Jenny Farrell introduces This Road of Mine, by Seosamh Mac Grianna, translated by Mícheál Ó hAodha. Published by The Lilliput Press, 2020.
One of several important, socialist Irish language writers of the last century, Seosamh Mac Grianna was born 120 years ago (15 January 1901) in Ranafast, County Donegal.
Due to the reluctance of the Irish literary establishment to embrace the strong socialist tradition in Irish literature, authors like Mac Grianna have become obscure. Mainstream culture and academia do not consider the voice of the class that creates the nation’s wealth as worthy. The ruling class determines the narrative through the cultural establishment, and this cultural hegemony complements its economic exploitation and political domination.
Prejudice against Irish language literature, which expresses the working-class experience, heightens this class prejudice and is an added reason why such authors are largely written out of the canon.
The decline of Irish as a living language brought with it a fall in readership and a number of writers ended up writing in English in order to reach an audience. Others refused to bow to the rapid destruction of their native tongue, aided by waning literary production.
One of these was Seosamh Mac Grianna. The great loss to the Irish and indeed international readership has motivated some enlightened publishers and authors to translate his work into English. In 2009 (Ben Madigan Press), A.J. Hughes translated Mac Grianna’s novel The Big Drum (An Druma Mór, finished 1930, first published in Irish 1969) and now, in 2020, Lilliput Press have published Mícheál Ó hAodha’s translation of Mac Grianna’s autobiographical This Road of Mine.
Seosamh Mac Grianna came from a large rural working-class family of Donegal storytellers. Having won a scholarship to St Eunan's College in Letterkenny, he was expelled shortly thereafter for possessing revolutionary writings. He fought in the War of Independence and then in the civil war on the Anti-Treaty side, for which he was interned, even going on hunger strike.
In 1924, Mac Grianna began his short but very productive writing career, which lasted about 15 years. He came to realise the authenticity of writing in Irish through the work of Galway man Pádraig Ó Conaire, who moved Irish language prose into the sphere of contemporary international literature, who created psychologically rounded characters and wrote realistically about the socially marginalised.
The language of the poor, of the most marginal and disdained
Pól Ó Muirí writes about the Irish language in his Introduction:
English was, and remains, the language of the powerful and influential. Irish is the echo of other times: of wars, conquest and famine, of events and of people who are not to be discussed in polite society. It was the language of the poor, of the most marginal and disdained...
Mac Grianna’s early short stories fed into his first book, Dochartach Dhuibhlionna & Sgéalta Eile (1925). He also worked as a journalist, publishing articles in many Irish papers. His contribution to Irish language writing is enormous. He published ten literary works of his own and translated twelve books into Irish for An Gúm Irish language publishers. He received the Butler prize for his final novel, An Droma Mór. An Gúm refused publication, saying it was libellous. Mac Grianna became very disillusioned with An Gúm, particularly with its censorship, and voiced his criticism in the press. The Censorship of Publications Act, which had come into force in 1929, had a serious effect on Irish literary production, with many authors forced to publish abroad.
His stressful lifestyle affected his mental health, and he spent a year in Dublin’s main psychiatric hospital at the time. This put an end to his writing career and he depended on friends for financial support. Shortly after his partner Peggy O'Donnell ended her own life in 1959, Seosamh was admitted to Letterkenny’s psychiatric hospital, where he lived for over 30 years, until his death on 11 June 1990.
Mícheál Ó hAodha’s wonderful translation of This Road of Mine (1940) affords an insight into Mac Grianna’s personality, humour and world view. It describes his unfulfilling work translating for An Gúm, about which he says:
The government was running a scheme for the promotion of Irish language books and I began working on this. Not that the government of the day was known for its promotion of poetry or art.
It evokes for the reader his restless movement from one lodging to the next in Dublin, and his quirky sense of humour, for example, where he comes up with a new business idea – fortune telling. He takes on the persona of an Arab seer, Eli Ben Alim, who claims to have told their fortunes to many fabled people, including the ex-King of Bulgaria. Other sketches of encounters with people from the political spectrum of the time are also at times humorous, other times they give a sense of Mac Grianna’s loneliness and frustration, indeed poverty.
Much of the book tells of his lonely rambles across Wales, where we meet an author who is keenly sensitive to the beauty of nature and literature. He introduces discussions of communism, a movement he was associated with from his Dublin days, to his conversations with occasional travel companions. However, they remain elusive and we rarely hear their names. This changes when Mac Grianna encounters the West Indian Matthews, the first Black person he ever met, who inspires him to investigate the Haitian anti-slavery uprising and to address a meeting in Cardiff “where black men from all over the world (were) in attendance”.
Mac Grianna gets to know Matthews best in his rambles, and he takes the greatest interest in his cause. Poignantly, the memoir closes in the house.....
....Liam O’Flaherty lived in one time and the one where Pádraic Ó Conaire called in and made conversation on his last journey to Dublin where he died.
Mac Grianna is right to see himself in the company of those other two great Irish language working-class writers, all of whom were suppressed in one way or another for writing in Irish. A hundred and twenty years after Mac Grainna’s birth, we have the pleasure of following his Road.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.