Máirtín Ó Direáin remembered: patrols, paramilitaries and poetry

Pól Ó Muirí recalls hearing the Aran islander, who died 30 years ago today, in Belfast, West meeting North, ‘a small repair on an old, broken compass’

Weekend Review October 2015. Poet Máirtín Ó Direáin. Mairtin O Direain (1910-1988). RTE publicity shot.

It was the act of reading that sticks in the mind; the act whereby a poet speaks aloud words that have been mute on a page until then. Máirtín Ó Direáin, poet, died 30 years ago today. Yet, I close my eyes and see him speaking again. He read in Belfast, my native city, at the beginning of the 1980s when I was just 18.

His poems were on the A-level course at that time. He had come to the city to read in Cumann Chluain Ard, the city’s most famous Irish-language club, just off the Falls Road. It was the bad old days in Belfast then – the days of foot patrols and paramilitaries. The foot patrols have gone; the paramilitaries wear suits instead of balaclavas and this one little reading shines out of the debris of those years.

It would have been no surprise had Ó Direáin not come. After all, there was a very real hard Border in those days, a Border that was dotted with British army fortifications, where cars were stopped and searched, people questioned, people shot at and blown up. Who would have blamed someone from the Aran Islands for not wanting to make the trip?

Yet, he came and he read. That speaks to his character. My memory is that there were not many in the hall that night; that the hall was cold – though the hall was often cold as this was the days before big grants and cross-Border language bodies.


In retrospect, can we see the visit to Belfast as a poetic blessing, an artistic acknowledgement, that the city was rediscovering the old language with even greater urgency?

Ó Direáin read one of his most famous poems, Stoite, his anthem to being uprooted, lost in an unfamiliar and fruitless world, “in achrann leis an saol/ag coraíocht leis an gcarraig loim”/grappling with life/wrestling with grey rock”. Belfast may not have had Aran’s grey rocks but the sentiment lost nothing in the journey from the Gaeltacht to the city.

It is a great poem that has stood the test of time and is still relevant in these days of globalisation. Who does not seek to leave their mark on the landscape – “Thóg an fear seo teach/Is an fear úd/Claí nó fál”/“This man built a house/And the other man/A stone wall or hedge” – and to leave something that lasts after us – “A mhair ina dhiaidh/Is a choinnigh a chuimhne buan”/ “That survived him/And kept his memory fast”?

It is not a difficult poem to read, the Irish is not hard to understand although that word – stoite – sent us all diving into the dictionaries. (Yes, those were the days when students looked words up in dictionaries.)

It is amazing that he is read at all, that his work ever saw print, never mind an audience that has endured, given the isolation and lack of opportunity of his early years. Born on Aran in 1910, raised with Irish, he had to go to Galway to find work and then onwards to Dublin and the Civil Service in that part of Ireland that was newly independent.

He is part of that founding trinity of contemporary poetry in Irish – Seán Ó Ríordáin and Máire Mhac an tSaoi being the other two – who gave voice to a new sensibility, whose work struck a chord with readers and has been part and parcel of this syllabus and that syllabus for decades now.

In retrospect, can we see the visit to Belfast as a poetic blessing, an artistic acknowledgement, that the city was rediscovering the old language with even greater urgency? There is a poem, often translated from Old Irish, that is used to show the antiquity of poetry around Belfast: Int én bec/ro léic feit/do rinn guip/glanbuidi:/fo-ceird faíd /ós Loch Laíg,/lon do chraíb/charnbuidi. Yes, Belfast and its famous black bird have been often translated into English (https://allpoetry.com/The-Blackbird-by-Belfast-Lough). The reference, of course, is not to Belfast – there was no city in the ninth century – but to Loch Lao, Belfast Lough.

Is it overegging the poetic pudding to see in that visit a thread retied, industrial North and rural west brought together in an ancient language, a small repair on an old, broken compass?

However, Ó Direáin visited the actual city, the real city, a city of violence and unemployment; split into four pieces, yet, paradoxically, a city where the language was beginning to sprout out of the concrete. Is it overegging the poetic pudding to see in that visit a little thread being retied, industrial North and rural west being brought together in an ancient language, a small repair being carried out on an old, broken compass?

What he made of his visit, I do not know, as I was too shy to engage him in conversation. He read, poem by poem, the written word becoming the spoken word, and we listened, tried to decipher the accent, tried to make a connection between text and voice, struggled with the unfamiliar.

He certainly had presence; not overly tall but broad with it. Were he a Gaelic footballer, you would imagine him as a fullback, the sort of boy you would bounce off in the tackle.

Ireland had not been partitioned when Ó Direáin was born. Back then, we sent our MPs to Westminster. My little history book notes in 1910 that Asquith won the general election at the beginning of the year and retained power; that Sir Edward Carson became leader of the Unionist Party (whatever happened to that boy Carson?); that Harry Ferguson – he of the tractors – “makes first air flight of significant distance at Dundrum Bay”; that Harland and Wolff in Belfast launched Olympic, the biggest ship ever launched and sister ship of the Titanic (both déanta in Éirinn!) and that NUI Senate “decrees that Irish is essential for matriculation” – compulsory Irish!

A hundred and eight years later, Irish unionism has shrivelled into Ulster unionism; Harland and Wolff is a pale shadow of what it was; no one remembers Olympic and we are still fighting over the role of Irish in the education system, north and south.

Oh, and the poetry of Máirtín Ó Direáin, is still being read – and rightly so.
Pól Ó Muirí is Irish Language Editor of The Irish Times