When she moved from Lancashire to Dingle at the age of five, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill found herself temporarily caught between two worlds: one Irish, and Irish speaking, the other English. As she matured, she found that she had to live in both.
Today, Nuala’s poetry explores several worlds: male and female; conscious and subconscious; rational and instinctual; and the “Otherworld” of Celtic legend. The friction between those worlds, she says, produces the energy that both inspires and supports her poetry.
Ó Caiside: Would you please describe your childhood in Dingle and life in the Irish Gaeltacht at that time.
Ní Dhomhnaill: When I was five, my uncles were drowned. They were two brothers of my mother, and one of them was going to get the land. At the same time, my father got a job in Ireland, as a house surgeon at a hospital in County Tipperary. But he came over from Lancashire alone, because the appointment wasn’t permanent.Rather than stay with my mother in England, I was given to another aunt and uncle in West Kerry, and my granny closed up her house and came to live with us. Between the jigs and the reels then, they persuaded my mother to return. It was really the deaths of my uncles that brought my mother back to Ireland, and her sense of responsibility to her mother.
Ó Caiside: How difficult was the transition for you?
Ní Dhomhnaill: When I arrived in West Kerry, I had been given a middle-class upbringing in English in England. Here was this five-year-old child arriving in Dingle who had no Irish! And here I was in this village with no running water, no electricity. There wasn’t even a radio. During that year, we became the first family in the village to get a radio, a battery radio. The whole village used to come in at night when we children were up in bed to listen to the news. When we came down in the morning, we would find the red transparent cigarette wrappers that people left behind scattered on the floor, and it was very exciting for us to collect them.
And we had great talk! People would go to each other’s houses and talk all the time. I still go up to houses in the village. But I think I must have been unbearable at the time. I was so spoiled in England. I remember hitting my cousins and then running up to them with colored pencils, special colored pencils that had been sent to me from England, so they wouldn’t tell on me. I think I must have been quite obnoxious.
Ó Caiside: You said during your poetry reading [on the night of the interview] that your people have had the gift of poetry for generations. Would you explain that?
Ní Dhomhnaill: The last of the great local folk-poets was a distant relative of mine. And I had a grand-uncle who was actually a poet, although he never wrote a single line. He had a terrific command of language, both Irish and English. He was a terrific pub companion, though he was a bit of a “house devil, street angel,” and he knew the lyrics to every song every composed. And that shows the same fascination with words that you find in a poet.
In our community there was a stupendously high level of verbal felicity and virtuosity. That’s because we had no other creative outlet for centuries. We were so poor in West Kerry that we didn’t even have the money to buy musical instruments, so we didn’t have an instrumental traditional music of our own. Puss music, mouth music or lilting, was very common, I can still do it. But singing was the great tradition, and there were towns and parishes where everyone sang, all the time. And you didn’t have to be a public performer, you’d just be singing to yourself all day. I still do that, too. It passes the time, and there are always songs running in and out of my head. Somhairle MacGill-Eain says that the reason he’s a poet is that he has no voice. He knows all the words to the songs but he can’t sing them. At some level, I think I’m a poet because I can’t sing.
Ó Caiside: Was the level of conversation, the use of language, different in your Gaeltacht than elsewhere in Ireland?
Ní Dhomhnaill:The importance of conversation was most pronounced. Once you get over the Shannon, conversation becomes double-edged, and people make great imaginative leaps in the middle of sentences. And there are other parts of Ireland, maybe Cavan, where they’re just as bad as us or worse. It’s the constant joking and sly way of talking that we have that’s fascinating.
I think that it was made more obvious to me when I first came to Kerry, because I was five years old and already spoke English. If you’re brought up with something you’re not always aware of it, but this type of conversation was unusual to me and it really hit me in the face.
I suppose, too,that the sheer effort of having to learn Irish to survive imprinted it on me like hot coals, and made the way we use language even more apparent to me. My mother still says that it was a big mistake to send me off to Kerry that time, but I think that if it was, it was a creative mistake.
Ó Caiside: How did you come to leave Ireland and travel to the East, to Turkey?
Ní Dhomhnaill: Well, I met this man and fell in love with him, and later on I found out that he was a Turk! There was pandemonium at home about it. So I left home when I was 21 and swore I would never set foot on that benighted island again.
But the language drew me back. A loneliness for the language, and the music. Even in Dublin I’m quite lonely, because I can’t go out and speak Irish on the street or just ring somebody and have a conversation in Irish for fun. Radio na Gaeltachta is my lifeline. I have it on all day, every day, as much as I’m in. If it weren’t for that, I’d be as exiled in Dublin as I was in Ankara, and that doesn’t say much for the capital city of Ireland.
Ó Caiside: In “Tá¡imid Dámanta, a Dheirfearacha” [one of Ní Dhomhnaill’s early poems] you seem to reject restrictions imposed on women by a patriarchal society in favor of a fully realized life. To what extent did your personal rejection of such restraints lead you to become a poet?
Ní Dhomhnaill: It was the thing that pushed me into poetry. I had pushed myself into such a corner that the only way out was to jump psychically, by writing poetry. The distress caused by having to tackle the patriarchy head on … the family, society, the gratuitous cruelty of the community … it was simply unjust. By the time I got into my teens, every time I went into a church I fainted. Literally. My father thought it was epilepsy or something, but it was simply a hysterical reaction to the pressures the Church put on me. It took me years to formulate in words what my body was telling me then: “This Church is killing you.”
