Tuesday 11 December 2018

O Direain - a craggy giant of Aran, and giant of Irish language poetry

Ahead of the 30th anniversary of his death, Mairtin O Direain is remembered by Declan Collinge

The poet Mairtin O Direain
The poet Mairtin O Direain

Declan Collinge

During the mid-1960s, while studying for my Inter Cert, there were many poems on the Irish course, most of which I found uninspiring. One short lyric poem, however, resonated: this was An tEarrach Thiar, or Spring in the West, a series of vignettes of Aran long ago.

Each verse described a particular activity: a man turning over soil, women harvesting seaweed, their red petticoats tucked up, a currach, brimming with fish, coming ashore.

The poet in question was Mairtin O Direain - and what was remarkable at that time was that he was still alive while most of our prescribed poets, both on the English and Irish course, were long dead.

O Direain, from the townland of Sruthan on Inishmore, was born in 1910. By the time he was 18 he had left the island to take up employment in the post office in Galway. He subsequently moved to Dublin, where he was employed in the civil service. There he married Aine Colivet and settled in a bungalow on Whitehall Road. They had one daughter, Niamh.

Like many writers of his generation, O Direain had originally been inspired by traditional Gaelic metres with their complex internal rhyme and assonance, but as he extended his reading in English, he began to embrace free verse.

His early collections reflect the homesickness of a young man working on the mainland and the verse is, consequently, sentimental and nostalgic. His wide reading of such modernist poets as Yeats, Eliot and Pound, however, becomes apparent in his middle collections where the traditional values of Aran are used as a yardstick to measure the mores of modern urban life and find them wanting.

He was soon recognised as one of the emerging modern Irish language poets, together with Sean O Riordain and Maire Mhac an tSaoi.

As a struggling young poet in the 1980s, I befriended Mairtin, who not only encouraged me to write in Irish, but also honoured me by writing the introduction to my first published collection Sealgaireacht (Hunting Quest). I went on to become his 'aide-de-camp', accompanying him to cultural events and soirees.

After I videotaped Robert Flaherty's iconic Man of Aran for him, he came to visit me in my house and my abiding memory is of this craggy Aran giant sitting in my lounge while my young daughters marvelled at the length of his legs as he sat on the couch.

I was privileged to undertake postgraduate studies on his poetry, which involved translating his work from 1939 to 1979, and I would frequent his house and read my work in progress.

By then a widower, since his wife Aine had died, O Direain would oversee my work, berating any translation that was not accurate with the caustic 'What are you at, Collinge!' If the translation worked, however, he would clap his hands and say ' Togha a mhac, bang on!'

We often drank in the Terenure Inn near his house where he would sip sherry and regale me with his humorous anecdotes. Contrary to belief, he was quite happy to live in Dublin - though one of his most memorable collections Ar Re Dhearoil (Our Wretched Times), described Dublin in the 1950s as an urban 'wasteland' after the fashion of TS Eliot.

O Direain was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the mid-1980s and was operated on in Baggot Street Hospital. While there, Hilton Edwards of the Gate Theatre, and partner of Micheal Mac Liammoir, was also in his ward. When the nurse came to take a blood sample from the poet, Edwards quipped: 'You'll never get blood from an Aran man - only salt water!'

A more amusing incident happened when O Direain was on his way to theatre in the lift: One nurse recognised the poet and said: "I know you. You're Mairtin O Direain. A cousin of mine failed her Leaving Cert over your poems!" Such were the hazards of being on the school syllabus!

The poet rallied a little after this operation but, by early 1988, he was admitted to a nursing home on a hill overlooking Greystones in Co Wicklow.

I recall the gloom of that day in midwinter when I paid him my last visit: our family had holidayed regularly in Greystones and I associated that picturesque seaside town with long sunny days but, on this occasion, as I looked down from the hill above Windgates, the sea was a gun-metal grey with a mist clinging to the beaches below.

I would recall the dreariness of that January afternoon not only because of the weather, but because, when I spoke to him, the poet told me he was dying.

On March 19, 1988, Mairtin O Direain died. His death mask, by Yann Goulet of the RHA, appeared on the television news that evening.

As the 30th anniversary of his death approaches, I feel honoured to have known and befriended this gentle giant. The lines of his immortal poem Cranna Foirtil (Props) define the poet's philosophy:

Coigil aithinne d'aislinge

Scaradh lei is eag duit.

("Preserve the spark of your vision, To part with it is death.")

Sunday Independent

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