In praise of Máire Mhac an tSaoi, by Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh

Irish Women Writers: ‘For a woman writing in Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s, it was bold and brave to assert female sexual desire. Women poets haven’t stopped writing about it since!’

The female experience is at the heart of Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s work, the all-consuming passion in Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin, maternal love in Codladh an Ghaiscígh and the fiercely eloquent poems she wrote upon the death of her husband, Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

The female experience is at the heart of Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s work, the all-consuming passion in Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin, maternal love in Codladh an Ghaiscígh and the fiercely eloquent poems she wrote upon the death of her husband, Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

A Christmas card was my first introduction to Máire Mhac an tSaoi:

“Le coinnle na n-aingeal tá an spéir amuigh breactha,

Tá fiacail an tseaca sa ghaoith ón gcnoc,

Adaigh an tine is téir chun na leapan,

Luífidh Mac Dé ins an tigh seo anocht”.

 

With candles of angels the sky is now dappled,

The frost on the wind from the hills has a bite,

Kindle the fire and go to your slumber,

Jesus will lie in this household tonight.

(Translated by Gabriel Fitzmaurice.)

It seemed like I always knew these words: that instant familiarity evoked in very special poems.

I was fascinated by her work, though I did not always understand it. I remember being struck by the defiant stance in AthDheirdre and marvelled at how lipstick could be both poetic and political. The significance of the personal freedom expressed in her poems did not dawn on me at first; after all, I grew up in a very different Ireland. But for Mhac an tSaoi, a woman writing in Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s, it was bold and brave to assert female sexual desire. Women poets haven’t stopped writing about it since!

The female experience is at the heart of Mhac an tSaoi’s work, the all-consuming passion in Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin, maternal love in Codladh an Ghaiscígh and the fiercely eloquent poems she wrote upon the death of her husband, Conor Cruise O’Brien. The bilingual collection An Paróiste Míorúilteach/The Miraculous Parish (2011) will do much to bring a new audience to this remarkable poet.

Other favourites: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Biddy Jenkinson

Beagbheann ar amhras daoine,

Beagbheann ar chros na sagart,

ar gach ní ach bheith sínte

Idir tú agus falla

 

I care little for people’s suspicions,

I care little for priests’ prohibitions,

For anything save to lie stretched

Between you and the wall

(Translated by James Gleasure)

Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s poem Filleadh ar an gCathair was nominated for RTE’s A Poem for Ireland.

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