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Recommended Reading 1
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Black Tie International Magazine - Recommended Reading:
The Big Drum

The Big Drum

The Big Drum
Prof. Art Hughes’ 15th book just published.


   Friend of Black Tie Magazine, Dr Art Hughes is in New York for the academic year 2009/10 as a Visiting Professor of Irish at Glucksman Ireland House, NYU.

One of the world’s leading Gaelic scholars, he has just launched his 15th book: a literary translation entitled The Big Drum. This novel was written in Irish by Seosamh Mac Grianna as An Druma Mór and it is widely recognized as one of the finest ever written in the Irish language. The core of the novel concerns a feud between two marching bands in a little seaside hamlet Ros Cuain (or Rannafast) in County Donegal in the North-West of Ireland in the years 1912 to 1922. This townland was part of the Gaeltacht or ‘Irish-speaking area of Tyrconnell (Donegal)’.

   Seosamh Mac Grianna (1900-90), a brilliant and artistic young writer, completed the book in 1930 and it was due to be published in 1935 but the Irish Government decided, at the eleventh hour, to ban the book because of fears that some local characters who featured in the book (albeit under pseudonyms) may have taken court action for libel. Banning the book was a devastating blow for the young author who abandoned  his writing career after this unwarranted censorship. Mac Grianna was to spend the next 30 years of his life in a lost wilderness and the last 30 in a mental institution!

  For the first time, an English translation of this important Gaelic novel has been prepared by Professor Hughes. Not only does Hughes provide an excellent translation with explanatory end notes, but he also provides a 12,000 word essay on the author’s background and the reader would be advised to read this appended essay (page 119 ff.) before beginning the novel proper.

The novel while seemingly ignoring such major events as the First World War (1914-18) and, to a degree the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, can also be viewed as an examination of the need for feuding in the human race as a whole, where this small local skirmish can be seen as a parody for wider warfare and the inherent struggle of groups or factions of people to control and subjugate each other. This novel is a hidden gem which has now been put on wider public display. Professor Hughes must be congratulated for bringing the work of Seosamh Mac Grianna to an international audience. In addition to his skills as a literary scholar, Art Hughes has also painted the cover.


The book details are as follows:

The Big Drum Seosamh Mac Grianna,
translated A.J. Hughes (Ben Madigan Press 2010).
It is available to an American readership via the website www.litriocht.com . Go the following page to order a copy: http://www.litriocht.com/shop/index.php


Here are some extracts from the novel:


Chapter 1, setting the scene:


The Gaeltacht of Tyrconnell [i.e. Donegal] lies between rugged mountain and rocky shore from Urris to Malinmore, as if it were duelling with the Great Ocean. These same shores bear many wounds and scars, gored and gashed as a consequence of that conflict which began before Parthalán came to Inis Samhaoir, yes and before years or days came into the world from the distant, misty womb of time. The thin covering of mossy ground which serves as soil there lies on the oldest rocks in creation; bog oak is found in abundance there – the stumps of the great trees into which the doe used to flee before Ireland ever heard a human voice. No living soul could ever tell how the first seeds of heather were planted, a plant which, in spite of tillage, is still found to the very edge of the sea. No living lore recounts who thrust the first spade there but it is easy to imagine its countenance before it was ploughed for crops: the brows and long tails of the hills and the massive expanse of red moor at the bottom of them; clear, tranquil lakes adorning them and floods meandering down their slopes. Harbours digging their way through the tall, jutting, patterned cliffs: harbours wherein the horrors of the world lurked at nightfall, just as they do now. Strands which roared as the stormy weather approached the final third of its slumber; strands which roared as if they were angry and unspeakably weary of that conflict between wave and shore.

   But people came and began their own feuding in the midst of the agitation between land and sea. The lowing of their cattle and the clatter of their tools were heard, clearly and sharply amidst the great tumult of the sea. Pagans came there, as did Christians. An occasional lonely and isolated house appeared there as if in a vision. The saints came – Fionán, Cróine and Conall- and they built their church cells and belfrys. The wood kernes and mercenary gallowglasses came and built strongholds by fords and river crossings. And, as the child is destined to grow old, the houses, church cells and strongholds became deserted and the bog and moor swallowed them up as if buried in the grave.


Excerpt from Chapter 4 describing the end of a St Patrick’s Day dance in a local school:


   The flames were getting long on the lamps and they were turned down.  A man who was half drunk put his elbow through the window.  One man shouted too much during the dancing, and he had to be put out.  Everything ran true to form, the things that were normal for a dance of the sort - and it didn’t make a wisp of difference to the fun.  Midnight past and it shot an arrow of slumber into St. Patrick’s Day, but it wasn’t noticed.  Two o’clock passed, the blackest and most feeble hour of the night, but no-one in the schoolhouse was any the weaker or low-spirited.  Four o’clock passed and you noticed the house emptying.  Men were courting women between the dances and going out with them.  The last dance was called.  Everyone who could find room for their two feet on the floor got up.  They danced this dance enthusiastically, drinking the last drop of fun from the difficult well of life in this gloomy hour before the dawn.

   They dispersed then and only the committee were left in the school, and the four walls of the school had the look of a person who had lost a night’s sleep.  It had a raw, tired loneliness. You would think that the air was numb with pain.

   The committee men put the seats back in and brushed the floor.  They gathered together then and smoked their pipes.  They were like wraiths standing there.   It was an entire night since the old people had taken up their rosary beads and said their decades on the harrowing edge of eternity.  The young people who had left the school were sleeping now.  These six men were like a small handful of friars who had been resurrected and who were whiling away their time on this world until cockcrow would banish them to places beyond the mouth of the grave.  They chatted for a while.  Then the man who had the key emptied the ashes from his pipe on the corner of the table.  He went over to the lamp and placed his palm above it.  The rest of them went out.  He blew on his palm.  The light leapt, as did the man’s shadow, across the floor and onto the wall; then the light went out.

   Clouds were reddening to the east above Carraig an Eidhinn when he came out and turned the key in the lock.


Art Hughes
Prof. Art Hughes
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