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Lost Voices and the Politics of Language: Classical Literature in Irish

Isabelle Torrance

Aarhus University, Denmark

Irish independence from Britain, ratified in 1922 with the creation of the Irish Free State comprising twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties, was accompanied in the decades that followed by a surge of publications in the Irish language, including numerous translations of classical literature and of materials for teaching Greek and Latin. The Irish language, often referred to as Gaelic outside of Ireland, was a significant anti-colonial mode of expression given the earlier centuries of Irish language suppression by colonizing forces. Ireland also has a tradition of expertise in classical scholarship that dates back to the medieval period and even earlier, as documented by Stanford (1976). More recently, O’Higgins (2017) has shown that knowledge of the classical languages in varying degrees was widespread among diverse cross-sections of Irish society and Irish speakers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This means that post-colonial Irish authors had an innate claim to ownership of Greek and Latin, languages elsewhere viewed as entirely colonial. Until now, however, little scholarly attention has been paid to Irish language translations of classical literature and their potential for a politicized expression.

New research by Moran (2020) and Ní Mhurchú (2020) exposes the extent to which Greek and Latin materials were made available through Irish from the 1920s up until the 1970s, and MacGóráin (2020) analyzes how Patrick Dinneen appropriated Virgil to the nationalist cause through Irish in a remarkable fashion. This paper will focus instead on two authors popular with Irish translators in the 1920s – Sophocles and Lucian. Pádraig de Brún’s translations of Sophocles’ Theban tragedies were critically acclaimed and performed to large audiences. His two Oedipus plays were contemporaneous with the famous English language translations of W. B. Yeats but are virtually unstudied. Similarly, the serialized translations from Lucian’s True Tales by Domhnall Ó Mathghamhna were published regularly in the Sunday Independent and reached a wide audience, but have received no scholarly attention. On the eve of the centenary of Irish independence, these lost voices will be reanimated and it will be argued here that the Irish translations of Sophocles and Lucian were both popular and political.

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Indigenous Voices and Classical Literature

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