Athlone man publishes his seventeenth collection of poetry

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By Gearoid O’Brien

I’ve heard the practice of writing described as “plowing a lonely furrow” and perhaps that’s a very apt description because writers, especially poets, can go for long stretches without any feedback or affirmation.

However, if writing in English digs a lonely furrow, then God only knows what it is like for the poet to write in the Irish language.

Seán Ó Leocháin, retired Vice-Principal of St Joseph’s College, Summerhill, has been writing poetry for over 50 years. Originally from Athlone, he had his first collection, Blath an Fheir published by An Clochomhar Tta., in 1968 and his work has been published regularly ever since.

Critic Alan Titley once described Seán as a poet “who worked consistently and painstakingly in his craft”. He is considered one of the leading poets writing in the Irish language today and in 2000 he received the coveted Michael Hartnett Award.

About thirty years ago, the Franciscan scholar Micheál MacCraith wrote a long article in Poetry Ireland Review titled “Seán Ó Leocháin: sacramentalist of the countersign”. The opening lines read: “With an impressive output of seven books of poetry published and one in print, Seán Ó Leocháin is one of the most important poets in modern Irish”.

In the years since, Seán has continued to publish and this year marks the release of his largest collection to date. This, his seventeenth collection, published by Coiscéim, is called Caint san Aer: Mala Danta the Nua Danta.

It is based on his last six collections published by Coiscéim as well as around thirty new poems. The very striking cover features a detail from a stained glass window in Ely Cathedral depicting the Tower of Babel.

The opening poem of this collection is a very moving poem about a young girl on a swing in kyiv. It was written in February of this year.

The title Caint San Aer is taken from a sequence on Covid 19. Ó Leocháin’s poetry covers a wide range of topics, and there is an element of humor in many of them. He finds inspiration in the seemingly mundane (including a dual control electric blanket) and turns it into fine poetry. His poem about the current turf controversy is aptly titled Céard in Dhéanfaimid…?

I wish I had fluency in Irish to review this book, as it deserves “like Gaeilge”, but I am almost 50 years old from school and reading this book is in itself a challenge, albeit a rewarding one. I have to admit I had my trusty Focloir by my side. Still, I found myself reading several of the poems aloud because there is such wonderful music in so many lines. Seán Ó Leocháin is a poet poet, he has his art well-honed and that is surely what confirms him as one of the most important voices in Irish poetry today.

The publication of this seventeenth collection is a monumental achievement. For a poet who is not from a Gaeltacht region, to have achieved this status is nothing short of amazing.

When I was at school, at St. Aloysius College, the two big names in Irish poetry were Máirtin Ó Direain and Seán Ó Riordáin. Ó Direain was the most prolific with 13 published collections while Ó Riordáin’s reputation was largely based on a collection Eireaball Spideoige (published in 1952) which was followed by only three subsequent books, the last of which was published posthumously.

Over the years I’ve been delighted when someone at a library seminar or other similar event remarked to me ‘Isn’t Seán Ó Leocháin from Athlone?’ then told me how much they admired his work.

The poets of medieval Ireland were known as bards and Westmeath had an honorable tradition in terms of Irish bardic tradition with the Uí Chobhthaigh (O Coffey), Uí Dhálaigh (O Daly) and Nugent families all featuring prominently in this story. In medieval times, practicing bards had a high status in Irish society, equivalent to that of bishops.

It seems that Seán Ó Leocháin suffered the fate of the prophet in the Bible (Mark 6:4) where it says “a prophet is not without honor except in his own country”. This is partly explained, no doubt, by the fact that Seán is a very private person who avoids publicity in order to continue and write. But I think it is high time that his great contribution to poetry in the Irish language was fully recognised, perhaps with an honorary doctorate, but that is for others to decide.

On the evidence of Caint san AerSeán does not lack inspiration and I am convinced that he will continue to surprise us with new collections that are fresh, contemporary and above all very neat.

I highly recommend Caint san Aer to those who love poetry or who love the Irish language – or ideally both!


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