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Language of love and friendship

IN HIS essay on Irish swearing, the great Victorian chronicler of Gaelic Ireland, William Carleton, said "the Irish language actually flows with the milk and honey of love and friendship".

Irish for him was the medium of prayer and domestic tranquility.

That aspect of Irish has struggled to get a hearing in our time, if only because of the relentlessly political focus that has disfigured large parts of modern Irish letters.

The introspection of the Gaeltachtai has not helped matters either.

Liam O Muirthile's latest collection of poems, An Fuioll Fea-Wood Cuttings (Cois Life), is very much in the humane Carleton tradition though.

O Muirthile's Irish is the Irish of the city street, the factory floor and the urban tavern. His focus is on what Patrick Kavanagh once called "ordinary plenty".

Unlike the titans of modern Irish poetry, whether O Riordain or O Direain, O Muirthile feels no palpable shudder when examining modern life. His intricate poems will appeal to all, but they must exert a certain special power over those of us who are products of Cork City.

O Muirthile writes with deft familiarity about the brightest stars in our constellation, about the lovely light that was Christy Ring, about Rory Gallagher's "locks of black seaweed" and the sculptor Seamus Murphy.

When O Muirthile explains how an early morning walk around the swan-filled lough is the best cure for a hangover, "an Loch go moch", we know exactly what he means.

He writes of the city's passion for soccer, conjuring up the long-lost warriors of Cork Celtic FC as filtered through the pints in the airless Cork Arms on McCurtain Street.

And he hints at the city's sad history with Hodgkin's disease in a tribute to a sibling who had an operation on her glands. When young Liam came awkwardly to visit her, the nurses redirected his gaze from her bandages with an insistent chorus of "go on, go on give your sister a kiss".

In my mind's eye I saw the North Infirmary, the squat castle-like house of broken bones that glares up the hill at the North Cathedral.

And sure enough in a later poem about those wretched Corpus Christi parades that set out from that cathedral bearing flags of yellow and white, O Muirthile describes this area of the city with startling economy. He writes about the "sraid chung mheanmharach", the narrow Mediterranean streets around the hospital, an image that renders those lanes without wasting a single word.

Cork City is more than just first dates with mermaids in the old Pavilion cinema and death-defying appointments with mad barbers though. Reading O Muirthile last week through the prism of the McAleese report on the Republic's use of internment via laundry, some sad themes mingle.

O Muirthile writes about an encounter with an elderly Christian Brother teacher. The adult poet can't quite bring himself to talk to the old monster, but he recalls the fateful day in 1962 when the Brother sent the boys home to pray that Khrushchev would not try to break President Kennedy's quarantine of Cuba.

He also recalled the disordered attitude towards violence and humiliation that was all too common amongst the city's religious orders.

"I have a sweet for you", this teacher used to say before producing a cosh, "chomh fada sios lena bhroga", that stretched from his pocket to his shoes.

O Muirthile's tribute to an old communist ends with a reflection on the passivity that allowed such cruelties to fester.

Birmingham, Chicago and Perth drained off those most likely to burn those laundries to the ground, leaving the rest to haunt the labour exchanges and make do with "bheith sasta le geillsine thoil De", a line beautifully translated by Gabriel Rosenstock to read "telling them to be happy vassals of God's will".

Like Carleton again, O Muirthile found politics to be inescapable. He translates parts of Wolfe Tone's diaries in a series of poems before tending to the Guildford Four.

The Firing Squad suggests some fundamental ambivalence about revolutionary aristocrats, especially the ones who plague people with their consciences in pubs.

The last poem of this collection then, Thuaidh (or North) draws these disparate threads together. The poet is commemorating an ancient IRA ambush, and proceedings are rather hijacked by an abrasive northerner. "'Daoine boga sibhse theas,' arsa cara. 'Muidne thuaidh cruaidh.'" (You lot are soft down south, we're hard in the north.)

Reworking Leopold Bloom's famous claim in Ulysses that polemics are a poor second to love-making, O Muirthile quite agrees there is "unfinished business" here.

Safely at home, he fixes his pictures of Barrack Street and the curved Lee, turns to his beloved and says: "Ta gno leis idir lamha anseo le criochnu fos, a chroi." This is the Irish for a very old truth: what will survive of us is love.

Irish Independent