Tomás Mac Síomóin

An evaluation

Jenny Farrell


One of the tragedies that befell Ireland after independence was that the aspirations for this newly liberated state were almost immediately replaced, as Liam O’Flaherty put it, by the “tyranny of the Irish Church and its associate parasites, the upstart bourgeoisie, the last posthumous child from the wrinkled womb of European capitalism.”¹ O’Flaherty’s novels of the 1920s describe this sad state of affairs and its impact on the people of Ireland.
     In 1926, a few short years after partial independence in 1922, the authorities of the Irish Free State set up the Committee on Evil Literature, from which grew the Censorship of Publications Board in 1929.
     The banning of O’Flaherty’s book The House of Gold was its first act. Ostensibly targeting “indecent” literature, it was a de facto ban on intellectual exchange of any kind, causing intellectual and cultural stultification.
     The impact of the official banning of books and its knock-on effect of unofficial and self-censorship can hardly be overestimated. While official banning is no longer implemented, unofficial censorship continues to this day. It is at its most serious in Irish-language literature. Students keen to propel this native language into modernity are presented in their courses largely with inferior modern literature, or “safe” stories idealising rural life. Socially subversive and global issues do not feature, considered “too dark.”
     But frustration generated by such unofficial, low-key censorship has been the fate of Tomás Mac Síomóin: small editions, absence from libraries, and bookshops, missing from reading-lists in school and universities, patronisingly regarded as too difficult—in short, unsuitable. A developed modern literary culture doesn’t exist in Irish, he admits ruefully.
     Mac Síomóin, who holds a PhD from Cornell University, New York, worked as a biological researcher, biology lecturer, journalist, editor, publisher, and writer, at first exclusively in Irish. His literary output is remarkable by any measure. He writes poetry, short stories, and novels, and stands out as a translator of world literature, both fiction and poetry, into Irish, and of Irish poetry into Spanish, Catalan, and English. He also writes non-fiction. He has won literary awards from the Irish-language authorities, which have never quite translated into the national recognition and literary fame they deserve.
     Out of disgust at the abandonment by modern Ireland of the social, linguistic and cultural ideals of the Irish Revolution and their replacement with Anglo-American consumerist values, Mac Síomóin left Ireland, like so many writers before him. He began to translate some of his own work into English in an effort to reach a broader audience.
     Among these translations are his collection of short stories, The Diary of an Ant² and the novels The Cartographer’s Apprentice³ and Is Stacey Pregnant?⁴ Two further books, a non-fiction exploration of the Irish neo-colonial psyche, The Broken Harp,⁵ and his brilliant rewriting of Swift, An Immodest Proposal,⁶ he wrote directly in English.
     As is evident in every word he writes, Mac Síomóin is an internationalist and has deep regard for social revolutionaries, both in his native Ireland and abroad. He has translated Mayakovsky into Irish, he has written a novel set in revolutionary nineteenth-century Cuba, and written while living in contemporary Cuba. He has translated the Communist Manifesto into Irish.⁷ His most recent book is the bilingual (Irish-Spanish) account of the contribution of the Argentine-Irish Bulfin family to the cause of Irish independence.
     Apart from its main roots in the twentieth century and earlier Gaelic poetry of Ireland and Scotland, notably those of Máirtín Ó Direáin and Somhairle Mac Gill-Eathain, Mac Síomóin mentions a range of international, mainly Spanish-language, influences on his poetry, such as Fernando Pessoa, Nicanor Parra, Antonio Machado, and Miguel Hernández. He also mentions Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet-scientist whose dual vocation first suggested such a possibility to him.
     Intriguingly, Mac Síomóin adopts a different voice in some of his poetry. Here we encounter the same interests but a different handling of the material, a separate tone. Mac Síomóin equates the writing of poetry, for simplicity’s sake, with painting and a sense of freedom, :where all the infinite and ever-evolving resources of language, rhythm, metaphor etc. etc. are available to the poet to create whatever effect he wishes, whatever image or metaphor he wishes, or feels impelled to create.” At present he is working on a book of translations into Irish of his selection of the Spanish poetry of Antonio Machado, Ceol an Easa (Waterfall Music), to be published in 2019.
     Mac Síomóin has in common with O’Flaherty and others the fact that he writes scathingly, in the great Irish satirical literary tradition, of contemporary neo-liberal neo-colonial Ireland and the inhumanity of the contemporary world. This has found its expression in dystopian visions, where hope of emancipation is scant, but extant in some small way.
     The plot of Mac Síomóin’s first and longest novel, the untranslated Ag Altóir an Diabhail: Striptease Spioradálta Bheartla B (At the Devil’s altar: the spiritual striptease of Beartla B). It develops in a rural lunatic asylum, where an inmate (Everyman) is driven to madness by his failure to solve the enigma of woman, in this case the cyborg Juliet.
     The tawdry illusions that cloak the idyllic valley in which the asylum is sited—essentially contemporary Ireland—are peeled off, one by one. In his novels Mac Síomóin presents the reader with imprisoned people. In The Cartographer’s Apprentice they are confined to a certain space and time, which is governed by a menacing theocracy. In Is Stacey Pregnant? the prison is a traffic jam, from which there is no escape and which ends in the sinister disappearance of people engineered by a new-old breed of Orwellian pigs. Inhuman machinations, willingness to sacrifice people, denial of dignity, lurk everywhere.
     Such dystopia has its firm and growing roots in our 21st century normality. Yes, it may strike the reader as extreme, but taken as hyperbolic metaphor it serves perfectly the purpose of highlighting the true and unmasked nature of our times. Mac Síomóin writes with Swiftian black humour, which creates enough distance for the reader to reflect on the text.
     Mac Síomóin has no time for “rural idyll” literature. “Thinking outside the box is of the essence of my vocation as a writer,” he says. “We inhabit a unidimensional material universe plus its cognitive shadow, our rationalization of that reality. Alternative organizations of experience within this reality are subversive, evil, forbidden by herd wisdom.”
     Such “dystopian” narratives fragment a fundamentally amoral reality, laying the groundwork for a radical conceptual reordering. Thus the traumatic car jam of Is Stacey Pregnant? is an imagined Euro-Ireland in the grip of neo-liberalism. A traumatic stress applied to this society dissolves its previous ideological superstructure and social cohesion.
     The Cartographer’s Apprentice relates the need of all coherent societies to guarantee conformity to their norms. “Signalling dysfunctionality is part of the creative destruction that must always precede the new,” he says.
     A semi-autobiographical book of memories and musings is still in the forge. An “Interview with the Devil,” a text in Irish (or possibly bilingual), is still in the preparatory stage.
     Tomás Mac Síomóin continues a glorious tradition. The generation before him produced authors with a social conscience and political understanding writing in Irish. Among these are such outstanding political activists as Liam O’Flaherty and Seosamh Mac Grianna, members of the CPI; Pádraic Ó Conaire, former IRA member, trade union activist, and socialist, once contesting an election; Patrick Pearse, cultural nationalist and leader of a military uprising against British imperialism in 1916; MáirtínÓ Cadhain, an IRA member, socialist, and political prisoner.
     All contributed significantly and lastingly to literature in Irish, not afraid to creatively generate new linguistic forms, contributing at this level too to the growth and renewal of the Irish language. It hardly needs pointing out that this is the natural way for a language to expand in its contemporary registers, not by bureaucratic decree.
     In this sense Tomás Mac Síomóin—through the pioneering nature of his Irish-language literature as well as his political understanding and contribution—is very much in the tradition of O’Flaherty, Ó Conaire, Pearse, Mac Grianna, and Ó Cadhain.
     Mac Síomóin, who turns eighty on 19 February 2018, has stood firm against those who would rather he wrote of thatched-cottage idylls or middle-class, mid-Atlantic, midlife crises. He shows us the world as it is and invites the reader to see it as incommensurate with humanity’s ideal. To change the world one must first understand it. As Liam O’Flaherty wrote: “And the censorship of literature was imposed, lest men like me could teach the Irish masses that contact with dung is demoralizing, that ignorance is ignoble and that poverty, instead of being a passport to Heaven, makes this pretty earth a monotonous Hell.”⁸
     Terry Eagleton’s comment “For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life”⁹ applies equally to Ireland, if “eminent” means known to the general reading public. In Ireland too the literary-political establishment suppresses any serious challenge to the status quo. This is why we need writers such as Tomás Mac Síomóin.

