Many aphorisms comment on the benefits of travel, imposing themselves on the person who has undertaken the journey as a rucksack might carve a furrow into that person’s back. Some suggest that travel broadens the mind and the voyager returns home intoxicated by the experience whether the delights have been cultural, culinary, linguistic or whether the person in question has simply been blown-away by a different landscape. Statements, such as the one Richard Hugo makes in his essay The Triggering Town, suggest that the experience causes the wayfarer-poet to write about his/her own home town as seen through the prism of distance.
In recent years I have written essays and articles and given interviews of a personal nature. I was never a diary-keeper and, as a schoolgirl, wrote only journalistic essays, eschewing any subject matter that might have involved describing my family circumstances. Today my boundaries have shifted: it is no longer necessary for a writer to conceal his or her humble origins. My deprived background was more complex than that of most writers in that my parents, who were from Northern Ireland, had moved to Dublin when I was a child. My childhood involved regular visits to the North to spend time with my extended family. Each of these visits involved crossing the Border which added to the challenge of the journey involved.
During my adult life I have spent time abroad on family holidays and fun holidays with friends, attended conferences and readings at international festivals. Between the years 2006 and 2015 I availed of residencies in both Europe and the US. All of these residencies have impacted on my writing and, as a result of having my mind ‘broadened’ and of reacting in a way Hugo might suggest, caused me to write work which I would not have otherwise undertaken.
The first of these residencies was based in Koper/Capodistria and formed part of a Sealines project organized by Literature Across Frontiers. A work was commissioned as part of the residency: I was to create something that would ‘lift’ the words from the page, a multi-media project that included images would fit the bill. I purchased a camera in Trieste and set about my task.
At first I felt guilty: wandering around the city and its hinterland, taking photographs, did not seem like work and, the more I became involved in the project, the more I wanted to write about my experiences in Slovenia. The country, a republic, was the first to have broken from the former Yugoslavia and declared itself independent fifteen years previously. However, the thought of keeping a diary or of writing a travelogue held no attraction for me. I did not want to write a political treatise on the aftermath of the fall of communism, nor did I want to write an account of my day-to-day tasks, what food I was eating, what gigs I was taking part in. And so I began to write a book of poetry that would become imram : odyssey.
An imram is a literary genre in Irish. In it the hero sets out on a great voyage, is faced with many challenges along the way and returns home older and wiser. The word itself means the act of rowing a boat, i.e., undertaking a voyage by sea. Many imrama are extant, the Voyage of Mael Dúin being probably the best known of them. An imram seemed an apt medium for conveying what I wanted to say: I had set off on a great adventure in which I was faced with many challenges, the one significant difference being that this hero was a woman.
As the multi-media project was the commissioned work, my imram was written on the side. I was reminded of the years during which I wrote the TV soap opera Ros na Rún when I might commit an act of subversion by jotting down a poem on the back of an envelope during a production meeting. Or as indeed monks would compose a pithy remark or a poem such as Pangur Bán in the margins of the more important manuscript they were copying. In fact I discovered that this particular white cat had been immortalized in a monastery not far from where I was based. My poem cat : cat references the earlier feline and proves Hugo’s statement, as does another poem in this collection talamh eadrána : no man’s land. This second poem explores the no man’s land between the borders of Slovenia and Italy: it asks who decides on boundaries and how do we respond to them? As I crossed into Italy to go to Trieste and buy my camera, I was reminded of my childhood journeys in Ireland crossing from one jurisdiction to another.
imram: odyssey is, from a sales point of view, my most successful book of poetry. It has been selected as one of the Top 50 Irish contemporary books in the UCD Digital Platform for Contemporary Irish Writing and is about to go into its seond edition. I had already three books of poetry in print when I wrote it: Faoi Chabáistí is Ríonacha, Fiacha Fola and Scarecrows at Newtonards. As the first two books are written in Irish only, their potential audience was limited and it soon became clear that it was necessary to translate my poetry into English if I wanted it to reach a wider audience. Translations of a selection of the poems from Faoi Chabáistí is Ríonacha were included in Scarecrows at Newtownards and have been well-received and positively critiqued. Blood Debts, the translation of Fiacha Fola brought the only book of poetry which deals with the Anti-D scandal, to a much wider audience. Luz Mar Gonzalés-Arias has written extensively about this travesty; she could not have done so had the book not been translated.
Which brings me to the thorny questions of which language I choose to write in and how and why do I move between languages? Máire Mhac an tSaoi mentions in her foreword to Fiacha Fola (translated by me in Blood Debts) that “Celia de Fréine feels she chose Irish as a medium because of the natural surrealism in that language. I fully understand her.” Irish, as a language, is indeed better suited to the surreal nature of my poetry. During the years when I was a member of the Thornfield Poets I did not feel comfortable bringing in translations of Irish-language poems to workshops and began to write poems in English that reflected the spare architecture of that language. Many of these poems form the core of Scarecrows at Newtownards and include sonnets, a villanelle and sestina, forms that have come to be associated with English.
