Máire Mhac an tSaoi: ‘Radical and uninhibited in her personal life, conservative in her aesthetic’

Critics and fellow poets pay tribute to a hugely influential, groundbreaking figure

Poet: Máire Mhac an tSaoi at the Dublin publisher Sáirséal and Dill in 1956, around the same time she wrote her poem Mary Hogan’s Quatrains. Photograph: family collection

Poet: Máire Mhac an tSaoi at the Dublin publisher Sáirséal and Dill in 1956, around the same time she wrote her poem Mary Hogan’s Quatrains. Photograph: family collection

 

Máirín Nic Eoin
Máire Mhac an tSaoi has for long been an inspiration and a supportive presence for Irish-language writers and for Irish women poets in both languages. Her formal accomplishment was recognised from the outset, but so also were her honesty, sureness of voice and fearlessness.

Her early affinity with native idiom and poetic form led to a poetics in which traditional material could be used to support conventional expressions of love, friendship and loss or as a dramatic means of scrutinising complex and troubling emotions and intimate relations.

She was ground-breaking in her overt representation of female sexual desire, but her poems about motherhood and mothering are unmatched in their recognition of motherhood as societal role, both rewarding and demanding, and not necessarily defined by biological reproduction.

Readers of Irish will be aware of Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s output as literary scholar, translator and critic and her work as author of historical fictions, based on the literary, historical and legendary materials associated with the poets Gearóid Iarla (Gerald Fitzgerald, 3rd Earl of Desmond, 1335-1398) and Piaras Feiritéar (c.1600-1653). Her interest in these poets was fuelled in no small part by the multicultural and transnational dimensions of the traditions associated with them.

Early immersion in Gaeltacht life through regular sojourns in the Dún Chaoin residence of her maternal uncle, the polymath and plurilingual Monsignor Pádraig de Brún, led to a critical conviction that Gaeltacht language and traditions were a vital source for contemporary Irish-language writers.

Contact with Irish was part of a broader exposure to multilingualism, however, and Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s own plurilingual competence led to a creative practice that included translation to Irish from French, Spanish and German, as well as two-way Irish-English translation. One of her earliest translations was an Irish-language version of three stanzas of Shakespeare’s famous ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ which would indicate that she agreed with the poem’s message of acceptance of death as a release from the vicissitudes of corporeal existence.  

In the knowledge that her work will live on, guím suaimhneas síoraí ar anam uasal Mháire leis na línte tosaigh as an leagan álainn sin: ‘Teas na gréine ort nár ghoille, / Ná sa gheimhreadh fraoch na spéire; / Níl anso do riar a thuilleadh, / Tabhair abhaile luach do shaothair....’
Máirín Nic Eoin is Professor Emerita, Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge, Dublin City University. Co-editor of Ar an Imeall i Lár an Domhain: Ag Trasnú Tairseacha Staire, Teanga, Litríochta agus Cultúir (Leabhar Breac, 2021). 

Thomas McCarthy
Scholarly, witty, energetic and a powerful woman, Máire Mhac an tSaoí’s radiant, almost mystical presence in Irish poetry will remain as a constant in my own life. She was not prolific; if anything she was reticent, but her reticence arose from a scrupulous scholarly imperative. For her, poetry was a kind of grammar, held together by fundamental rules and ethics. To be a poet of the Gael was to be destined for a moral life, and all of her work was part of that painful re-creation of a moral Gaelic universe. Flawed grammar was a moral failure. Not to understand this is to miss the point of her life, fundamentally.

Reared among revolutionaries, monsignors, ministers of state and fulminating academics, she understood at once the duties of leadership, both political and cultural. In poems as rare as Cré na Mná Tí and Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ogáin she revolutionised Irish language thought by making it personal, person-centred, female.

In her memoir The Same Age as the State she set down on paper a handbook of mandarin Irishness, a blueprint for cultural leadership. From her people she expected the highest standard of behaviour, the highest ethics, the fiercest independence. With her death a whole form of thinking about Ireland has gone; something that was grand within us has passed away. 
Thomas McCarthy is a Waterford-born poet. His journals, Poetry, Memory and the Party, will be published by Gallery Press later this year. 

Patricia Coughlan
A supple, gifted poet, Máire Mhac an tSaoi showed consummate skill and grace in echoing and extending earlier Irish poetry, drawing on the great simple poetry of amhráin na ndaoine as well as the classical dánta grá. Her 1956 sequence Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin (Mary Hogan’s Quatrains), erotic and emotionally compelling, broke new ground in Irish literature. Its sexual frankness and defiance of the prevailing repressive ethos still retains its resonance.

