Celebrated poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi dies aged 99

President Michael D. Higgins leads tributes to a ‘fearless, powerful and intriguing personality’

Máire Mhac an tSaoi, widely considered to be one of the most important Irish-language poets of her generation, has died aged 99.  Photograph: Frank Miller

Máire Mhac an tSaoi, widely considered to be one of the most important Irish-language poets of her generation, has died aged 99. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Máire Mhac an tSaoi, widely considered to be one of the most important Irish-language poets of her generation, has died aged 99, her family said.

She was called to the Bar in 1944 aged 22 and was also a ground-breaking diplomat, serving the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, France, Spain and at the United Nations.

Renowned for revolutionsing Irish poetry in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Mhac an tSaoi’s work was recognised with the O’Shaugnessy Award for poetry in 1988.

She was the daughter of former tánaiste Seán MacEntee,who helped found Fianna Fáil, and was married to the writer, historian and former minister for posts and telegraphs Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died in 2008.

In a statement, her family said it “is with great sadness that we announce the death of Máire Cruise O’Brien (Máire Mhac an tSaoi)”.

“Máire passed away peacefully at home on Saturday evening where she was cared for by her daughter Margaret,” the statement said. “She has lived a remarkable life, in remarkable times among remarkable people.

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

A first collection of Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry, Margadh na Saoire, was published in 1956. Four more collections followed, while she was also known for her scholarly work and memoir The Same Age as the State.

Influenced

Mhac an tSaoi was profoundly influenced by the Munster Gaeltacht, having been brought to Dún Chaoin in Co Kerry every summer by her mother, Margaret.

In an interview with The Irish Times in 2015, she said she was lucky to have been brought to the Gaeltacht “without which life would have been inconceivably poorer”.

In a film about her life called Deargdhúil: Anatomy of Passion, which was produced by Paula Kehoe, Mhac an tSaoi was unrepentant about her romanticism of the Gaeltacht, which informed her writing, much of which was about love.

“Well, it probably is romanticism, but you could argue for a long time as to whether romanticism doesn’t have its uses,” she said.

“I think that romanticism enriches life, and I think that life is hard, and that the world needs more romanticism, not less.”

President Michael D. Higgins said Mhac an tSaoi was a “woman of immense talent and one of our most gifted, creative writers”.

“She made a profound and distinctive contribution to our society in terms of literature, diplomacy and above all poetry,” he said.

“Her fearless, powerful and intriguing personality led her to defy established convention and expectations in a unique way. A prolific writer she had a lifelong, and contagious, passion for the Irish language, and for the people of the Gaeltacht.”

Personal contribution

Mr Higgins added that Mhac an tSaoi drew on the traditions of the Celtic Revival “by giving voice to her own experiences, passion, skills and views”.

“She made a distinctive personal contribution at a high level to Irish poetry, making her one of the most influential poets of the 20th century.”

Mr Higgins described Mhac an tSaoi a “pioneer” in the Irish diplomatic service who was “replete with courage and an inspiration to many”.

“She will be sadly missed by all those, through the generations, who knew her and her work and, above all, by those who appreciate the Irish language and the power of its words.”

Mhac an tSaoi’s long-time friend Liz Ó Droma said the poet had played a “hugely important” role in the Irish language community over decades.

“So many people read her poetry, so many of her poems resonated with people, very ordinary people, who remember those lovely poems, “ she said.

“She didn’t have the output that other people had in terms of quantity, but she had some quite extraordinary poems.”

On a personal level, she said Mhac an tSaoi was “very warm, very loving and never afraid to show her warmth”.

“She had a long, long life well lived,” she said .