What, if anything, does the end of land, or of territory, have to do with the end of language? Is there ever an end of language, even of a particular speaking? Noah Rose is an artist working on the intersection between place and minority language.
Notes from elsewhere:
“I was born elsewhere, with a different language in my head; I grew up in a different elsewhere with another different language…perhaps everywhere is elsewhere seen from the perspective of this small island; on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, moored in Roaringwater Bay; frontier and portal, rocky redoubt, exposed bluff, steep humpbacked whale, three square miles of old red sandstone, lush vegetation and generations of human habitation, of accretion, accumulation of knowledge, of stories of tenacious living on the frontier between land and sea, between the older world and the newer, between the Gaeilge still spoken every day on Oileán Chléire and the English language of Cape Clear Island that has become the dominant language of Ireland during the last two centuries.”
The Hidden Stone Library:
Between September – November 2020, I was resident on Oileán Chléire/Cape Clear Island, an Irish (Gaelic) speaking Island, off the coast of County Cork, Ireland, as part of the Oileán AiR artist residency programme. The residency asks, as its starting point, the question:
‘Cad a thárlódh dá gcaithfeadh ealaíontóirí agus deantóirí am ag smaoineamh ar a gcuid oibre agus an caidreamh idir é agus an Ghaeilge i gcomhthéacs Gaeltachta?’
‘What would happen if artists, thinkers and other creators could take time to reconsider their practice and its relationship to community and the Irish language in the context of the Gaeltacht?’
When I arrived on the island, I knew I wanted to make sculptural work that was of the land and in the land, incorporating a source text in Irish. I didn’t know what it would say and I didn’t know how it would be made. I spent a lot of time during my ﬁrst weeks on Cléire walking, exploring, photographing, drawing, thinking, engaging in taiscéalaíochtaí (explorations) and spaisteoireachtaí (strolling/wandering) without a clear destination, building up a mental and subliminal map of experiences and feelings – a kind of rural dérive, constrained by the island (psycho)geography. I walked the island’s marked routes, wandered off tracks into the wild places, explored many hidden spots on land and sea. I made drawings at points I was drawn to, where I was drawn in.
Covid restrictions meant that even when we ﬁrst arrived, there were fewer opportunities to engage with the island’s residents than I’d hoped, but a few weeks in, the Irish Government announced nationwide Level 5 restrictions and this severely curtailed any social interactions (with all three pubs, community spaces and library closed, the only communal space on the island that remained open was the single small shop).
I set out to improve my Irish – through reading, through online courses and resources, through talking to my fellow artists, Brigid O Dea and Vicky Langan, and with Áisitheoir Ealaín (arts co-ordinator) Ruairí Ó Donnabháin and Bainisteoir Chomharchumann (Island Co-op manager) Máirtín Ó Méalóid, all of whom have Irish – ranging from very good to ﬂuent, and through our weekly ‘Hedge School’ sessions with Séamus Ó Drisceóil, which took place in various Covid-safe locations including around a ﬁre in the garden and exploring the South Harbour on Kayaks. I also borrowed children’s books from the small but perfectly-formed Leabharlann Chléire (Cape Clear Library) and studied not just the way the language was written and grammatically structured, but also the way it was visually represented and how this had changed over the years.
The 1952 children’s book ‘An Buachaill Ban’ by Cathal Ó Sándair was one source of inspiration – its densely packed pages of text set out in an old-fashioned Cló Gaelach print – traditional and distinctively Irish letterforms, making them at ﬁrst awkward to read – at least to an eye used to the more conventional forms of the Roman alphabet used by most European languages. There is a strangeness at ﬁrst sight to the typographic ‘character’ of characters in Cló Gaelach, which of course encompasses many different styles of letterform. This can be described in formal design terms (for instance the use of capitalisation after the ﬁrst letter, or speciﬁc distinctive elements like the seemingly incongruous relationship of descender to base-line horizontal of the ‘f’) but it’s these seeming idiosyncracies which make the printed language feel so alive, and retain so much of the distinctiveness of the ‘Tasty sweet Irish language’.
Of course, the history of typeface design (letterforms made for movable lead type, designed for mechanical printing) is a vast area of study in itself and the development of Cló Gaelach says much about the development of modern Ireland (as can be seen at the excellent National Print Museum in Dublin), but to understand the formation of these printed letterforms its necessary to go further back in time, to the language preserved for over a thousand years by monk-scribes using nib pens and ink on vellum, or the form of letters incised in stone throughout many centuries and still a direct link between language, place and the materiality of territory.
