An Irish-language novel attracts the attention of the European jury
There is a Eurovision for literature. It is called the European Union Prize for Literature (EUPL). Founded in 2009, it is rewarded by the Creative Europe Program to reward the best emerging fiction in Europe. The rules, however, are more subtle than the Eurovision Song Contest. Please don’t think Sinéad MacAodha, director of Literature Ireland, and her board are sitting in the meeting room saying, ‘France: twelve points, France twelve points’, but you get the picture. . EUPL is a prize that aims to promote the circulation of literature in Europe to foster intercultural dialogue. In today’s difficult climate, such initiatives are more vital than ever.
In 2019, the Irish winner was The Fire Starters by Jan Carson. Carson is eloquent on the benefits of such an award: “The EU Prize for Literature has helped me see myself as a European writer, made deep friendships with my fellow writers across Europe, has opened up opportunities to reach new European audiences and to travel widely across the continent and beyond. It was a life changing experience. This year’s Irish nominee was Madame Lazare, a debut novel written in Irish by Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin, and was one of five titles to receive a special mention from the jury.
If the name Mac Dhonnagáin is familiar to you, it may have come from the children’s show Dilín Ó Deamhas, which aired on RTÉ in the 1980s. This marked Mac Dhonnagáin’s first involvement with broadcasting. After working part-time for several years, he joined RTÉ full-time in 1987. He stayed there for 13 years, then presented the current affairs program Cúrsaí. Later he co-presented Cúrsaí Ealaíne in 1995-2000. Mac Dhonnagáin then left Dublin for Connemara to live in An Sp Idéal with his wife and three children. While he had enjoyed stimulating encounters with the artists and writers he encountered on Cúrsaí Ealaíne, he recognized that his own artistic ambitions were not being fully realized and he took the plunge and became a freelance screenwriter.
He worked on the soap opera Ros na Rún of TG4, wrote music, developed different ideas, such as the teen program Aifric. He created a publishing house Futa Fata in 2005, where, among other projects, he produced CDs for children. Today, the publishing house employs five people and has a catalog of nearly 60 books. Mac Dhonnagáin emphasizes the variety of tasks involved in publishing – acquiring and selling rights, commissioning original works. His picture books have been very successful: Mise agus an Dragún by Patricia Forde, for example, has been sold in many languages and selected for many awards.
Mac Dhonnagáin has also published translations of popular English children’s books, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Dialann Dúradáin). To those who ask why such books should be translated into Irish, Mac Dhonnagáin replies that bilingual children are delighted to re-read familiar stories in Irish. Mac Dhonnagáin also created an imprint for adults, Barzaz. It publishes both original texts and translations, such as Khalil by the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra. A more recent project is the translation of the bestseller Children Are Kings by French writer Delphine de Vigan.
Mac Dhonnagáin grew up in rural Mayo. He learned to speak Irish fluently at his English-speaking secondary school. He points out how the Leaving Certificate curriculum at the time gave students a real insight into the history and literature of the Irish language; students read a range of poetry from bardic to ultra-contemporary, and they studied four books, including memoirs and short stories. Mac Dhonnagáin became involved with Slógadh, the Irish-language arts festival for teenagers, and at 16 went to stay at the Gaeltacht for the first time.
Cor na Móna, a small village just across the Galway/Mayo border, was very much like the village he grew up in – a cluster of small farms, a sense of good neighborliness and yet for him the revelation lay in the discourse of the locals, in that other language, Irish. This made Mac Dhonnagáin aware of the persistence of Irish in his own community. It is inspired by an image used by poet Michael Hartnett to explain how he felt. Hartnett referred to the Breac-Gaeltacht areas (partly Irish-speaking areas), such as Ballyvourney, as a two-tone Gaeltacht. Mac Dhonnagáin, on his return home, felt that Mayo was a two-tone Gaeltacht or English-speaking region, where many people’s great-grandparents were native Irish speakers and spoken English was dotted with words and phrases Irish.
The novel is remarkable in many ways: its exploration of language, family ties, European identity, dementia, the burden of care in contemporary society.
Mac Dhonnagáin moved to Dublin after his school leaving certificate and studied to become a primary school teacher at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. During his three year course he moved around the Irish-speaking world in Dublin, playing music, writing songs, recording with Raidió na Gaeltachta and making an album with Gael Linn. After graduating, he taught at a primary school in Dublin from 1982 to 1987.
Madame Lazare was born out of Mac Dhonnagáin’s foray into creative non-fiction with the book Mise Raiftearaí: An Fíodóir Focal. In this work, Mac Dhonnagáin explores the life of the blind poet, who is both a figure of folk legend and a true historical figure. The experience gave him the courage to write a novel in Irish.
Irish-language novels, as Barry McCrea pointed out at a recent conference in Rome, are relatively rare. McCrea suggests this is because of the fate of the language in the 19th century and the lack of an Irish-speaking bourgeoisie.
Mac Dhonnagáin’s novel oscillates between contemporary Paris, Brussels and the Aran Islands. Its central protagonists are Madame Lazare, a Jewish woman, living in Paris, and Levana, her granddaughter, who works in Brussels. As Levana’s grandmother is increasingly affected by dementia, Levana is drawn to exploring her grandmother’s identity and her past as a refugee.
The novel is remarkable in many ways: its exploration of language, family ties, European identity, dementia, the burden of care in contemporary society. The texture of the language in the novel also reminds readers that the Irish language has many different strands, from the speech of native speakers in the Aran Islands to the language spoken by young people in a cosmopolitan metropolis. Mac Dhonnagáin said he was honored to represent Ireland at the EUPL.
The finesse of the plot and the subtleties of the narrative remind the reader of the great development of the works of Balzac or Thomas Mann. Mac Dhonnagáin’s background as a screenwriter also ensures that the reader is driven by the desire to learn more about Hana Lazare. Máire Nic an Iomaire is working on an English translation; Mac Dhonnagáin wants to keep his creative voice in Irish. He is enthusiastic about the popular response to the book, people have contacted him via Twitter, for example, to say how much they liked it. And as he points out, Gaelscoileanna’s network across the country has created a reading audience for adult books in Irish.
It is to be hoped that the European recognition of Madame Lazare will allow this complex and tender novel to be widely read in Europe and beyond.