Tomás Mac Síomóin obituary: Irish Marxist writer with a hatred of neoliberalism

His work focused on ‘inhuman machinations and willingness to sacrifice people’

Born: February 19th,1938
Died: February 17th, 2022

Tomás Mac Síomóin, Irish writer, translator, publisher and scientist, has died in Spain. Although he worked principally as a biology lecturer, Mac Síomóin was passionate about the Irish language and Ireland’s Gaelic heritage. A committed Marxist and member of the Communist Party of Ireland for many years, he translated into Irish The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx into Irish, along with works of other left-wing writers, including the selected poems of Marxist priest Ernesto Cardenal.

Mac Síomóin published four collections of poetry before turning to prose. His sardonic short story Cín Lae Seangáin (An Ant’s Diary) won first prize in the 2005 An tOireachtas Irish Language Publishing Awards run by Foras Na Gaeilge. And his science fiction novel, An Tionscadal (The Project) whose narrator is an Irish employee of a multinational pharmaceutical company in the Pyrenees, won the main Oireachtas literary award in 2007.

Referring to his own dystopian writing, he said, "signalling dysfunctionality is part of the creative destruction that must always precede the new"

Cultural critic Jenny Farrell – who was a friend of Mac Síomóin – said he had no time for rural idyll literature. “Inhuman machinations, willingness to sacrifice people, denial of dignity, lurk everywhere in his work,” she said. Mac Síomóin himself often bemoaned how society “was regulated and controlled by the theology of government bureaucracies or the industrial mega-enterprises that have replaced them”, adding that “some citizens realise, too late, that their societies poorly reflect human potential but, being powerless to change that seeming immutability of the reigning order, opt for impotent resignation”. Referring to his own dystopian writing, he said, “signalling dysfunctionality is part of the creative destruction that must always precede the new”.


Much of Mac Síomóin’s writings were imbued with his opposition to neoliberal politics, his concerns about environmental degradation and the dehumanisation caused by artificial intelligence. He spent some time in Cuba, and his novel, Ceallaigh: Scéal Ón mBlár Catha (2010) examines contemporary life in communist Cuba through the eyes of a fictional Irish journalist while also recalling the Cuban sojourn of Irish journalist, JJ O’Kelly, who, while working for the New York Herald, reported on the Ten Years War from 1868-1878.

Banned in Ireland

In an effort to bring the poems of Irish language poet, Máirtín Ó Direáin to a non-Irish speaking public, Mac Síomóin with Douglas Sealy translated and published a compilation of his work as Selected Poems/Tácar danta (1984). And through the publishing company he founded with his second wife, illustrator Karen Dietrich, Nuascéalta, he also republished three Liam O’Flaherty novels – The House of Gold, Hollywood Cemetery and The Martyr – all of which had been banned in Ireland since their original editions were published in the 1920s and 1930s.

As a founding member of the Communist Party in Ireland who wrote in the Irish satirical literary tradition, O’Flaherty was somewhat of a role model for Mac Síomóin (although he was disillusioned by the lack of debate in Ireland on his republication of O’Flaherty’s novels while they were well received in the US). The 20th-century Gaelic poets Máirtín Ó Direáin and Somhairle Mac Ghill-Eathain were other seminal influences. But, as a true internationalist, polymath and multi-linguist (he was also fluent in Spanish and Catalan), Mac Síomóin also was inspired by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, Chilean poet and physicist Nicanor Parra, Spanish poet Antonio Machado and Czech poet Miroslav Holub.

He left Ireland to make his home in Spain partly because he was disappointed by what he felt was modern Ireland's abandonment of the ideals of the Irish revolutionary period

He edited the Irish language weekly newspaper Anois and the Irish-language literary journal Comhar for a time. And with Irish language publisher Pádraig Ó Snodaigh, he co-edited the short-lived political, philosophical and literary journal Lasair. He also wrote for the Communist Party of Ireland’s publication, A Socialist Voice, for some years.

Mac Síomóin grew up in Sandymount, Dublin, the eldest of three children. He was educated by the Christian Brothers and studied science at University College Dublin. He studied for a year in the Netherlands and was a lecturer at University College Galway [now NUI Galway] before leaving to do his PhD in Cornell University in New York. He spent seven years in the United States and later worked as a researcher and lecturer in biology in the Dublin Institute of Technology [now Technological University of Dublin] for many years.

Consumerist values

In 1998, following his retirement from DIT, he left Ireland to make his home in Spain partly because he was disappointed by what he felt was modern Ireland’s abandonment of the social, linguistic and cultural ideals of the Irish revolutionary period and their replacement by Anglo-American consumerist values. He explored these losses, their historical origins and international context in books including The Broken Harp: Identity and Language in Modern Ireland and The Gael Becomes Irish: An Unfinished Odyssey.

While in Spain, he also began to translate some of his own work into English to reach a broader audience. His friend and fellow academic Éamon Ó Ciosáin said that although Mac Síomóin saw himself as a voluntary literary exile, he was aggrieved by the lack of critical attention and readership of his work in Ireland and the “iron curtain” between Irish language literature and the English language literary establishment in Ireland. He was invited back as the featured writer for the Imram Irish Language Literature Festival in Dublin in 2012.

Mac Síomóin’s move to Catalonia also allowed him to deepen his longstanding interest in Iberian and Hispanic literature, culture and politics. His book, From One Bright Island Flown: Irish Rebels, Exiles and Martyrs in Latin America, charted the lives of these often-forgotten emigrants who went via France and Spain to Latin America and sometimes became involved in the fight for independence in countries there. Wexford-born Liam Lamport, who is the only non-Mexican represented in a statue at Mexico City’s Angel de la Independencia, and Alejandro O’Reilly from Co Galway, who has a street named after him in Havana, Cuba, were among those whose lives he explored.

In 2014 he published Three Leaves of a Bitter Shamrock, a trilogy of sorts that included Liam O’Flaherty’s The Cure for Unemployment, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and his own rewriting of Swift’s satirical essay. One of his last books was the bilingual (Irish and Spanish) account of the contribution of the Argentinian-Irish Bulfin family to the cause of Irish independence.

Tomás Mac Síomóin is survived by his second wife, Karen Dietrich, his son Ruairí, his daughters, Liadan, Aoife and Seonaidh from his first marriage, eight grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and his sister, Eileen Twomey. His brother, Gerard predeceased him in 2021.