The Novel and the Irish Language: Traditions and Divergences

by Davit Gasparyan and Melina Kompella

On March 7, the Irish Studies Program at IES, in cooperation with the Department of English, was honored to welcome Barry McCrea, novelist, scholar, and professor at the University of Notre Dame, for his lecture entitled “Language Change and Narrative Form from Ó Cadhain to Ferrante.” Speaking in front of an audience of 25, McCrea discussed the Irish language and its struggles to establish a tradition of the realist novel.

The lack of 19th century Irish-language novels may seem like a sign of underdevelopment in the the Irish literary tradition, McCrea began by noting. As he pointed out, the Irish language is a peripheral language in a country in the periphery of Europe, and its dispersal into patches of regionally distinct dialects has also seemed to contribute to the stunted development of a strong novelistic tradition. Not only did it become difficult to create incentives to write in the Irish language, McCrea argued; it also seems that the scattered nature of the language was not conducive to the form of the novel, lending itself to experimental forms and poetry rather than realist prose.

McCrea went on to discuss two characteristics of the novel and their incompatibility with the Irish language. For one, novels revolved around specific, unified territories or settings which simply didn’t exist for the Irish language. Second, in 19th century novels, themes of upward social mobility were indicated by changes in style of language from dialects to more formal forms. The Irish language itself was understood to be a group of diverse dialects, which ultimately failed to provide the needed linguistic “development” by the characters and made it difficult to write a universal novel in the language. However, McCrea suggested that perhaps the language could forge its own new paths and defy the commonly accepted traditions of the novel.

In the Q&A portion of the talk, the audience members drew connections to other minority languages, such as Yiddish, and the impossibility of establishing a written tradition for languages based in a spoken tradition. McCrea also emphasized the social “ecosystem” in which the Irish language exists--at the margins of society. He concluded by mentioning that those Irish language novels that do exist are powered by a desire to remove the language from its marginalized position and bring it into mainstream society.