Máire Mhac an tSaoi obituary: acclaimed poet, critic and diplomat

An ‘enabling force’ for later Irish language women writers

Mhac an tSaoi’s  poetry spoke ‘to and from the intimate experience of women at a time when women’s voices were largely inaudible’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry spoke ‘to and from the intimate experience of women at a time when women’s voices were largely inaudible’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Máire Mhac an tSaoi
Born: April 4th, 1922
Died: October 16th, 2021

Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who has died aged 99, was one of Ireland’s foremost Irish language poets. Her poetry merged traditional and classical forms with modern themes, and, according to her fellow poet Louis de Paor, spoke “to and from the intimate experience of women at a time when women’s voices were largely inaudible”.

She was also a critic, translator and scholar, having begun her working life in the diplomatic service. She published work under her own name and her married name, Máire (Cruise) O’Brien.

Born in Dublin on April 4th 1922, and named for her grandmothers, Máire Caitríona Mhac an tSaoi began her life in tumultuous times. Ten days after her birth, the Four Courts was stormed.

Her father, Belfast-born John (Seán) McEntee, had fought in the GPO in 1916 and was elected for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election. A founding member of Fianna Fáil, he had a long ministerial career, including as minister for finance, and served as tánaiste. Mhac an tSaoi’s mother, Margaret Browne, was also active in the republican movement, acting as a courier at the outset of the Rising. Fiercely independent in spirit and deeply intellectual, Margaret became the family breadwinner while Seán was imprisoned (for political reasons).

In an interview with The Irish Times in 2015, Mhac an tSaoi recalled “a really big row” between the couple when the new Constitution was brought in, “because of the article stating that women should not be compelled by financial necessity to work outside the home”.

“My mother, who had carried the finances of the family all the way since 1922, while my father earned hardly anything, was furious. She couldn’t bring herself to talk to him,” she said.

She learned Latin through Irish at the age of six; and her mother ‘set the French irregular verbs to music for chanting and skipping along the roads to’

Mhac an tSaoi’s 2003 family memoir The Same Age as the State, was described by Garret FitzGerald as a “tender and evocative account of the Ireland of the first half of the last century”. The book’s many delightful vignettes include the story of how an on-the-run Éamon de Valera took refuge in the house of Mhac an tSaoi’s uncle Moss in Wicklow. The future taoiseach and president slept beside the sleeping infant Máire, saying: “Leave her there. I have five of my own.” Later Mhac an tSaoi would entertain listeners with the boast that she had “slept with de Valera”.

Mhac an tSaoi enjoyed what she called a “golden childhood”. Her uncle Paddy, the priest-scholar Pádraig de Brún, along with her parents and their many interesting friends, was a formative influence. Aged four, Mhac an tSaoi played a minor part in his translation of Sophocles’s Antigone. She learned Latin through Irish at the age of six; and her mother “set the French irregular verbs to music for chanting and skipping along the roads to”. Máire spent extended periods in Tigh na Cille, her uncle Pádraig’s house in Dún Chaoin, in Corca Dhuibhne, where she attended the local national school and became expert in the local Gaolainn. She had a deep and abiding respect and love for the people of Dún Chaoin.

In Dublin she attended Alexandra College, where her mother taught Irish, and later went to Beaufort High School. An early ambition to be an actress was set aside when, as a precociously clever 16-year-old, Mhac an tSaoi embarked on a joint degree in Celtic studies and modern languages in University College Dublin.

While in college she availed of her parents’ network of friends to persuade well-known literary figures, such as Seán Ó Faoláin and Myles na gCopaleen, to address An Cumann Liteartha, of which she was auditor. Mhac an tSaoi herself also wrote in English.

She began writing Irish-language poems in order to fill in blank spaces in the Irish language literary journal Comhar, edited by her friends, Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh and Tomás de Bhaldraithe.

She told The Irish Times six years ago of the luck that brought her to the Gaeltacht ‘without which life would have been inconceivably poorer’

Following a three-year-period of study at King’s Inns, where she was one of only two women students, Mhac an tSaoi was called to the Irish Bar in 1944. During this period, she was also a scholar at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. The resulting publication, Irish Arthurian Romances, was published in 1946. She also completed an MA in classical modern Irish on the 17th-century poet, Piaras Feirtéar. In her view, the Irish language was vital to Ireland as “the prime catalyst in the creation of a truly European culture”. She told The Irish Times six years ago of the luck that brought her to the Gaeltacht “without which life would have been inconceivably poorer”. She loved the poetry of Lorca and the music of Mozart.

After the war a deferred studentship allowed her to study at the Institut des Hautes Études in Paris. Her many adventures during this time included an invitation to supper with the Becketts and being winked at by Pope Pius XII during a trip to Rome.

Forgoing a career in law, Mhac an tSaoi became the first female administrative officer to be recruited to the department of external affairs, becoming third secretary in 1947. After a brief return to Paris and further periods in Rome and in Spain, she was seconded to the department of education, where she worked on De Bhaldraithe’s English-Irish dictionary between 1952 and 1956.

