Michael Cronin, Fortnight Magazine, May 2008
It is an easy matter to despair at the overwhelming dominance of the confessional in contemporary Irish life from the public intimacies of talk radio to the relentless production of autobiography and ‘life writing.’. But when everything changes so dramatically, as it has done in the recent history of Ireland, then making sense of the self seems to be one way of making sense of larger changes, as if self-understanding might put a shape on the slippery contours of the present. Mise Éire might be the epithet for the present riverrun of self-talk, the ‘I’ and the ‘Ireland’ joined in a dance of therapeutic remembering.
In Lorcán S. Ó Treasaigh’s latest novel, the reader encounters Labhrás, wandering through the country of his past, as he negotiates the indignities of a diminished present in the terminal outpost of the nursing home. Interpolated with Labhrás’s memories, is the tale of Darach, fleeing the ravages of the Black Death in 14th century Ireland. What Darach and Labhrás share across the intervening centuries is not only a language but a deep investment in place, whether this be the southern suburbs of the city or the fields of late medieval Ireland. In presenting the ideals and vision of an ageing urban language activist, sustained by a lifelong devotion to faith, fatherland and friotal, Ó Treasaigh is careful to avoid the caricature of presentist dismissal. The veteran is difficult, bigoted, awkward, cantankerous with a questionable weakness for Franco. He would appear to be the nightmare from which present-day language advocates are keen to awake. But Ó Treasaigh’s portrait of a man and of a vision in crisis is all the more compelling because there is no attempt to make his convictions more palatable or his rage more decorous. His deeply felt nationalism is shot through with a profound and acute sense of class hatred and he is as intensely hostile to US imperialism as he is curiously apologetic for Spanish fascism. Labhrás’s ultimate tragedy is as much public as personal, as he has throughout his life, seen his own destiny as bound up with that of his native place. The ideals of muintir, family, loyalty, which have been the structuring principles of Labhrás’s existence begin to dissolve in the corrosive dissonance of family life, as emotional realities tease apart the public commitment to faith and fidelity. Drink sustains the illusion of righteousness but there is no escaping the morning after of estrangement and loss.
Darach is Labhrás’s last interlocutor, a time refugee from an earlier century. He is a ghost of a kind, but unholy and puckish. His spectral presence is a reminder to Labhrás of what speaking a language means, the possibility of a conversation with those who have previously dwelt in a place, but also that the past should not be a sanctuary for whimsy. The Ireland of Darach is a difficult, troubled, changing place. The present has no monopoly on crisis and the past no exclusive rights to well-being. In this sense, the haunting in Cnoc na Lobhar is about facing up to particular ghosts, not in some shrieking exorcism of modernist triumphalism but in an attentive listening to what the past, both immediate and remote, might have to say about the drifting island.
The danger in the night thoughts of advancing age is the irresistible tug of self-importance and the angry crackle of indignation. Ó Treasaigh’s humour constantly challenges the leaden monologue of self-pity as memory itself complicates the adult life with the remembered mockeries of childhood: Buaileann an bailitheoir cíosa a dhorn ar dhoras an tionónta ach , ní fhreagraíonn duine ar bith an doras. Seasann sé amach ar an mbóthar nuair a osclaítear fuinneog ós a chionn. ‘You missed me last week,’ arsa mo dhuine leis an bhfuinneog thuas. ‘Well, I won’t miss you this week!’ a d’fhreagair an diabhal bocht san fhuinneog agus caitheann amach pota fuail sa mhullach ar an mbailitheoir. Ó Treasaigh’s 2002 novel Céard é English? showed the emergence of a distinctive style from a native urban speaker of Irish and the latest novel again underscores his attentiveness to the varieties of voice and narrative. There is a confidence in _expression and a sureness of nuance which make the decline and fall of Lábhras more than simply another tale of the dream that failed. Cnoc na Lobhar tracks the bruised passage from public righteousness to private doubt but there is no inevitability about the collapse, Labhrás’s world did not have to disappear as emphatically as it did. Ó Treasaigh leaves contingency have the last, eloquent word. A perverse effect of the public profile of Irish-language poetry translation is to mask the substantial body of contemporary Irish prose. Mainly untranslated, it remains largely unacknowledged. So accounts of literary activity only very rarely take account of a buoyant modern Irish-language literature in prose. As Cnoc na Lobhar so memorably shows, it might be high time to find out about the phantom menace.