Jara
They heard a harper
Boldly strum
On the floor of their hell;
Weaving the dawn
Through the words of his song
They smashed his fingers
One by
One

But untouched
By nimble fingers
Each chord sang
Its song of the dawning,

Of mankind’s hope,
Of the wretchedness of our days

They ripped each rebel chord
From its wooden bed.
“Viva la muerte” howled
Those sons of Cain.

Failing to silence
The poet’s bright song they brought
A slender hempen noose
To throttle a poet
Who dared weave treason
Through the joy of his poems

A rebel hand drew back
the grave’s stone lid
In the dawn’s bleak light
The grave is empty;
That selfsame angel proclaims again
To the selfsame deaf man
That this harp shall never be silent
From now to the crack of doom.

Victor Jara, the great Chilean poet and singer, was brutally murdered by Pinochet’s goons after they had destroyed Salvador Allende’s socialist Chile on 11 September 1973. Jara´s weapon was his guitar. During the extended English genocidal campaigns in Ireland, poets and harpists were systematically hunted down and murdered. The same brutality at the service always of imperial domination.

Notes
  1. LOF, “The Irish censorship,” American Spectator, 1 (November 1932).
  2. Tomás Mac Síomóin, The Diary of an Ant, Nuascéalta, 2013.
  3. Tomás Mac Síomóin, The Cartographer’s Apprentice, Nuascéalta, 2013.
  4. Tomás Mac Síomóin, Is Stacey Pregnant?: Notes from the Irish Dystopia, Nuascéalta, 2014.
  5. Tomás Mac Síomóin, The Broken Harp: Identity and Language in Modern Ireland, Nuascéalta, 2014.
  6. Published in Jonathan Swift, Liam O’Flaherty and Tomás Mac Síomóin, Three Leaves of a Bitter Shamrock, Nuascéalta, 2014.
  7. Karl Marx agus Friedrich Engels, Clár na Comharsheilbhe: Forógra na gCumannach, Dublin: Communist Party of Ireland, 1986.
  8. LOF, “The Irish censorship,” American Spectator, 1 (November 1932).
  9. Terry Eagleton, “Only Pinter remains,” Guardian (London), Saturday 7 July 2007.
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