The ten most read Irish authors [part 2]

—Do you understand what he says? Stephen asked her.
—Is it French you are talking, sir? the old woman said to Haines.
Haines spoke to her again a longer speech, confidently.

—Irish, Buck Mulligan said. Is there Gaelic on you?
—I thought it was Irish, she said, by the sound of it. Are you from the west, sir?

—I am an Englishman, Haines answered.
—He’s English, Buck Mulligan said, and he thinks we ought to speak Irish in Ireland.

—Sure we ought to, the old woman said, and I’m ashamed I don’t speak the language myself. I’m told it’s a grand language by them that knows.
                                            – Ulysses, James Joyce


A friend asks : “How many of these works were translated into Erse ?”

Lacking an actual number count, here is one answer (and stick around for the story of Uiliséas below).

To begin conversely, one of the writers in the list of favourites (in the preceding post) was the blind bard Anthony
Raftery (1784 – 1835), a fiddler and poet who composed his rhymes in Gaelic (Erse) ; but some widely read versions of him are English translations, and amongst Ireland’s youngest pupils he is recited in both tongues :


Mise Raifteirí an file,
  I am Raftery the poet

Lán dóchas is grádh,
  Full of hope and love,

Le súile gan solas,
  Eyes without light,

Le ciúnas gan chrá.
  Silence without torment.

‘Dul siar ar m’aistear
  Going west on my journey

Le solas mo chroí
  With the light of my heart

Fann agus tuirseach
  Weak and tired

Go deireadh mo shlíghe.
  To the end of my days.

Féach anois mé,
  Look at me now,

Is mo chúl le bhfalla
  With my back to the wall,

Ag seinm ceoil
  Playing music

Do phócaí folmha.
  To empty pockets.


Then again, there is “Dark Rosaleen” and several other poems from the pen of James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849) that are his English translations of earlier authors who wrote in the Irish language (note that Mangan’s Englished Irish and German works are real translations, unlike his fanciful Oriental upsettings “From the Ottoman”). The Gaelic original of “Dark Rosaleen” bears the synonymous title Róisín Dubh (literally, “Dark Little Rose”), being a sixteenth-century allegory on Ireland’s own plight.

“the self-orientalization of Ireland as we see it in Mangan” –

A collection of Mangan’s poetry –

Some of the plays of O’Casey and Synge have had Gaelic put on them (the idiom is cuir Gaedhilge air sin – “translate that” or “put Irish on that”), and in some cases have even been staged in that form at a festival at Dingle in County Kerry.

The Plough and the Stars = An céachta ‘s na réaltaí

Riders to the Sea = Chun na farraige síos (the title’s literal retranslation is “Down to the Sea”)

More recent labours in the field are Gabriel Rosenstock’s Irish translation of his countryman Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1997 (its first rendering into Irish since that of Seán O Cuirrín in the year 1933 when Seán Mac Maoláin did the same for Carleton’s Fardorougha, the Miser), and then just last year the publication of Luaithreach Angela, which is a translation by Pádraic Breathnach (Ir. Breathnach, a Briton, a Welshman, cf. Brythonic, and surnames Branagh, Walsh[e], Wallace) of Frank McCourt’s memoir of Limerick, Angela’s Ashes.

But the book that took the cake for its heroical Irish translation saga (“That takes the solitary, unique, and, if I may so call it, recherché biscuit !”), was James Joyce’s Ulysses. That edifying, Ersifying, Augeian project was commenced when a medical officer named James Henry decided to use his years of retirement from the Royal Air Force in putting Gaelic on the formidably mock-Homerical creation ; and just as Joyce’s book may itself be said to comprise a microcosm of the quidditas Eblanensis (Dublin’s very whatness, if you will), so the act of transmuting it, painstakingly, by turns aided and alone, chapter by chapter, into the Gaelic idiom (which is not at all a Dublin speech phenomenon, hence your first problem), is a process that tells its own tale of the deep scholarly passions, high obstacles, financial pitfalls and strategical blind turns that make up Ireland’s publishing world.

While any translator of Ulysses faces enormous problems, the Irish translators, somewhat paradoxically, faced a number of problems not faced by, say, the French, German, Italian, or Spanish translators. For while each of the latter had the option, to take just one example, of translating the modern urban slang of ‘Oxen of the Sun’ by the appropriate urban sociolects of their own language, in Irish no such urban slang exists, so the translators had to invent it. The results are frequently hilarious, as the agricultural hinterland of Joyce’s Dublin is given its linguistic due – ‘taking coals to Newcastle,’ for example, emerges as ‘ag cuimilt sméire do thón na muice’ (literally, more or less, ‘rubbing muck on a pig’s rump’). ‘Oxen of the Sun’ provided a more general challenge, however, in that the politically interrupted development of Irish as a literary medium during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries deprived the language of an equivalent range of historical styles, and the translators were forced to limit themselves to a much more restricted stylistic palette in Uiliséas, imitating first the style of Old Irish narrative, then those of late-medieval Fenian romances, seventeenth-century historiography, and finally modern Irish narrative.
Polyglot Joyce: Fictions of Translation by Patrick O’Neill

Our critic O’Neill might have added that Dublin was founded, builded and maintained by Norsemen, then conquered, circumscribed and secured under the mailed fist of Anglo-Norman rule, and by 1904 (the year in which Ulysses is set) was a city wholly foreign to the cadence of Gaelic speakers ; nor was Dublin of a mindset or an idiom in its Londonward-looking urbanity that would earn any cultural sympathies “beyond the Pale” in Ireland’s greater Gadelophony.
Incidentally, it was a bit surprising that the Post‘s “Top 10” list gave no mention of Yeats, yet Friel is included. Perhaps it was more a matter of how many “hits” an author got on the linked Questia resource in a “snapshot” profiling of a certain period of time with the counting restricted to a specified subset of users (Georgetown English grad students ?- who knows ?), this as interpreted by The Washington Post in the context of Carolyn Blackman’s compiling their St. Patrick’s Day list for this particular year. Thus Yeats might well have got the heave-ho and Hail O’Duffy. Still, such supposed injustices are an opportunity to plunge in and offer a “Top 100” of Irish authors so as to retip the balance.


Probably the most read Irish author of all, in his day, going word for word count and eyeballs to column inches, was Oliver Goldsmith, not least because he was a prolific poet and journalist (“The Citizen of the World” and a lot of jobbing) and he produced some widely distributed, immensely popular and very influential books of history and natural science : This included An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (1st ed. 1774), a work in eight volumes which graced the libraries of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Jane Austen. As notable for its engaging narrative tone as for its broadly applied learning, Goldsmith’s “huge compendium of zoological lore” (- M. K. Danziger) was in general use for many decades after the time of its first publication (which was the year of the author’s death, in fact).

But beyond those seemingly skewed (Yeatsless) Questia results, another puzzle was this Joycean critic O’Neill’s notion that “carrying coals to Newcastle” constituted urban slang (it’s a proverbial English idiom of several centuries’ vintage), and then his subsequent inference that ag cuimilt sméire do thón na muice (“smearing muck on the pig’s arse”) could have constituted a Gaelic equivalent of urban slang that was “invented” for the purpose by the translator of Ulysses, Dr. James Henry. It is almost as though the reader were missing a sentence that O’Neill (or his editor) had dropped unintentionally. Incidentally, the buried sense of ag cuimilt sméire do thón na muice is that a person is even taking the trouble —at all— to crush a staining fistful of blackberries (sméire) and rub the resultant mess onto a pig’s already filthy arse (thón, as in póg mo thóin, i.e. K.M.R.I.A.). To be sure the style of imagery is comical, and it is apt as an Irish equivalent replacing the useless task of the coals, but was it ever part of an “appropriate urban sociolect” ?- O’Neill is on safer ground in saying that that piggish instance of metaphorical spilopygia is borrowed from “the agricultural hinterland of Joyce’s Dublin” — a very big cabbage garden. So we are left wondering and waiting for the promised examples of urban slang that were purportedly “invented” to suit Uiliséas. Perhaps Dr. Henry should have brought in Anthony Burgess as a consultant, but what a noble achievement nonetheless !



Eavan Boland
Eva Gore-Booth
Joseph Campbell (no, not the mythologist and Wake scholar)
Douglas Hyde
P. W. Joyce (onomastics)
F. S. L. Lyons (history)
Rev. Francis Mahony (“Father Prout”)*
Thomas Moore (Melodies)
Moira O’Neill** (Songs of the Glens of Antrim) was the nom de plume of Agnes Nesta Shakespeare Higginson (later Mrs. Skrine) ; she was the mother of Molly Keane (née Mary Nesta Skrine, whose own nom de plume was “M. J. Farrell” – a name she borrowed from the sign on a public house to spare her the scandal amongst her kind of being identified as a female novelist)
Theobald Wolfe Tone (diarist)***
Katharine Tynan


*The Final Reliques of Father Prout


** Moira O’Neill –


***Tone’s memoirs –




1 Comment

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One response to “The ten most read Irish authors [part 2]

  1. Frank Callery

    re your The ten most read Irish authors [part 2] Raftery was not a harper he was a handy fiddler.

    Thanks for the note. That detail is now corrected in the text. Cheers. Q


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