Below is taken from an essay that I wrote for a uni assignment on May 10, 2007. On hearing the news of the passing of Seumas Heaney, I thought it was worth sharing, to give him credit for being a pioneer of linguistic freedom and experimentation in Northern Irish writing.
The distinction between the Hiberno-English of north and south is apparent in their local literature. As part of the literary revival in southern Ireland in the late 1890s and 1900s, writers wished to express their Irish identity through the use of Hiberno-English dialect writing. They were presenting an Irish identity to the world of literature, and distinguishing that the Irish people had voices in their own right, separate from Britain. Amongst these writers were W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, and, later, Sean O’Casey and James Joyce. It is interesting to note that all of these writers, except Joyce, are Protestants. Douglas Hyde, who was also a Protestant, was at the same time working on reviving the Irish language, in conjunction withthe Gaelic League. In this time of change, the Irish language was also changing, with the Gaelic League attempting to standardise the language and its grammar. Although Hyde was dedicated to the Irish language, his translations of Irish verses literally into English influenced the Hiberno-English style. Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge, with their knowledge of the Irish language, followed this example of translating literally from the Irish. Synge, as well as projecting the Hiberno-English voice, was also dealing in his own way with the question of both the Irish and English language in Ireland;
By choosing to infuse English with the idioms and syntax of Irish,
Synge invented a new literary method which allowed him to bypass
the uncertainties and the squabbling over the standardisation of the
Irish language, and to avoid the provincialism of an Anglo-Irish
literature which could only mimic the strategies of an English poetic
tradition. (Mathews 137)
Synge, Lady Gregory and Hyde were not striving to be realistic in this use of language; it was “a heightened form of peasant speech”, allowing them to “suggest the Irish national character by use of dialect vocabulary, idiom, syntax and rhythm.” (Barry 93) In contrast, O’Casey and Joyce wished to use realistic expression in their work by giving the language of the everyday people around them a voice; O’Casey “Tended to mix Dublin and rural forms of speech”, while Joyce “carefully collected dialect phrases in a notebook and used them and other aspects of Hiberno-English in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.” (Barry 93)
Modern poets of the northern counties include Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley; though the latter also makes use of the Ulster dialects, he refuses to be categorised as a “Northern poet”, and “shifted his focus to the west of Ireland and his own emotional innerscape.” (Healy 143) Heaney wishes to reflect Northern Ireland in his poetry with its different dialects, in order to bring each represented facet of Northern Irish culture into unity; he would address Ulster’s political disunity with poetry “that exposes the diversity of language and speaks with many dialects and in many voices.” (Molino 187) He employs “Irish (as well as English and Scots) words and dialect forms as cultural depth charges to explode in a traditional English line of verse and create a form of poetry that circumvents political monologism by celebrating linguistic pluralism.” (Molino 184) Heaney defends his use of dialect in his work, which is especially fitting in the case of his translation of Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxon into his own dialect;
To belong to Ireland and to speak its dialect is not necessarily to be
cut off from the world’s banquet because that banquet is eaten at the
table of one’s own life, savoured by the tongue one speaks. . . . I do
not yield to the notion that my identity is disabled and falsified and
somehow slightly traitorous if I conduct my casual and
imaginative transactions in the speech I was born to. (Heaney 20)
The use of the dialects of Ulster, the style of speech the poet was born with, creates a sense of freedom, politically and creatively; until recently, the Hiberno-English words were undefined in dictionaries. As a result, readers outside of Ireland would find it difficult to understand certain expressions. As Tom Paulin observes,
The language therefore lives freely and spontaneously as speech,
but it lacks any institutional existence and so is impoverished as
a literary medium. It is a language without a lexicon, a language without
form. Like some strange creature of the open air, it exists simply as
Geist or spirit. (Paulin 11)
Heaney, through his use of the Ulster voice, has presented to the world of literature the modern Irish identity, and has also defined the Northern Irish identity in its own right.
Barry, Michael V. “The English Language in Ireland”. English as a World Language.
Ed. Richard W. Bailey and Manfred Gorlach. Michigan: The University of
Michigan, 1986. pp 84-133
Barry, Michael V. “Historical Introduction to the Dialects of Ulster”. A Concise
Ulster Dictionary. Ed. C.I. McAfee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Heaney, S. “Forked Tongues, Ceilis and Incubators”. Fortnight 197. 1983. p 20
Healy, Elizabeth. Literary Tour of Ireland. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1995. p 143
Mathews, P.J. Revival: The Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, The Gaelic League and the
Co-operative Movement. Cork: Cork University Press/Field Day, 2003. p 137
Molino, Michael R. “Flying by the Nets of Language and Nationality: Seamus
Heaney, the “English” Language, and Ulster’s Troubles.” Modern Philology,
Vol. 91, No. 2. (Nov., 1993), pp 180-201. May 8 2007.
Paulin, Tom. A New Look at the Language Question. Ed. Seamus Deane et al.
Derry: Field Day Theate, 1983. p 11