The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Written originally in Irish, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “My Dark Master” is a short poem of ten four-line stanzas that loosely follow an abab rhyme scheme. Ní Dhomhnaill, a leading voice among Ireland’s women writers, was born in Lancashire, England, but grew up in the Dingle Gaeltacht in County Kerry (an area of Ireland that still speaks Irish as its primary language) and in Nenagh, County Tipperary. She has been the recipient of numerous poetry awards, including the Irish American Foundation Award (1988) and the American Ireland Fund Literature Prize (1991).

As the title suggests, “My Dark Master” focuses on the relationship between a dominant figure, the unnamed dark master, and the subordinate speaker. The poem opens with the speaker striking a bargain with “death” to spend time with him. The identity of the dark master is not made clear at first. Instead, the initial stanzas detail the agreement they strike, as the speaker spits in her palm before shaking the dark master’s hand (a traditional symbol of a solemn pact) and signs a contract to become “indentured on the spot.” In the third stanza, readers learn that the speaker was only nineteen years old at the time, suggesting that her youthfulness contributed to her naiveté about the relationship, which she called “a stroke of luck.” However, the optimism underlying Ní Dhomhnaill’s initial tone shifts to a more ominous note as she describes falling “into his...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

That “My Dark Master” was originally written in Irish is significant for several reasons. On one level, it serves as a bridge between contemporary poets and Ireland’s ancient literary history. Ní Dhomhnaill explains that writing in Irish “is the oldest continuous literary activity in Western Europe, starting in the fifth century and flourishing in a rich and varied manuscript tradition right down through the Middle Ages.” She began writing poetry in English as a little girl, but Irish seemed the more natural language to use to express herself. She believes that poetry must come from deep within the individual where native culture lies, so the poet’s search for meaning in life mimics an archaeologist seeking to unlock history from layers of cultural sediment. One of the omnipresent themes in Irish literature is the search for a national identity, and to this Ní Dhomhnaill adds the woman poet’s search for artistic identity. Working in Irish provides the poet with a stronger connection to the past and thus helps create an artistic genealogy that male writers have enjoyed all along; it also serves as a reminder that Ireland must reestablish an inclusive literature.

In addition to its political implications, composing in Irish allows Ní Dhomhnaill access to “a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity, of quick hilarious banter, and a welter of references both historical and mythological.” Her soul is Irish, so she writes in Irish, not so much as an act of rebellion, but to find the best expression for her art. The popularity of Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry reflects a resurgence of national interest in Irish as a language. Until the late nineteenth century, a majority of citizens used Irish for their daily speech, but the mass emigrations following the Great Famine (1845-1848) and the steady urbanization of the rural western counties where Irish was most frequently spoken has dramatically reduced the number of speakers. In the Irish Republic, an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 people still use Irish as their primary language, and an additional 150,000 are estimated to use it in the six counties of Northern Ireland (although many speakers are bilingual).