Born in the year the State was founded, Máire Mhac an tSaoi could be considered part of its royalty. She was the eldest child of Seán MacEntee, the Belfast-born engineer, republican militant and founding member of Fianna Fáil, and Margaret Browne, a Tipperary-born secondary teacher.
In the 1950s her father was successively minister for finance, minister for health and tánaiste. She herself, after a brilliant university career as a student of modern languages and Celtic studies, became a diplomat, at the department of external affairs, from 1947 until 1962. She had to resign on her marriage to Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was then Ireland’s representative at the United Nations.
When she started to publish poetry in Irish it might have seemed obvious that she would emerge as a quintessential Establishment figure. Yet what is most striking about her first collection, Margadh na Saoire, apart from its outstanding technical accomplishment, is its defiant expression of female desire.
Love in all its vagaries and varieties is her overarching theme. The early lyrics recording or lamenting former times, places and cherished people demonstrate Mhac an tSaoi’s characteristic use of native idiom and traditional metrics.
But the most powerful and memorable poems in Margadh na Saoire are explorations of sexual love and loss, and it is in these that she comes into her own as a fresh, modern voice in Irish-language poetry. The Irish language provided her with access to powerful precedents for the forthright expression of female desire, and in poems such as Labhrann Deirdre, Gráinne and Suantraí Ghráinne the canonical female characters of Deirdre, tragic heroine of Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach, from the Ulster cycle of tales, and Gráinne, from the Fenian-cycle tale Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne, are seen as challenging patriarchal control by choosing their sexual partners, so running the gauntlet of disapproving authority figures.
Such reworking of earlier material – a feature of the Irish literary tradition since medieval times – was to become a central creative strategy in the work of the next generation of women poets in Irish, particularly Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Biddy Jenkinson.
But it is in her most celebrated work, the sequence Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin, that Mhac an tSaoi most radically exploits the traditional forms to articulate aspects of female sexuality that challenge conventional morality.
The dilemma presented in the sequence is that of a modern young woman who must deal, on her own, with the unsatisfactory outcome of an ill-fated sexual relationship.
This spurned though persistent woman is dramatised as Máire Ní Ógáin, the female fool of Irish folk tradition, an impersonation that gives the poet free rein to disclose the full complexity of the woman’s dilemma as she moves from willing bedmate to jealous and abandoned lover.
The poem openly celebrates sexual pleasure, rejecting both community censure and clerical authority: “Beagbheann ar amhras daoine / Beagbheann ar chros na sagart / Ar gach ní ach bheith sínte / Idir tú agus falla”.
But the realisation that the liaison will not bear fruit is communicated in terms of pain and physical burden, expressed through imagery borrowed from the Irish penitential tradition. Nevertheless, the poem ends on a note of defiance, as even after repentance the speaker claims that she would do it all again, if circumstances allowed.
That Mhac an tSaoi could articulate such feelings in an era of fierce censorship is remarkable: a year after Margadh na Saoire was published, the State, of which her father was such a prominent pillar, mounted a criminal prosecution against The Rose Tattoo, a play in which an actress mimed the dropping of an imaginary condom. She revealed that the Irish language could do more than express contemporary feelings: it could be used to express things that could not even be be hinted at in English.
You can read more about Máire Mhac an tSaoi in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie