Like a Woody Guthrie to the Dylans who came after him: Selected Poems of Seán Ó Ríordáin
This new book, as well as a volume of extracts from his diaries, shines a much-needed light on the great Irish modernist
Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916-77): the poet, philosopher and sometime columnist with this newspaper, was a major Irish writer, although he is rarely mentioned when major Irish writers are discussed
Seán Ó Ríordáin
Yale University Press
Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916-77), the poet, philosopher and sometime columnist with this newspaper, was a major Irish writer, although he is rarely mentioned when major Irish writers are discussed. Written in Irish at a time before bursaries, translation schemes and the internet, his work hasn’t earned the status it deserves.
That Ó Ríordáin’s poems were out of print for many years – until Seán Ó Coileáin’s 2011 edition of his four collections – did not help matters. Now, as the centenary of his birth, in 1916, approaches, two publications bring renewed focus not only to Ó Ríordáin’s poetry but also to his diaries and drawings.
Ó Ríordáin’s Selected Poems, published by Yale University Press in association with Cló Iar-Chonnacht, is the first bilingual edition of his poetry. (The publication of Greg Delanty’s translations of Ó Ríordáin’s poetry was scuppered some years ago over copyright issues.)
This time around Frank Sewell, its editor, has marshalled a who’s who of modern Irish poets to translate a broad selection from Ó Ríordáin’s four collections, Eireaball Spideoige (1956), Brosna (1964), Línte Liombó ( 1971) and the posthumous Tar Éis mo Bháis (1978).
Launching the Selected Poems, Prof Declan Kiberd mischievously suggested that Ó Ríordáin’s poems had now been translated “back into English”, an allusion to a notorious review by the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi that questioned the authenticity of Ó Ríordáin’s Gaelic voice. Nowadays Ó Ríordáin is recognised for his innovation in form and language, and he deserves to be seen as one of the great Irish modernists.
Sewell correctly identifies a bias in the Ó Ríordáin poems chosen for previous Irish anthologies, contending that they gave a skewed impression. Even Irish-language readers familiar with the poet’s oeuvre imagine Ó Ríordáin as somewhat austere, preoccupied with questions of cultural identity and tormented by his lifelong ill health (a result of the tuberculosis that eventually killed him).
Although critics acknowledge the English and European influences on Ó Ríordáin, he is all too often placed neatly in the “Gaelic” box as one of “triúr mór” (along with Máirtín Ó Direáin and Mhac an tSaoi), who paved the way, mar dhea, for later, cooler poets.
Preconceptions about Ó Ríordáin’s voice and his place in literature are blown away right from the start of the Selected Poems. The “foreword” –Paul Muldoon’s translation of (or riff on) Ó Ríordáin’s Saoirse – reads like an incantation:
I’m going down among the ordinary people
I’m going to get up on my own two feet and go right
down to where they’re gathered tonight.
I’m going down in search of some good old Servitude
instead of this poisonous Freedom stuff.
Many of Ó Ríordáin’s best-loved poems, and some lesser-known works, are given a jolt of newness in their unfamiliar cloak of English. If Saoirse, in both Muldoon’s version and Ó Ríordáin’s own translation, reads like beat poetry or a spiritual from the Deep South, then Cuireadh/Invitation might be an early Leonard Cohen song:
Ba mhaith liom tráthnóna do chaitheamh leat
Is leoithne ag seinm id’ ghlór
Tá staonadh na naomh in gach peaca leat
Is paidir diamhasla id’ bheol.
I’d love to spend an evening with you,
A light air playing on your tongue,
The abstention of saints in each sin with you,
A blasphemous prayer on your lips.
(translated by Celia de Fréine)
Like Cohen, and like Michael Hartnett, Ó Ríordáin treads a Lorca-esque path between surrealism and folklore. His poems are replete with comparisons, contrasts and lists.