I had come late to poetry and it’s worth taking a look at how and when I began to write in this genre. In 1985 I moved from the suburbs back to the part of Dublin in which I grew up and where, as a young adult, I had become involved in Irish language activities. The move prompted me to write poetry in Irish. However, as a result of negative feedback I believed I could neither write poetry nor write in Irish. Seven years later when I began to teach and had even less time to write I again began to tackle poetry, not least because a poem is such a small thing. Many of the poems came to me in Irish but I translated them into English before they reached the page. It took a further three years for me to publish poems in Irish. However, the initial rejection of my work was not a bad thing in that it forced me to create a system of moving between languages which was eventually reflected in my four bilingual poetry books.
The second of these Aibítir Aoise: Alphabet of an Age, inspired by the Polish alphabet genre, was written not as a result of any particular journey. It includes poems set in places as far apart as the US, Sardinia and Los Lobos and references many international artists. In Poland, the alphabet book is a prose genre used to give accounts of the famous, the not-so-famous and the imagined. I adapted it to poetic form as it seemed an appropriate structure in which to house this disparate set of poems. My second book Fiacha Fola, had been a sequence with a narrative thrust and I had become enamoured of the idea that a volume of poems could form one cohesive unit. The alphabet framework also allowed me to celebrate friendship and to philosophize to a certain extent as in the book’s title poem.
My third bilingual book cuir amach seo dom: riddle me this includes poems written during three residencies. Its title poem is the commissioned work I wrote while in Koper/Capodistria: it takes its cue from the riddle, a traditional Slovene form, and debates our attitude to the environment. The video I made to accompany it includes images of water on which the English language translation has been superimposed and also features the sound of water flowing, lapping and gurgling. As the audience can see the translation, I read the poem in its original Irish only at public events. The first time I did so was at the Vilenicia Festival in 2007. More recently I read from it at the AEDEI Conference in Santiago de Compostela in 2018. Manuela Palacios-González, Director of the Conference, shared an interesting comment with me afterwards: ‘While you read in Irish, I noticed some people closed their eyes. Although I was first surprised because the English translation was on the screen (and the audience did not know Irish), I then thought of the importance of voice and rhythm, and of the enchanting power of a language.’ I have no doubt that the sounds of water added to the experience.
The book cuir amach seo dom: riddle me this also includes the sequence Monsanto which I wrote during a residency in Portugal spent in both Coimbra and Monsanto. The central sequence in the book is inspired by the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Musée Cluny in Paris written during a residency in the Centre Culturel Irlandais in 2011. While there, in addition to this sequence, I wrote an entire book (on the side, much like imram: odyssey) because, not only did I absorb the atmosphere of the city in all its splendour, I formed an attachment to one of its former residents.
Rainer Maria Rilke is best known for his poetry in German but he also wrote over four hundred poems in French. During my stay in Paris his name kept popping up: in the Musée Cluny, in Rodin’s house, in local bookshops. I began to feel his presence everywhere I went. I bought a copy of his complete French oeuvre and was taken by one book in particular, Migration des Forces. As the weeks went by I responded to each of the one hundred and twenty five poems in it, questioning him on what he had said, at times suggesting alternate scenarios for the poems in question. I have now a very long manuscript I bhFreagairt ar Rilke: In response to Rilke, speckled with epigraphs in French, which needs to be culled before being presented for publication.
Since then, quotes in French have continued to manifest themselves in other works. I have just finished Ceannródaí, the biography of Louise Gavan Duffy and, as Louise was born in France, the book includes many quotes in French. Apart from this book and the play Luíse, which is based on her life, phrases in French continue to inveigle their way into work-in-progress. This comes as no surprise: as my name suggests, and my DNA proves, I am partly of Norman descent. What is perhaps to be expected is that it took a period in Paris to introduce the inclusion of French into my work.
Although two of the poems in Aibítir Aoise: Alphabet of an Age are set in the US, I have also undertaken two major projects while based there. Both of these are in English, not least because time spent in the US had a different effect on me compared to my sojourns in Europe. One of these projects Threshold: Mark Gerard McKee & Celia de Fréine comprises twenty-six poems written in response to the artwork of Mark Gerard McKee. As Mark’s work is painted on the backs of old doors, my poems reflect this unorthodox approach. The second project New London Gothic, comprising a collection of poems written in response to the locale, its history and the people I met there, is forthcoming in 2019. The US landscape proved familiar: I regularly eat American food; the streetscapes and stock characters were familiar from TV; everyone spoke English. While the impact was less exotic than that experienced while visiting a country with an unfamiliar language, cuisine or landscape, the effect left its mark, nonetheless.
