DeVry University, Long Beach, CA, USA | Published: 15 March, 2006
ISSUE 1 | Pages: 67-80 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2006-1420
2006 by John L. Murphy | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Antoine Ó Flatharta bilingually charts media-saturated global impacts upon Galway’s Gaelic-speakers. His play in Irish,Grásta i Meiriceá (1990) features two young Irishmen who journey by bus on a pilgrimage to Elvis’ Graceland. In its 1993 English adaptation, Grace in America, the pair meets relatives who emigrated to 1940s Buffalo. Reading these plays by applying Seamus Deane’s “primordial nomination,” Edward Said’s “cartographical impulse,” Declan Kiberd’s “spiritual tourism,” and sociolinguistics, their relevance sharpens. In transforming Grásta into Grace, Ó Flatharta foreshadows his own shift into publishing in English. The fate of the play’s mutating Irish vernacular, as shown in Ó Flatharta’s drama, becomes less lamented than might be supposed. America, and English, represent liberation for his characters, in his work not only in English but –unexpectedly– in his other native language of Irish.
This Conamara-born writer bilingually charts media-saturated global impacts. His 1990 play in Irish, Grásta i Meiriceá, features two young men who journey by bus on a pilgrimage to Elvis’ Graceland. In its English adaptation, Grace in America, the pair meets an aunt and uncle who emigrated to 1940s Buffalo. Disenchanted on their secular trek to Presley’s shrine, the Conamara tourists realize how their Irish identity mixes indigenous with imported, through Native American legacies vs. mass-produced song, film, and stereotypes: «America of the imagination» vs. St. Elvis’ «holy well.”
This play, published only in Irish, remains the sole Ó Flatharta drama reworked into English. He based it upon his own 1984 visit by Greyhound to Memphis. In Irish, Grásta appeared in theatre and on television. In English, Grace has been performed and revised between 1993 and 2001 in America, London, and Scotland. I will introduce the macaronic Béarla agus Gaeilge delivery of Grásta—apparently unknown to the later play’s English-language critics—as a multicultural context within which to explore Grace’s innovations as Ó Flatharta revamped his play for international, theatrical, and linguistic reception.
Grásta i Meiriceá graphs the odyssey of Seán and Finbarr, two emigrants in their twenties. Recently arrived in New York, working in the building trade, they speak for an Americanised generation prepared from birth to leave Ireland. Unnerved as illegals, they risk a road trip in part to evade arrest. Grásta being untranslated, my summation follows.
Finbarr, eager and ambitious, contrasts with Seán, cautious and skeptical. As they travel to the South by bus, both characters soon forget Conamara.. Finbarr’s enthusiasm erupts, but Seán sours as Graceland nears. This shift occurs after a cryptic scene midway through Grásta. Secondary figures of Cop and Waitress had been glimpsed early in the play, on television in Seán and Finbarr’s New York City flat. Now, Seán witnesses what may or may not be a deadly shooting of the woman by the policeman. She, sobbing, had begun chanting a litany of Indian place names, and he, fed up, pulls out a pistol and murders her. Finbarr counters that Seán has viewed only aistíl (play-acting). Seán contends that he has witnessed an actual homicide; Finbarr insists that the conflict was enacted for –or broadcast live on– television.
Stopping at Nashville, slang-spouting Finbarr dons a cowboy hat. Seán doffs his hat. He rejects charade. Meditating upon Native American place names, Seán pits truth against Finbarr’s pretense. Here, Ó Flatharta hints at the loss of an indigenous people’s tongue. In this Irish-language play, substantial use of English –perhaps a fifth of the content– derives not only from the pair’s American residence, but from macaronic patterns of their bilingual speech. For example, as Finbarr pens postcards, Ó Flatharta’s directions remain in Irish even as their enactment whirs between the two characters’ two native languages. He plants in his plays his roots: “Cé nach as Conamara mise ó dhúchas is fear Gaeltachta go smior anois mé. Tá an fhios agamsa céard is brí le dúchas. Tá mé ina measc anois sách fada le sibh a thuiscint. Mar a chéile muid anois. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile”.1 (Ní Bhrolcháin 1989: 66-7) While he ends his explanation with a native proverb, Ó Flatharta does not fetishize Irish. Finbarr peddles Nashville in traffic that risks linguistic and cultural jet-lag once the card returns to its gullible Irish reader.
