Misneach in Irish (Gaeilge) is most commonly translated into English as “courage.” But the word belongs to an oral tradition and can mean much more in spoken conversations, where it encompasses a blend of courage, hopefulness, bravery, and spirit. It can allude to pushing forward, one paw in front of another, through doubt or snow. A bit brighter and less bellicose than bravery, misneach lingers longer with uncertainty, even as it carries on lifting each tired limb. Misneach knows tears and is changed by them, damp for trying. Some say that the sound of the word when uttered aloud can positively affect both the speaker and the listener: whispering “misneach” is like casting a spell.
The word misneach was put to work for nationalism in twentieth-century Ireland. During the war for Irish independence in the 1920s, a magazine named Misneach called for great works of world literature—especially those written in English—to be translated into Irish and made widely available to the public. Cultural recuperation and revival, the argument went, would require easy access to the canon as it had evolved during the centuries of British occupation. To dissuade people from reading English texts in a newly independent Ireland, the revivalists argued that high-quality translations must be readily available as gaeilge. The thrust of the proposition was that if Brontë, Dickens, Wordsworth, and others were offered in Irish, then fewer people would resort to the English versions to access these deemed-important books, fostering an informed literacy and national culture that did not rely on the English language.
Misneach the magazine aimed to cultivate the thriving Irish-speaking community that nationalists dreamed of—a community that had endured in patches under the British and that might be now possible with a contested independence on the horizon. In seeking support for a celebratory revival of the Irish language, Misneach hoped to energize a postcolonial nation that would perform a precolonial, imagined sense of Irishness. It sought a new set of cultural practices that might support one another, enacting a present that might have existed under different, imaginary circumstances. Perhaps there was naivete in the optimism of the message—and such a culture never came to pass in the way it was envisioned—but there was misneach in the way they vividly conceived of an alternative contemporary moment and took steps to realize it.
Faced with multispecies extinctions amidst a changing climate, a bit of misneach might help us to imagine compelling possibilities for new presents. We might move to try and make a something else, even when there isn’t enough fresh groundwater to reverse the losses and fill up the years of absence.
At the end of the twentieth century, my own sense of misneach was emerging at school. A friend and I were caught speaking English at our gaelscoil—the name for a school taught “through the medium of Irish.” Our creatively conceived punishment was to spend a Friday afternoon translating passages from Shakespeare’s Macbeth into Irish. As I remember, we loved speaking Irish to one another, and our occasional English chats accompanied our half-hearted (always failed) hopes to seem more rebellious than we were by breaking school rules. Our Friday afternoon disciplinarian instructed us to retain the iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s verse structure in our translations. I didn’t know then that her task echoed Misneach’s 1920s mission to see Anglophone literatures available in Irish.
I do remember, though, starting with a speech of Lady Macbeth’s. “Ach gabhail misneach agus fan anseo” was my poor but interested attempt at translating “But screw your courage to the sticking-place,” Lady M’s attempts to persuade her husband to murder the king. My Irish version of her lines directly translates as “take misneach and wait here.” Retrospectively, I don’t think that she would have sounded convincing at all speaking my translation, and I doubt that Macbeth would have held his nerve without the sticking place, especially when it came to regicide. But Lady Macbeth probably wouldn’t have fancied my kind of misneach anyway; there was too much vaulting ambition in the courage she sought. The misneach I’m proposing would have been happier by a window, soaking up the fair and foulness of a day and focusing on what the owl and the cricket had to say. To my knowledge, the complete works of Shakespeare are still not available in Irish, but I like to imagine that the combined efforts of decades of castigated students could be assembled—from fragments of penitence floating around recycling centers on scraps of faded copybooks—into one multiauthored text.
Since the magazine and the war for independence, the word misneach has subsequently been used to name organizations dedicated to celebrating and promoting the use of the Irish language, both in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora abroad. Today an activist group called Misneach na hÉireann remains committed to cultural revitalization, arguing for language rights as human rights, and shifting the earlier emphasis from making literary works available in Irish to making the language audible and visible in the present. In 2015, for instance, Misneach na hÉireann campaigned successfully for Irish names to be permitted on Facebook, where previously the social media platform had sought proof that they were real. In 2016, the group claimed to have defaced the image of Irish politician John Redmond on a Dublin city council poster that had been erected to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the nationalist rebellion against the British government in Ireland that led to the war for independence. According to Misneach na hÉireann, Redmond was responsible for the deaths of thousands during World War I because he had condemned the Rising and encouraged Irish citizens to fight with the British, hoping to strengthen Ireland’s case for home rule. Members of Misneach na hÉireann spray-painted the number “35,000” in red graffiti over Redmond’s face on the banner at the Bank of Ireland building at College Green to represent the estimated number of Irish people killed abroad, challenging the city council’s reductive and revisionist history.
Redmonds of many kinds watch us from commemorative banners in important places until someone with a bit of misneach and a can of spray paint cares enough to interrupt. How much misneach does it take to press down on the nozzle on a can of paint? Disruption may be at the heart of contemporary intersectional environmental politics, and it is worth remembering that it can take misneach in the shift from caring to acting, when actions come at a cost and outcomes are far from assured.
