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An extract from 'An Béal Bocht'

irish literature

Published in 1941, when its author was only 30 years old, An Béal Bocht has stood the test of time, and remains one of the funniest books ever written in the Irish language. But it's more than just a very funny book. It is also a sharp critique of the State's failure to sustain the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht communities. Read on to find out a bit more about the background to the publication of this book.


The setting

An Béal Bocht is set in a fictitious Gaeltacht area called Corca Dorcha (which essentially means 'the Dark Place'). Corca Dorcha is an amalgam Gaeltacht. It rains non-stop in Corca Dorcha, and the landscape is bleak and inhospitable (although the views are sensational!). The Irish in the book is not written in any one particular dialect but is a hodge-podge with features from each of the dialects. (In doing this the author was also challenging the idea of linguistic purity).


The Gaelic Autobiographies

If you've been learning Irish for a while you might have heard mention of a particular genre of Irish literature: the Gaelic autobiography. These are autobiographies which described life in traditional Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) communities. The first, and perhaps best-known, of these books is An tOileánach (the Islander). An tOileánach was published in 1929 and describes the life of Tomás Ó Criomtháin on the Great Blasket Island off the coast of Kerry. Another example of this genre is Peig. Published in 1936, Peig is an account of the life of Peig Sayers, a native Irish speaker from west Kerry, who married into the Great Blasket Island. Many more books of a similar style started to appear around this time, including Fiche Bliain ag Fás (1933).


Why the deluge of Gaelic autobiographies?

There is a very good reason why these autobiographies started to appear from the 1920s onwards. This was the time of the founding of the State and there was a growing interest in the revival of the Irish language. Members of the language revival movement (who were mainly from outside of the Gaeltacht communities) encouraged native speakers to write and publish their memoirs. The deluge of autobiographies which started to appear in the 1920s and 1930s fueled nostalgia for a rapidly disappearing way of life.


An Béal Bocht as a Parody

Parody involves the imitation of a style of a particular writer or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. This is where An Béal Bocht really comes into its own. An Béal Bocht is a gross exaggeration of the Gaelic autobiographies in general, and An tOileánach in particular. An Béal Bocht amplifies and magnifies the misery and hardship described in An tOileánach to the utmost. The author also pokes fun at the writing style of the Gaelic autobiographies by repeating and exaggerating many of the clichés contained in those books.


Not just a funny book

An Béal Bocht is not just an extremely funny book however. The humor in the book masks a sharp criticism of certain social and cultural beliefs of the time, including ideas around the 'nobleness' of poverty; linguistic purity and, most importantly of all, the State's failure to sustain the Irish-speaking communities.


An Óráid / The Speech

Perhaps the funniest chapter in the entire book is that in which the festival in Corca Dhorcha is described. Motivated by the hope that they might collect enough money to build an Irish college the people of Corca Dorcha organise a festival. The 'Gaelgóirí' (language revival enthusiasts) descend en masse from Dublin in their fancy cars, and take over. Long-winded speech after speech is made by the fervent language enthusiasts even as many of the local inhabitants faint from lack of nourishment. (The full text in English and Irish and audio of the speech are included in our Learning Irish Through Literature course).


Brian Ó Nualláin / Flann O'Brien / Myles na gCopaleen

The author of An Béal Bocht, Brian Ó Nualláin, was born in Strabane in Co. Tyrone in 1911. He was better known as Myles na gCopaleen among readers of Irish, and as Flann O'Brien among readers of English. With the sudden death of his father in 1937, the responsibilities of the household fell on Brian, the oldest son. He got a job in the civil service in the same year and worked there until he was compulsorily retired in 1953. He wrote a hugely popular column in the Irish Times, An Cruiskeen Lawn, (The Full Jug), from 1940 until 1966. His first book At Swim-Two-Birds was published in 1939; but his second novel in English, The Third Policeman, wasn't published until 1967, a year after his death.



Tips for reading An Béal Bocht

An Béal Bocht is a challenging read due to the mixture of dialects and sometimes confusing dialogue! If you're not quite up to it just yet you could read the excellent translation by Patrick C. Power: The Poor Mouth. A graphic novel version of the book is also available from Cló Mhaigh Eo which can make for an easier read. Here's an important tip though: it's best to have read a little of either An tOileánach or Peig beforehand to fully appreciate the humour in An Béal Bocht. (English translations of both of those books are available).


Learning Irish Through Literature

An Béal Bocht is one of the three works of literature included in our Learning Irish Through Literature course. This course allows an intermediate level Irish learner to access some great pieces of Irish language literature. The course includes some of the funniest excerpts from An Béal Bocht in audio format; along with parallel texts in Irish and English. Short explanatory videos, and vocabulary builder videos are also included. If you have ever wanted to dive into Irish literature (and one of the funniest books ever in the Irish language in particular) then make sure to have a look at Learning Irish Through Literature! If you've any questions about the course or any of my other courses for learning Irish you can contact me here.

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