FINBARR: Ní chreidfidh siad go deo é nuair a fheichfidh siad na postcards seo. (Ag scríobh go mall)‘Howdy Partner. I’m sitting in a bar in Nashville Tennessee’ …cé mead ‘e’ i Tennessee? …caithfidh mé isteach ceann extra just in case… ‘The weather is very hot. I have to go, Dolly Parton is looking for me. Wish you were here.’ (Tógann sé cárta eile agus téann ag scríobh arís) Howdy… (Glanann sé amach an focal arís) No… ag mo mháthair atá mé dá chur seo… (Ag tosú arís) ‘How are you. I am great. I am sitt… I am visiting Nashville, the home of country music. I have to go now, Dolly Parton is look… Dolly Parton sings here often. The weather is great. Wish you were here. (Le Seán ) ‘Bhfuil tú ag iarraidh cupla postcard?’ (Ó Flatharta 1990: 43)2
The postcard writer betrays his predicament. Mimicking pre-fabricated vocabulary and barroom bravado, Finbarr sits blind to what Seán and spectators see. Finbarr stumbles when reporting the state’s place name, goal of their pilgrimage. Seán searches within states’ Indian meanings for primal identity. Seán loiters beside, waiting to speak.
Finbarr and Seán’s code-switching between their two native tongues literally and figuratively presents their own transience. Seán blocks Finbarr’s bluster. Seán gazed at crime. Finbarr shrugs. He gives no credence to what Seán sees, for all can be transmitted as aistíl. They bicker at stations and stops. They seek a home turned a shrine, an icon buried. They leave a Gaeltacht where they never spoke its «pure» tongue at its linguistic reservation. They have never lived apart from America, but they are recent and illegal greenhorns. Both the homeland of Finbarr and Seán and the territory they now cross evoke emptiness. Behind evocative, ancient signifiers of places, earlier languages have been eradicated, adulterated, or abandoned.
Seán reifies alienation: “Bhí mé i mo shuí ansin ar an mbus is Meiriceá dul thar an fhuinneog de rite reaite, ar nós programme ar a television, d’fiafraigh mé díom fhéin cá raibh mé dul?” (Ó Flatharta 1990: 47)3) But the nation eludes him—the views could have been camera-framed, with he as detached spectator of locales with multisyllabic names now untranslatable. Fintan O’Toole summarizes this detachment within Ó Flatharta’s drama: “Television and film, karaoke and computers, saturate his landscapes, unsettling identities and undermining language itself”. (2003: 171) Indian knowledge dissolves. So do contemporary creeds. Grásta notices neither God nor Church. Seán searches no longer for Graceland but its root meaning. Finbarr comforts himself with visions of Elvis’ home, memorialised as his grave. Seán spurns Finbarr, bitterly joking that he treats Memphis as if Fatima. Both pilgrims arrive at Graceland, searching for secular if not religious fulfillment.
After viewing glass reliquaries displaying Elvis’ guitar, his rifles, and his Vegas Suit (worn for his televised “’68 comeback special”), Seán and Finbarr ponder his calvary: tottering up Graceland’s stairs to die on his toilet, a prisoner of a bloated body. Media resurrection of the King did not herald his triumphal ascension. Finbarr and Seán, disillusioned, agree that the United States is their predestined home. They have been indoctrinated with its fancies–first heard in their Irish cradles.
Seán resents tall tales of America’s pioneers. He breaks the guitar case. While a busker strums “Lonesome Cowboy”, Seán recounts boyhood games, when he pretended to be killed by Indians. Concluding, he, Finbarr, and the busker crouch around the grave of Elvis, three wiseguys listening for grace’s descent.
In both Irish and English versions, Ó Flatharta kept the core plot of Seán and Finbarr’s Graceland pilgrimage. The unpublished production script for Grace in America eliminates Cop, Waitress, and gravesite reliquaries. Grace introduces Con and Maggie, Seán’s aunt and her husband, who live in Buffalo. Seán and Finbar4detour there. This encounter comprises most of Grace’s first act.
