I understand Irish, but I can’t speak it.
I’ve heard this said many times, and I heard it again at the long dinner table in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre where I spent a week in April with the other recipients of the ART: 2016 Next Generation Bursary Award. I can’t exactly say that I myself am totally confident with the language. I, like many others at that table, can speak Irish and yet regularly don’t.
Dining room, Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, 2016.
The thing about really expressing yourself is that it requires a degree of vulnerability, and to make yourself vulnerable you need an atmosphere of trust. It’s very hard to try, and fail, and pick yourself up again, when you feel that you’re being judged. In every language, including the one in which we make creative work, the struggle for acceptance is at the root of self-censorship.
As a writer in Ireland, I don’t always feel accepted or that my job is rated as important. Unlike people in other professions, I’m often called upon to explain or defend my decision to make work. Sometimes, I even have to pretend that I don’t do what I do all day; that poetry is not as central to my life, or as relevant to other lives, as I actually believe it is. It’s almost as if artists receive a special memo that instructs: don’t take yourself too seriously, and at least appear to be looking for a ‘real job’.
Composer David Coonan and writer Sian Ni Mhuirí, Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, 2016
In a country that currently lingers at the bottom of the European league table for public funding of the arts, this is why the Tyrone Guthrie Centre exists: to remind artists that what they do is important. For a whole week I had the pleasure of connecting with other writers, artists, theatre people, musicians and a circus performer who made my mind spin with all the ways we can achieve what at first seems impossible. I had an extraordinary discussion with a composer about form, rhythm and the secret currency of syllables
But perhaps the greatest gift of this Arts Council award has been the vote of confidence; the encouragement to speak my own words. In a spirit that is almost rebellious, it says to 18 emerging artists: don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and then pick yourself up and start over again. This is your real job. This is the language in which you are perfectly fluent. I returned to Dublin after my residency and a few days later, I sat down in a cafe and began to write my first poem in Irish.
Poet and writer Annemarie Ni Churreain, Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, 2016.
Annemarie Ni Churreain is a poet and writer from Donegal. See: http://cargocollective.com/annemarienichurreain.
Photos: Barry Cronin.