Book reviews: Twenty Years A-Growing, by Maurice O’Sullivan
Created on: November 19, 2010 Last Updated: November 20, 2010
Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, (also known as Maurice O’Sullivan), was born in 1904 on the remote island of Great Blasket, situated off the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry. One of the last outposts of traditional Irish culture and language, the island was visited in the early part of last century by several English scholars who wished to study the language and way of life. As a result of this, some of the islanders were encouraged to write their memoirs, which were published to much interest, giving the tiny island a disproportionately rich literary output. ‘Fiche Blian ag Fás’ was published in 1933 and the later English Translation, ‘Twenty Years A-Growing’ was acclaimed as a world classic upon publication by the Oxford University Press in 1953.
An introductory note written in 1933 by E M Forster and a preface by the translators Moya Llewellyn Davies and George Thomson are inside. These are interesting period pieces in themselves, occasionally patronising, with Forster calling the book; “an account of neolithic civilisation from the inside.”
A sentence from the first page sets the tone;
“I am a boy who was born and bred in the Great Blasket, a truly small Gaelic island which lies north west of the coast of Kerry, where the storms of the sky and the wild sea beat without ceasing from end to end of the year and from generation to generation against the wrinkled rocks which stand above the waves that wash in and out of the coves where the seals make their homes.”
Here is a read that won’t be rushed. In her preface, Llewellyn Davies writes of the Irish vocabulary having more range and ‘poetry’ than the language into which it has been translated. Much it seems is lost in the translation, apparently some of the original passages are also not in the English version. Nonetheless, it still translates well. The author’s voice is conveyed in sing-song Irish dialect and the dialogue sounds authentic enough.
There are a few Irish words and sayings left in the text, some of which are explained in notes throughout, while others are left to be interpreted by the reader. ‘Musha’ is one such, which was used all over the place and seems to be both an exclamation and a term of endearment. At times this reads more like a series of anecdotes than a narrative story. The style is direct, fervent in it’s expression yet also polite and touchingly naive. It can take a little getting used to both dialect and