Under Kent Paul’s direction, Grace was «completely revised» after its 1993 Cleveland run. (According to the director, however, no manuscripts are extant.) He staged it in Vermont in 2001. Its artistic director condensed Ó Flatharta’s leitmotif: «he speaks about the play being a song of a play, that he likes a play to function like a song». (Charnoff 2001) In 1993, the author told of his «theory that all plays are closer to songs and ballads than they are to the novel, or even cinema». (Evett) This insight, repeated by Ó Flatharta in interviews and by Kent Paul to me, concentrates the focus of Grace for an international stage.5
Not unlike Finbarr, when Antoine Ó Flatharta reached the States in 1984, he spent three weeks cross-country on a Greyhound bus. He explains: «Growing up you are so aware of American music, American films, American everything. A whole America of the imagination is created in your head. I wanted to come to the real continent of America and see if those images tallied». (Evett 1993) With Grace, Ó Flatharta widens his panorama to include not only his generation, immersed in global culture, but that of his predecessors, postwar Cons and Maggies, who left a stagnant Conamara to help build a (perhaps) no less stereotypical 1950s America.
As in Grásta, the plight of illegal Irish in America spurs Grace. Its first lines of dialogue quote official offers of citizenship being granted Maggie in 1948 and Seán in 1993. Media retain prominence: Bing Crosby croons «Galway Bay»; the book “Famine Days” expresses Maggie’s inherited pride. This volume’s engraving will tease Seán and Finbar into stage Irishmen: «Sure it was that bad that the pigs in the parlour had tears runnin out of their eyes». (Ó Flatharta 1993: 32) When they regard a Famine depiction captioned «Clothes being given to the poor, County Clare 1849», Finbar mocks: «Not a Bennetton T-Shirt in sight». (32) This product placement captures a subtler assault of globalization; this clothing line striving at the time of the play’s creation to vaunt its multicultural sensitivity on colorful posters not only with smiling models from all races but with professionally framed glossies of Third World poverty. Terry Eagleton observes: “A glossy colour supplement is culture, and so are the images of emaciated Africans it offers to our eye”. (2003:48) The London Weekly Supplement’s lithographs displayed across the Empire scenes drawn of the Famine. In the media-fueled capitalist culture that sells Elvis and Irish iconography both, globalization now pulls in the trivial and puffs it up as momentous. Piety pairs with poses. Grace is only the latest manifestation of selling destitution for distribution, exported for today’s audience, more likely counterparts of Seán and Finbar than those of Con and Maggie.
Finbar relents, if momentarily: «Look at the places they had to live in – poor bastards». (32) Surprised by Maggie, the lads protest. They do not demean the past, but they weary of its presence. Seán and Finbar represent Americanized Irish. From birth, they can stay at home yet enjoy –if vicariously–Yankee crime and Southern charm. Con disdains such studied irony. He laments their loss of «that trust and innocence that made this country». (28) Finbar assuages Con; Seán resents deceit. When Con rages against “brave tomato-throwers of Galway” who protested Reagan’s visit during the contra war, Seán snaps: “I just remember thinking at the time that Reagan was firing a lot more than tomatoes in Central America”. (27-8) Con insists: «Our strongest weapon was our innocence». Seán mutters: ‘Tell that to the Indians”. Maggie interrupts to play the cassette of Seán’s dead great-grandfather’s voice. Séamus6 Molloy, thanks to progress that ships tomatoes back from America to Ireland and ammunition to Nicaragua, can intone cadences of–and for–the four characters’ forebears.
Untranslated, Séamus’ chant bonds them, although this intimacy slips after Maggie’s phonetic repetition of Séamus’ lyrics. She apparently has forgotten their meaning after nearly five decades in Buffalo. Ó Flatharta, avoiding translation of Séamus’ lyrics, challenges listeners. If Grásta conveyed for Irish-fluent spectators a liminal community clinging to Gaelic even as Seán and Finbar ride across an anglophonic empire, then Grace offers a quartet of émigré Irish listening to the language Seán and Finbar still understand.
This aboriginal tug survives the leap from Grásta to Grace. When Con hears Seán banging a bodhrán that Seán took off the wall downstairs, he spits that the two lads act like «Indians». Seán enlivens what for Con and Maggie hung as an artifact bought at Shannon. But Maggie spurns Seán’s lesson. For her, Ireland halts at a distance bridged only in her mind, not her actions. She resists returning to where no longer is home. Con also accepts his fate, to be buried in Buffalo. Talk of the grave overlaps with the struggle –not only for Seán but for Maggie, once she maps the men’s Memphis trip, to discover what American places mean in their Indian origins.