Misneach does not have a stiff upper lip; its heart quiverflaps on a windy day. It differs from the instructiveness of suck-it-up or get-on-with-it approaches to making it through bad weather. There is misneach living in our scrappy efforts, encouraging us where courage is not felt: if it’s cold, put on some misneach (if the world has given you a coat). Misneach is not the same as a deep breath and a best foot forward, maybe because it doesn’t know which foot is best.
In another part of Dublin today, there is a larger-than-life bronze sculpture called Misneach on a marble podium depicting a teenage girl riding a horse bareback. John Byrne’s artwork was unveiled in 2009 and now poses with one hoof raised outside the local Trinity comprehensive school in Ballymun. In an interview, Bryne described Misneach as a “monumental celebration of youth,” adding that the sculpture was about acknowledging “the hero in everybody, the hero in the normal and the ordinary and it’s about courage.” Byrne said that he wanted to show that a girl from inner-city Dublin could be “as much a hero as a military hero.” He also wanted to celebrate the community tradition of riding horses bareback while referencing and subverting the ubiquity of equestrian sculptures found in town centers marking places and events of significance. So often it is military sculptures that mark places of importance, glorifying men of dubious repute on horses. Byrne wanted to show that a girl wearing a tracksuit had the potential to take the place of any one of these figures.
Bryne’s Misneach also makes reference to Ballymun’s strong historical links with horses, which have long been company for humans in this once suburban, now urban landscape. The local children’s pastime and passion for horse trading and riding emerged in the 1980s, extending the legacy of the traveling community and traditional roles for horses in delivering fuel and milk to homes and businesses. Some readers may remember the scene in Alan Parker’s film The Commitments where a horse is transported up a tower block of flats in an elevator, making visible this continued tradition in popular culture. After restrictive legislation via the Control of Horses Act in 1996, which affected concern for the welfare of horses and animal rights but in reality made the hobby prohibitive for young people who were already overlooked by the local authorities, journalist Fintan O’Toole described Ballymun’s young “urban cowboys” as “a subculture struggling against extinction.” Tensions between human and animal health, deprivation, joy, and the “elemental freedom” felt by young people on horseback, who often described themselves as having a choice between horses and drugs, have characterized the ongoing debates about horses in Dublin’s suburbs. This is not to romanticize urban horse culture, which sometimes disregards animal suffering, but to think about the different interventions that might improve conditions for both people and animals living together. If the young people of Ballymun would have benefited from more amenities and assistance with the care of their horses, then the one thing they didn’t need was to be stripped of their animal companions. It was to these debates, to the traditional culture of horse riding, and to local young people—young women in particular—attesting to their care for animals and potential for world making that Byrne was speaking when he made his statue for Ballymun and called it Misneach.
Donna Haraway recommends that one strategy for living in our ecoprecarious times might be to “stay with the trouble.” She advocates for conscious and committed, responsible and responsive living in the tangle of the muddle that is now, rejecting both terrified or hubristic preoccupations with future apocalypse or salvation and smug or nostalgic backward glances toward awful or Edenic pasts. Wade carefully into the depths of around, cognizant of forward and back, Haraway seems to say. Rereading the pages of Haraway’s book waters my misneach. She reminds us that “it matters what matters we use to think other matters with,” that “it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with,” that “it matters what thoughts think thoughts.” In gray I try to think with misneach.
Byrne’s Misneach in Ballymun was cast from the leftovers of a sculpture of a British imperial war hero, Lord Gough, on a horse that used to stand in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. The Gough memorial was unveiled in the park in 1878 to an audience that included a young Winston Churchill. In the original, Gough and his horse were cast in metal from cannons and guns that had been melted down and upcycled into art. Gough had been born in County Limerick, which is why the sculpture was erected in Ireland and not the United Kingdom, but militant Irish Republicans were unhappy with having a monument to an imperial war hero—especially one with as fierce and terrible a reputation as Gough—erected in Dublin, and they made multiple attempts to destroy the sculpture in the years that followed. Gough was beheaded and desworded in 1944 (the head was found in the River Liffey and reaffixed); the horse’s right hind leg was similarly amputated in 1956; finally the memorial was completely destroyed and removed from the park in 1957. In 1990 its remains were sent to Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, England, where they were restored. When Byrne came to make Misneach for Ballymun, he was able to create a replica of the horse from the repaired Gough sculpture at Chillingham Castle and replace its rider. Not without some irony, Byrne’s Misneach was completed in England and returned to Ireland by boat.
The horse that Toni Marie Shields—the seventeen-year-old chosen to model for the sculpture—rides in Ballymun today is an exact replica of the horse that once stood in Phoenix Park. The latest 3-D scanning technology was utilized to make an initial wax cast that caught the details of her clothing, Velcro runners, and long ponytail, which were more difficult to replicate than the textures usually found on bronze equestrian monuments. In Ballymun, a politician worried that Misneach was demeaning to the local people because it represented a girl in a tracksuit on a horse, an image he thought that the regenerated suburb was trying to shed. Shields, however, is reported as having said that the sculpture was for all of the young people of the place.
