versions Peig and Máire tell are basically the same but the telling is so different—Peig’s is wonderfully baroque, with all sorts of curlicues and digressions, while Máire’s is very straight, with the wonderful interpolation to [story collector] Joe Daly, who was using the edeophone with her. “Bhi clann an ri amuigh ar an…a Joe, an féidir liom an focal Bearla a úsáid? The children of the king were playing out in the…Joe, can I use the English word? I can, alright then, Bhi clann an ri amuigh ar an bpiazza.

I also love the different versions that exist of “The Handless Maiden,” a version of which I used as the introduction to my first book, An Dealg Droighinn. The [book’s title] is the equivalent of the blackthorn thorn that the maiden has to pull out of her brother’s leg, even though he has cut off her hands. I intuitively knew that that was the story of my life. Also, the various versions of the [fairy tale about the] man who unwittingly sells his daughter to the devil, including the well-known one of “Beauty and the Beast.”

There are a whole lot of them but somehow I don’t need them as absolutely totally as I used to. I’ve worked out a lot of my obsessions in my poetry, and so they no longer come back to haunt me.


Interview conducted by René Madonna Ostberg