But she ranges widely. Her complex poetry on motherhood is sometimes dark and troubled, sometimes transfigured by joy. She writes powerfully about ageing, bodily decay and death. Her fine elegies include a lovely lament for the great piper Séamus Ennis, now all too topical in this strange week of losses. Here is her “Ceann bliana” (“One year after”). It mourns her husband’s death and reaches to look calmly at her own:

Cóirím mo chuimhne chun dulta dhi ‘on chré,
Fillim spíosraí san eisléine léi agus airgead cúrsach;
Tá sneachta fós ar ithir na cille,
Sínim le hais an choirp ar mo leabaidh.

(“I arrange my memory in readiness for the grave, /Put spices in her shroud and silver coins;/The snow is still on the cemetery ridge;/I lie down beside the body on my bed” Tr. Louis de Paor).
Patricia Coughlan, Emeritus Professor of English at UCC, writes on 20th-century Irish poetry and fiction. Her chapter, The Poetry of Máire Mhac an tSaoi and the Indivisibility of Love, appears in A History of Irish Women’s Poetry, ed. Ailbhe Darcy and David Wheatley (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Máire Mhac an tSaoi
Máire Mhac an tSaoi

Brian Ó Conchubhair
Many will rightly recall Máire Mhac an tSaoi as a poet of passion, but she was no less passionate nor principled as a critic and repeatedly proved herself an able adversary at diplomatic postings and academic appointments in Paris, Madrid, New York, Geneva, Strasbourg and Ghana. Rightly or wrongly, she never cowered from controversy – be it poetics, the use of language, anti-Semitism in Aosdána, Cathal Ó Searcaigh or the closure of Scoil Dhún Chaoin.

As a scholar, lexicographer, translator and critic she was formidable. Her areas of expertise ranged from classical verse to Arthurian legend. An accomplished translator, she translated García Lorca, Rilke and Rouault into Irish. Her body of published poetic work, while slim, is nonetheless significant: but her critical legacy is sizeable and her influence substantial. In an Ireland which marginalised intelligent, articulate women, she smashed glass ceilings, stormed boys’ clubs and forged a path for other women to follow as critic, scholar, diplomat and poet.
Brian Ó Conchubhair teaches at the University of Notre Dame. Wake Forest UP will publish his Bone and Marrow/Cnámh agus Smior: Irish Poetry from Medieval to Modern in 2022.

Máire Mhac an tSaoi in 2006 with her husband Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Máire Mhac an tSaoi in 2006 with her husband Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Regina Uí Chollatáin
Bhí Máire Mhac an tSaoi ag obair i leagáideacht na hÉireann i Madrid timpeall an ama a foilsíodh dánta dá cuid i Nuabhéarsaíocht 1939-1949. Ba í an t-aon bheanfhile sa chnuasach. Ba bhall de dhornán mórfhilí Gaeilge í a raibh ról lárnach acu i gclaochlú na dtuiscintí filíochta i rith agus i ndiaidh an dara cogadh domhanda. Le téamaí agus smaointeachas nua, a chloígh go beacht le traidisiún na Gaeilge, d’oscail sí doirse do ghlúin nua beanfhilí le dul i bhfostú le téamaí casta conspóideacha. In Comhar in 1988, léirigh sí tuiscint ar chumhacht na filíochta mar uirlis ‘chun an aois seo a shaoradh ó chuing na ngnás’ níos fearr ‘ná mar a rinne doscúch’ é. Thuig sí an tábhacht le ‘caint chaighdeánach, chlasaiceach, laethúil an Bhéarla a iompú ina meán draíochta’, bua a bhí go smior inti féin. Foilsíodh cúig chnuasach dá cuid agus i 1957 luadh Margadh na Saoire (1956) ‘ar na leabhair is tábhachtaí ar fad dár foilsíodh fós i nGaeilge na haoise seo’. Agus mar a léirítear ina dírbheathaisnéis i 2003 The Same Age as the State ba léi an aois seo. Ar an ochtú lá de mhí na Samhna 2012, ag oíche ómóis di in Áras na Scríbhneoirí, tuigim anois focail an ghrá agus na tuisceana a roinn sí liom; mar bhean agus mar fhile mairfidh a cáil i bhfad i ndiaidh na haoise seo.
Is í Cathaoir na Nua-Ghaeilge agus na Litríochta í an tOllamh Regina Uí Chollatáin i Scoil na Gaeilge, an Léinn Cheiltigh agus an Bhéaloidis, An Coláiste Ollscoile, Baile Átha Cliath

Máire Mhac an tSaoi worked in the Irish Embassy in Madrid around the time her poems were published in Nuabhéarsaíocht 1939-1949. She was the only female poet in the collection and one of the great Irish poets who played a central role in the transformation of Irish poetry during and after the second World War. Exploring new themes and thinking, maintaining traditional elements of Ireland’s poetic heritage, she opened doors for a new generation of women poets to engage with complicated controversial themes.

