- "Ní cathair mar a tuairisg í":(Mis)Representing the American City in the Literature of the Gaelic Revival?
In a letter to the newly established bilingual journal Fáinne an Lae in August 1898, the appropriately named "Fear na Cathrach" (the City Man) professed his belief that the success of a modern literature in Irish depended on its capacity to engage with the buzz of city life:
Ní féidir do theanga na hÉireann stad go mbéarfaidh lucht na tuaithe ar éirimíbh agus ar intinníbh brostuighthe na gcathrach, agus ní fuláir dúinn iad sain do bheith againn i litridheacht na haimsire seo. Más mian linn aon litridheacht do bheith againn feasda, caithfear brigh agus neart agus fuinneamh nua do chur inti. Ní has an dtuaith a thiocfas an spiorad nua so…. Is mire agus is buirbe go mór tonn-tuile beathadh na cathrach 'ná sruthlán mall meirbhshiubhlach na beathadh tuatha.1
(The language of Ireland cannot cease to exist until country folk possess the hasty aptitudes and spirits of the cities, and we must funnel this into the literature of today. If we want to have any type of literature henceforth, we must add life and strength and energy to it. This new spirit will not come from the countryside…. The tidal wave of city life is far quicker and fiercer than the languid slothful streamlet of country living.)2
The proposal of "Fear na Cathrach" was swiftly called into question by "Fear na Tuatha" (the Country Man), who argued that the Irish language belonged to the rural populations and "was not compatible [End Page 93] with the indifference and the lethargy of city men."3 This spirited commitment to rural culture was shared by most authors writing in both English and Irish during the period—with notable exceptions. Founded in 1893, the Gaelic League strove to reestablish the spoken language and also to cultivate "a modern literature in Irish."4 Yet despite heated debates regarding the form, dialect, and font that this new literature should adopt, the possibility of the urban milieu as an appropriate subject matter was not readily entertained. Gaelic Leaguers viewed the Irish language as inextricably linked to the Gaeltacht regions and looked to the west as a blueprint for an authentic national identity: Irish-speaking, Catholic, rural, and traditional. That this belief took root is clear. Writing over fifty years later, the modernist poet Máirtín Ó Direáin commented that his native tongue was not adequately furnished to tackle the social mores of city life: "Caithfear gortghlanadh is forbairt a dhéanamh uirthi fós sula mbeidh sí i ngleic leis [an saol cathartha]" (The language still must be overhauled and developed before it can come to grips with it [city life]).5
Although Gaelic Leaguers may have pushed the conviction of "Fear na Cathrach" that "city life does not oppose the spirit of any language" to the periphery of their philosophy, the specter of urban life haunted much of the Gaelic literature produced around the turn of the century.6 With widespread depopulation and emigration occurring throughout Ireland, the city seemed to symbolize everything that threatened the aims of the League. In an editorial in Fáinne an Lae in 1898, for example, Dublin was scorned as "cathair mhór an Bhéarla agus namha do'n Ghaedhilg" (the city of English and the enemy of Irish).7 The industrial centers of England and the United [End Page 94] States proved more contentious still, depicted in the various periodicals and organs of the League as dystopian landscapes plagued by materialism and ungodliness that actively corrupted and Anglicized wide-eyed young emigrants.
From the mid-nineteenth century in European literature, the city had emerged as a key trope—as the environment upon which the anxieties of the modern isolated self were projected. Within the context of the Gaelic Revival, representations of the city were so confined to anti-emigration texts that depictions of the urban were typically assumed to carry such a thrust. Philip O'Leary notes that anti-emigration stories generally "did little but sketch dreadful monitory parables of the...