Luz Mar González-Arias
Universidad de Oviedo, España

Creative Commons 4.0 by Luz Mar González-Arias. 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.

The Fifty Minute Mermaid by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Translations by Paul Muldoon. (Loughcrew, Co Meath: The Gallery Press, 2007)

‘from a bottomless well’1

The Fifty Minute Mermaid, with poetry written in Irish and with translations into English by Paul Muldoon, continues Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s fruitful bilingual project first seen in The Astrakhan Cloak published by The Gallery Press in 1992.2  At a recent seminar held in Dublin College University on the issue of translation, Ní Dhomhnaill stated that she understands translation as an act of artistic creativity, by this intimating that both fidelity and infidelity to the original source will necessarily be part and parcel of the process of rendering her texts into a new language. As is the case with so many other readers of Ní Dhomhnaill’s work, my access to her poetry is mediated by that creative act that inevitably transforms the original Irish version  —  adding nuances to it in order to help it into the transition towards a different language, while at the same time making it lose some of its initial connotations somewhere along the way. Our awareness of reading a parallel text, versus an existing original, thus acquires an added dimension when it comes to Ní Dhomhnaill.

The book is divided into two distinct sections, the first of which contains only three poems, the second comprised of a long sequence of thirty-seven texts that focus on the figures of the Mermaid and Merfolk and their fate on “dry land”. Although apparently disconnected with the second section, the first part of the book, whether intentionally or unintentionally on the part of Ní Dhomhnaill, prepares us for what is to come and directs us towards a particular reading of the biography of the Mermaid. It is not Andersen’s fairy tale we are about to encounter but a much harsher and more realistic — also highly mythical and unconscious at the same time — confrontation with loss, the mental and bodily consequences of that loss and the possibilities of healing.

Death and human suffering acquire the thematic weight of “Mo Mháistir Dorcha leathanach”/“My Dark Master”, “Dubh”/“Black” and “An Obair”/“The Task”. While at times engaging with the specificities of real and/or imaginary Irish landscapes, this first sequence is best read in an international context of war, misunderstandings between cultures and atrocities. “Dubh”/“Black”, for instance, is written as a protest against the fall of Srebrenica and the ethnic cleansing that triggered the massacre of 8000 women, children and men of Bosnian origin in July 1995. Relying on the strategy of repetition, the poem is an intelligent deconstruction of the absurd binary opposites that have pervaded Western thought and provides an egalitarian status for all peoples of the globe through the metaphor of blackness. Roddy Doyle’s famous racialization of Irish ethnicity is here elevated to an international level that colours all earthly communities and leaves no one immune to the tragedy of genocide: “The Catholics are black. / The Protestants are black. / The Serbs and the Croatians are black. / Every tribe on the face of the earth this blackest of black / mornings black” [“Tá na Caitlicigh dubh. / Tá na Protastúnaigh dubh. / Tá na Seirbigh is na Crótaigh dubh. / Tá gach uile chine a shiúlann ar dhromchla na cruinne / an mhaidin dhubh seo samhraidh, dubh”] (18-19).

Ní Dhomhnaill frequently draws on the realm of myths and folklore in her poetry, using them as signifiers to be decoded by means of the cultural references of contemporary Ireland. At one level, the long Mermaid sequence can be read as an artistic articulation of what it means for these sea-people to leave their element and come to live above the water, in the Irish “dry” landscape. In this sense, the texts become a powerful tool to inscribe the cultural trauma that the Irish went through when the English language superseded their previous mode of communication and skillfully address the stagnation and anti-creative implications of such a transition. In many of the poems, both the written word and music are left behind by the Mermaid, confused as she is by the new order of things and the new linguistic codes she must abide by. Her rejection of getting involved with her previous tongue can be interpreted as the schizophrenia faced by communities where bilingual situations result from a colonial past. In “Na Murúcha agus Ceol”/”The Merfolk and Music” the speaking voice describes how the sea-people turned their backs on music and concludes that “[w]hat lies at the bottom of all this, of course, is the trauma / of their being left high and dry” [“Sé bunús an scéil go léir, ar ndóigh, ná tráma a dtriomaithe”] (106-107).

