Although Frank O’Connor is known primarily, and rightly, as one of the most accomplished short-story writers in English, he was also an accomplished translator. In the long line of Irish writers given to translating poems written in Irish into poems written in English – a tradition stretching back at least as far as Jonathan Swift – he stands out above all the rest.
Between the mid-1920s and the mid-1960s, O’Connor published 121 translations that give voice to the full range of the centuries-old tradition of poetry in Irish. Collected here for the first time, O’Connor’s translations show an uncanny aptitude for carrying over into English verse many of the riches to be found in the originals – the ancient voice of the Hag of Beare lamenting her decline into old age; the voices of the early monks describing the Irish landscape, Irish weather, their religious faith, and, in at least one instance, their cat; the voice of Hugh O’Rourke’s wife torn between loyalty to her husband and a rising desire for her seducer. All these voices haunted O’Connor throughout his career, whatever else he was doing.
O’Connor’s translations spring from a nearly compulsive desire to breathe life into Ireland’s past, to ‘look back to look forward,’ as he once put it; for O’Connor, the Irish-language tradition was not a matter for scholars and archives alone, but a living body of work that was of serious, even urgent, relevance to an Ireland that seemed increasingly and puzzlingly indifferent to it.
It is in large part because of O’Connor’s profound, unmitigated love of the Irish language and its rich, centuries-old tradition of literature – ‘a literature of which no Irishman need feel ashamed’, he once said – that these voices, and so many others, can still be heard.