Beyond attempting to elevate a local girl to the equivalent status of a military hero, Byrne’s Misneach offers an ecological context for the horse that remembers the traditions and tensions highlighted by bareback horse riding in Ballymun. Misneach actually wrests the notion of equestrian sculptures from their military context, intentionally or not. Shields diverts the horse from its route to the battlefield, modeling an alternative form of interspecies companionship. There is misneach in the hope of capturing the fabric of a tracksuit, in the serious work of fine-tuning the texture of a ponytail for posterity, in the heart of a woman moving toward a somewhere that isn’t a war. Shields and the horse together demonstrate possibilities for living together in the trouble. They mark something of the persistence of disappearing traditions that know animals as companions in world weathering.
The original plan was that Misneach be moved to the town center of Ballymun, after plans for a new Metro North tramway were completed. The abrupt end to Ireland’s Celtic Tiger affluence meant that the Metro North never happened, though; as of 2017, Misneach was still outside of the Trinity comprehensive secondary school, there to witness students passing on their way in and out of school: learning words (“say ‘MISH-nock.’ It’s like ‘courage’ in English”), animals (“when we take you to visit the Natural History Museum, you’ll see skeletons of the Megaloceros giganteus, giant Irish deer that once roamed the country when the land was still connected to mainland Britain and Europe. They are thousands of years extinct”), and histories (“for hundreds of years, Ireland was under English rule, but before this and after the deer roamed the land, people spoke Irish all the time”). Misneach is the feeling of walking into a new school for the first time. The word misneach is carved into the stone plinth that holds Shields and the horse, naming the idea it hopes to disperse.
Here misneach is a loanword that can’t really be on loan because it was always already around in the leftovers of a living language, not quite forgotten. But even if the word is indigenous to Ireland, the language usually takes some effort to learn. And although Trinity’s students, like many others in Ireland today, speak mostly English to one another and learn their lessons through English at school, the Irish language retains a prominent place on a curriculum that begins with Gaeilge, Béarla, Mata—Irish, English, and maths. When I try to think about my own learning at school, misneach floats somewhere in the dreamy repetition of past learning. These days my misneach bubbles at the edges of what it means to live abroad, not to speak with others but to recall words that help with unbearable times and things (Ireland’s last freshwater pearl mussel buried itself in the substrata of a polluted river on its way to extinction—is saying it, writing it, grieving it enough?). Misneach is what I have loaned myself from the language, surfacing when I need it most and expect it least. It’s a secret remembered quietly in company, breathing in the trouble and filling me with something like courage that isn’t quite courage to help with hopeful flailing, staying—things I thought I couldn’t do.
Maybe if—or maybe because—the stories that we tell our stories with matter, my misneach remembers with a magazine, Lady Macbeth, red spray paint, an artist, urban horses, a young woman, gunmetal and bronze, words from books and conversations. And somewhere a pigeon shits on a statue. Somewhere buddleia thickens out the cracks. A sycamore prongs through aging tarmac. A horse gets away. Take heart. Take misneach.
In this razor-wire world of terrifying weather forecasts, the amalgam of wary courage, hope, and spirit that misneach encompasses strikes me as very much needed and on offer to those who don’t feel brave. Misneach might mean an ethical, affective impulse that follows but remembers the moment before an ecoprecarious inbreath. It might mean the impetus for forward movement—whether the wearer believes in progress or not. Misneach might be the nudge you need to keep going on uncertain but certainly stormier days. I’m scared. I’ll loan you mine.
1. Máirtín Mac Niocláis, Seán Ó Ruadháin: Saol agus Saothar (An Clóchomhar: Baile Átha Cliath, 1991), 108–9.
2. William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606), ed. Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason (London: Arden Third Series, Bloomsbury, 2015).
3. For more on this provocation, see Niamh Nic Shuibhne, Cearta Teanga mar Fíorchearta Daonna? Language Rights as Human Rights? (Dublin: Bord na Gaeilge, 1999).
8. For an expansive discussion of Ballymun’s horse culture, see Lynn Connolly, The Mun: Growing Up in Ballymun (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2006), 181–99.
9. The Commitments, dir. Alan Parker (20th Century Fox, 1991).
10. Fintan O’Toole, in Perry Ogden, Pony Kids (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999).
11. See Finton O’Toole, “Pony Kids, Urban Cowboys,” Independent, February 6, 1999, https://www.independent.co.uk; Pony Kids, Dublin’s Urban Young Cowboys: A Documentary by Magali Chapelan, https://vimeo.com/67776714; “Ireland’s Homeless Horses Face Mass Cull,” Guardian, October 15, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/.
12. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 1.
13. Haraway, Staying, 12.
15. Haraway, Staying, 12.
16. I’m thinking of weather forecasts here with Mike Hulme’s idea of a world where the notion of stable climates will no longer be accessible to us. Hulme, Weathered: Cultures of Climate (London: Sage, 2017). Also, Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen-Walker propose a feminist new materialist take on weathering as a way to encounter climate in “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality,” Hypatia 29 (2014): 558–75.