Ó Caiside: Do you believe that conditions have improved for women in Ireland today?
Ní Dhomhnaill:Oh yes, my generation was under greater pressure. I don’t think the tension would be so acute today. I have a daughter growing up now, we’ll see how she does.
Ó Caiside: Images and symbols from Celtic mythology and folklore are often woven into your poems. What draws you to those images?
Ní Dhomhnaill: Irish, the language itself, makes available whole dimensions that are not available in English. In Irish, you can talk quite unconcernedly about fairy women and chihuahuas in the same sentence, and the chihuahua won’t be embarrassed by the Bean an Leasa and the Bean an Leasa won’t be embarrassed by the chihuahua. There’s a protocol, a system for dealing with such things.
In English it would all sound superstitious, but in Irish mermaids, fairy women and spirits all have a completely different connotation. And I believe that even if they weren’t there we would have to invent them. I’m interested in why we invent them, the need we have for them, and what they say about levels of our psyche which are not available to us through the modern rational view of the world.For example, the very existence of legends about mermaids and the Isle of Women tells us that in old Celtic times female energy was already an “island,” cut off from the main part of our psyche. But it was still there, and the fact that in Irish we’re always talking about Uí Braisil, and seahorses, and nixies means that although those images are shut out by the rational mind-set, we still haven’t forgotten them.
We half-remember them, and that’s what fascinates me.
I’ve always been aware, even when I was a very small child, that there was more to the world than meets the eye. There’s an awful lot going on beneath the surface. And maybe that sense is a reflection of my personality. I’d say nine-tenths of my personality is a huge dark continent below the surface, an iceberg submerged.
I’m often submerged in a soup of images and feelings, and it is so rich that sometimes I never want to surface. But I feel how little I’ve touched on whole dimensions of experience. My son is into math and he talks to me about multiple dimensions … I don’t understand the mathematics of it, but I do somehow understand the psychology of it. I’ve always been aware of all that’s there underneath the surface, waiting to come out.
Falling in love helped bring the poet in me to the surface. After I fell in love, my life took another form. The word for “lover” and the word for “folk-poet” are the same in Turkish, ashik. And I understand the connection. When I fell in love, an image from the Otherworld broke into this world, a numinous image, and I followed it. It’s as if the emotional side of me was pressed down into this great sea and it somehow surfaced. That’s what I’m trying to recover, not just a submerged island there, but a whole continent.
It’s all to do with this world and the Otherworld. It’s as if the Otherworld comes very close to me sometimes. I’m touched, and a numinous image takes hold of me. The only way I have of surviving such an experience is to part it in a vessel outside of me, and that vessel is poetry. I put all that god-energy into my poems so I can be an ordinary human being and get about my business, and not be running around the house like a possessed monster!
Ó Caiside: Then would you consider a poem to be an object of sorts?
Ní Dhomhnaill: Oh it is. It’s more than just words on the page. The high voltage, the shock behind it, makes the words jump out. Anyone can put words on paper, but poetry is of a different order. Poetry represents a different form of being. Sometimes I feel as if I’m a great wind tunnel that cosmic forces blow through, and when I’m lucky I get them out of me and onto the page. When I’m not lucky, I go about like a demon.
Ó Caiside: You believe that creative energy comes from the Otherworld. Could you describe your conception of this Otherworld?
Ní Dhomhnaill: Yes. The whole idea of the Otherworld is so germane to Irish society that we don’t even think about it. We take the Otherworld for granted, and we don’t realize that there are whole other societies that have no concept of the Otherworld — that are so cut off from those regions of their psyche that they haven’t a clue.
My whole generation in modern Europe, in Germany and the Netherlands, for example, they look on the Irish with positive bewilderment when we talk about the Otherworld, and, of course, most people growing up in a materialistic culture are doomed to do that.
But the Otherworld, in a Celtic sense, is really what the Celts had to offer literature. And it is still what we have to offer literature, because to us the door between the two worlds is never closed. All right, the Otherworld is where we came from and where we’re going back to after we die, but it’s always there, even now, existing as an alternative reality, and there are certain circumstances where a shift of consciousness can become accelerated, and the living can enter that realm. There are eerie, uncanny places in the Irish countryside where you can feel the whole land come alive — you could actually meet a banshee coming along. It only takes a tiny stretch of the imagination.
The energy from that shift can give you great strength if you can get a hold of it. It’s that energy that gives you creativity. But you must put the Otherworld into a form that can hold it, and art is a great form for that, as is religion.
Otherwise, you risk allowing yourself to become a fanatic in one way or another, or a person who is just driven, just as I see so many young women of my generation who are so driven by feminism that they become totally pitiless medusas, with basilisk eyes that can turn everyone into stone. I don’t think that’s where feminism is at, at all.
I see people trying to break out of the iron patriarchal mind-set, but all they do is transpose it into another form and give it a different name. I believe in different forms of feminism, a different form of consciousness, a “vegetable consciousness” that lets human beings live and living things grow, and accepts a variety of possibilities at the same time.
After all, I used to believe that I came out of my mother’s belly and at the same time believed I was found under a cabbage leaf. There was no conflict between the two.
This interview first appeared in Keltoi: A Pan-Celtic Journal, published by the Celtic League American Branch in New York, in 1987. I was staff editor of the journal at the time.
Nuala continues to write poetry in Irish and today is recognized as one of Ireland’s leading poets.