In 1988 in Comhar, she demonstrates the understanding of the power of poetry as a better instrument to ‘free this generation from the bond of convention’ than any ‘hardliner’ could. She understood the need to ‘transform standardised, classic, daily English talk into an entrancing medium’, a strong quality of her own writing. In 1957, the first of her five poetry collections, Margadh na Saoire (1956), was hailed as ‘by far the most important published in this Irish language generation’.

And as is evidenced in her 2003 biography The Same Age as the State, this was indeed her generation. On November 8th, 2012, celebrating her life and work in The Irish Writers’ Centre, I now understand our conversation, her words of love and understanding; as a woman and as a poet her legacy will far outlive this generation.
Prof Regina Uí Chollatáin is the Chair of Modern Irish and Literature in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore, University College Dublin.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith
I only met Máire Mhac an tSaoi a few times over many years, but was happy to contribute in recent times to the overdue critical reappraisal of her work, the later poems being of particular interest to me. That said, Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin, first published in the 1950s, remains one of the most astonishing – and under-appreciated – works of modern Irish literature.

A brutal evocation of female desire and disappointment, from an age that acknowledged neither, its radical nature was offset by a sophisticated ventriloquising of disparate verse-forms from the long history of Irish love poetry. Borrowing a persona from the oral tradition who epitomises foolish youth, the poem’s short disjunctive segments swerve back and forth through the conflicting feelings inspired by a doomed love affair: anger, affection, pain, joy, bitterness, regret. This emotional switchback is articulated by abrupt shifts in rhythm and rhyme-scheme – the poet’s technical command of her inherited resources was unique – which provides serious challenges to the faithful translator. The following attempt, which I had hoped to publish in honour of Máire’s 100th birthday next April, is now offered in her memory and in the full realisation that her appraisal of it would have been exacting, to say the least.

Mary Hogan’s Quatrains
By Máire Mhac an tSaoi
I
Once I have escaped this net –
And please God make it soon –
Maybe it will do to recall
The ease that I found in your arms.

When, once again, I can pray,
Take communion and hear mass
Then – why not? – may I plead
On yours and on my own behalf.

But, meanwhile, a word of warning,
Do not get too deeply entangled,
For I am determined to sever
Any ties that happen to bind us.

II
Scant care for people’s censure,
Scant care for priestly stricture,
For anything save to lie over
In beside you against the wall.

No thought for the cold of night,
No thought for wind or rain,
In this narrow secret cosy world
Bounded by the edge of the bed –

Let us forget what has yet to come,
What has already been and gone,
This time is ours, my love,
And it will last till dawn.

III
Some years I’ve spent
Sharing your bed
Hard to say now
What I expected!

You trampled on affection
Freely given at first,
Never noticing the hurt
Of flesh crushed underfoot.

And the body remains willing
For the sake of a bygone pledge
But since the heart stopped singing,
The joys of pleasure ebb.

IV
Jealousy is a baby sucking at my breast
I’m nursing him day and night
The ugly brat is teething still,
My veins fill with the venom of his bite.

My love, let this piteous mite not live on,
The bond between us was so healthy and whole;
A warranty of skin pressed against skin
Sealed by a hand that was granted free rein.

Know that I mean no denial of affection
Though doubt has sunk its roots in deeply;
A dutiful mare should not be beaten
And she’ll pay you back in her own good season.

V
Pain is an amazing thing,
As it consumes the breast,
Allowing no space or respite,
No easing by day or by night.

Nobody in pain like me
Was ever lonely or alone,
But is constantly accompanied
Like a woman who is with child.

VI
‘I don’t sleep at night’ –
Not much to claim, but can one ever know
How heavy the night weighs
On open eyes?

VII
Tonight seems so long!
There was one night with you
That was not long at all –
If I dared to remember.

That would not be hard
I’d go back down that road –
If that were allowed,
Having repented.

Lying down for joy
And rising to pleasure
That was our way –
O for a way back.
trans. Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, Associate Professor, School of Irish, Celtic Studies & Folklore, University College Dublin

Máire Mhac an tSaoi with her husband Conor Cruise O’Brien and children Patrick and Margaret
Máire Mhac an tSaoi with her husband Conor Cruise O’Brien and children Patrick and Margaret

Aifric Mac Aodha
‘An beo dúinn id’ dheabhaidh in aon chor?’ / ‘In your absence are we alive at all?’ This line, taken from an elegy by Máire Mhac an tSaoi, sums up our thoughts today.
Aifric Mac Aodha is an assistant editor with An Gúm. Her latest collection is Foreign News, with translations by David Wheatley (Gallery Press, 2017)

Theo Dorgan
Radical and uninhibited in her personal life, Máire Mhac an tSaoi was deeply conservative in her aesthetic – at least according to herself. Her profound respect for tradition, especially for the deep language of the West Kerry Gaeltacht, found expression in a series of what amounted to denunciations of all who dared push the language beyond rigorously-defined historical boundaries.

