Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill – Laureate of the Zbigniew Herbert Literary Award 2018
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is an Irish poet writing in Gaelic, an essayist, literary critic, author of screenplays and of children’s books. She is valued both because of her unique poetry, written in a ‘small’, seemingly peripheral language, as well as for her bold and critical confrontation with the patriarchal tradition, working from a feminist perspective. She is one of those authors, thanks to which women ‘regain their voices’ in contemporary literature.
She was born in 1952 in Lancashire, England, into a bilingual family. Her parents were Irish doctors; while her father spoke Gaelic in his everyday life, her mother spoke English, and raised her daughter in this language. When she was five years old, Nuala moved in with her aunt in County Kerry, Ireland, experiencing – as she recalls – a peculiar time travel sensation, as well as a profound cultural shock. She moved from an English middle class world, into a small Irish village, where her family were the first owners of a radio receiver: neighbours would visit her aunt’s home to listen to the evening news together. This meeting, or clash of two worlds, was with time to become one of the driving forces of her poetry.
In the second half of the 1960s, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill studied English and Irish literature at University College, Cork, becoming a member of a milieu that published «Innti», a Gaelic language poetry magazine. In 1973 she married Dogan Leflef, a Turkish geologist with whom she lived for several years in the Netherlands and Turkey. Four children were the fruits of this relationship, and inadvertently new languages, including Turkish, French and Dutch. In 1980, the family returned to Ireland, settling near Dublin, and a year later Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill published her first volume of poems in Gaelic (“An Dealg Droighin”).
Years later, she recalled that apart from the need to oppose traditional culture, it was love for her husband that became the vehicle that freed her – previously hidden – creative personality, whilst another love – that of language – prompted her to return to Ireland. She consciously decided to write poems in Gaelic, in her opinion a language of great beauty, as well as importance to European culture; with its deep historical roots, and above all a spirit yearning for poetic expression. Her poetry quickly exceeded expectations of influence for this language and captivated other Irish poets who promptly went about translating her works into English. And thus further bilingual books followed, such as “Pharaoh’s Daughter” (1990), “The Astrakhan Coat” (1992), “The Water Horse” (1999) and “The Fifty Minute Mermaid” (2007), and were translated, by eminent authors in their own right, including Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and Medbh McGuckian, but above all by Paul Muldoon, whom critics considered the ‘perfect translator’, regarding their cooperation as a meeting of Ireland’s two best contemporary poets.
In her work Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill draws on Celtic folklore and mythology, managing to combines and transpose these elements with contemporary issues, among which of prime importance are such themes as the relationship between Irish and English culture – considered from a post-colonial perspective – as well as a feminist reinterpretation of cultural and social issues . A symbolic gesture to this effect turned out to be the publication of an extensive, three-volume anthology of Irish literature at the beginning of the 1990’s, which contained the work of only five women. In response, a group of women poets – Ní Dhomhnaill among them – prepared and published two more volumes, thereby providing a representative overview of women’s creativity. As Jerzy Jarniewicz, Polish translator, put it, “the volumes opened many readers’ eyes: having uncovered a great continent of familiar tradition in Irish literature, stretched out right by their side, within an arms length, yet still a white spot not unlike a stained wedding veil”. He also quotes comment made by Ní Dhomhnaill herself, reflecting on her experience of double exclusion: for being Irish, and a woman. “The Irish”, continues Jarniewicz, “representatives of a subjugated, colonized community, sentenced to subordination. Excluded from history and threatened with subjugation. This country’s greatest poets, writing in English, including Yeats, were for many years simply regarded as ‘English’ (or ‘British’) poets, with no place for women authors. […] And yet, in Irish tradition, poetry is considered a national asset. Ireland did not choose any bird of prey as its national emblem, no matter what the colour, nor did it import exotic animals such as a lion. Rather it established an instrument of Celtic bard’s, as its national emblem; a golden harp with silver strings. […] The problem was that only men could play it”.
Nuali Ní Dhomhnaill’s work thus became – alongside, for example, Medbh McGuckian’s poetry – one of the most important parts of a trend, of a rebirth or revival of women’s Irish literature. Critics also emphasize her workshop skills, her ability to recount condensed stories in poems, in a clash of tonalities, solemnity and humour, appealing to the epic tradition, whilst all at once listening to contemporary spoken language, reinterpreting myths, with an ability to create metaphors that capture our attention, confronting herself with the female and male corporeality and sexuality, and with Ireland’s traditionally patriarchal culture. She herself points out a characteristic of Celtic culture – and a conviction she consciously pursues – of the existence of a reality, other than the everyday, and the poet’s role as a link, with that world of sub-consciousness, instincts, a world defined by myths and legends.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill visited Poland several times, amongst others in 2011, when she was a guest at the (Czesław) Miłosz Festival in Krakow. Jerzy Jarniewicz, translates her works into Polish, and included an anthology of her poetry in “Six Irish Poetesses” (Sześć poetek irlandzkich Wroclaw 2012).