SHARING RICHES Noel Lyons and Skarleta Feierabends with their new poetry collection, launched in Claremorris on Saturday. Pic: Conor McKeown
New Irish-English-Latvian poetry collection a cross-cultural collaboration
Ireland and Latvia have much in common. Before the Baltic state joined the European Union in 2004, most Irish people knew very little about it. Since becoming an EU member, many of Latvia’s 1.9 million people have departed for foreign shores for economic reasons, just as the Irish did for the best part of the 20th century.
In just 12 years, our land has become home to nearly 20,000 Latvians who have taken up employment here, primarily in low-paid industries like manufacturing, hospitality and services.
Thirty summers have now passed since Latvia was released from the iron grip of the Soviet Union. Prior to that, Germany, Sweden and Russia all took their turns occupying the middle child of the Baltics. Now, much like our own country, Latvia stands as an independent sovereign nation after centuries of strife.
Claremorris is home to a community of roughly 200 Latvians. It is here that The Latwest Association was founded in 2016 as a support group for Latvians and other Eastern European immigrants.
Now, Latwest has lent its support to a new poetry collection by Noel Lyons from Ballyhaunis, and Skarleta Feierabends, a music teacher from Latvia who has lived in Ireland for 16 years.
When they met some years ago, Noel and Skarleta instantly hit it off through their shared love of poetry, history and music.
Together they have translated poetry into Latvian and English, some of which was recorded by Eastern European singer-songwriter Gunars Meijers for what became a hit album in Latvia.
Their new book, ‘Voices on The Bridge’, is a collection of poems written in English, Irish and Latvian. As its title suggests, the book is an effort to build bridges between the countries.
With 66 poems in total, their collection weaves a tapestry of two small nations that have both struggled to assert their sovereignty and identity.
As well as their own original work, Noel and Skarleta have translated the works of renowned Irish and Latvian poets to and from the three tongues.
For example, Padraic Pearse’s famous ‘Mise Éire’ is translated into English and is presented along with Skarleta’s own Latvian version titled ‘I Am Latvian’.
Throughout our conversation, he and Skarleta highlight many of the cultural and social parallels between the countries.
“The Latvian community and Eastern European community is a hidden community here,” Noel explains over tea and coffee in The McWilliam Park Hotel. “They keep to themselves, language is an issue, they don’t have a pub culture, they celebrate in their houses, and they bring food.
“There’s lots of traditions like that are very different to ours. At the same time, we are trying to build that bridge in the community.”
While Scarlet cannot fault the Irish people for their kindness, the language barrier often leads to communities becoming isolated and insulated. Likewise, Eastern European children frequently find themselves socially segregated in the Irish school system.
Having come to Ireland with barely a word of English, Skarleta admits that integration is ‘very hard’.
Love of language
Noel believes that the relationship between Ireland and Eastern Europe has been strengthened since the onset of the war in Ukraine.
“I think in we are in [a] much better situation than Irish people who went to America [during the famine],” Skarleta says. “It was terrible, it was absolutely terrible. We don’t want to repeat that. We are making life better.”
This book, which she describes as her ‘headstone’, is deeply symbolic for her on many levels.
With Russian being the spoken workplace language among Eastern European factory workers, Skarleta says that many Latvians struggle to retain their own language when abroad.
Even her own grandchildren can only converse with their grandmother in broken Latvian.
Skarleta strongly believes that the Irish should strive to preserve our own unique culture and language, as the Latvians did despite centuries of adversary from abroad.
“The Irish language is very important to keep alive… the difference is that Latvians under occupation didn’t lose their own language, we kept it. The Irish language is destroyed by occupation, and that is the saddest thing.”
Skarleta’s appreciation for Latvian and Irish culture are etched into words on the book’s pages, where she has translated the timeless verses of Pearse and Raiftéirí in Latvian.
In creating this work along with Noel, she seeks to honour both cultures in equal measure.
“There is several messages from that book. One is to the Irish people. The message: ‘Keep your own fathers’ language alive,’” she says.
“It is very important, it doesn’t matter where you are, in America, in Australia, in England or somewhere else, always remember from where you came, who you are. That’s what I always keep in my heart, I can live here for 100 years I never ever forget from where I am and who I am.”
‘Voices on The Bridge’, by Noel Lyons and Skarleta Feierabends, was launched in Claremorris on Saturday and is now available in local bookshops.