Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1962 – Ár Ré Dhearóil, by Máirtín Ó Direáin
A sense of alienation pervades the poet’s most important and powerful collection
Máirtín Ó Direáin: “A deep sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with post-independence Ireland pervades the collection.” Photograph: Courtesy of RTÉ
One of the great modes of Irish-language poetry is the 18th-century lament, exemplified in the work of Aogán Ó Rathaille, about the poet’s displacement from his once-honoured position in Gaelic society.
It is as poignant as it is ironic that this is the mode in which Máirtín Ó Direáin wrote his most important individual collection, Ár Ré Dhearóil, in an independent Ireland officially committed to the revival of Irish. Ó Direáin’s poems are as much about social and cultural displacement as Ó Rathaille’s ever were.
Ó Direáin’s own life embodied the gap between the heroic imagery of the Gaelic west that had helped to inspire the State and the more humdrum reality of what the State had become.
He was born on Inis Mór in the Aran Islands. His father died in 1917, placing pressure on Máirtín as eldest son to secure work as soon as possible, even though he knew he was not cut out for the physical labours demanded of island men.
He found employment at the post office in Galway, where he worked from 1928 to 1937, and became involved in Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe (acting in its first production, Micheál Mac Liammóir’s Diarmuid agus Gráinne). He began to publish poems, gradually finding his voice as the first Irish-language poet to enthusiastically embrace free verse instead of traditional verse or song metres.
He moved to Dublin in 1937 to take up a clerical position in the Civil Service, spending the war years, ironically enough, in the post office’s censorship division – “na cúig bliana is seisce dár chaith mé riamh” (“the five most arid years I ever spent”). Apart from the period 1948-55, when he was registrar of the National College of Art and Design, he served in government departments until his retirement, in 1978.
Stoite, in his third collection, Rogha Dánta (1949), expresses his sense of the dry oppressiveness and futility of this work and its contrast to the connectedness, physicality and endurance of island life.
This sense of alienation may be in part backward-looking, but it actually links very strongly with typical modernist anxieties. In Ár Ré Dhearóil ( Our Wretched Era), the depiction of the modern city in the title poem evokes TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Dublin is presented as an arid, disabling environment, and the life of the urban functionary of rural background is presented as a form of incarceration: “Tá cime romham / Tá cime i mo dhiaidh, / Is mé féin ina lár / I mo chime mar chách, / Ó d’fhágamar slán / Ag talamh, ag trá, / Gur thit orainn / Crann an éigin . . . ” (A prisoner before me / A prisoner behind, / I stand between / A prisoner like all, / Since we said goodbye / To field, to strand, / Since we bent under / Necessity’s yoke, in Tomás Mac Síomóin and Douglas Sealy’s translation.)
A deep sense of dissatisfaction and disillusion with post-independence Ireland pervades the collection, and certain poems openly address the role and status of the artist in contemporary Ireland.
The ironic Comhairle don Fhile Óg declares that the poets’ revolution of 1916 did not result in a state that would provide sustenance for artists: “I dtír inar chuir filí tráth / Tine Chásca ar lasadh, / Ní lastar tinnte cnámh / Ar arda do do shamhail” (In a country where poets once / Lit an Easter fire, / No bonfire is lit / On heights for your likes).
Yet Ó Direáin defiantly restates his commitment to his art, using a traditional phrase to make the point: “Mar chaitheas an choinneal / Caithfead an t-orlach ina teannta” (As I have gone so far with it, I will finish it, lit. As I wasted the candle / I will waste the final inch). You can read more about Máirtín Ó Direáin in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie