FOR DECADES, much of the emphasis on the Irish language in the arts has been about preservation. But things are changing. The Irish language in contemporary arts is spreading beyond Gaeltacht areas and reaching new collaborators and a new generation.
This rather accidental movement might also in time call for new structures and organisations, but for now, the fragmented innovations seem to indicate that something more whole is happening.
Imram, the Irish-Language Literature Festival takes place from October 11th to the 20th, and offers a dynamic programme. There are familiar names participating: Louis de Paor, Dairena Ní Chinnéide, Micheál Ó Conghaile. And there are familiar names discussed: Pádraic Ó Conaire and Seán Ó Ríordáin among them. But there is a current of energy flowing through the festival that those used to the traditional narratives of the Irish language in the arts might be surprised by.
There is an indoor and outdoor multimedia installation by Ceaití Ní Bheildiúin; a dance piece called Ré written by Daithí Ó Muirí and choreographed by Fearghus Ó Conchúir; contemporary prose from Éilís Ní Anluain; the Mouth On Fire theatre company reading Beckett’s poetry in Irish; The Cohen Project sees poets Liam Ó Muirthile and Gabriel Rosenstock translate some of Leonard Cohen’s work into Irish, with Liam Ó Maonlaí, David Blake, Hilary Bow and the Brad Pitt Light Orchestra providing the music.
“I’m a great believer in pushing the boundaries of language, it has to reach out beyond the island,” Ó Muirthile says. “There are obviously problems, technical questions, issues of readership and literacy and these are huge issues, but when you’re engaged in a piece of work, you have to set those aside. The advantage of taking a model like Cohen is when you’re writing in Irish or any minority language, you’re constantly translating into that language. You’re going through a constant process of translation of all sorts.”
Ó Muirthile also has high praise for his collaborator. “Gabriel Rosenstock has been the great innovator in Irish in that he’s been searching for models outside the language for many years. And Gabriel is the great inspiration model for all of us.”
Next week, a two-day symposium is being held in Dublin aiming to “explore, challenge and provoke notions of contemporary arts practice in Irish.” The symposium, titled Fás agus Forbairt’ (Grow and Develop) is hoping to bring together contemporary artists who are currently working in Irish and artists who may speak Irish but whose work is in English.
“The intention is that three organisations who have an active interest in programming contemporary work in the Irish language come together to provide support to artists who are already working in the Irish language, and to artists who may not be, but who might speak Irish,” says Róise Goan, the director of the Dublin Fringe Festival. Cian O’Brien, artistic director of Project Arts Centre, and Niamh Ní Chonchubhair, the programme manager at Axis: Ballymun, have joined Goan in organising the conference. “We’re hoping to connect all those artists, hopefully provide inspiration and then pilot a commissioning scheme that promotes collaboration in making contemporary Irish arts.”
The organisers are hoping to award three commissions, which will then go on to showcase works in progress in March 2013 during Seachtain na Gaeilge. “Hopefully, if the projects are going somewhere interesting, they will present that work in the Fringe next year,” Goan says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s an experiment, but we feel it’s a worthwhile experiment. I think a lot of the problems come from the fact that in terms of mainstreaming Irish language arts, things need to be tried and tested.”
Ray Yeates, then the director at Axis in Ballymun and now Dublin City Council’s arts officer, blasted the sean nós form open in 2009 with Hip-Nós, performances of hip-hop, sean nós and spoken word in Axis that went on to Vicar Street.
“You have great people like Róise Goan, and Ray Yeates and Willie [White, director of the Dublin Theatre Festival] – they’re the next movement,” says Maggie Breathnach, the producer of TG4’s flagship arts programme Imeall, who spends most of her time running around the country surveying the frontlines of contemporary Irish arts.
“Arts is niche, Gaeilge is niche, and ultimately, you need to put bums on seats. They’re doing it slowly, but it’s happening. You see in schools now, it’s a string to your bow to have Irish in a way it didn’t used to be. It’s not necessarily that you’re going to automatically see an Irish play if you speak Irish, or go to a launch of an Irish book, but there is work in Irish, there is funding there, and people are taking the opportunities. But ultimately, the bigger stage is perceived to be the English language.”
Breathnach believes changing the perception of the Irish language in a contemporary arts setting should start at an early age. “In education, maybe it should start to be the case that kids are also educated in the language in an arts context and would then be interested in going to an Irish play. And you go to a play because of the quality of the play not the language. Look at Tromluí Phinocchio.”
Tomluí Phinocchio or Pinocchio – A Nightmare is a production by Moonfish Theatre that was lauded at this year’s Absolut Fringe and also showed at the Galway Theatre Festival. “Those girls are brilliant,” Breathnach says. “There’s really good stuff happening, but sometimes people think either they won’t go to something because ‘it’s an Irish show’, or if they are going, it’s ‘ar son na cúise’ [for the cause], so we need to show that there is a pincer movement that catches both the Irish language and quality.”
In music, the Kilas and the Ó Maonlaís were flying the flag for Irish-inflected contemporary music from the 1990s on, and that’s still the case. The annual Seachtain na Gaeilge Ceol compilation CDs feature contemporary Irish artists singing Irish-language versions of their songs. While the overall result might be nice, there’s a sense of tokenism about it, even if, on occasion, these songs are occasionally brought to a live setting.
But things are changing. Temper-Mental MissElayneous, an upcoming Dublin rapper, has a tendency to drop Irish rhymes into her raps accompanied by bodhrán instead of beats, namely with her track Cailín Rua. And Daithí, a Clare fiddle player who has managed to successfully fuse traditional strains with contemporary electronic music, recently sampled the singer Mary O’Hara in one of his tracks, a trick last pulled by Massachusetts band Passion Pit in their break-out single Sleepyhead.
From the Puball Gaeilge tent at Electric Picnic to Manchán Mangan’s theatre work, there is an edge to the Irish language in a contemporary artistic context, and that edge is growing as those in charge of funding continue to quietly seek out more non-traditional targets. But a new generation of artists also need to take the leap. Perhaps next week’s Fás agus Forbairt symposium will put a real structure around such tentative, yet quickening steps.