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Science Fiction and Fantasy
in the Irish Language

Philip O'Leary

Associate Professor of English,
Boston College, U.S.A.

In the brief preface to his novel Algoland (Dublin, 1947), Seán Mac Maoláin indicted his fellow writers of Irish for their timid failure to escape the confines of an outdated realism: 'I have asked many people why the Gaels don't write about any dreams, just about the things they do between morning and midnight—why they don't write about an occasional dream they have between midnight and day. And everyone has given me the same answer, namely, "Well, my friend, don't you know that the poor fellows must wait until that sort of thing is being done regularly in one of the world's major languages?" He then went on to boast of his own rather tentative boldness in attempting to break new ground: 'But I have never given in to that opinion, and I won't, for a little while at any rate.'[1] While Algoland itself does not, as we will see, stretch the imagination all that far, Mac Maoláin was right in his belief that it was one of the few novels or stories in Irish that tried to move beyond a pedestrian nineteenth-century realism.

His explanation for the failure of his colleagues to develop a sub-genre like science fiction in Irish is, however, unconvincing. Writers in many of "world's major languages"—including the English that virtually all writers of Irish could and did read—had been producing works of science fiction, some of them acknowledged classics, for well over half a century. Indeed the novel of which his own Algoland is the faintest of echoes, the American Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887, had been published as far back as 1888. Moreover, one of the earliest full-length translations into Irish was Tadhg Ó Donnchadha's version of Jules Verne's Le tour du monde en 80 jours, which ran in the Irish Weekly Independent from 30 November, 1912 to 1 November, 1913, and inspired one reader of An Claidheamh Soluis to write in 1915: "The Torna-Verne story took us round the world in Irish: 'twas the greatest relief from the cow at the well and the fairy in the fort . . ."[2]

Translation was certainly the means by which another major genre of popular fiction, the detective story, was successfully transplanted into Irish. From its foundation in 1926, the state's Gaelic publishing agency, An Gúm, offered a fair selection of translated mysteries, almost all from English. Thus we find, among others, Gaelic versions of A.E.W. Mason's At the Villa Rose (tr. Micheál Ó Gríobhtha, 1929), Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (tr. Micheál Ó Gríobhtha, 1933), F.W. Croft's The Cask (tr. Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin, 1934), E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (tr. Seán Mac Maoláin, 1934), Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (tr. Nioclás Tóibín, 1935), and G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown (tr. Seán Ó Liatháin, 1938). Doubtless inspired at least in part by such translations, writers of Irish like Seoirse Mac Clúin, Micheál Ó Gríobhtha, Art Ó Riain, Ciarán Ua Nualláin, Seoirse Mac Liam, and Cathal O Sándair put their own sleuths to work on the mean streets of newly independent Dublin.

Irish writers with an interest in science fiction, on the other hand, found virtually no such models available through translation in their own language. Even interpreting "science fiction" quite broadly—as we will do throughout this essay—we find startlingly little interest in a kind of writing with proven appeal for a wide range of readers—in many ways precisely the kind of writing one would expect to have most excited those in charge at An Gúm, people never faulted for their elite standards in literature. The major works of science fiction translated into Irish since 1928 were: R.L. Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (tr. Feardorcha Ó Conaill, i.e. "Conall Cearnach," 1930), Bram Stoker's Dracula (tr. Seán Ó Cuirrín, 1933), H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (tr. León Ó Broin, 1935) and his The First Men in the Moon (tr. Micheál Ó Gríobhtha, 1938). Ó Donnchadha's version of Le tour du monde en 80 jours was published by An Gúm in book form in 1938. And if one wants, one could add, with even more of a stretch, H. Rider Haggard's She (tr. Niall Ó Domhnaill, 1933) and The Heart of the World (tr. Niall Johnny Ó Domhnaill, 1937).

I will suggest below possible explanations for this lack of Gaelic interest in a genre so popular elsewhere, but here it may be noted that in general Gaelic translators— and original writers—showed little interest in science of any kind. The only translation of a serious scientific work published by An Gúm in the first half of the twentieth century was Réim na Réalt, Liam Ó Rinn's version of Sir James Jeans's The Stars in their Courses (1949). Virtually all scientific publications in Irish since have been translated textbooks for primary and secondary schools.

Not surprisingly, then, original Gaelic works of science fiction are thin on the ground and thoroughly mediocre. Indeed in the first decades of the language revival before the creation of Saorstát Éireann (the Irish Free State), they were all but non-existent. The only possible exception—and its inclusion once again involves stretching the definition of science fiction to the breaking point—is Pádraig Ó Séaghdha's ("Conán Maol") 1911 novel Eoghan Paor, a work described by a contemporary critic as "a frankly sensational novel."[3] Eoghan Paor is really a blend of light escapist fiction and inchoate nationalist sentiment in which the world's richest man, the eponymous Eoghan Paor from Kerry, buys, populates, and fortifies all the hills of Ireland in preparation for a declaration of Irish independence.

