Redefining the Fringes in Celtic Studies

Essays in Literature and Culture

by Aleksander Bednarski (Volume editor) Robert Looby (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection 160 Pages


These essays in the language, literature and history of the broadly speaking Celtic world range widely over time and space and subject matter. Subjects include the design of autobiographies in the early years of the Irish republic, the publishing scandal around "Youth is my Sin" by John Rowlands, the poetry of Francis Ledwidge, Gabriel Rosenstock and Sean Ó Ríordáin, "Sheepshagger" by Niall Griffiths, the Irish language in science fiction, medieval Welsh law, and Pádraig Ó Cíobháin’s landmark novel, "The Brightness Out There."

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Three Blasket Autobiographies and the Editorial Design of Their First Editions
  • The Ienctid yw ’Mhechod Saga
  • Irish Language and Identity in Contemporary Irish Poetry
  • Some Remarks on the Periodisation of Welsh Medieval Law
  • The Great Wars of Francis Ledwidge (1887–1917)
  • The Polish Origins of Irish-Language Modernist Fiction? Joseph Conrad & Pádraig Ó Conaire
  • A Portrait of the Artist in Late Modern Munster Irish
  • Rats, Wraiths and Railways – The Irish Language in Science-Fiction and Fantasy
  • Aspects of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s Poetic Idiom
  • Dragon Red in Tooth and Claw: Darwin, Nature and Morality in Niall Griffiths’s Sheepshagger


The selection of articles collected in this volume is based on an assumption that the fringes of Celtic Studies still represent a challenge and that established areas are worth revisiting. Peripheries and borderlands are always an exciting object of study: with their blank spots and unexplored territories they capture the attention of researchers. The chapters in this collection, by both established and young scholars, deal with a wide range of phenomena connected with the language, literature and history of the broadly speaking Celtic world, ranging widely over time, space and subject matter. One thing that the analyses share, however, is their focus on uncharted or little explored waters, which confirms that Celtic Studies, especially in their literary and cultural aspect, are an exciting and expanding discipline. The contributors’ expeditions to remote or undiscovered areas include the design of autobiographies in the early years of the Irish republic, an overview of the controversy over a sex scene in a Welsh-language novel by John Rowlands, the poetry of the somewhat neglected Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, Irish-language science-fiction and comics, a cognitive ethological perspective on Niall Griffiths’s novel Sheepshagger, and possible Polish origins of Irish-language modernist fiction. Other chapters offer a periodisation of medieval Welsh law, insightful analyses of Pádraig Ó Cíobháin’s landmark novel The Brightness Out There and the work of Seán Ó Ríordáin – a poet little known outside the Irish-language world – as well as contemporary Irish-language poetry in the context of language loss.

By bringing together such heterogeneous but at the same time fresh insights into diverse areas of Celtic scholarship, this volume aims to invite further research in the fields probed by the contributors in their chapters.

We would like to thank Professor David Malcolm for his valuable insights and acknowledge the support received from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade via a Cultural Grant-in-Aid and thank his Excellency, the Irish Ambassador in Poland, Gerard McKeown.

Aleksander Bednarski

Robert Looby

Anna Cisło

Three Blasket Autobiographies and the Editorial Design of Their First Editions

Abstract: In the early years of the Irish Free State the physical book in Irish became a rich collection of signs offering assistance to political separatism, while typography evidenced the national parallelism approach and graphic design supported the process of national identity formation. This chapter discusses the context for the emergence of autobiographies by Tomás Ó Criomhthain (1855/6–1937), Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (1904–1950) and Peig Sayers (1873–1958) and the design of their first editions. It interprets the signs contained therein and discusses the extent to which they were symptoms of the era in which they were created.

Keywords: Great Blasket Island, An Gúm, autobiography, editorial design, Irish literature, book

1 Introduction

By the end of the 19th century, due to the politically controlled process of Anglicisation, the social upheaval following the Great Famine and the mass emigration of the native Irish from Ireland, which decimated their communities and necessitated their learning English, English in Ireland had become for most people the primary medium of spoken and written communication. It was the language of status, whose use was widespread, whereas Irish, then favoured by less than 30 % of the population, was used mostly by older, often illiterate people from disadvantaged classes in peripheral areas (Ó Murchú 1999: 10). Hardly anything was published in Irish and so, when the Irish language revival movement sought, among other goals, to restore the Irish book, not only did creative writers have to be found but also the lack of standards and norms in printed Irish had to be addressed. When the revivalists’ attempts did bear fruit, the physical book in Irish became a rich collection of signs providing support for political separatism and the process of national identity formation. This article discusses the context for the emergence of the autobiographies by Tomás Ó Criomhthain (1855/6–1937), Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (1904–1950) and Peig Sayers (1873–1958), three inhabitants of the Irish speaking Great Blasket Island, and the editorial design of their first editions, which appeared in the Irish Free State, in the 1920s and 1930s: it will interpret the signs contained therein and will address the questions as to what extent they were symptoms of the era in which they were created.

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2 Irish Language Literature of the Irish Revival and the Free State

Although at the turn of the 20th century the precipitant shift to English in Ireland was clearly under way, there were at least two factors which helped Irish survive. First of all, as it is summed up in The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, “the rate of language shift slowed as it encountered around the western seaboard the densely populated areas, officially at the time called ‘congested districts’ [later collectively referred to with the term Gaeltacht], in which communities were almost autonomous in their subsistence economies and had little access to competence in English.” Secondly, “towards the end of the 19th cent., there emerged a vigorous Irish-language restoration movement. The latter contributed significantly to a renewal of the idea of political separatism, and the aims of achieving the political independence of Ireland and of restoring the Irish language became for a time indistinguishable” (Welch 1996: 266). Among the organisations that came to be active in promoting the use of Irish in the fields of everyday life, education and publishing the most influential was Conradh na Gaeilge, known in English as the Gaelic League, founded in 1893 under the presidency of Douglas Hyde (1860–1949), the man who was to become the first president of Ireland, 1938–1945. Its objective, as was stated in an early pamphlet in 1896, was twofold: (1) “the preservation of Irish as the National language of Ireland, and the extension of its use as a spoken tongue” and (2) “the study and publication of existing Irish literature, and the cultivation of modern literature in Irish” (Ó Fearaíl 1975: 6). Such goals were later adopted by politicians of the Free State established in 1922. There is no evidence that the Gaelic League attempted to build a purely monolingual Irish society. On the contrary, one of its prominent members, Patrick Pearse (1979: 35), wrote in 1915 that “an Irish nation [needed] no more be a purely Irish-speaking nation; but […] be permeated through and through by Irish culture, the repository of which [was] the Irish language.” This language was to be the medium employed in education and in literature and so debates took place about the form of written Irish to be used and its graphic representation in printed books.

As to the form of literary Irish, some argued that it “should base itself on the last national linguistic norm that had existed, that of educated and professional writing of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” whereas others were of the opinion that “it should adopt the contemporary spoken vernacular, referred to as ‘caint na ndaoine’ (‘the speech of the people’)” (Ó Ciosáin 2004: 7). This issue is believed to have been settled in favour of the latter by the success of Séadna, Peadar Ó Laoghaire’s novella, written and published in contemporary Munster ←10 | 11→Irish. In typography, a choice was to be made between using Roman and Gaelic types. The Gaelic League advocated the use of the latter and, indeed, “[the] vast majority of books in the early twentieth century used Gaelic type, chosen probably as a sign of the distinctiveness of gaelic [sic] culture” (Ó Ciosáin 2004: 5).

However, in the officially bilingual Irish Free State, as Brian Ó Cuív (1969: 26) points out, “there was a tendency from the outset to use Roman type,” which was connected with calculating the expected high costs of the use of two types of fonts both in printed and typewritten materials. Still, when, under the auspices of the Irish Government, An Gúm, the state’s organ for the publication of texts in Irish, was established as a publishing arm of the Department of Education, so strong was the conservative opposition to the Roman type that most of the books printed in the first thirty years of An Gúm’s activity employed Gaelic characters and in 1928 the Gaelic League passed a resolution that “it [was] better for Irish that no great change be made in the type or the spelling of Irish until the language [was] out of danger of death or destruction” (Ó Cuív 1969: 29). It is also possible that An Gúm cared more for the content of its books than for their editorial form. Nothing critical of the new state or the Catholic church, which influenced this state’s image and policies, would be accepted. Thus, the agency soon came to favour either translations from foreign languages, on subjects unrelated to Ireland, or native literary works impeccable from a moral point of view, preferably ones that enhanced the image of a brave, hardworking and innocent native inhabitant of Ireland and at the same time, reversing negative connotations attached to the Irish Celt in an earlier English-language Victorian discourse, described, among others, by L. Perry Curtis (1968 & 1971; Cisło 2004).

For Gaelic Leaguers, God’s chosen people of pure blood were the people of the west-coast Gaeltacht (Doyle 2015: 196). It was hoped that with some encouragement “native speakers [of Irish] would learn to read and write and begin producing stories, plays, and poetry of their own” (Doyle 2015: 252). Indeed, “[w];ith time,” writes Aidan Doyle (2015: 252), “a small percentage of native speakers did begin to write. The work they produced was heavily influenced by folklore tradition which was still very strong in the Gaeltacht areas […] [and included] written versions of folktales, with unsophisticated story-lines and stereotypical characters.” A good example of such literature is the aforementioned Séadna. Apart from this kind of writing, a new genre developed – the autobiography, in which Gaeltacht inhabitants gave recollections of their lives, encouraged to do so by scholars and language enthusiasts making trips to the Irish-speaking areas in the West of the country. Thus, the development of this genre, which flourished in the Free State, can be considered a result of the Irish language revival as well as of a more general interest in aspects of Celtic cultures. It generated a romanticised ←11 | 12→idea of Celtic identity, which had been waiting to be explored and exploited in literature and politics. Therefore, places inhabited by native Celtic people were given special attention and to those belonged the Blasket archipelago: “the Blaskets,” as Robert Kanigel (2012: 12) puts it, “weren’t just islands in the farthest western reaches of Ireland. They were The West, which had come to stand for the deepest, purest wells of Irish nationhood.”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Irish-language poetry Irish-language Fiction Welsh-language Fiction Welsh law Irish-Polish Comparative Studies
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 158 S., 1 s/w Abb

Biographical notes

Aleksander Bednarski (Volume editor) Robert Looby (Volume editor)

Aleksander Bednarski is a lecturer in the Department of Celtic Studies at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland. He has published on the work of Niall Griffiths, Gwyneth Lewis, Jerry Hunter and Lloyd Jones. Robert Looby is a lecturer in the Department of Celtic Studies at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland. He has written extensively on translation and censorship.


Title: Redefining the Fringes in Celtic Studies
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162 pages