Friday, June 12, 2009

Gaelically Gaelic: On Flann O'Brien's The Poor Mouth

Flann O'Brien: The Poor Mouth, Dalkey Archive Press, 128 pp.

First published in 1941, An Beal Bocht is the only of Flann O'Brien's handful of novels written in Gaelic. The novel was finally translated into English and published in 1973 as The Poor Mouth. The title (both Gaelic and English) comes from a Gaelic expression--"putting on the poor mouth"--which means to exaggerate the direness of one's situation in order to gain time or favor from creditors. The direness one finds here is great indeed, as is the exaggeration. One should read this book because its like will not be there again.

The action is set in a fictional village in the Gaeltacht known as Corkadoragha, a place where the suffering and poverty of the Gaelic people is pure and unmitigated. In first-person narrative, the tale purports to be the life story of Bonaparte O'Coonassa, a local resident. According to this hilariously uninformed narrator, the torrential rains of his home village Corkadoragha are are more torrential, the squalor more squalid, the hopelessness more utterly hopeless than anywhere else in Ireland. O'Coonassa is not the only pessimist to be had. The few other characters spend most of their breath lamenting the cruelty of their "Gaelic fate". Everything disastrous that occurs is attributed to this national fate, normally evoked as a kind of all-inclusive doom that both annihilates and somehow ennobles one. Gaelic fate is seen partially in the sky and its constant downpours--"sky-crucifyings," as one character calls them--and partially in distinction to the other, better fate presumably enjoyed by "foreigners," i.e. the English. The most salient feature here is a poverty to which one must be resigned: to struggle against it would be foolish.

The hardships of life in Corkadoragha have one beneficent effect, however. Because the region is known for its exemplary destitution and backwardness, it is also judged by patriotic Dublin enthusiasts to have the very best, the very purest Gaelic. So the muddy hills and flooded fields of Corkadoragha are periodically visited by culture vultures from the capital, hoping to learn real Gaelic and get in touch with their supposed roots.

The narrator tells of the great Gaelic feis organized organized by his grandfather, a man he refers to usually as "the Old Grey Fellow." A festival of sorts ostensibly organized to celebrate all things Gaelic (but really organized to enrich the Old Grey Fellow), the feis brought both enthusiasts from the capital and many of the long-suffering country folk. Of course from beginning to end the festival-goers were crucified by the nonstop downpour. And eight of the locals died because, as we learn, their weakened constitutions couldn't stand the rigors of the obligatory Gaelic folk dancing:

The dance continued until the dancers drove their lives out through the soles of their feet and eight died during the course of the feis. Due to both the fatigue caused by the revels and the truly Gaelic famine that was ours always, they could not be succoured when they fell on the rocky dancing floor and, upon my soul, short was their tarrying on this particular area because they wended their way to eternity without more ado.

Even though death snatched many fine people from us, the events of the feis went on sturdily and steadily, we were ashamed to be considered not strongly in favor of Gaelic while the [festival] President's eye was upon us.
Various speakers give speeches "strongly in favor of Gaelic." And here we can see O'Brien aping what he most hated about the self-proclaimed Gaelic Revivalists: their aggressive provincialism; the cretinous circularity of their discourse, a way of speech and thought bound to strangle itself in a noose of its own making. The man elected as president of the festival harangues the crowd:
Gaels! It delights my Gaelic heart to be here today speaking Gaelic with you at this Gaelic feis in the centre of the Gaeltacht. May I state that I am a Gael. I'm Gaelic from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet. . . . If we're truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.
If for the culture vultures being Gaelically Gaelic means speaking of nothing but revivalism, the true Gaels of Corkadoragha seem to define their Gaelicism rather by the extent of their hopelessness. The ennobling character of their "Gaelic fate" is best seen in the narrator's subtle eulogy of Sitric O'Sanassa, a beggar of the district. O'Sanassa is admired by both Dubliners and locals:
He possessed the very best poverty, hunger and distress also. He was generous and open-handed and he never possessed the smallest object which he did not share with the neighbours; nevertheless, I can never remember him during my time possessing the least thing, even the quantity of little potatoes needful to keep body and soul joined together. In Corkadoragha, where every human being was sunk in poverty, we always regarded him as a recipient of alms and compassion. The gentlemen from Dublin who came in motors to inspect the paupers praised him for his Gaelic poverty and stated that they never saw anyone who appeared so truly Gaelic. . . . There was no one in Ireland comparable to O'Sanassa in the excellence of his poverty; the amount of famine which was delineated in his person.
O'Sanassa lives in a hole he's dug into the side of a hill. In the course of the tale he decides to leave the human world altogether and live the rest of his life in a sea cave with the seals. The others try to get him to quit the cave, but to no avail. He has his reasons for staying:
Where he was, he had freedom from the inclement weather, the famine and the abuse of the world. Seals would constitute his company as well as his food. . . . It did not appear that he would desert such a well-built comfortable abode after all he had experienced of the misery of Corkadoragha. That was definite, he declared.
O'Brien's fictional Corkadoragha allows the writer to get in his sights both the ridiculous posing and capering of the revivalists and the pathetic fatalism of the Gaeltacht peasants. Beggars, politicians, farmers, literati--they all strut forth in their glorious folly. The Poor Mouth is an example of universal satire, the kind of literary work the Russian critic Bakhtin has defined and celebrated as carnivalesque. And in fact there's something in the novel that reminds one of Rabelais. As with Rabelais, one senses the violence of O'Brien's satire is not entirely mean-spirited: there's something celebratory in it too. Perhaps this is why, even in the more nationalist days of the mid-century, O'Brien's novel received much more praise than condemnation.

O'Brien's Gaelic was translated into English by Patrick Power. The translation has gotten much praise, from John Updike among others:
Patrick C. Power has performed sorcery in translating a work so specific in its allusions and exotic in its language. Again and again, so consistently that we come to take it for granted, Mr. Power re-creates Gaelic music in English.
Whether or not one can really hear Gaelic music in English I'm not sure (and I doubt Updike can be sure either) but it's certain that one of the joys of this work is the quirkiness of the narrator's expression. There's an infectious rhythm and verbosity in his manner of explaining things: a wordiness both useless and expressive of a patient despair. Powers establishes this tone and rhythm on the first page and never loses it. The style is similar to that of O'Brien's English novels, but there's something else too, something unique and, I suspect, inimitable. How this style relates to O'Brien's Gaelic I can only guess. It's definitely compelling as it stands in the English, which is a credit to the translator.

The Poor Mouth is published by Dalkey Archive Press and illustrated by Ralph Steadman. The translator has provided useful footnotes to explain certain allusions and untranslatable puns.

The likes of this book will certainly never be there again.

Check The Poor Mouth at

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