There was a bit more creative activity in this area in the 1920s and 1930s, although once again what we have is disappointing when one considers that it was in these first two decades of political independence and native control of the educational system that Gaelic writers attempted to boldly go where their forebears had never gone before by cultivating virtually all forms and styles of writing—native and exotic, creative and scholarly, original and translated—to cater for what was believed would be a tide of new readers flowing from the schools. Still, some of what science fiction was written at this time is worth at least passing notice. For example, in his 1924 story "Na Néalladóirí" (The cloud watchers), Donn Piatt used the plot device of abduction by Martians to satirize contemporary debates about orthography and dialect within the language movement. Piatt has a UCD student taken off to Mars where his account of the real and manufactured complexities of the Irish language shock and intimidate a group of Martian linguists (An Reult, 1924). Seosamh Ó Torna's "Cheithre Bhuille an Chluig" (Four o'clock) (Bonaventura, Spring, 1938) has a more mundane setting. His protagonist returns to Dublin after a year in Africa to discover startling changes. There is now no crime, no vice, no deception or trickery, no smoking or drinking. The only tax inspectors are at work to insure that people do not overpay the government, and Mountjoy Jail has been turned into a monastery. There is, however, an underground movement of the erstwhile wealthy and powerful attempting to reintroduce immoral behavior for their own financial benefit. The gobsmacked narrator learns that the whole world is now similarly reformed, all being explained by a recent discovery that Einstein was wrong, that space is straight, not curved, and therefore people should be straight, not crooked. In the end all anticlimactically turns out to have been a dream, but Ó Torna's story, with its nicely detailed descriptions of the new Dublin, was a real exercise in the kind of alternate thinking that gives science fiction its special appeal.

Ó Torna created another genuine science fiction story in "Duinneall"—the word is a blend of "duine" (person) and "inneall" (machine) (Bonaventura, Spring, 1938)—the tale of a country boy who, having come to the city to work with machines, becomes increasingly mechanical himself: "As a result of his constant contact with every kind of machine, something I hardly dare mention happened. A damnable transformation happened in the man's heart and mind. His free will slipped away. His intelligence hardened. The talent for poetry ebbed and the light of faith and love that he had darkened. Mechanism overwhelmed the humanity in him. As the Gaelic (or human) qualities were submerged, the characteristics of the machine took their place. At last one could not believe he was either a person or a machine, but rather something in between."[4] And according to Ó Torna's narrator, speaking in the ominous days of 1938, this new hybrid was becoming ever more common: "The customs of your ancestors will be crushed under foot by fashionable Duinneall. Drama and music will be forbidden you by mechanical Duinneall. Statesman Duinneall will take away your freedom. The pick of the Duinnealls—Duinneall the Soldier—will take out your guts. And to make things even worse, Duinneall the Philosopher will not leave you your spiritual soul."[5]

Several Gaelic works of the time were set in the future, a plot device used to ponder possible future political developments at a time of considerable uncertainty in Ireland and the world. Thus "Marbhán" by "Conán" is a detective story set in the year 2000 and dealing with the efforts of an underground royalist conspiracy to overthrow the then established Irish-speaking, thirty-two county republic (Connacht Tribune, 25/3/33). Seán Ó Ciarghusa's 1925 play Díbeartaigh ó Shean-Shasana (Exiles from old England) takes place in 2025, when the Irish language has been so successfully restored that a group has been founded to try to revive English in Ireland. Brian Ó Nualláin ("Myles na gCopaleen") offered a characteristically comic take on this theme in "Díoghaltas ar Ghallaibh 'sa Bhliadhain 2032!" (Vengeance on the English in 2032!) where, in a now Irish-speaking Dublin, the narrator is able to dupe an English tourist into delivering an abusive tirade in Irish thinking he is just asking directions (Irish Press, 18/1/32).

