Entertainment Books

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Máire Mhac an tSaoi -- a legend in her own rhyme

Published 29/07/2012 | 06:00

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Máire Mhac an tSaoi is widely considered to be one of the most important Irish-language poets alive. Now 90 years old, she has lived a remarkable life -- she was the first woman to be called to the bar in Ireland and also the first woman to make it into the department of diplomatic affairs through public competition.

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As the wife of Conor Cruise O'Brien, she spent much of her married life in America and Africa.

She has lived a life of firsts but it is for her poetry that she is best known. She has recently published a new selection of verse, The Miraculous Parish, with English translations by a number of poets, including Louis de Paor.

We meet in a hotel in Howth, near where her son, Patrick, lives and where she once had her home with Cruise O'Brien. She now lives mostly with her daughter, Margaret. She's dressed in a linen floral skirt and pink cardigan, her now-grey hair tied back loosely in an elegant bun.

Her father was Seán MacEntee, a founding member of Fianna Fáil who went on to serve as Tánaiste, and her mother was a teacher.

She spent much of her childhood and early teens in the Gaeltacht in Dunquin and says it was here that she internalised the rhymes and rhythms of the Irish language.

"They just took it for granted the way they put rhymes together," she says.

Over the pages of this collection, you can see her poems shortening into concise, dream-like stanzas as she gets older; it takes fewer and fewer words to create the desired image.

She says: "There's an element, certainly in my poetry, and in the Irish character, which loves drama and loves dramatic situations but can't be bothered expending much time or labour on the build-up and, of course, poems are grand in that way, a sort of shorthand for the dramatic situation."

Does she still write? "If the trigger is strong emotion, as you get older, your emotions are less strong. Oh it's true, love, it's true. Thankfully, it's true," she says.

Her poems often speak of love, whether it is the love of a mother or a partner, and she has become associated with chronicling the female experience in her poems. "I can see that myself," she nods.

She was 40 by the time she married Cruise O'Brien. "I wanted to marry but in those days, the aphorism was that clever girls were difficult to marry."

Her reputation for revolutionising Irish poetry in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s comes as much from her treatment of love in those poems as from what she did with the form itself.

"I was very lucky to write in Irish. If I had used the word 'bed' in a love poem in English, it would never have been published, but nobody reads what you write in Irish or very few people do, and they're not likely to be shocked."

As for the Irish language, she is hopeful for its future, but realistic.

"I think probably fewer and fewer people speak it from the cradle. I think it is too important a part of what makes us different from other English-speaking people for it to be entirely lost.

"I would be heartbroken if it were to die but I don't think I would be heartbroken if it survived as a literary language. As long as I'm alive, Irish is alive."

The Miraculous Parish: Selected Poems by Máire Mhac an tSaoi is published by O'Brien Press.

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