Máire Mhac an tSaoi interviewed in 2015: ‘I was very formidable’

The diplomat and poet looks back on a life of love and adventure, challenge and tragedy

You don’t go lightly into an interview with an intellect of Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s calibre. You begin to read . . . and six hours later you are still reading, led down a dozen shimmering paths, longing to pursue every one in minute detail.

Characters and stories swirl around her extraordinary life, rising up out of history, never embroidered yet singing with humanity and passion under that searing, forgiving, poetic gaze.

The same age as the State, she could have been defined by men, had she been a lesser poet.

Those men were larger than life. Her father, Seán McEntee, fought in the GPO in 1916 and was sentenced to death, at 27, for his role in the killing of a police officer – a sentence commuted after a petition by a group of liberal Belfast Protestants. He went on to cofound Fianna Fáil and serve in a series of senior ministries.


Her uncle Fr Paddy Browne remained in the cell of the 1916 proclamation signatory Seán Mac Diarmada the night before his execution, an event that in several ways would change the course of Mhac an tSaoi’s life.

And when she finally married, at 40, in a cloud of scandal, it was to Conor Cruise O’Brien, a prominent Irish diplomat and intellectual – “the white-headed boy in the department: everyone was crazy about him” – who during an extraordinary press conference about British policy in Congo announced that he was getting a divorce and going to marry Mhac an tSaoi.

She was then a high-flyer in her own right, an Irish poet and scholar formed by the Munster Gaeltacht, garlanded with double firsts from UCD in French and law, a trailblazing Irish diplomat at the United Nations General Assembly, flying between New York, Strasbourg and Dublin. She was also a feminist who, far from chafing at the marriage bar, chucked in her job triumphantly when offered the chance of marriage to the man she loved and live the life she had always wanted.

Challenge and tragedy

A life that contained “extraordinary” good fortune, love and adventure but also threw up its share of challenge and tragedy. “That’s how things were . . . You might think it was unfair that it rained on the birthday party, but you knew these things happened. That’s life,” she says, time and again.

Now 93, nothing is lost on Mhac an tSaoi. Elegant and bright eyed, sitting in an armchair surrounded “by rugs and company”, including Reggie, a yappy little dog – “a machine for love” – with a panoramic view of Dublin Bay and stories of Máirtín Ó Cadhain, she is content, sharing the homes of her beloved and vigilant children, Patrick and Margaret, by turn.

In Deargdhúil: Anatomy of Passion, a poignantly beautiful and revealing documentary to be shown at the Irish Film Institute on Monday, the home movies filmed by her father around Dún Chaoin, in the Kerry Gaeltacht, and in Dublin are a stunning chronicle of rural joy and freedom from a lost era.

Footage of men making hay and rowing currachs is interspersed with giddy, laughing children, racing up hills and leaping over stone walls like small wild animals. And there is the young Máire, a gleaming life force in her slim summer dress and glorious youth, running towards the camera.

Her beloved mother, Margaret, is there, too – the woman who had risked her life in 1916 to deliver vital countermanding orders to Liam Mellows – around the second home crafted for them by Máire’s Uncle Paddy, Pádraig de Brún, the priest who spent that last night with Mac Diarmada, the leader she describes as the poster boy of 1916.

“He was gorgeous. And lame. He had infantile paralysis as a child . . . and he had charm in buckets, obviously.”

It was a charm that worked equally well with men and women.

“He just had it. My uncle applied to be there that night, and the governor of the prison was extraordinarily liberal, and though he sent the future Mrs Mulcahy – who was Seán Mac Diarmada’s girlfriend at the time – home with her sister Phyllis, he let my Uncle Paddy stay. Seán cut all the buttons off his suits and sent them to all his friends as keepsakes. That was the kind of lad he was.” Forever after, Uncle Paddy “always had a large coloured photograph of him in his bedroom”.

Father figure

But Paddy’s grief, after all, had brought them all to this supremely happy, inspirational place, which came to mean so much to Mhac an tSaoi. After the execution he had climbed on his bicycle and cycled as far south as he could, to a place he fell in love with and where he built a house in which his sister’s children could grow up and know Irish and where he would become a father figure to them all. “That was my home from then on. I was formed by the Munster Gaeltacht,” she says.

The family would decamp to Dún Chaoin for two or three months every year, while Seán McEntee, busy with his ministerial duties, would come occasionally for weekends, “ bringing good wine and a movie camera and all those things – and the status of the holiday would go up sharply.”