Virtually none of these works is at all concerned with the fantasies of scientific or technological change—for better or worse—that is the stock-in-trade of so much popular science fiction. An exception here is the most original—and longest—Irish vision of the future written in the first decades of independence—or since for that matter. Art Ó Riain's novella An Tost (The Silence)(Dublin, 1927) is divided into five sections, set in 1914, 1916, 1921, 1938, and 1975. In the two sections set in what was then the future, the protagonist is the Irish government's Minister for Air Travel, to whose lot it falls to defend the nation against the combined threat of England and Japan, both eager to occupy the country for strategic purposes. In the period just before world-wide hostilities erupt, the Irish president declares neutrality, but Ireland is soon driven to ally itself with "the two Americas," a move that fails to stave off an invasion by the joint British-Japanese forces. After the occupation of the country and the torture of the heroic protagonist with a laser-like device, the nation is liberated by a joint Irish and American rescue operation flown in enormous American aircraft. Having survived to see the liberation, the protagonist dies from the torture he has suffered. Ó Riain's tale is noteworthy for, among other things, its depiction of the kind of futuristic devices fans of this genre might expect—the laser gun, the huge aircraft, and coin-operated pay radios on the streets.

High-tech gadgetry is central in Máiréad Ní Ghráda's Manannán (Dublin, 1940), a work that Éamonn Ó Ciosáin has correctly identified as "the first book of its sort, that is science fiction, written in Irish" (an chéad leabhar dá short a scríobhadh i nGaeilge, is é sin, ficsean eolaíochta).[6] (An Tost was published in a volume with seven of Ó Riain's short stories.) Apart from this claim to primacy, Manannán, a work designed for young readers, is, however, of little importance. Indeed Ní Ghráda, a competent writer of short stories and one of the most adventurous and accomplished Gaelic playwrights of her time or since, does not seem to have expended all that much imagination on a genre in which imagination is all. Inspired by an ancient Egyptian text, an Irish astronomer has discovered a nearby planet hitherto undetected behind a thick cloud of gas. He, his young son, and two colleagues—one a skilled pilot—take off for the planet in a propeller plane equipped with auxiliary rockets. Using the slingshot effect of the earth's gravity—the only touch of scientific sophistication in the book—they reach the planet, which they have named Manannán in honor of the Irish sea god. Conveniently enough, it has breathable air, a comfortable climate, edible food, potable water, and humanoid inhabitants with whom they quickly learn to converse. These people live within cities surrounded by electrical force fields to protect them from the hideous local monsters, the amphibious, shelled, tentacled, and simian faced Cráidhmí. With the aid of a giant robot they construct and manipulate from a control center in its head, the Irish manage to decimate the Cráidhmí, apparently untroubled by the fact that these beings they slaughter wholesale seem to have at least a rudimentary intelligence. The earthlings also save the local government from an attempt to overthrow it using a huge subterranean machine designed to erupt out of the earth and subsequently lead a coup in the city.

The most interesting aspect of Ní Ghráda's story does not, however, depend on either slimy monsters or shiny machines, but rather on a theme of genuine contemporary relevance. The local chief magistrate, whom the Irish at first believe to be a benevolent figure, turns out to be a ruthless dictator who tortures those he suspects, inflicts a dreadful death-in-life form of mind control on his real and imagined enemies, and gases those of his own people he thinks are too favorably impressed with the accomplishments of the Irish visitors. Above all, he hopes to convince or compel those visitors to build him a whole fleet of killer robots so that he can take over the whole planet. The earthlings escape home, having learned a valuable lesson about dictators and their ability to manipulate the fears of their people for their own power. Safe on Irish soil, the astronomer whose discovery set the whole adventure in motion draws a moral few at the time on this planet could have questioned: "Thank God we are in a country over which there is neither head-ruler or dictator . . . They are worse than the Cráidhmí themselves."[7]

In Algoland (Dublin, 1947), Seán Mac Maoláin pretty much removes all suspense by telling us in the very first sentence that everything that happens in the book is a dream: not even all that intriguing a dream. The Algolanders do have a range of labor-saving devices, but most of them are far less impressive than ones we all have seen since waking up this morning. For example, their most important citizens—and all their soldiers—travel about with maneuverable parachute-like devices. They live in mobile homes which they park anywhere they find a designated space in their city, which is located underground and protected by a compass-jamming device for security reasons. The city is also equipped with artificial sunshine, rain and moving sidewalks. The citizens use automatic showers that function like giant washing machines, eat dehydrated and re-constituted food, move around on personal motorized skates—boards for the elderly—and get their money from rudimentary ATMs. Nor does Mac Maoláin show more ambition in his depiction of the social customs of the Algolanders. They are Christians who speak a form of Latin, are obsessed with fashion—fat is in at the moment—love gambling on anything, including chicken races, sue at the drop of a hat—and the frequent exchange of hats is an important ritual for them. They also spoil their children and are addicted to the movies. Among the more interesting aspects of their society are their restriction of military service with its attendant parachutes to children, who enjoy such things; their reservation of university education to those over 50, who can appreciate it; and their insistence that only those who have proved they can heal themselves are fit to be physicians. This last rule leads would-be doctors to infect themselves with all kinds of diseases to prove their abilities. More disturbing is the Algolanders' equipping of every citizen with a lie-detecting device to monitor possible criminal behavior. The tapes in these devices are checked regularly and appropriate penalties assessed. Enriched by exports of natural beauty products abundant in the country, the state provides a decent standard of living for all citizens, many of whom continue to work to support their gambling habit, a habit that has impoverished more than a few. In effect, it is difficult to see what the point of this book is. The Algolanders had little to teach Mac Maoláin's contemporaries and their gadgets just aren't that much fun. Mac Maoláin returned to Algoland in Na hOileáin Séanmhara (The Happy Islands) (Dublin, 1953), but that, apart from its concern about nuclear destruction, this novel is pretty much just more of the uninspired same.