The poems offer an in-depth analysis of the struggle of both adapting to and being accepted by a new environment. One of the most attractive aspects of this transition is the involvement of both body and mind. As it is only to be expected in Ní Dhomhnaill’s work, far from an exclusive interrogation of the psychological consequences of cultural clashes, the poet analyses the challenges of difference in terms of physicality too. And so, in “An Mhurúch san Ospidéal”/“The Mermaid in the Hospital” the mythic figure “awoke / to find her fishtail / clean gone / but in the bed with her / were two long, cold thingammies” [“Dhúisigh sí / agus ní raibh a heireaball éisc ann / níos mó / ach istigh sa leaba léi /bhí an dá rud fada fuar sea”] (34-35). The poetic voice wonders if in the long months that followed, during which the mermaid had to learn what those new legs could do, “her heart fell / the way her arches fell, / her instep arches” [“Ins na míosa fada / a lean / n’fheadar ar thit a croí / de réir mar a thit / trácht na coise uirthi, / a háirsí?”] (36-37).

The “Lack of Sympathy” the newcomers feel in the new land (59) and the admission that they had been the victims of some sort of “ethnic cleansing” (87) turns them into the representatives of oppressed peoples everywhere. It certainly connects them to the massacred Bosnians referred to in “Dubh”/”Black”. A clear-cut contextualization for the poems is problematised as all through the book there is a sense of fluidity, not only implied by the symbol of water but also by the body and language of the mermaids, both escaping fixed definitions and stable categorization. In “Teoranna”/“Boundaries” (128-131) the poetic voice contends that the language of the merfolk is “pelagic” [“peiligeach”], since “it covers the seven seas”. This fluidity is further emphasized by the statement that “everything in the language runs into everything else, / [… ] there are no strict boundaries between one thing and / another”. However, and despite this poststructuralist sense of free-floating (perhaps we should say “free-swimming”) signifiers, the constant references to the Irish countryside and to the gender-specific experience of the Mermaid also trigger a more parochial postcolonial and feminist reading of Ní Dhomhnaill’s texts. Her mermaids can thus be perceived as standing for the doubly marginalized subjects of Irish society, namely the historically oppressed colonial and female selves.

For the reader interested in the identitarian debates of present-day Ireland, there is perhaps something missing in The Fifty Minute Mermaid: a more engaged interrogation of the label “margin” to make it overtly inclusive of the “new” discriminated-against subjects of the nation, that is, the many different ethnic communities in today’s Ireland. However, and despite the absence of specific references to the minorities that have arrived in Ireland as a direct consequence of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon, this level of interpretation can also be there. The date of publication of the collection coincides with debates on the issue of Irishness and on the processes of othering the newcomers have been experiencing. In this respect, The Fifty Minute Mermaid invokes the history of the Irish as a colonized people (an archetypal Other for British imperialism) and contributes to creating an atmosphere of understanding and welcoming of difference for those who are now, in the wake of the Tiger, occupying marginal positions previously assigned to Irish speakers.

The Fifty Minute Mermaid uses myths and fairy tales as visible surfaces through which to approach everyday societal problems: mother-daughter relationships (“An Mhurúch is a hIníon”/”The Mermaid and Her Daughter”: 132-135), domesticity (“An Mhurúch is a Tigh”/”The Mermaid and Her House”: 124-127), sexual abuses and religious institutions (“An Mhurúch agus an Sagart Paróiste”/”Mermaid with Parish Priest”: 108-113) are interrogated and problematised. But in spite of the recognizable issues of “reality”, Ní Dhohmnaill’s collection is rich in references to the magical world of superstition, unconsciousness and dreams. This is probably what makes the book a fascinating piece of poetry, where the author delves into areas of the mind we are not fully aware of. Her “pre-colonial” language may be lost, but the Mermaid retains some sense of “the old order of things” (29) that will guarantee its preservation and survival in whatever new shape it may acquire with the passage of time. And whereas she may be talking to us from the “bottomless well” (141) of her confusing, new post-structural fluid identity, she is still powerful in her magic, other-worldly dimension. At the end of the book, the reader is left with a feeling of having experienced a journey through the lands of conscious and unconscious landscapes, not knowing for certain where the boundary between the real and the imaginary lies, no doubt one of the greatest achievements of good poetry. As the poetic voice of “Bunmhiotas na Murúch”/”Founding Myth” (44-47) admits, when it comes to superstition having to do with the mermaids, we do not believe it but we “don’t not believe it” either.

  1. The author of this review wants to acknowledge her participation in the Research Project “Poesía y género: Poetas irlandesas y gallegas contemporáneas (1980-2004)”, Plan Nacional I+D: HUM2005-04897/FILO. []
  2. My review of The Fifty Minute Mermaid will be based on Muldoon’s renderings into English, rather than on Ní Dhomhnaill’s original texts. However, all the quotes from the book will include the original as well as the translation. []