Liam Ó Muirthile: ceardaí focal, craftsman of words

Philip King, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, Liam Carson, Caitríona Ní Chléirchín, Diarmaid de Faoite pay tribute

Speaking about his 770km walk across the Pyrenees from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela, in the autumn of 2015, Liam Ó Muirthile wrote: "I am a believer in pilgrimage in a medieval sense. It functions to ground us in some way. We have unsettled souls; we are human beings, bound for mortality, wondering about eternity. There is a consolation in doing something that is a ritual – there have been many before us, many will come after us, and we are part of something greater than ourselves, if only for a moment."

His pilgrimage, his expedition, began in the Cork City of the 1950s – a city that in terms of language, accent, humour, music and literature fired up Liam's remarkable engine. His was a sparkling, crackling engine that inspired and energised me when we first met in '68. Seán Ó Riordáin, Seán Ó Riada, Rory Gallagher, The Velvet Underground… careering down Blackwater Side from Sliabh Luachra to Youghal, from Aogán O Rathaille to Edmund Spenser.

We sang and played and declaimed in front rooms, back rooms, bar rooms and bedrooms, sometimes listening for days to Blood On The Tracks and to Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha sing Úna Bhán, and hearing the whole world.

Liam had some favourite places around the city and sometimes we would sit late into the night under "The Shaky Bridge" on the Mardyke and he would say "whisper your dreams to the river". We whispered out loud and the river caught our words our hopes our dreams and our promises to be part of something greater than ourselves.
Míle Buíochas, Liam
Philip King is a musician, film maker, and broadcaster


December 2016 was the centenary of the birth of the poet, Seán Ó Ríordáin. There was a weekend of events to mark the occasion in Baile Mhúirne, the Breac-Ghaeltacht village where Ó Ríordáin lived until the age of 15, speaking English at home and absorbing Irish in his grandmother's house next door. Liam Ó Muirthile was invited to speak, naturally enough, even his extensive knowledge of Ó Ríordáin's work, particularly his diaries. That tension between Irish and (Cork) English is also evident in Ó Muirthile's work, as he forged an idiom in Irish that would serve his own urban experience.

Before readings, he would remain somewhat aloof, conserving the energy he would expend in energised vocal performances. (It was never just a poetry reading when Liam was involved; his voice could resonate a wide range of emotion.) It was a privilege to share a stage with him at a number of events, most notably when he brought the house down at the launch of Leabhar na hAthghabhála/ Poems of Repossession in Galway with his rendition of Na Deilgní Broid (The Spurs).

His poems were best appreciated when read aloud, allowing all those internal rhymes and well-paced rhythms to be heard. In a hotel room in Prague, I read Dialann Bóthar to my companion from start to finish, insisting he appreciate the artistry of the sounds. His attention to the musicality of Irish ensured his translators had a difficult job rendering his poems in English. A bilingual selected poems, An Fuíoll Feá / Wood Cuttings, came relatively late, in 2013.

Ó Muirthile was that rare thing: a poet who could equally write beautiful prose. The novel, An Colm Bán: La Blanche Columbe, reflects his long-standing fascination with France and Francophone culture more generally, but it also examines sexuality and our relationship with the past. Throughout his work, there is a fierce intelligence and wry humour, but most strikingly, perhaps, is the compassion for humanity. Ní ceadmhach neamhshuim, as the Ríordánach would have it.
Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh is a poet

"I'm a native English speaker, I come from the city centre of Cork. I'm a city boy, I played hurling in the streets. I grew up with the mods and rockers and corner boys, steering-cars, the smell of the river Lee. A lot of my psyche is English language psyche." So Liam Ó Muirthile once spoke to me of what he called "an turas isteach agus an turas amach" – his journey in and out of the Irish language. He reviled nationalist pieties and "linguistic puritanism", remarking "Gramadach na Gaeilge follows you not only to the grave, but into eternity. You can imagine classrooms for Gaeilgeoirí in eternity."

What he embraced was Irish as a living language. “I wouldn’t be a writer in the Irish language if there were no Gaeltacht, otherwise it would be an academic language.” His journey into Irish was one into personal identity. “My mother and father were from west Cork, and I saw the Gaeltacht in terms of their background, I thought it was a more authentic version of their lives.” Through Irish he discovered the potency of bardic poetry. “The bardic poems have an energy within them, it’s like an egg that hasn’t been warmed yet.”

If one word defined Liam, it was energy. To spend time with him was to experience a restless force – always on the move, walking, swimming, sailing, talking. I’d imagine electric sparks leaping from him as he talked. I still find it hard to believe he is gone.