Not surprisingly, the next Gaelic writer to attempt this genre was Cathal Ó Sándair, whose productivity and sales figures will almost certainly never be matched by any other writer of Irish. In the 1940s Ó Sándair began the task of providing readers of Irish with all of the popular genres then available in other languages. His most famous creation was his detective Réics Carló, who himself on occasion had to deal with fiendish futuristic devices and even went to the moon on one caper. But Ó Sándair also wrote westerns, pirate stories, and boarding school adventures. His science-fiction hero was An Captaen Spéirling, who first appeared in 1960 in An Captaen Spéirling agus an Phláinéad do Phléasc (Captaen Spéirling and the planet that exploded). The four Captaen Spéirling adventures that were published in 1960 and 1961 were meant to be simple potboilers for the young, but they are not without interest, not least because they are so thoroughly in the mainstream of the genre at the time. To get an idea of Ó Sándair's approach we can focus here on An Captaen Spéirling, Spás-Phíolóta (Captaen Spéirling, Space-pilot) (Dublin, 1961). The story is set in 2000, when the earth's most precious resource, uranium, is running out and war for what remains is imminent. An Irish scientist has, however, determined that there is an abundant supply on the moon. The Irish government benevolently decides to fund a mission to prove his theory and then secure and distribute the uranium to all countries on earth in need of it. Unlike Ní Ghráda's adventurers, Ó Sándair's astronauts travel in a real rocket built and launched on the Curragh of Kildare. On the moon they discover a humanoid civilization whose members still bear the disfiguring scars of their own nuclear holocaust. The Irish manage to overcome their suspicions, win their trust, and acquire a huge supply of uranium on condition that it never be used to make weapons. More importantly, the moon people share with their new friends their own greatest technological advance, "so-ghaethe" (good rays), energy beams that immediately neutralize feelings of aggression and cause an overwhelming desire to cooperate. Needless to say, when the astronauts return to Ireland, their government arranges for these rays to be made available through the UN to every country on earth.

Ó Riain, Ní Ghráda, and Ó Sándair have had few successors in this genre. Indeed the only full-length science fiction novel to appear in the last forty years is Micheál Ó Brolacháin's Pax Dei (Dublin, 1985), an off-the-rack Orwellian vision of future dictatorship and degradation. There are, it seems to me, several main reasons for the failure of Gaelic to develop this genre, a genre that moreover offered a promising way out of the still unresolved dilemma of how to write realistic literature in Irish about a world in which that language is little spoken. One explanation for lack of Gaelic interest in science fiction is lack of Gaelic, indeed Irish, interest in science itself. When the language movement began, Irish education rigidly adhered to the conventional curriculum then in place in England, a curriculum that placed maximum emphasis on the classics and the humanities as then understood. National independence only copper fastened this bias by adding Irish as a, if not the, major subject in Irish schools, leaving little room for science education even if there had been an interest. On a more ideological level, science fiction could lead young, and not so young, minds into areas of speculation uncomfortable or worse for those reared in the doctrinaire Catholic religious climate that predominated in Ireland until not all that long ago, a climate that found terrestrial evolution, much less the possibility of very different kinds of life elsewhere, troubling if not inconceivable. And if the traditionally devout may once have found science fiction potentially sinful, more recent Gaelic authors, eager to produce Literature with a capital L, seem to have found it silly. At any rate few literatures in the world today could be so top-heavy in their concentration on the serious and experimental over the light and accessible. As Alan Titley pointed out more than 20 years ago, Irish literature needs a lot more of what he called 'junk' of all kinds if it is to capture and hold readers.