Seán struggles over «Susquehanna». Finbar shrugs: «Ya can say it any way ya want then. None a them around here t’correct ya». (30) Even Buffalo resonates as a mute ancestral void.. The near-extinction of a totemic animal hunted by whites reverberates as a warning for any community under Anglo-American hegemony. Seán tells Maggie that he dreamt of Ireland for the first time since emigrating. But what he envisioned was a sea of Bruce Springsteen fans at a Slane Castle concert, echoing on t-shirts what they heard the Boss shout: «Born in the USA!»
Ó Flatharta never loads these concerns too heavily upon Grace. Yet, they alert audiences attuned to global alterations. Fintan O’Toole diagnoses the author’s tension «between a hankering after stability on the one hand and the placeless and amorphous feel of contemporary technological change on the other». (2003: 170-1) The review of its final Scotland staging ended: “the relentless humour is probably a vital antidote to the painful themes of emigration and exile, all too familiar in the Highlands”. (“MO” 1994) Press cuttings record generally favourable reception to themes of linguistic and cultural loss. The 1994 tour’s sponsorship, by Hydro Electric and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, imparts what its author and younger characters accept: modernisation of hinterlands, with an affirmation to allow its people to create yet control forces bringing and sustaining change.
Personal changes pull Finbar from Seán. Without telling Finbar, Seán gained a visa. This tension drives Act Two. The bus trip follows. Maggie asks for when the pair kneel at Graceland’s grave: «Say a prayer for all the lost souls». (Ó Flatharta 1993: 54) This poignancy caps Act One’s set-up of Indian spirits and Irish ghosts. In Con and Maggie’s old Conamara schoolhouse, Seán had worked assembling cassette tapes until a grant expired and his employers fled. The now twice-abandoned locale may revive making fibre-optics. Technological mediums for media progress, even if Ireland tolerates amorphous control, now as in «Famine Days». Characters agree: that spot was haunted. Con and Maggie recall its sounds. They regress to Gaelic. The local plots with their stable descriptions: wet, dry, large, and small fields, emerge. Spousal articulation arouses dormant memories of place even more powerfully than Séamus Molloy’s cassette, which Maggie could only parrot, shakily before Seán and Finbar’s silent scrutiny.
Given Maggie’s bodhrán, likewise, Seán revives concealed tones, easing anxiety by music. Finbar’s guitar drives his Elvis homage as inGrásta. Finbar, discouraged by tawdry Graceland, chooses departure; Seán prefers the Cherokee progenitor of Elvis’ drawl. Their pilgrimage ends with whispers, not Grásta’s bangs. They sing «Danny Boy», one of the older Presley’s favourite tunes, over his grave. Finbar leaves; Seán stays. He juxtaposes his jet departure with Maggie’s boat leaving Cork city. Recalling Lancey and Owen’s exchange in Act Three of Brian Friel’s Translations («Swinefort/ Lis na Muc; Burnfoot/ Bun na Abhann; Drumduff/ Drom Duibh;»
- “Since I’m from Conamara myself there’s the instinct of a Gaeltacht man now in my marrow. I know for myself what it means by nature. Now I’ve long been crammed with this insight. We’re all together now. One beetle knows another”. (My translation) Quoted in Nic Eoin (2005: 202). [↩]
- Irish phrases–my translation: “They’ll never believe it when they see these postcards (Writing slowly)—How many ‘e’s in Tennessee?…I’ll throw in an extra one…—(He picks up another card and goes writing again)—(He erases the word again) No…my mother’s there if this gets to her…(Starting over)—(To Seán) You’re asking for a couple of postcards?” [↩]
- “For me sitting there on the bus there’s America going by the window stretching out running by, like a television program – I ask myself: where am I going?” (My translation [↩]
- In Grace, Finbar is written with only one “r”. [↩]
- Early 1990s New York City staged readings of Grace, see Paul 2004; Thomas 2004; Whyte 2004. 1992 at The Red Lion, London, see Devine 2004. 1993 Cleveland Play House version and interview with Ó Flatharta, see Evett 1993. 1994 at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, see Coull 2004. 1994 Highlands and Isles Scottish tour, see Black 1994; Mathieson 1994; Pope 1994. 2001at Lost Nation Theatre, Vermont, see Lang 2004; Paul 2004; Thomas 2004. I quoteGrace’s manuscript in the Traverse version provided by Coull and the Vermont version provided by Thomas. Minor pagination variation or excised portions do not effect passages cited for this essay. [↩]