Ó Ríordáin himself cited 18th-century Irish poetry, TS Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins among his influences, but it was the intensity of the spiritual distress caused by his illness that allowed him to distil these influences and forge an authoritative voice of his own.
In engaging with this voice the translators adopt various registers and approaches. Most are successful, but in some instances the precarious balancing act between fidelity and invention proves a challenge. Ó Ríordáin’s style was musical and formal, and when phrases are translated without due care for rhythm and rhyme the result can occasionally seem flat. On the other hand the occasional awkwardness in some of the English translations serves as an invitation to revisit the original poems – the aim Sewell expressesin his lively preface.
An appendix includes a useful chronology of Ó Ríordáin’s life. John Dillon’s translation of Ó Ríordáin’s famous preface to Eireaball Spideoige retains the clarity and grace of the original and includes useful glosses on some of the more esoteric material.
Ó Ríordáin’s preface, with its famous question-and-answer opening – “Cad is filíochtann?” “Aigne linbh.” (“What is poetry?” “A child’s mind”) – should now become a seminal text in literary theory, although this deeply compassionate reflection on literature as a sacred and communal endeavour also has an almost spiritual quality.
We learn more about the real Ó Ríordáin in Anamlón Bliana: Ó Dhialanna an Ríordánaigh, a selection of excerpts from diaries that Ó Ríordáin kept from 1940 until his death. Previously described as Kafkaesque by Liam Ó Muirthile in this newspaper, the diaries contain more than 35 years of cultural commentary and articulate self-analysis – an astonishing resource for anyone interested in literature and culture in Ireland.
This first substantial selection of excerpts, chosen and introduced by Ó Ríordáin’s fellow Corkman Tadhg Ó Dushláine, does not disappoint. Ó Dushláine’s familiarity with Ó Ríordáin’s creative sources make him an empathetic editor, and the excerpts are well chosen.
The publication of material from the diaries has long been anticipated; tantalising excerpts appeared in the literary journal Comhar and in Seán Ó Coileáin’s magisterial biography of Ó Ríordáin. The Ó Ríordáin of the diaries is precocious, erudite and articulate, and these excerpts are a fascinating insight into the troubled mind of a poet. Although the writing of the diaries also served a therapeutic function, Ó Ríordáin seems to have anticipated that they would eventually be published.
Laid out here in an accessible format that assigns an entry to every day of the year, the diary excerpts reveal a man with a mystic’s mind, a scholar’s passion and a generous cosmopolitan outlook. The raw intimacy of some of the writing is unsettling; elsewhere the reader will laugh out loud at Ó Ríordáin’s self-deprecation. His dim view of Irish bishops (he deems them Pharisees), his irreverent humour (he compares his suffering to that of Jesus, who at least, he says, had the consolation of wine and Mary Magdalene) and his repeated crises of faith remind us that he had a rebellious streak, which, although often overlooked since, was a great inspiration to the next generation of writers in Irish.
Anamlón Bliana reproduces some of the sketches Ó Ríordáin drew alongside the original diary entries. These drawings, of faces both real and imagined, offer another window into his profound suffering and enduring humanity. Ó Ríordáin’s artistic talent will come as a surprise to most readers: we learn here that he seriously contemplated pursuing an artistic path.
Sewell’s claim that Ó Ríordáin was, “spiritually, a hobo of the blues highway of mid-twentieth century Ireland”, like a Woody Guthrie to the Dylans who came after him, has already been borne out. His seminal influence on the “Innti generation” has long been acknowledged, and one of his most sympathetic interpreters today is his fellow Múscraí man Iarla Ó Lionáird, the composer and singer.
Cló Iar-Chonnacht deserves credit for its courage and care in issuing two books that may yet send Ó Ríordáin’s voice echoing in the poillag is pluaiseanna (caverns and caves) of the Irish literary landscape.
Róisín Ní Ghairbhí teaches in the department of Irish at St Patrick’s College Drumcondra