Language of the heart

`I was an extraordinarily fortunate child

`I was an extraordinarily fortunate child." Maire Mhac an tSaoi might have been referring to her upbringing as the daughter of the Minister for Finance and deputy leader of Fianna Fail, or even of her extended stays in Dun Chaoin in the company of her beloved uncle Paddy, for whom she used to interpret at petrol pumps at the age of six, assuming this translator of Racine had no English; but she is responding to the suggestion that she seems to have grown up as a world citizen, without racial or religious prejudice, in an Ireland riven with both.

"We were brought up very markedly not to be anti-Semitic, even before the war. And we were brought up very markedly and strongly to heal the breach of the Civil War. We believed that that was what we had to do. In a lot of ways we were brought up with a very nice balance between conviction and tolerance."

As I arrive in Beann Eadair on the DART to interview poet, scholar and critic Maire Mac an tSaoi, a horse emerges from the sea, conjuring images of Macha and the Toraiocht Diarmuid agus Grainne, and Mac an tSaoi's subversive poem about the illfated lovers.

Her book Shoa has just been published. The title poem, which has been illustrated in The Great Book of Ireland by a survivor of the Nazi death camps and signed with his number, is, she believes, one of the best poems she has written. The title means Holocaust in Hebrew and the poem is short and brutal. The last line "Ar a chosa deiridh don mBrutach!" is more powerful in her amendment than in the earlier draft which has made it into the new book, the title of which is missing the final "h" of the original Hebrew word Shoah.


The poems in this collection, her first since An Cion Go Dti Seo, published in 1987, include tributes to other poets, the lovely "Maire ag Caoineadh Mhairtin" in which she mourns O Direain, and a poem for Cathal O Searcaigh as faceted and perfect as a gem, the witty "Meas Madra", where she compares the functions of woman and servant, to poems of lament.

There is a sort of philosophical balancing of books in "Deonu De, 1998", a poem which opens with the line "I am shamed by good fortune" and pitches the bombing of Omagh against the small triumph of having a dish of quail she was nervous about cooking, turn out perfectly. This vulnerability of a confident woman in the sphere of the domestic is moving and brilliantly achieved. The poem is a brave and poignant memorial to Kate Cruise O'Brien, whom she addresses as "a leanbh" and is seared with loss. Yet the year of her great loss was the year she won the Oireachtas prize and read with Yevtushenko in Dingle. This is a woman who takes what life brings on the chin, without whingeing but not without suffering.

The collection contains masterly translations of two Yeats poems, "Leda and the Swan" and "Cuchulainn Comforted" and is indispensible for those alone.

She never seemed to see any conflict in being a writer, a wife and a mother. "Well, I didn't take my writing seriously. That is one of my big regrets." This is an astonishing admission from one of our most respected poets, a woman whose knowledge of the Bardic tradition is without parallel and who, with O Riordain and O Direain, forms part of the great triumvirate of poetry in Irish in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. But she insists that this was normal in the context of her family. Everyone wrote verse; it was an accomplishment that was taken for granted, much as being able to play the piano. Her mother and father both wrote poetry.

"My writing was always a hobby. It didn't require any equipment. Nothing that you could lose." In English it might not have mattered but "I owed it to those who saw to it that I knew the language well, I owed it to them to put it to better use. I feel that strongly as an older woman."

But she's writing still. "Yes, but only under pressure of great emotion."

Ceileatram uirthi an Ghaolainn -

Ach da labhroinn as Bearla,

Ni sheasodh an croi.

The Irish disguises her,

but if I spoke in English,

Heart could not endure. "

"In memoriam Kate Cruise O'Brien" was written after the sudden death of her stepdaughter almost two years ago. To say, effectively, "if I said it in English who could bear it" seems curious, somehow, since she has always spoken of Irish as the language of the heart. "It puts a veil over the actual heartbreak, the form, in a way. If I were to say it in English it would be a violation of privacy, among other things."

Does she think that Irish formally is more equipped to deal with personal emotion? "I think actually that Irish reflects a society in which emotions were expressed with reserve and dignity. But accurately. I think there's a different tradition - but also, of course, it removes you one step from the reality of contemporary Ireland. It's not so much that this (writing in Irish) makes poetry less exploitative, because poetry of its nature is exploitative, but it makes it exploitative at one remove and therefore tolerable for both the poet and the reader."

I am reminded of O Direain's poem "Dinit an Bhroin/the Dignity of Grief". "Yes." She becomes suddenly enlivened. "He's a very underestimated poet even by his admirers . . . this idea that he's only a nostalgic poet. There's a poem of his that opens: `Trua ar fireann ar an uaigneas/sad to be male in solitude'. And because, I think, he belonged to, and was writing for, a puritanical generation of English speakers nobody, but nobody, that I know of, has spoken of the passionate cry that comes through in that. That isn't any soft nostalgia. How can we live on this bare stone without women, is what he's saying." What comes across is her ease in the world of men, her easy assumption of equality. The qualifying (and often diminishing) adjectival use of the word "woman" so often applied to writers is rendered redundant in her presence and is never used. She has translated Rilke into Irish and at a reading at Cuirt some years ago held a packed auditorium spellbound with the authority of those translations. She is one of the great readers of her own work, and it is in her reading that her authority most clearly emerges from the unbroken line of the tradition she writes in.

Here is a woman certain of her ground, at home from a young age in the world of men. The biography is immensely impressive. Born in Dublin, educated in Alexandra School, Dublin and Scoil Gobnait, Dun Chaoin she attended both UCD and the Sorbonne. She has edited a large body of work from classical Irish and is an authority on bardic poetry and is as respected a scholar as she is as a poet. She was a member of the Irish delegation to the UN from 1957-60. She fell in love with Conor Cruise O'Brien and visited him in Katanga in 1962, a private tryst that resulted in a blaze of publicity in the English press, her return to Ireland and both their resignations.

"I shouldn't have gone to Katanga," she says with a twinkle. "I'd have sacked myself." So did she regret it? Her "No" is spirited. "Bright girls are hard to marry," she says with amusement.

Dates reveal that she's in her late seventies but she makes a mock of age, with her fire and wit and learning. Going to her house, overlooking the sea in Howth with a view uncannily reminiscent of Dun Chaoin, has been a small pilgrimage for me. She marries learning with poetic vision effortlessly and represents an Ireland far from the cheap consensus we have come to tolerate and expect. Oh, and she admits to an affinity with that well-known Frenchwoman, Madame Bovary.

Shoa agus Danta Eile by Maire Mhac an tSaoi has just been published by Sairseal agus O Marcaigh: £5.

Mary O Malley's next poetry collection will be published this autumn.