Jenny Farrell reviews Exiles, by Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, translated by Mícheál Ó hAodha (Parthian, 2020)
Awareness of working-class literature is only growing slowly in Ireland. This is not because it has not so far existed – far from it. Working-class people have known and cherished their tradition for a long time, as a source of inspiration, of comfort, of knowing, that here they find their own life experience reflected.
Mainstream culture and academia are simply not interested in the voice of the class that creates the nation’s wealth, assuming that the reading public is equally uninterested in these life stories. Middle-class experience dominates the mainstream cultural outlets. In mainstream culture, the ruling class, through the cultural establishment, determines the narrative. It exercises cultural hegemony, which complements its economic exploitation and political domination. Publishing working people’s voices takes a stand against the mainstream narrative, mainstream educational assumptions, and mainstream cultural sidelining.
In addition to this class prejudice, there is the prejudice against Irish language literature, which naturally expresses the working-class experience. Some of these writers are Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, later teacher and scribe, who joined with the United Irishmen in their anti-colonial struggle. From a long line of Gaelic scribes, Ó Longáin, worked as a wandering labourer, living in poverty for most of his life, or the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Seosamh Mac Grianna, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, or Máirtín Ó Direáin. And still, there are writers like Tomás Mac Síomóin, who are vaguely acknowledged but not promoted, writing in Irish.
So here, with Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s Exiles we have a voice coming from a doubly suppressed tradition – the working-class tradition, as well as the Irish language tradition. On top of this, I would add the establishment dislike of socialists, a category to which all the above-mentioned writers belong.
Mac Amhlaigh left school at 15, worked in a woollen mill, on farms and in hotels, finally enlisting in the Irish-speaking regiment of the Army, before emigrating to England in 1951. Here, he worked as a navvy. He took up writing and his first book Dialann Deoraí (1960; An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile, 1964) was well received. Mac Amhlaigh also contributed prolifically to Irish and British journals and magazines, as well as being involved in the Connolly Association and a founder member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in Northampton.
Poet Mícheál Ó hAodha has now beautifully translated his late novel Deoraithe (1986) as Exiles. The experience of emigration, unskilled labouring and culture shock for native Irish speakers landing on the English job market, all feed into a gripping read. This experience comes to life in the stories of two characters, Nano who works in a hospital and Trevor, a navvy. A third character, Niall, who has just left the Army and tries to find work in Ireland, acts as a reminder of what kind of hardships and deprivation these young people were facing in De Valera’s poverty-stricken Catholic Ireland of the 1950s. It is a grim picture, and the fact that the main characters lose their attachment to Ireland can be easily understood. At the same time, this cultural dislocation is felt deeply. Mícheál Ó hAodha sensitively renders the Irish vernacular into very readable, authentic Hiberno-English, which gives readers a sense of the rhythms and sounds of Irish.
Emigration has left a deep scar in Ireland. Having just recently edited an anthology of contemporary Irish working-class poetry (Children of the Nation, Culture Matters, 2019) and a companion volume of prose (From the Plough to the Stars, Culture Matters, 2020), I can attest that both emigration in the past as well as in the present is a theme never far from working people’s concerns. Very many of the young people for whom the Irish state has no use, never return. These working people’s anthologies include contributors who either were economically exiled from Ireland themselves, or indeed are the offspring of such emigrants. Their writing shows just how deep this experience goes and how it lives on in the next generation.
In this context, let me also mention J. A. O’Brien’s Against the Wind. Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner (Sid Harter Publishers, 2013) as an autobiographical book, set at the same time as Exiles. O’Brien worked as a bricklayer in London at the same time as Mac Amhlaigh went to England. Both went for work and they therefore share common experiences. O’Brien relates his time as a politically aware, left-wing Dubliner. Mac Amhlaigh’s characters are true to their rural backgrounds and less politically aware, although the author’s own political consciousness informs the novel. As an autobiography, O’Brien’s book is different to Mac Amhlaigh’s novel and yet the same ground and experiences resonate and each text reinforces the essential truth of the other.