I imagine him in the afterlife. Perhaps he has been wandering through Paris with Rimbaud, or he's been out on the sea with Tomás Ó Criomthain. On fire with the day's talk, he lights a lamp by his desk, and begins to craft a poem of the highest order.
Liam Carson is director of IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival

Liam Ó Muirthile studied both Irish and French in University College Cork in 1968, where he he met fellow poets Michael Davitt, Gabriel Rosenstock and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. He began to publish poetry in the Irish-language magazine INNTI. The launch of INNTI was an important moment in the history of Irish literature, signalling a new direction for poetry in Irish. The renaissance in Irish-language poetry that followed was largely due to the excellent teaching of Seán Ó Tuama, as well as the guidance of established poet Seán Ó Riordáin who was writer-in-residence at the time.

Liam Ó Muirthile was very influenced by Seán Ó Ríordáin's poetic prose writing in his Irish Times column and he went on to write his own column. Ó Muirthile's prose writings and novels are poetic and indeed he transcended the very borders between poetry and prose, knowing that all great prose is poetry in a way. His literary novel An Colm Bán: La Blanche Colombe, set in Paris, won the Oireachtas prize in 2013. Many of his articles written in his Irish Times column are very poetic, especially the one he wrote on the Omagh bombing, and are collected in An Peann Coitianta and Ar an bPeann.

Ó Muirthile had a great love for France and French literature. He read and was influenced by French poets such as Apollinaire and Jacques Prévert. He felt that Prévert especially took poetry out of stuffy, stifling rooms into life, into the street and the cafes, something which Liam himself did for Irish-language poetry. He was an excellent translator of French poets and singers such as Rimbaud, Prévert, Apollinaire, Hébert, Piaf agus Brel. Having studied French myself in UCD, I feel a great affinity with this element of his work.

While lecturing in Irish in UCD, I invited Liam Ó Muirthile to come as guest lecturer as part of a writing module 2010-2013 for Masters students at the time. The students were clearly inspired by his lectures. I also got to know Liam Ó Muirthile better during his time as writer-in-residence 2013-2014 in the Irish department of St Patrick's College in Drumcondra where I lecture. As editor of the Irish magazine Scáthán, he sent me new poems as well as translations of postcolonial French poetry from Guadeloupe, Congo, Senegal and the Maghreb.

I had a chance to spend some time with Liam at the centenary celebration of the birth of poet Seán Ó Ríordáin in Baile Bhúirne in December 2016, where I was speaking alongside him and fellow poets Colm Breathnach and Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh.

He was an exceptional poet who would listen to you, and make you laugh but he would also move you. He often helped and supported the young poet starting out.

Liam Ó Muirthile is a poet who moves us, inspires us and gives us courage on the road, the camino of life. May he rest in the eternal peace of poetry...
Caitríona Ní Chléirchín is a poet and lecturer at DCU

Fear an Tae
High on tea and Munster Irish in a south Dublin hostelry and knowing he could drink them all under the table but just about sane enough not to, Liam and I were on a diving expedition for pearls in Seán Ó Ríordáin's diaries. I felt I was really only a chancer who lacked the mastery of language needed for such a project. But Liam was having none of it, switching to staging to engage my theatrical brain. "It takes place in his bedroom, sure he spent his whole life in bed. TB." "I wish Ó Conaire had spent more time in bed." "So how do we get him out of the bed?" "That's easy, the bedboard is the front of his Anglia." And we were off, me puppeteering the bed into an old Anglia and going for a spin back West, you know, Ó Riordáin's notion of the Holy Grail, Dún Chaoin, the Skelligs, Barcelona, Paris, wherever, Liam's cigar the exhaust pipe, puffing out poems. A thought: "I'll have to go to Múscraí to capture the West Cork dialect." "You'd better hurry, so," said Liam. A dying dialect. "Ó Ríordáin spent his whole life dying. TB."

Back in the house Liam showed me a poem from Ó Ríordáin’s diary in Seán Ó Coileáin’s biography of the man. It lists all the human things he didn’t manage to do that day. And the last line? The one thing he did manage? “Níor éagas.” “I didn’t succumb to death.”

Life with Liam was never wasted, it was added to, enriched and embellished. I’ve spent far more time with lesser men but I can’t recall half the conversations. Like all artists confident in their craft, Liam was never short of an idea and had the generosity to match.

In his play, Fear an Tae/The Tea Man, the most sane man in the psychiatric ward is the fella coming around with the tea trolley. Liam Ó Muirthile was a walking sacred tea ceremony who inspired, slagged and sprinkled my mundane with starlight.

He told me to buy a currach for myself, to imeacht as mo mheabhair and write a play about Ó Ríordáin and, like spending more time with him, it didn't happen. Liam lived life; his legacy is the inspiration to live ours.
Diarmaid de Faoite is a writer, actor and director

Ceardaí focal: Craftsman of words celebrates the many facets of Liam O Muirthile’s remarkable life as poet, novelist, dramatist, broadcaster, columnist, translator, critic and children’s author, at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin on Monday, October 15th.