Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “Ceist na Teangan” (“The Language Issue”), the last poem in Pharaoh’s Daughter, expresses her central concern as a writer. She has said that “Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological.” However, it is also a language that, in spite of its formidable history, had been reduced to the tongue of a small segment of the population of Ireland by the middle of the twentieth century and was in danger of extinction. In the poem, Ní Dhomhnaill writes, “I place my hope on the water/ in this little boat/ of the language,” indicating an urgency tempered by an awareness of uncertainty. She likens her poetry to the infant Moses, who is adrift at the mercy of the current and may find refuge “in the lap, perhaps/ of some Pharoah’s daughter,” and hopes her verses will find an unbiased, sympathetic reader from another culture who will respond with understanding and affection.
Ní Dhomhnaill has linked her sense of the need for cultural preservation to her conviction that “the attitude to the body enshrined in Irish remains extremely open and uncoy” and presents a more honest, humane, and ultimately realistic way to approach the physical nature of humans so that it is “almost impossible to be ’rude’ or ’vulgar’ in Irish.” An adjunct to this is the way in which the Irish folkloric tradition regards beings from “an saol eile” or the “otherworld” to be a subject for easy sentimentalization and infantilization, which “in Irish is a concept of such impeccable intellectual rigor and creditibilty that it is virtually impossible to translate into English,” but that can also be “a source of linguistic and imaginative playfulness,” a crucial component of her work.
Selected Poems, a bilingual edition containing Hartnett’s translations along with the Irish versions that first appeared in Rogha dánta, introduced Ní Dhomhnaill to the English-speaking world. The themes that define her work are already fully explored in this collection and give it a sense of substance as well as a distinctive, singular voice. The candor of her expression of the erotic is beautifully and tastefully conveyed by one of the poems that she herself translated, “Labysheedy” (“The Silken Bed”), in which the landscape is both a setting for and an image of a sexual union. “Féar suaithinseach” (“Marvelous Grass”) is a call to the male clergy to offer Ireland the true spirituality that has been missing from a rigid, fossilized, narrowly patriarchial institution. Ní Dhomhnaill has said that she was “pushed into poetry by having to tackle the patriarchy head on,” and there are a series of poems addressed to Cú Chulainn, the legendary hero celebrated notably by William Butler Yeats. In “Agallamh Na Mór-Riona Le Cú Chulainn” (“The Great Queen Speaks. Cú Chulainn Listens”), the queen tells the hero “I came to you/ as a queen/ colorfully clothed/ beautifully formed/ to grant you power/ and kingdoms,” and calls for the full potential of his wisdom to be employed in the interest...
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