Lest this paper end too pessimistically, we should, however, note that if science fiction in the strict sense has not played any meaningful role in modern Irish literature, several of the most talented writers of the language have explored the possibilities of fantasy either whimsical or Kafkaesque and of what we may call Gaelic magical realism. One thinks here of Máirtín Ó Cadhain's stories "Cé Acu?" (Which one?) (1967) or "Ag Déanamh Páipéir," (Making paper) (1977) Diarmuid Ó Súilleabhain's novels Maeldúin (1972) or Aistear (Voyage) (1983) and many of the stories in Micheál Ó Conghaile's collections An Fear a Phléasc (The man who exploded) (1997) and An Fear nach nDéanann Gáire (The man who does not laugh) (2003) and in Pádraig Ó Siadhail's Na Seacht gCineál Meisce (The seven kinds of drunkenness) (2001). In addition, genuine science fiction elements plays a role in two of the most imaginative Gaelic novels of the last two decades, Séamas Mac Annaidh's Cuaifeach Mo Londubh Buí (The whirlwind of my yellow blackbird) (1983), in which brain transplants feature, and Tomás Mac Síomóin's Ag Altóir an Diabhail (2003), where contemporary Ireland's cultural identity crisis is mirrored by the entirely unreliable narrator's obsession with a lifelike robotic sex partner with interchangeable heads—he opts for Hilary Clinton and Mary Robinson. One can give up a lot of slimy aliens in exchange for Mac Annaidh's bringing together of Patrick Pearse and Father Dinneen at a punk dance in Enniskillen, or Mac Síomóin's picture of a frustrated school teacher trying unsuccessfully to put together his new life partner from the ungrammatical English-language instruction manual compiled by a Japanese employee of Marital Electronics Ltd.


This paper was originally presented as part of the "Celtic Science Fiction and Fantasy" session organised by the Discussion Group on Celtic Languages and Literatures at the Modern Language Association Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, USA, 2004.


References

[1] Is iomdha duine ar fhiafruigh mé de caidé an fáth nach scríobhann na Gaedhil brionglóidí ar bith ach na rudaí a ghní siad idir maidin agus meadhon oidhche - caidé an fáth nach scríobhann siad corr-bhrionglóid dá ndéan siad idir meadhon oidhche agus lá. Agus b'ionann freagra a thug gach duine orm .i. 'Óró, a dhuine chléibh, nach bhfuil a fhios agat go gcaithfidh na créatúir fanacht nó go mbidh a leithéid dhá dhéanamh go coitcheanta i gceann éigin de mhórtheangthacha an domhain?' . . . Ach níor ghéill mé do'n bharamhail sin ariamh, agus ní ghéillfidh - go fóill beag, ar scor ar bith.

[2] 'K. M'S.,' 'Torna's Translation of "Round the World,"' An Claidheamh Soluis, 25 September, 1915.

[3] 'In the Gaelic World,' Weekly Freeman, National Press and Irish Agriculturist, 10 February, 1912.

[4] De thoradh a shíor-thadhaill le hiolsadhas inneall do thárla rud gur ar éigin leómhfad a luadh. Thárla claochlódh damanta istigh i gcroidhe agus in aigne an fhir. Do théaltuigh a thoil. Do chalcuigh a mheabhar chin. Do thráigh féith na filidheachta agus do dhoirchigh solas an chreidimh agus an ghrádha aige. Fuair an meicneachas treise ar an ndaonnacht aige. Do réir mar chuaidh a thréithe Gaedhil i mbádhadh connacthas airdheanna an innill 'na n-ionad. 'Sa deire níor chreidte go raibh sé 'na dhuine ná 'na inneall ach idir a bheith eatorra.

[5] Brúighfear nosa bhur sinnsear fé chois ag Duinneall na bhfaisean. Crosfar dráma agus ceol oraibh ag Duinneall an tSoin-mheaisín. Bainfidh Duinneall Státaire bhur saoirse dhibh. Bainfidh scoith na nDuinneall — Duinneall Saighdiúir — bhur mbaill bheathadh dhíbh. Agus mar bhárr donais ní fhágfaidh Duinneall Feallsamh bhur n-anam spioradálta agaibh.

[6] Éamonn Ó Ciosáin, 'Máiréad Ní Ghráda agus a Saothar Liteartha' (Máiréad Ní Ghráda and her literary work) in Máiréad Ní Ghráda, An Triail / Breithiúnas (Dublin, 1978, p. 179).

[7] A bhuidhe le Dia sinn a bheith i dtír ná fuil Ard-Mháighistir ná Deachtóir uirthe . . . Is measa iad-san ná na Cráidhmí féin.


Copyright © Philip O'Leary, 2005
This edition copyright © Celtic Cultural Studies, 2005
ISSN 1468-6074

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