Travel may broaden the mind but it has broadened my oeuvre also. Had I not availed of these residences I would not have written four bilingual books or undertaken two American projects. Though the benefits have been enormous, I have not applied for any residencies since. I have my own bolt-hole in Connemara in which to tackle new work. When it comes to explorers, such as Beatrice Grimshaw, for instance, it is not so much that I envy them but admit to being in awe of their intrepid nature. I love the excitement of discovering new terrain but prefer it when a guide leads me to that terrain.
My first two books of poetry tended to have an urban setting, though they included poems set by the sea also. These are the environments in which I grew up: the city and the seaside town. The fact that the poems in these books were surreal and imagistic lifted them from what might have become a vista of grey concrete. When I first began to write poetry seriously in 1992 much of the poetry being published then could be described as nature poetry. I wasn’t deliberately trying to avoid writing it, I was responding to what I knew – life in both city and seaside town. It was, however, with imram: odyssey that my work began to move to the great outdoors. Aibítir Aoise: Alphabet of an Age includes many poems with a rural setting; cuir amach seo dom: riddle me this is set exclusively in the country; much of the Monsanto sequence is set in a remote village; The Lady and the Unicorn poems are based on a tapestry that reflect a rural idyl inhabited by a lady whose companions are animals and whose diet is one of fruit. I bhFreagairt ar Rilke: In response to Rilke spans both urban and rural landscapes. Not only would I not have written these books had I not availed of these residencies; had I not travelled to the destinations in question, none of the work I might have written might have had a rural setting.
Since embarking on my many imrama I have crossed borders, absorbed new atmospheres and, at all times, been blown away by new landscapes. It is true to say that many aphorisms could be applied to the results of these journeys. Travel has broadened my mind and its varied experiences have insinuated their way into my psyche. And yes, I have written about the places I know as seen through the prism of distance.
 Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town (New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Inc., 1979).
 Celia de Fréine, ‘Becoming the Writer I am’, forthcoming in The Enchantment of the Dream, ed. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.
 Celia de Fréine, ‘Across the Divide’, In ‘Stand Still: Photograhs of Irish Migrating Women’, Manuela Palacios-González, In Ex-Sistere Women’s Mobility in Contemporary Irish, Welsh and Galician Literatures, ed. María Jesús Lorenzo-Modia (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016) p. 160-162.
 The Sealines project involved exchanges of writers representing bilingual port cities. The other writers based in Koper / Capodistria with me at the time were Pirrko Lindberg (Helsinki) and Egils Venters (Riga). I represented Galway.
 Celia de Fréine, imram : odyssey (Dublin: Arlen House, 2010).
 ‘Irish’ in this essay can refer to the Irish language in the same way ‘English’ can refer to the English language.
 Ros na Rún is a soap opera on TG4, the Irish language TV station.
 Pangur Bán, translated by Seamus Heaney: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/48267/pangur-ban.
 imram : odyssey, p. 62-63.
 Ibid., p. 22-23.
 Celia de Fréine, Faoi Chabáistí is Ríonacha (Indreabhán: Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2001).
 Celia de Fréine, Fiacha Fola (Indreabhán: Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2004).
 Celia de Fréine, Scarecrows at Newtownards (Dublin: Scotus Press, 2005).
 see Manuela Palacios-González, ‘Of Penelopes, Mermaids and Flying Women: Celia de Fréine’s Tropes of Mobility’, in Estudios Irlandeses 12 (2017). 92-103. See also Luz Mar González-Arias, ‘Impossible Returns: The Trope of the Soldier in Celia de Fréine’s Poetry’ forthcoming in Irish University Review, Winter Edition, 2018.
 Celia de Fréine, Blood Debts (Dublin: Scotus Press, 2014).
 Luz Mar González-Arias, ‘Blood Debts: The Uneasy Combination of Hepatitis C and Poetry’, 7th International Poetry and Medicine Symposium and Hippocrates Awards, 2016.
 Celia de Fréine, Blood Debts, p. 12.
 Thornfield Poets is a group who met regularly during the early part of this century. Thornfield, ed. Andrew Carpenter, an anthology of our work was published by Salmon Poetry (Cliffs of Moher) in 2008.
 Celia de Fréine, Aibítir Aoise : Alphabet of an Age (Dublin: Arlen House, 2011).
 see review by Glenn Shea: http://www.celiadefreine.com/aibitir.htm
 Aibítir Aoise : Alphabet of an Age, p. 14-15.
 cuir amach seo dom : riddle me this (Dublin: Arlen House, 2014).
 email confirmation, 25 August 2018.
 see review by Maria Irene Ramalho, Director, Poets in Residence Programme, University of Coimbra: http://www.celiadefreine.com/riddle.htm.
 Celia de Fréine, Luíse Ghabhánach Ní Dhufaigh Ceannródaí (Baile Átha Cliath: LeabhairCOMHAR, 2018).
 Celia de Fréine, Luíse, first produced by Umbrella Theatre Company, Scoil Bhríde, September 2016.