- In Grace, Johnny is re-named Séamus. I have added accents to Seán and Séamus; they are absent from the typewritten versions of 1993 scripts that I have consulted. I assume that these were revised by Ó Flatharta. Vermont (provided by Thomas) and Edinburgh (provided by Coull) copies share identically handwritten emendations and deletions. In Grásta, accents appear for Irish names. [↩]
- Compare Colm Breathnach’s 1992 poem, “Trén bhfearann breac”, analysed in Nic Eoin (2004: 271-3). The study of this poem and its titular itinerary [“Through the speckled land”] where “tá dhá ainm ar gach aon bhaile ann” [“every town there has two names”], expanded in Nic Eoin’s 2005 book applying contemporary theory to semi- and post-colonial Gaelic literature, gives her incisive critique written in Irish not only its title but its exemplary expression of “the intercultural tendency and uneasy in-between-ness which is the outcome of an unequal and destructive cultural encounter”. (2004: 272 [↩]
- Joseph O’Connor recalls his boyhood summers spent away from Dublin “to the edge of Connemara”, An Spidéal on the Gaeltacht frontier of Cois Fharraige. His encounters there with vacationing Americans sparked his longing to explore the U.S. In his book he visits towns named “Dublin” scattered over America, searching for why they were named after his hometown. From an old woman who had never been to Dublin but had spent years in New York, the boy O’Connor is told: “I would have to go to America myself when I grew up, she said, because Ireland was a very small place to live”. He explains: “In those few moments, the balance of Ireland tilted in my mind. I stopped seeing Ireland as a place which revolved around Dublin, and I began to see it as a place which revolved around America. The map of the world shifted, too, in my childish imagination. No longer just off the coast of Britain, Ireland was now just off the coast of Massachusetts”. Home from his holidays, he “hung an enormous map of America on my bedroom wall”. Like Seán, young Joseph finds himself moved by the “cartographic impulse” Said describes. His later travels make real his youthful dreams. O’Connor looked at the map when he woke up, “trying to learn how to pronounce the strange and glamorous names of American cities. How did you say ‘Albuquerque’? What about ‘Roanoke’, ‘Terre Haute’, ‘Des Moines’, Baton Rouge’?” He finds nowhere else comparable to “this fabulous and distant land”, as “[m]y own bedroom became an America to me. My own private America”. (1996: 2; 8-9 [↩]
- “I can’t wait to set foot in that place. I’m waiting to set my feet down in that very place. . . .Jesus, what about you? We’re talking about LA. . . . It’s like going off to Mecca or something. This man from Disney, he’s come back after a film shoot in Monument Valley. . . . If you could hear the places that I’m rattling off, Nóirín. . . . [Readers of Estudios Irlandeses may note an error in this local litany. Unwittingly, perhaps Danny and Ó Flatharta recite L.A. linguistic labels better than they may both realize; local mispronunciation by native Angelenos habitually elides the nearby city of San Bernardino into “Bernadino”, as misspelled here. Placenames continue to be pressed under the pressure of two colliding cultures and languages, in Spanish as well as Irish when it comes to the competing crush of English.] [↩]
- “You can’t get the red light here any other place in the country. . . .There’s music and truth in the names”. [↩]
- “It’s impossible to nail down any basic idea that the living language is crushed by the people who speak that language. It might be better for the growth and development of Irish for it to naturally surround itself–it’d bring it to a good end, allow it to arrive at a natural death, to give it dignity and a proper wake”. [↩]
- As I type this line, my son interrupts to inform me that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, an Irish actor with a partially Welsh surname, has won a 2005 Golden Globe for his starring role in a television series as Elvis–another indication of the media’s reach that extends Seamus Deane’s remapping. Rhys Meyers thanked the audience for his award–in Irish. [↩]
- ames McCloskey asserts that “there is nothing special about Irish. It is a language like any other, neither more or less worthy of support than Yupik, Inuit, Chamorro or Maori”. His book explores parallels between the fate of indigenous tongues worldwide and “this froth of linguistic experimentation and creativity” in creolizing, pidgin, and urban forms of Irish that accompany the established three Gaeltacht vernaculars. (2001: 42, 48 [↩]
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