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Translation once again -- a tribute to Mighty Maire, pioneer of modern Irish poetry

Many people who are not au fait with Irish language literature may only be aware of Máire Mhac an tSaoi's writing through a passing contact with it on the Leaving Certificate course.

Most will be aware of her membership of Aosdána and her background as daughter of former Tánaiste Seán McEntee and as wife of the late Conor Cruise O'Brien.

However, for over half a century, this formidable intellectual force was one of the three main pillars of poetry in Irish along with Seán Ó Ríordáin and Máirtín Ó Díreáin.

These three came to prominence as the leading lights in the modernisation of Irish poetry, taking up the baton from the writers of the revival. They brought their own peculiar experience of contemporary Ireland to a public which was already tiring of a writing which sometimes emphasised the richness and purity of language rather than literary merit.

As a thoroughly modern woman who had brought a forensic academic mind to bear on the craftsmanship of the great Munster poets, Mhac an tSaoi was eminently placed to produce a refreshing new poetry which drew strongly from the tradition while making no concessions to any prevailing sloppiness of language.

In fact, her mastery of the Irish language has been a wonderfully enabling factor in her composition. She writes with an ease and a self-confidence that few could carry off and which many would envy.

Here is no instant translation. She has been bilingual from a very young age and it is clear that she has got right under the skin of the language. Sometimes, one could almost imagine her having an effortless "agallamh" (exchange) with one of the old bards.

In the collections that she has published since Margadh na Saoire in 1956, Mhac an tSaoi has been a pioneering spirit in giving free rein to the most intimate feelings of women.

Although speaking through other characters in her early work, including some from Irish mythology, she gradually emerges from offstage to speak in her own voice with burning passion and devastating honesty. This was at a time when such material would attract the unwelcome attention of the moral Taliban who wanted to live everybody's life for them.

It would be hard to exaggerate the influence of this writer on the many young women poets who have thankfully come to the fore in recent times.

Long before Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill elicited a gasp from an audience with a frank poetic description of intimacy, Mhac an tSaoi in the poem Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin was giving vent to her character's frustration thus: "I care little for people's suspicions, I care little for priests' prohibitions, For anything save to lie stretched, Between you and the wall."

This is a translation of one of the longer exquisite poems in this new bilingual volume An Paróiste Míorúilteach/The Miraculous Parish which draws from all of Mhac an tSaoi's five collections in Irish.

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The selection was made by fellow poet Louis de Paor, the book's editor, in consultation with the author. The list of able translators is itself a major tribute to the life's work of a poet now entering her 90th year including, as it does, Gabriel Fitzmaurice, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Biddy Jenkinson, Celia de Fréine, Douglas Sealy, Louis de Paor and Peter Sirr.

Mhac an tSaoi has produced poetry of the highest calibre in Irish for over 50 years. She has gained the respect and recognition of three generations of Irish language literati. In fact, she has been regularly celebrated in those circles.

Although translation is never completely satisfactory, this selection will open her work to a much wider English-language audience and will undoubtedly add to her growing band of admirers.

Finally, in one new verse, Ceann Bliana, written to mark one year since her husband Conor's death, she demonstrates the power of Bardic brevity: "I arrange my memory in readiness for the grave, Put spices in her shroud and silver coins, The snow is still on the cemetery ridge, I lie down beside the body on my bed."

Seán Ó hÉalaí

Seán Ó hÉalaí is producer of the RnaG arts programme 'Ardán na nEalaíon'

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