Her father – an electrical engineer in a previous life – loved gadgets and “would always be in at the beginning of a craze”. Thus the movie camera, which, importantly, was his, not the family’s.

The distance of a father in those times is palpable. “Of course the children of that generation of politicians immediately after the Civil War didn’t see an awful lot of our fathers. I remember a story about the nuns asking Peggy Lemass, as a child, would she say something to her father about building permission that they wanted for the mews at the back of Loreto Stephen’s Green. And she said, ‘Well, I will, Mother, but I don’t know my father very well.’ ”

The MacEntees rented a house on Marlborough Road, in Donnybrook in Dublin 4, where the Desmond FitzGeralds – Garret’s parents – lived opposite and the great Irish author Peadar O’Donnell lived at the top end. Political enemies they might have been, but in the post-Civil War years, in those “very intimate” middle-class south Dublin circles, there was “a huge determination not to pass the enmity on”, Mhac an tSaoi says.

“When we were playing cops and robbers in our own little circle no one wanted to be Cumann na nGaedheal; everybody wanted to be Fianna Fáil. But when we met the children of the other side we had to be terribly polite to them.”

The wives and children of opposing sides got on well together. When the pro-Treaty FitzGeralds had a baby, Margaret McEntee, though avowedly anti-Treaty, persuaded her husband to go with her to congratulate them. Margaret was made godmother, and thus did the infant Garret become known as the “child of reconciliation”.

Although the McEntee household revolved around the father’s career, it was the extraordinarily independent-minded Margaret who financed it through her teaching and lecturing jobs. Mhac an tSaoi recalls “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,” Mhac an tSaoi says.

Yet, despite their need, such was Margaret’s ferocious hostility to the Free State that she resigned her teaching post at “Rathmines Tech” rather than take the oath of loyalty. By a quirk of fate it was Conor Cruise O’Brien’s mother who took her job. “Yes, we grew up in complicated political circumstances.”

She landed another much-needed position at Alexandra College, where another independent-minded woman, Dr Isabella Mulvaney, overlooked the small matter of Seán McEntee’s imprisonment.

“Without her salary we would have lived less well . . . I remember as a small child being afraid my mother wouldn’t have enough money for the tram. In our minds nice people were always poor,” Mhac an tSaoi says. But, as she wryly notes, poor is a relative term. By dint of her work Margaret could afford to employ two maids: “Mary, to mind us, and Nancy to do the cooking.” She vividly recalls true poverty, when newsboys sold the papers in bare feet, in the freezing winter rain.

She was 16, she recalls, sitting on the kitchen table in Dún Chaoin, swinging her legs, when a young man came and stood in the doorway, “and I saw him and experienced that extraordinary shock of seeing someone across a crowded room. I remember he wasn’t a welcome guest by the older generation . . . He was a bit of rake. I seemed to know then that I would love him for the rest of my life. I didn’t of course,” she says wryly. “Only for about 20 years.”

Without crisis, she believes, her best poems would never have been written, and the re-emergence of "the rake", now a distinguished Celtic scholar in Dublin, when she was a woman of 30, is one of the heartrending stories of Anatomy of Passion.

“We became lovers,” she says simply. The howl of love and desire, of grief and crushing betrayal, whisper and wail from a poem of the period, a poem that could never have been written in English, with its graphic imagery.

“The Irish-speaking world was where you could talk about things like bringing the stallion to the mare, but of course you couldn’t do that in middle-class convent English. If you didn’t know Irish you wouldn’t really ever, I think, get the feel of my poetry. It’s just part of me.”

Element of crisis

The relationship didn’t last, she says. Wasn’t it a perilous time to be lovers, in an age of sexual terror with no contraception?

“Well, it was and it wasn’t. It depended on the circles in which you moved. Among students and young undergraduates you had a fair idea who was sleeping with whom. You didn’t say so – but you knew.”

But what about unplanned pregnancy? “It was part of life, like the rain spoiling the party. That was our life. The poems wouldn’t have been as good as they are, I think, if the situation had not been as acute. It’s because of the element of crisis.”

That “crisis” ended only when she met Conor Cruise O’Brien. “It sounds like a vainglorious thing to say, but it ended when Conor fell in love with me, not me in love with Conor. I would have stayed with the rake if he would have had me, but it was he who didn’t want me. He had other girls, oh yes.”

The love affair with Cruise O’Brien took off after he came upon her in the office one December night and they went for a drink in Davy Byrnes pub in Dublin. They were rumbled when she paid an officially unapproved visit to her swain in the Congo.