And yet, her own poetry, for all its profound and intricate mastery of traditional form and austere diction, was often, very often, groundbreaking and subversive in its matter. Some found her, not without reason, reserved, intolerant and forbidding; others, myself included, found her warm and witty, patient and understanding, always animated by a lively curiosity.

What was never at issue, what never wavered, was her deep learning allied to her profound instinct for the truth of poetry, perhaps better said the truths to be found in poetry. Máire’s poems will live on, we can be sure of it, imperishable in their stark and vivid beauty, enshrined at the heart of the language she loved and served so well.
Theo Dorgan’s latest collection is Orpheus (Dedalus Press)

Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh
In 2012 I made my way to Howth to interview Máire Mhac an tSaoi for Comhar magazine. It was a daunting assignment: Máire was a giant in the literary world and had the reputation - which I think she rather enjoyed - of being a most formidable woman. I brought some croissants and a bottle of red wine in an attempt to win her over. She was frailer than I expected, but full of warmth, wit and a fierce intelligence. I asked her many questions about her poetry that afternoon, as the winter sunshine spilled into the home she once shared with her beloved Conor for so many years. She answered each one with a disarming frankness. But there was so much more I could have asked her about that afternoon: her eventful stint in New York with her husband; the time they were arrested during a protest against the Vietnam war; how the poetry of Lorca ignited within her a compulsion to compose; her translations of Rilke, the complicated, bittersweet portrayal of womanhood in her poetry. She was an exceptional woman, both in the life and in the work. Suaimhneas síoraí dá hanam uasal.
Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s latest collection is The Coast Road (Gallery Press).

Máire Mhac an tSaoi at Aosdána in Dublin Castle
Máire Mhac an tSaoi at Aosdána in Dublin Castle

Annemarie Ní Churreáin
Máire Mhac an tSaoi was a poet of immense passion and intellect. A book like Margadh na Saoire was a thunderbolt. It rattled the cage. It broke new ground by celebrating sexuality, pleasure and the body at a point in Irish history when it was still revolutionary for a female writer to do so. On the day that news of her death broke I was hosting a writing workshop with her poems by my side. As the workshop group marvelled at the courage of our foremothers, those trail-blazing women of Irish language poetry, little did we know that the formidable Máire would soon be gone. The loss to Irish literature is enormous. Máire pushed boundaries, challenged norms, and defied social expectations of what a female voice might sound like in the world. She has lit the path behind us and ahead. We are blessed to have known her heart in her poems.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin is a poet and writer from the Donegal Gaeltacht. She is the author of Bloodroot (Doire Press 2017) and The Poison Glen (The Gallery Press, 2021).

Kevin Rafter
The Arts Council deeply regrets the deaths of writers Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Brendan Kennelly.

Máire Mhac an tSaoi was a profound and influential voice in Irish language poetry. She was endlessly talented, turning her hand to so many forms of writing, from translation to criticism to her own original work. Her poetry, and indeed her rich, trailblazing life, have inspired new generations of poets and thinkers. She published her first collection of poetry, Margadh na Saoire, in 1956 and went on to publish four more, as well as works of translation, a novella, scholarly work, and her autobiography The Same Age as the State. Máire Mhac an tSaoi was a member of Aosdána and among her many awards was the O’Shaughnessy Prize. Máire Mhac an tSaoi was one of Ireland’s most important and invigorating Irish-language poets. Her proudly independent spirit and sharp wit, added to her formidable lyric gifts, created an unforgettable and often revolutionary body of work where the lives of women and female sexuality were a frequent focus. She was profoundly influenced by the time she spent as a child in the West Kerry Gaeltacht of Dún Chaoin and the language she internalised there shaped her vocation as a poet.

Both writers leave behind a tremendous legacy, both in their work on the page, and in the lives they lived. Máire Mhac an tSaoi was one of our leading writers in the Irish language and she made an immense contribution to the firmament of Irish poetry. Brendan Kennelly impacted on the lives of thousands of people through his work and his teaching and he made literature a valuable part of daily life. I am fortunate in having met both Maire and Brendan, who were not just great intellects but also wonderful company.

The Arts Council sends its condolences to the families and friends of both poets.
Prof Kevin Rafter is chair of the Arts Council

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