Her views on the Irish language could be idiosyncratic. Her scathing dismissal of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s now classic Eireaball Spideoige for its departure from traditional idiom upset the Cork poet deeply.

On return to external affairs she served as member of the Irish delegation to United Nations’s General Assembly and was the permanent Irish representative to the Council of Europe in 1961.

Mhac an tSaoi’s unabashed treatment of female sexuality in Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin in her first poetry collection, Margadh na Saoire (1956), brought early critical attention. Mhac an tSaoi viewed the sequence as akin to an Irish language version of Yeats’s Crazy Jane. It evoked her own love affair with a distinguished (and married) Celtic scholar.

Writing in 1972, the scholar David Greene stated that while much of Mhac an tSaoi’s early work was of no particular importance, Margadh na Saoire contained “a number of lyrics which surpass anything written this century – or indeed for many centuries before”.

In 1967 she was arrested (as was beat poet Allen Ginsberg) at a Vietnam war protest in New York

In 1962 Mhac an tSaoi married the diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien, whom she had known since 1956. He had previously been married to Christine Foster with whom he had three children. “Is deacair cailíní meabhracha a phósadh,” a dúirt Mhac an tSaoi agus í faoi agallamh ag tuairisc.ie sa bhliain 2015, “agus féach go bhfuaireas fear mo dhionghmhála”.

Although poems such as Ath Dheirdre and Suantraí Ghráinne have been read as feminist testimony, Mhac an tSaoi hinted at a more complex, less radical view of female identity. “After I got married, I felt, for the first time in my life, real.”

Although she resigned from the diplomatic corps to marry, she embraced the opportunities that life with “her Conor” brought, attending a course in Africa studies while living in Ghana. They eventually made their home in Howth. The couple adopted two children, Patrick and Margaret. Her poem Codladh an Ghaiscigh is a beautiful meditation on her son. Although her political views evolved following her marriage to Cruise O’ Brien, who died in 2008, Mhac an tSaoi was no stranger to political action.

In 1967 she was arrested (as was beat poet Allen Ginsberg) at a Vietnam war protest in New York. When Dún Chaoin national school faced closure in the early 1970s, she was among those who campaigned for its survival, volunteering as a teacher. Having been elected to Aosdána in 1996, she resigned the following year in protest at the alleged anti-Semitic views of another Aosdána member, Francis Stuart.

Having previously been awarded an honorary doctorate by the NUI in 1991, Mhac an tSaoi was appointed to the position of adjunct professor of Irish studies at NUI Galway in 2005

In 1968 Frank O’Brien’s Filíocht Ghaeilge na Linne Seo recognised Mhac an tSaoi as a major Irish language poet. After Margadh na Saoirse, she published translations of Irish language poems in A Heart Full of Thought (Dolmen, 1959), translations to English of poems by Monsignor de Brún in Miserere (Gill & Macmillan, 1971) and A Concise History of Ireland (Thames and Hudson, 1972), with Conor Cruise O’Brien. Later original poetry collections included Codladh an Ghaiscígh, 1973, An Galar Dubhach, 1980 (both Sairséal agus Dill), An cion go dtí seo (Collected Poems, published in 1987) and Shoah agus Danta eile, 1999 (both Sairséal Ó Marcaigh).

Mhac an tSaoi’s later years saw a further blossoming of her literary and scholarly work. Publications included another book of translations, Trasládáil, (Lagan Press, 1997), a novella about Piaras Feirtéar, A Bhean Óg Ón (Cló Iarchonnacht 2001) and the scholarly work Cérbh í Meg Russell? (Leabhar Breac, 2008), with Máire Mac Conghail and Liz Ó Droma. Her novella Scéal Ghearóid Iarla won the Gradam Uí Shúilleabháin for the Irish language book of the year in 2011.

That same year then president Mary McAleese offered her personal congratulations when An Paróiste Míorúilteach/The Miraculous Parish, a bilingual selection of Mhac an tSaoi’s poems, edited by Louis de Paor, was published by Cló Iarchonnacht.

In 2013, Leabhar Breac published her translations of Rilke’s famous Duino Elegies. Acknowledged as an “enabling force” for later Irish language women writers by Professor Máirín Nic Eoin, Mhac an tSaoi also influenced English language writers such as Mary O’Malley. Having previously been awarded an honorary doctorate by the NUI in 1991, Mhac an tSaoi was appointed to the position of adjunct professor of Irish studies at NUI Galway in 2005. She was honoured by the Imram festival in 2009 and by Listowel Writers Week in 2013. Her short story An Bhean Óg and her poem Jack featured on the Leaving Certificate course. In later years, she regretted not giving more time to her poetry.

She is survived by her children Patrick and Margaret, her step-daughter Fedelma and an extended family.