Feature Articles

MICHAEL DAVITT (1950–2005) by Siobhán Campbell and Gabriel Rosenstock

(July/August 2005)

In 1970 Michael Davitt founded the Irish-language literary journal Innti. More than a poetry magazine, the Innti ‘movement’, akin to that of the Beats in the United States, revitalized poetry in the Irish language with its emphasis on contemporary concerns and sharp vernacular wit. By staging public readings across Ireland and literally bringing poetry back to the streets, a sense of excitement was generated in the poetry scene of the Seventies and Eighties which resembled that of the San Francisco renaissance during the previous two decades. Davitt, along with fellow Innti poets Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Liam Ó Muirthile and Gabriel Rosenstock, succeeded in wresting poetry in Irish away from the ‘tweeds and Fáinne’ brigade who had always linked the endeavour to political ends.

He was born is Cork in 1950, into a family who were not native Irish-speakers. His father Joe was a bus driver from Mallow in Cork and his mother, Hilda (neé Parker), was from Stoke-on-Trent. At the North Monastery school in Cork, Brother S.E. Ó Cearbhaill, a poet, was an influence. It was here that Davitt began his engagement with Munster Irish, which he was to master to an extraordinary degree. Later; he took a Bachelor of Arts in Celtic Studies at University College, Cork.The Professor of Irish there was the poet Seán Ó Tuama, and the literary giant Sean Ó Riordáin was also associated with the Irish department. In this intellectual mix, another figure was the musician Seán Ó Riada, whose exploration of traditional music in the context of jazz also had its effect on the subsequent formal and linguistic experimentation of the poet.

After university, Davitt moved to Dublin, where he taught and then worked for the Irish cultural organization Gael Linn. From 1985 until 1988 he was a presenter on the national television broadcaster, RTÉ, before becoming a producer/director. He retired early from RTÉ and pursued his poetry – two major collected poems in dual-language editions have been published by Coiscéim: Selected Poems / Rogha Dánta (1987) and The Oomph of Quicksilver / Freacnairc Mhearcair (2000). These have enabled a new generation of readers to encounter the linguistic virtuosity of Davitt, who can be seen to have devoured the work of e.e. cummings, the Beats, and Bob Dylan. Indeed, Davitt has been described as ‘the Bob Dylan of the Irish language’.

His poems have an almost forensic way of seeing the flaws and foibles of contemporary society. Pieces written about and for people he admires brilliantly capture each individual's personality. Leading poets like Paul Muldoon, Brendan Kennelly and John Montague have translated his work for publication. Nor did Davitt shirk from difficult subjects. The poem ‘Resolution’ is written in memory of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, brutally murdered in 1996 in West Cork; ‘Tears for America’ addresses the bombings in New York of 11 September 2001, encompassing several key markers of US history, from swallowing ‘whole the west’ to ‘a tear for Uncle Sam / escaped from Rehab’.

Davitt will always be associated with the new movement in Irish poetry which was against isolationism and which brought the internationalist energies of a new youth culture to the reading and publishing scene. He maintained that the Irish language was entirely compatible with emergent trends. ‘What is important is to continue believing in the Irish language as vibrant creative power while it continues to be marginalised in the process of cultural McDonaldisation...’ At a time when the EU has designated Irish as an official language, Davitt's insistence and activism would seem to have succeeded and his work itself stands as a testament to his own vibrant creative power. This work was recognised with literary prizes including the Butler Award in literature from the Irish-American Cultural Institute and membership of Aosdána.

Siobhán Campbell, an abridged version of the obituary in The Independent (UK)
Ceannródaí na nuafhilíochta Gaeilge ab ea Michael Davitt (1950–2005), rud a aithnítear ag baile agus i gcéin. An Bráthair S. E. Ó Cearbhaill sa Mhainistir Thuaidha spreag a ghrá don Ghaeilge agus don fhilíocht. Chuir sé slacht ar a chuid Gaeilge níos déanaí i nGaeltacht Mhúscraí agus i nGaeltacht Chorca Dhuibhne – ‘mo cheann lán de Chasadh na Gráige…’ Bhí an-chluas ar fad aige agus is é a bhí in ann aithris a dhéanamh go binn ar Mhaidhc Pheig Sayers (An File) agus ar na hIar-Bhlascaodaigh go léir a bhí ag cur fúthu i nDún Chaoin ag an am. Ceangal creidiúnach ab ea Michael Davitt idir an dá shaol, an file ‘Beat’ a raibh lé nach beag aige leis an sean-nós.

Ní i dtúr eabhair a mhair an ‘bligeard sráide’ seo (mar a thug sé air féin i gcnuasach cáiliúil dá chuid). Bhí sé ar dhuine den lucht eagair a bhí laistiar den mhórshiúl go Baile Átha Cliath in aghaidh dhúnadh Scoil Dhún Chaoin; ní go ródheas a chaith na fórsaí slándála leis na hagóideoirí lasmuigh d’Ard-Oifig an Phoist. Thuig sé mar sin, ón dtús, go mbeadh dúshláin roimhe sa saol.

Dhein sé cion fir agus é ina bhainisteoir ar Shlógadh agus arís ina léiritheoir ar an gclár teilifíse, ‘Léargas’. Fear cúise ab ea é ach ní sa ghnáthshlí; bhí a mhodhanna féin aige. San Iarfhocal a scríobhadh lena Rogha Dánta (Coiscéim), tugtar le fios ann go raibh an gol laistiar den ghreann in an-chuid dánta leis. Cuimhnítear inniu ar an bhfear seoigh ach bhí taobh an-dáiríre ar fad ann. Bhí sé ina mháistir ar a cheird. Ghoilleadh an abairt liopasta air. Bhí an-chur amach aige ar na canúintí go léir.

Ba gheall le míorúilt é an tionchar a bhí ag INNTI ar an nuafhilíocht. Thiar sna seascaidí déanacha bhí an domhan á chorraí féin, bhí cearta á n-éileamh – cearta sibhialta na Gaeltachta, cearta an phobail ghoirm sna Stáit Aontaithe – agus bhí réabhlóid chultúrtha san aer, go háirithe sna hollscoileanna. Giotáraí maith ab ea Michael agus Bob Dylan ina dhia beag aige. Chuireadh sé cóisir ina tost le ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind …’ Bhí a fhios agat gur óna chroí amach a bhí na focail sin ag teacht mar nach raibh an freagra ar eolas aige - go deimhin, ní raibh lánmhuinín aige riamh as éinne a mhaífeadh go raibh an freagra aige. Má bhí nóta nua á bhualadh ag cultúir an Iarthair trí chéile, ba é Davitt a bhuail an nóta sin abhus. Nóta fonóideach ab ea é go minic; uaireanta eile nóta ab ea é a bhí lán de chumha, frustrachas agus briseadh croí. Bhí a stampa féin air mar nóta.

Chuir Michael Davitt an teanga in oiriúint do shaol na cathrach, do néaróis ár linne gan imeacht ó fhréamhacha na teanga, an teanga sin a bhí ina foinse spioradálta dó go lá a bháis. Cíorfar a oidhreacht liteartha fad is atá an Ghaeilge á labhairt, á scríobh agus á léamh in Éirinn agus déanfar iontas dá bhuanna éachtacha mar fhile.
scoilteadh an croí mór / ina bhéic mheigiliteach… / beidh an macalla sin farainn go deo / ní inniu ná amárach a chloisfear é / ní amárach ná amanathar a thuigfear é / lia oghaim ár linne / leagtha

-Gabriel Rosenstock

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