While the pair were dining in the home of a Belgian banker, as you do, “Congolese gendarmerie” broke in and carried off two UN representatives as hostages, with the Irish pair as “unwilling witnesses”.

In the blaze of publicity that followed, the spotlight swung on to the Irish couple. “Who is Miss McAndrew?” demanded the British foreign minister, unable to get his tongue around her name.

“The fact that I was in the Congo, I think, must have seemed to Conor that my reputation would be safer if he said we were going to get married – which we were.”

Thus came his announcement in the middle of the press conference.

They lived together for a while, and at one point, while he was away in Congo, she even stayed with his first wife, Christine (née Foster), at the suggestion of the O’Briens’ rather mature son, Dónal.

For all the heavy breathing by the Daily Express, the reaction was relatively calm. As Mhac an tSaoi says time and again that everyone knew everyone else, intimately, in those circles.

“Deserted wife”

But wasn’t it all a tad racy for those times ? “All I can say is yes and no; it depended on the circles in which you moved . . . Christine and I had always known each other. I remember going to the airport with her to see Dónal off to the Congo when he was going out to see his father. She was living with someone else, of course. ”

She was? "Yes. She had moved on – and it was she who moved on." There is a hint that "deserted wife" was not a label Christine that discouraged.

In fairness there had been some awkwardness, because Mhac an tSaoi’s parents were “particularly fond” of Christine. “My mother had to think hard before she came to terms with it. I don’t think she could believe at any stage that her scholarly daughter, who was earning her own living so satisfactorily, could ever compete with a glamour girl like Christine. Once she got used to the idea she accepted it.”

Surely her father, the pious nationalist icon, was scandalised? “Oh, he was certainly very pious – the only adult I have ever known who went on his knees every morning to say his morning prayers, with us falling over him getting ready for school. Oh, yes, a real North of Irelander – very liberal and very pious.”

And, no, he wasn’t happy at all.

“I was a serving civil servant who went off without leave to the Congo, which was a crisis section station that Ireland was involved in politically, and, of course, if I hadn’t been as well connected I would have been sacked.”

When the pair arrived back her father muttered grumpily that she couldn’t stay in the Department of Foreign Affairs. In fact she had already resigned, she announced triumphantly, and without a trace of regret. So had Cruise O’Brien, as the British press reported gleefully. In the end, she says, Cruise O’Brien twisted her father around his little finger – as he was able to do “with difficult ministers like Mr Aiken during his whole career”.

There was no happier bride when she married Cruise O’Brien in 1962. By then she was deeply in love, certain at 40 that she was not “going to let my chance go. I always say it’s hard to marry off intelligent girls.”

She wanted marriage and she wanted children. “It never occurred to me to want a career. I just had to have one because I didn’t get married. But my sister had the men trotting after her; I didn’t. I think I was very formidable.”

A tragic interlude in Anatomy of Passion is the enactment by the performance artist Maureen Fleming of the terrible grief of Mhac an tSaoi's miscarriage, the spur for another poem in crisis: "I am the mother who thwarted her womb . . . The thing didn't stand a chance."

Now she marvels at the love of their adopted children, Patrick and Margaret, and the fact that Cruise O’Brien was such a “fantastic father and husband”, a man who was very gentle, very dependent on affection – and who could make her laugh at breakfast.

Happy marriage

Their long and extraordinarily happy marriage ended with Cruise O’Brien’s death, seven years ago, and she sill misses him terribly. “But”, she repeats, “I have been extraordinarily fortunate.”

She looks back on the luck that brought her to the Gaeltacht, “without which life would have been inconceivably poorer”. And now, as she stands accused of romanticism about the old ways of life in the Gaeltacht, she says simply : “It has its uses. Life is hard.”

And now she looks on the preparations for the 1916 commemoration with an eye that is hard to read. “Have you read Roy Foster’s book? Read it immediately if you haven’t.”

Tellingly, she talks of her father’s lifelong reluctance to release his personal papers on his role in the Rising. “He did not want the Rising to become a cult. He saw it as very dangerous, as indeed it has proved . . . He was very, very conscious, as a North of Irelander, of the cost that cult might impose if it were to flourish.”

And she sings a snatch of a song about the Black and Tans. “I wish I weren’t a little girl / I wish I were a man / For then I’d be a rebel bold and shoot a Black and Tan.”

Does she believe in an afterlife? “Yes, firmly. Yes, in the very ordinary Catholic belief. What else have I? It’s our culture. If it carries you through the unpleasant business of dying, who is going to jettison it?”