Irish-language poet with an ear for streets and factory floors

Obituary Liam Ó Muirthile: novelist and journalist was influenced by counter-culture

Liam Ó Muirthile: worked for Gael Linn and RTÉ and wrote an Irish Times column.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Liam Ó Muirthile: worked for Gael Linn and RTÉ and wrote an Irish Times column. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Liam Ó Muirthile

Born: November 15th, 1950

Died: May 18th, 2018

Liam Ó Muirthile, who has died in a Dublin hospital, was one of the pioneers of modern Irish-language poetry. He was part of a hugely gifted group who came together at University College Cork in the late 1960s, and established the Irish-language poetry journal Innti. Above all a poet, his poetry was in an Irish language of the city streets, the factory floor and the urban pub. As well as being a poet, he was a novelist, playwright, journalist, programme-maker, critic and essayist.

He and the other Innti poets brought a new energy and sensibility into Irish poetry. Like any good innovator, he was widely read in the older poetry. At UCC, poet Seán Ó Tuama was professor of Irish, and encouraging of the younger generation. Musician Seán Ó Riada taught there also, and was another supporter. Poet Seán Ó Riordáin was a member of their circle, and admired by them.

Ó Muirthile was widely read in classical Irish poetry, and also in French poetry. He was particularly fond of medieval poet François Villon, and of 20th-century poets such as Appollinaire and Prévert. As he grew older, he became increasingly attracted to the black French-language poets of the French colonies and former colonies. Beginning as a student, he produced Irish-language versions of French poems. Like the rest of the Innti group he was influenced by the counter-culture of the 1960s, particularly the music and the Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg. His poetry was defiantly international, not-rural and not-conventionally religious.

It was also positioned defiantly between two languages. He wrote about this in his poem on Cork’s Shaky Bridge:

“Samhail gan meirg gan mairg

idir bruacha dhá theanga

ag croitheadh i mbun dáin...”

“Symbol without rust without regret

between the banks of two languages

shaking with the frenzy of poetry.”

He was born in Cork in 1950, eldest of nine children to James Hurley and his wife Kathleen (née Murphy).Though he was registered as William, the family always called him Liam. The family had a pub in working-class Douglas Street. He received his primary education at the Presentation Convent and Scoil Chríost Rí, then secondary schooling at Coláiste Chríost Rí.

Thug sé a chéad cuairt ar an Ghaeltacht agus é 11. As sin amach, mhéadaigh a shuim sa Ghaoluinn.

He won a scholarship to UCC where he studied Irish and French. In 1972 he moved to Dublin. He worked for Gael Linn, then for RTÉ as a journalist where he developed the knack of getting people to talk to him. In 1991, he left RTÉ to become a writer and freelance journalist. He made some excellent programmes for TG4. Ina measc, bhí agallaimh le cainteoirí deireannacha Gaeilge an Chláir. For a decade and a half, he wrote the widely ranging weekly column An Peann Coitianta in this newspaper.

Ó Muirthile was inquisitive about life around him. On one occasion, a few years ago he was heading to make a recording when he saw a man on the side of the road with a fox on his shoulders. He had to stop and talk to the man.

He was always his own man. When asked he gave his opinion – even if not the opinion the questioner wanted. Thar gach rud, fear suailceach, éirimiúil a bhí ann.

He chose to be buried in Baile Bhúirne in Múscraí Gaeltacht of west Cork.

He is survived by his wife Caoilfhionn; sons Rónán, Ciarán, Donncha and Iarla; sisters Mary, Terry, Siobhán, Elma, Claire and Áine; and brother Séamus. He was predeceased by his brother Finbarr.