Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gearóid Mac Lochlainn

[A couple of years ago, this encyclopaedia-like piece was commissioned, and subsequently rejected for unknown reasons, by Poetry International. I’m posting it now because I think Mac Lochlainn’s work is engaging, important, and indeed joyful.]

Gearóid Mac Lochlainn
(Ireland, 1966)  

Gearóid Mac Lochlainn was born in Belfast in 1966 and thus is of the generation in the Six Counties which has grown up with the Troubles. Mac Lochlainn’s gritty urban outlook is in marked contrast to most of the previous generation of Northern poets. An Irish-speaker from West Belfast, he was steeped in the atmosphere of the armed struggle and is overtly aware of the disjunctions which stem from being bilingual in such a highly-politicised society, a part of Ireland where national sovereignty is still contested. Thus, Mac Lochlainn cannot help but be confronted by questions of cultural and linguistic identity, and this is reflected in his work. The poem ‘Teacht i Méadaíocht’ (translated as ‘Rite of Passage’) describes the first time its speaker is stopped by a British army patrol: ‘– Keep yer fucking ’ands on the wall, Paddy! // I heard my details passed over the radio / to another stranger at base, / my Irish name now unrecognisable, / carved up by the crackling blades of English and static.’  The British army occupation of the North is here analogous to the often antagonistic relationship between the two languages, the indigenous Irish and the colonising English. 

Mac Lochlainn’s first two collections, Babylon Gaeilgeoir (An Clochán, 1997) and Na Scéalaithe (Coiscéim, 1999), dealt with such issues through the medium of the Irish language only. However, his breakthrough collection, Sruth Teangacha / Stream of Tongues (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2002), is bilingual and includes translations of some of his earlier poems. It could be argued that it is in the interplay between the different versions of Mac Lochlainn that he becomes especially interesting. As he writes in the notes to Sruth Teangacha, ‘In the original poems sound shaped syntax to a large extent and for this reason I believe it is impossible to really “translate” Irish poetry’. Mac Lochlainn (with his co-translators) often departs from his own original versions, sometimes significantly. There is a destabilising effect in regard to language, and the author himself speaks of ‘a playful jibe thrown out at the monoglot who seeks truth in translation’. Sruth Teangacha in this way is a type of meta-work, composed not just of Irish poems and English translations, but of the interaction between the two.

The result of this, though, is that neither the originals nor the translations can necessarily be considered authoritative in their own right. While each comments on its counterpart, it also undermines any claim that the other might have to being the ‘real’ poem. Certainly this is what Mac Lochlainn intends in regard to the translations; he is cognisant of the danger of allowing the English versions to ‘gain an autonomy of their own and eclipse the Irish’. What is more problematic is the effect on the original poems. The fact that a parallel version exists destabilises the authority of the original just as much as vice versa. However, given that only a small percentage of people will be able to read the originals, the troubling contradictions inherent in Mac Lochlainn’s work could be lost on many. It is likely that certain of his readers do not fully grasp the deeper implications being made about language, both as a cultural manifestation and as an entity unto itself, and instead take him as an energetic, Beat-influenced performance poet. Well, that is fine too.

A handful of poems in Sruth Teangacha are centred around the character of ‘Mo Chara’, a dishevelled busker who is ‘in a bad way’, and these form the basis for Mac Lochlainn’s next book, Criss-Cross / Mo Chara (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2011). Where the previous collection included Irish-language poems and their translations on facing pages, Criss-Cross / Mo Chara mixes things up both in regard to translation and to literary form. A number of poems are translated (again, usually in significantly different renditions), but many are not. Irish and English often intermix to create, as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has blurbed the book, ‘a creole or macaronic language which closely embodies the experience of many on this island of being literate (and sometimes illiterate) in two languages at the same time’. Further, given the sustained focus on the character (who is at times cynical, even about the Irish language itself, but who always maintains the characteristic Belfast irony), the poems in this volume have to be read as linked. A narrative develops, and so Criss-Cross / Mo Chara becomes a sort of novel-in-verse.

Mac Lochlainn has held writer-in-residence posts at Queen’s University, Belfast, and at the University of Ulster, and was a fellow at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He has performed his work at numerous festivals and readings and is also a musician. Indeed, his two volumes with Cló Iar-Chonnacht are accompanied by CDs that combine poetry and music, adding a further layer to his challenging and original project.

– Michael S. Begnal

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