St. Angela’s College ( Sligo), Ireland
Louis de Paor (ed.)
Connemara: Cló Iar-Chonnacht (CIC), 2014
246 pages. €12. Paperback
Máire Mhac an tSaoi is Ireland’s greatest living Irish-language poet. Now in her 93rd year, she is, as she makes clear in her autobiography, The Same Age as the State (2003), and her gift for capturing the vitality of everyday life remains potent. In 2011 Cló Iar-Chonnacht issued a beautiful collection of Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry, in both original Irish and with translations from Biddy Jenkinson, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Louis de Paor and others: in the collection’s foreword, the poet thanks her translators, her “hoped-for readership” and also “the wonderful medium [she] was privileged as a child to absorb, the Irish language of Corca Dhuibhne” (An Paróiste Míorúilteach, 2011: 13). She goes on to make clear that her “poetry is a journal […] [and that] writing verse is an addiction, a rewarding one” (2011: ibid.). We should be grateful also: we are privileged to gain insights into her life and her loves. She helps us to better understand ourselves and each other. She has long been credited with a mastery of both form and language, but it is her handling of the ordinary that makes her work extraordinary. She is a powerfully emotional and emotive poet; Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry matters. She is one of the most sustaining voices for the female experience in Irish poetry and, in clearing a path for others, could be said to be the foremother of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Eavan Boland, Dairena Ní Chinnéide and Eithne Strong, amongst others.
It is often a great pleasure to read a collection of essays: so many perspectives to unearth, so many ideas to reflect on. Bilingual collections, though few and far between, can challenge the reader, refresh the discourse around the subject matter and provoke ample discussion. Míorúilt an Pharóiste is that rare thing: a bilingual collection of essays on Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry, beautifully presented, with contributions from scholars and poetry critics alike. I might mention the cover art, a copy of a painting by Anne Yeats, entitled “One Room”. It subtly resonates what Máire Mhac an tSaoi writes about: finding inspiration in the everyday. It could speak to Woolf’s “a room of one’s own”, perhaps, and springs forward to Máire’s “Cré na mná tí/The housewife’s credo” (An Paróiste Míorúilteach, 2011: 130-1) where she urges the good housewife to keep the home neat and tidy, well-stocked and prepared, but not to forget her duty to, and need for, poetry.
There is, however, nothing mundane about her work, and this is quite clear from the range of essays presented in this fine volume. Máirín Nic Eoin’s insightful essay examines the honesty of the poetry and the relationships characterised therein. Nic Eoin looks at the poetic wealth of Máire’s relationships with her adoptive children and her step-daughters, and teases out the role of the mother and the grandmother in the poetic tradition. Giving a voice to women who were not biological mothers was revolutionary in its day, while step-mothers were seen but not heard. Nic Eoin deftly demonstrates the transformative impact of Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s acceptance – “Féach, a Chonchúir, ár mac/Look, Conor, our son” (“Codladh an ghaiscígh/Hero sleeps”) – of her evolving role as mother and stepmother. Nic Eoin further examines Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s approach to the roles of mother-as-housewife and housewife-as-poet: her respect for both roles underpins much of what Máire Mhac an tSaoi espouses in her writing. For Máire, to neglect one would be to neglect both.
If motherhood can be a transformative experience, time and memory can be transformative forces also. Rióna Ní Fhrighil’s essay looks at the many ways in which the past has influenced Máire’s poetry and prose, and analyses the poet’s insistence that we learn from the past. In Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s recent poem “Ceann bliana/one year after”, which commemorates the first anniversary of her husband’s death, she speaks of arranging her memories in order to prepare for her own passing. Her sense of duty to history and her personal resilience is a rich literary source. Ní Fhrighil’s conception of memory as both personal and public provides a valuable framework for reading Máire Mhac an tSaoi. Her tracing of Máire’s memories, and the poet’s concern with memory itself, is comprehensive and thoughtfully presented: it reminds the reader of the scope of the poet’s work and of the importance of the poet’s presentation and commemoration of Irish life and her place in Irish society.
What makes this collection even richer is that it publishes, alongside the essays, contemporaneous reviews of Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry, from John Jordan’s Irish Times piece (1957), and Seán Ó Tuama’s review of the same year, as Gaeilge [in Irish], back to Dónall Ó Corcora’s work from 1953. It is remarkable to see them thus presented – they captured so much of what was originally fresh and challenging about Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry. Time has not dulled their impact. Words like “exciting”, “personal”, ‘luachmhar / valuable” spring up throughout and mirror so much of what is put forth in the collection’s other contributions. Mícheál Mac Craith’s essay on Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s autobiography brings the collection together by using the poet’s own words and thoughts to illuminate some of her lesser-read poetry. Mac Craith makes the point that because Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s autobiography was written in English, English-language reviewers paid little or no heed to the poet’s literary life or contribution, concentrating instead on political personalities and the events which history surveyed. This and other essays go a long way towards righting that wrong, and this collection gives us new, exciting and challenging ways in which to think about Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry and in which to view her contribution to poetry and the Irish language. This book makes for an excellent teaching and research resource, but it is primarily a book for anyone who loves Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry.