I like writing in Irish for the very reason that it is not my mother tongue—author Annette Byrne on her novels as Gaeilge
by Annette Byrne
My first novel, Scaoilim Uaim Thú, was published by Coiscéim in 2019, as was my second, Cumar an Dá Shruth, in April of this year. At the moment I’m writing my third.
The books form a kind of trilogy—they tell the story of one family spanning four generations. Although interlinked, each novel works on its own, focussing on particular members of the family at a turning point in their lives.
My novel in the making begins in 2023 in a forest hideaway in eastern Europe. Here, we meet Tadhg, Saoirse’s father, a former gynecologist, who did a disappearing act on Saoirse’s 14th birthday as a result of a medical malpractice case taken against him.
Although Tadhg was cleared in court of any responsibility for the death of a young mother, he was haunted by the role he may have played in this tragic loss of life, which eventually caused him to up and leave family, job and Paris, where he was living at the time.
‘Sounds very interesting Annette, but when is the translation coming out?’ This is a common response I get when I try to explain what the books are about to people who don’t understand Irish—or who don’t want to have to struggle too much with the little Irish they know. By ‘translation’ they usually mean the English translation.
Maybe some day my books will be translated into English or other languages such as French, seeing as I’m living in France. But the response does raise the question of why I choose to write my novels in Irish, a language that isn’t my mother tongue, and which some of my friends and most of my family do not understand or struggle to understand.
I like writing in Irish for the very reason that it is not my mother tongue. Even though I have been learning it since infant’s class, it still remains a kind of ‘foreign’ language for me.
I feel this is an advantage for me as a writer, as it frees me from the constraints a native speaker might have. I feel free to manipulate and mould the language to suit my thinking rather than the other way around.
There are two parallel stories in Cumar an Dá Shruth: the story of Saoirse who is working in 2019 as an intern in an archaeological recruitment agency, and the story of Dar Lughdach, who took over from Saint Brigid as Abbess of the mixed sex monastery founded by Brigid in the 5th century.
Even though the two stories differ greatly time wise and style wise, they are intimately
Different form of expression
I like the way Irish gives me the chance to express myself differently. The fact that Irish is so different to English, my native language, enhances this experience. A good example of the difference between the two languages is the word order which is subject + verb + object (the train left the station) in English and verb + subject + object (left the train the station d’fhág an traein an stáisiún) in Irish.
Irish is also a more inflected language than English, meaning that the forms of words change depending on the way they are used in a sentence. To take just one example, the word for ‘woman’ in Irish can have four different realisations in the singular form: bean, bhean, mná, mbean while having just two in English: woman, woman’s.
Writing in Irish has also made me more appreciative of the English language, especially the way we speak it in Ireland. My granny’s soft Hiberno-English resounds even more loudly in my head – the turns of phrase such as ‘I’m after feeding the chickens’ directly linked to the Irish language of her native Mayo, not a word of which she could speak!
Because Irish is such an important part of my cultural heritage, I feel fortunate to be able to express this through my writing. The relatively permanent nature of the written word I see as a very effective way of protecting and nurturing this heritage.
I hope you will read at least one of my novels and, if you feel the need, take up or brush up on your Gaeilge!