My main typographic/orthographic inﬂuence was the name-stone of the island’s Scoil Náisiúnta (National School), a beautifully hand-carved plaque still in situ on the front of the island’s small school building. Dating from the early twentieth century, this name stone replaced the earlier stone which said, In English: ‘Cape Clear National School, 1896’ (this stone now adorns the entrance to the island’s fascinating small museum and visitor centre; the date has been over-carved so that it reads either 1896 or 1897). The two name stones are carved in very different styles of lettering, creating a very different interpretation of place and are perhaps an illustration, set in stone, of the dual identity of the island community and its role as a linguistic frontier throughout history. The earlier one with its English name – carved in utilitarian and austere rectlinear capitals, bears the characteristics of colonial functionalism. The Irish stone, with its name deeply incised in elegant script, with distinctive elongated ’s’ and ‘r’, a very ﬁne example of the traditional and distinctive local orthography and a sense of craft tradition, although it is in fact newer than the ‘English’ stone, probably dating from the years immediately after the founding of the Irish Free State, a hundred years ago, and subsequent Gaelicisation of names.
I had been experimenting with how to combine sculptural form with language, through material and location – making experiments with found driftwood, rusted bits of old boat, the sand of the strand, the old stone steps of the quay – until I settled on the very stuff of the island, the old Devonian Red Sandstone that splits satisfyingly into vertical strata and is visible everywhere along the rocky shoreline.
My taiscéalaíochtaí had led me towards one particular rocky outcrop, in the intertidal zone, an island-off-an-island at high tide, hard to ﬁnd and difﬁcult to access, another frontier between land and sea, bearing the full brunt of incoming Atlantic storms, slowly being materially reconﬁgured by the ceaseless actions of the waves – salt water penetrating the cracks and ﬁssures of the rock, gradually splitting it into distinctive individual tablets. It felt like the right place to start; even though I didn’t quite know yet where it would lead and where I would place the ﬁnished work, I knew I wanted to carve text into these tablets and place them back somewhere signiﬁcant, inscribing and then returning the books to the shelves.
This is how my process settled into the work that would become:
‘An Leabharlann na gClocha Ceilte / The Hidden Stone Library’.
The library comprises a number of initial titles. Each title is a tablet, made of natural stone slabs, from the rocky outcrop. I had found one part of the source – the material – now I had to settle on the text itself. I had been hoping to speak with older residents of the island, to hear stories and perhaps poems, songs or pieces of folklore from a primary source, but this kind of exchange wasn’t possible due to the ongoing Covid restrictions. Instead, I turned to the superb resources of duchas.ie the National Folklore Archive, where I found a poem that became the source text.
Translation, transcription and the nature of the ‘true source’:
The ‘original’ source text is a scanned facsimile of a handwritten poem (author unknown), entitled ‘Inis Cléire’. The ‘informant’ is named as Conchubhar Ó Síothcháin, the island’s great Twentieth Century storyteller and author of the book ‘Seanchas Chléire’. In his role as informant he is quoting a poem thought to be around 200 years old, passed down orally through the generations. Ó Síothcháin’s retelling was transcribed by Seósamh ‘Josie’ Ó Drisceóil sometime during the twentieth century (date unknown), whilst the digitised transcription of the handwritten transcription is dated 2017 (by An Dothra Bheag, one of Duchas’ volunteer transcribers). This text has therefore been through several retellings, transcriptions, one could say diffractions – and there are inconsistencies in spelling and grammar which reﬂect its retelling though different periods of history, and the different grammatical rules of Irish which prevailed at different times. I certainly don’t have good enough Irish to be able to identify these but I was very fortunate to be able to come to a transcribed text that manages to strike a balance between them, courtesy of Diarmuid Ó Drisceóil, a former Irish teacher whose family are from the island, going back many generations. I had an enjoyable and creative translation dialogue with Diarmuid during my time on the island and I’m grateful to him for explaining some of the subtleties, and for his English translation.
Title 3) ‘Ní rabhas ach seal / It was only a matter of time’.
Note: the lines are reproduced below, in slightly different form than they appear on the tablets, due to the limitations of digital script in representing Cló Gaelach orthography.
Ní rabhas ach seal ar an gcaladh im’ aonar / I was only a short while on the pier alone Nuair a mheasas mé féin fé gheasaibh draoidheachta / when I imagined myself under a magic spell Nuair cualadh mé gutha mar ceol Orphéus / when I heard voices like the music of Orpheus Sa teanga Ghaedhilge bhlasda bhinn / in the tasty sweet Irish language
These photographs show the temporal installation of these carved tablets at various locations along the rocky shoreline of the island, close to where they were originally extracted. Through the process of laying out the lettering, carving it into the tablets and then laying out these tablets on the rocks I experimented with an ideal resting place for them, only to ﬁnd that there was no certainty. My original sense of when the work would be ﬁnished and where it would be ﬁnally installed was subject to constant reconﬁguring, as though the action of the waves was eroding my surety and causing me to rethink what was solid and what was changeable. I realised the work was not complete and would need further reconﬁguration. And so I am currently working on part two (the next four lines of the poem) in my County Galway studio, and will return to Cléire sometime during 2021 to complete this title and accession it in the Hidden Stone Library – by installing it in a particular island location, in a ritual ‘incavation’ ceremony – details of which are in processes of materialisation.
It’s only a matter of time.
 Cathal Ó Sándair, An Buachaill Bán (Baile Átha Cliath: Oiﬁg an tSolátair, 1952