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Seeing the natural world: Comhbhá an Dúlra

10 November 2021

In today's blog on Climate and Society in Ireland, Máire Ní Annracháin examines the ecocritical spirit of modern Gaelic poetry.

Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 11, Máire Ní Annracháin (UCD) explains the trope of comhbhá an dúlra, the idea that Nature acts in sympathy with rightful rulers, and shows how modern Gaelic poets often display a high degree of irony as they reflect on non-traditional forms of relationship between humans and the natural world.

Irish literature has from earliest times been imbued with three core concepts that relate to the relationship between humans and the land. Collectively they served to affirm the sovereignty of political or other leaders. They were, first, the understanding that Ireland, or individual parts of it, could be personified as a woman, whether goddess, human, or of intermediate status; second, that Nature was a site of almost paradisiacal abundance; and third, that Nature responded to the fortunes of those who inhabit the land and in particular to the fortunes of the rightful leader. The sympathy of nature, comhbhá an dúlra, is the focus of this paper. It is somewhat akin to, but not identical with pathetic fallacy. The latter attributes human feelings to Nature or can seem to a human observer to do so, while comhbhá an dúlra represents a quasi-magical response by the natural world to important events in a leader’s life, for good or ill. Thus, Nature would rejoice and be fruitful if a leader or other important man, or a man whom one wished to construe as important, succeeded in important ways; however if he died or failed in some respect, Nature had many ways to express distress: it might scream in pain or wither, crops might fail, birds might fall silent. Its sympathy was to an extent conditional, in that it could be withheld in response to culpable failure. [...]

The concept of the sympathy of Nature, where Nature is conceived as the female spouse of the rightful leader, is connected with the traditional concept of the divine right of kings. It raises obvious issues of gender inequality, which have been analysed in detail by scholars. Of more immediate relevance to this paper, it also raises more general issues of the power relations between humans and the natural world. Not all Irish scholars subscribe to the idea that the relationship was one of unremitting male dominance. Breandán Ó Buachalla for instance, argued for the existence of a partnership, on the grounds that the bestowal of sovereignty on the male leader was depicted as the gift of the goddess of the land, and she moreover was represented as proactive in responding to his life, which included her being willing to express disapproval of his misdemeanours, military defeats or other failures to live up to the obligations of his role. Thus Ó Buachalla argues against the by-now widely held feminist view that the female personification of the land and the concomitant sympathy of Nature serve as a bulwark of male power and prestige, leaving the male leader as protagonist and the female role as one of response.

Whether traditionally an expression of partnership or of a relationship of dominance and subordination, post-Revival poetry throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century takes up these and many other traditional tropes, reimagining them creatively and often ironically. Finding or imagining a fissure in the idea of Nature’s supposed sympathy with male leaders has led to radical reassessment of gender relations, both public and private. Over and above gender, it is clear that with the shift in perspective brought about by the current era of climate disruptions, new and fruitful ways of relating to Nature are discernible, or can be inferred from the radical engagement with traditional tropes that certain poets have undertaken.

Not all relevant social and political developments are of recent origin. Most obvious from the eighteenth century was the failure of the messianic kingover- the-water to fulfil his promise to Ireland; the success of democracy more widely, which undermined the belief in great leaders automatically possessing the right to rule; Freudian insight into the controlling power of the unconscious over the will; and the belief, since Darwin, that it is humans who adapt to their environment, not Nature that responds to them in a subordinate manner. More recently, the women’s movement has been remarkably instrumental in challenging the belief in a strong, dominant individual man with a God-given right to control his own mind and actions, his territory, his people and in some cases large swathes of the planet with its multitude of inhabitants. A word of warning against two interpretative extremes is warranted. First, the long tradition of comhbhá an dúlra from which contemporary poets emerged did imply a recognition of the interdependence of the land and the people, but, Ó Buachalla’s analysis notwithstanding, it is difficult to characterise it as anything other than firmly anthropocentric, to the extent that Nature responded to and reflected human action (or in certain cases reflected the glory of God or other supernatural figures, notably Fionn Mac Cumhaill). Thus it is fair to say that Irish remained largely free of the popular semi-mystical ascription to the Celtic world of an undifferentiated unity between humans and all other life forms, expressed by, for example, Bartosch as an awareness of a ‘shared creaturely situation of human and nonhuman animals’.

On the other hand, notwithstanding its anthropocentrism, Irish literature does not give widespread witness to the enthronement of the sovereign human subject within the context of ‘burgeoning enlightenment concepts of freedom and human dignity…[as Adorno] stresses how freedom and dignity for the subject are bought at a high price, namely the price of unfreedom for everything non-human, for the other, that is, for nature’. The Irish language world, at least when expressed in literature produced in Ireland, has no real tradition of the extremes of extractivist exploitation that came to characterise the industrial revolution and the conquering of the new world by empire builders. We will see later some examples of struggle between besieged humans and a harsh land, but nothing to compare with, for example, the characterisation by Theodore Roosevelt in his address to the Sorbonne University of the American taming of the new world as out and out subjugation: ‘To conquer a continent, to tame the shaggy roughness of wild nature, means grim warfare…To conquer the wilderness means to wrest victory from the same hostile forces with which mankind struggled on the immemorial infancy of our race.’

This then is the current local context for Irish-language literature: neither mistily at one with Nature nor fully dominant over it. Thus current trends in post human analysis would require a degree of modification for Irish-language literature, which retains a memory of comhbhá an dúlra, unbroken, from earliest times. The global context may be a little different. If individual leaders may have lost their sheen, they have been replaced by other forms of human dominance. The current climate emergency reinforces the doubly ironic message that Nature resists human control and, simultaneously, that the  crisis is indeed a response by Nature to human actions.

To continue reading, purchase Climate and Society in Ireland.

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