Cathal Póirtéir on Diarmuid Johnson’s personal and cultural odyssey
‘It is no surprise that this volume has already been awarded a prize in the annual Oireachtas na Gaeilge literary awards.’
by Cathal Póirtéir
Diarmuid Johnson has many strings to his bow, although the flute is his preferred instrument. He has lived and worked for many years as a peripatetic musician, translator, poet, writer, journalist, teacher and lecturer in several European countries.
His latest book is a memoir that recalls forty years of encountering people, places, and cultures through the seven languages in the seven countries of the title.
Literature, language and music
Seacht dTír Seacht dTeanga is not a tourist guide to spectacular sights, entertainment venues, museums, galleries, public parks, architecture or restaurants, but a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the literature, language and music that Diarmuid Johnson has taken to his heart through a lifetime of enthusiastic learning and cultural engagement.
He takes us on several visits to our Celtic neighbours in Wales, Brittany and Scotland, on to western European countries we are familiar with such as Germany and Belgium and further east to countries that we may know less well, Poland and Romania.
The author has a deep commitment to Irish and Welsh culture, coming from parental roots in both countries, but his impressive efforts to understand other languages and cultures signpost his personal journey as a writer and musician.
As a student of Celtic languages it may not have been surprising for him to connect with the Breton language and literature but his interests went well beyond those Celtic connections and he shares his experiences of the years spent teaching Irish and Welsh and playing traditional music in Germany, Romania and Poland, bringing us to his present occupation as a translator in multi-cultural Brussels.
The author was not only teaching but learning as each new opportunity came his way, and he describes his encounters with the new languages he tasked himself with learning and highlights some of their characteristics.
The book is a personal European cultural odyssey, focusing on the author’s appetite for language and literature, poetry and song, and his fondness for the people who inspired and influenced him – poets, writers, musicians and academics and other people closely connected to their lands, cultures and traditions.
Johnson shares his constant joy in discovering wider European culture but also makes the reader aware that many riches and ancient traditions are under threat of disappearing as historical and commercial forces continue to transform language use in communities where (now) minority languages are spoken.
That sad realisation applies particularly to the Celtic languages as the transmission of literature, song and language continues to falter.
His youth and university years in Galway introduce us to formative encounters with singers and writers in Connemara, and bring us back to the home ground that helped form his lifelong cultural interests.
His epiphany after a writing and translation workshop in Scotland—that he would dedicate his life to writing—has served readers of Irish well in the following years.
One of my favourite chapters was about the fascinating Christmas and New Year traditions the author recorded in snowbound Transylvania where the challenges and rewards for the would-be anthropologist become clear.
Resourceful and energetic
Seacht dTír Seacht dTeanga shows us that Diarmuid Johnson is resourceful and energetic. Over forty years of travel he has co-operated and published music and literature in several languages, and has kept body and soul together even when regular employment was hard to come by.
He lists over twenty five books of poetry and prose that he has written or translated as well as a number of music CDs on which he features. It is no surprise that this volume has already been awarded a prize in the annual Oireachtas na Gaeilge literary awards.
Cathal Póirtéir has specialised in researching, presenting and commissioning Irish interest material in various radio formats and in books, including history, literature and folklore in Irish and English, as well as current affairs and drama.