Máire Mhac an tSaoi
Born: April 4, 1922
Passed away: October 16, 2021
Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who died at the age of 99, was one of the greatest Irish poets in the Irish language. Her poetry fused traditional and classical forms with modern themes and, according to fellow poet Louis de Paor, spoke “to and from the intimate experience of women at a time when women’s voices were largely inaudible.”
She was also a critic, translator and scholar, having started her professional life in the diplomatic service. She has published work under her own name and her married name, Máire (Cruise) O’Brien.
Born in Dublin on April 4, 1922 and named after her grandmothers, Máire Caitríona Mhac an tSaoi began life in tumultuous times. Ten days after his birth, the Four Courts were taken by storm.
His father, John (Seán) McEntee, born in Belfast, had fought in the GPO in 1916 and had been elected for Sinn Féin in the elections of 1918. A founding member of Fianna Fáil, he had a long ministerial career, notably in as Minister of Finance, and served as Tánaist. Mhac an tSaoi’s mother, Margaret Browne, was also active in the Republican movement, acting as a courier at the start of the uprising. Fiercely independent in mind and deeply intellectual, Margaret became the breadwinner while Seán was imprisoned (for political reasons).
In an interview with The Irish Times in 2015, Mhac an tSaoi recalled “a very big argument” between the couple when the new Constitution was adopted, “because of the article claiming that women should not be coerced by financial necessities to work outside the home “.
“My mother, who had been taking care of the family’s finances since 1922, when my father was earning next to nothing, was furious. She couldn’t bring herself to talk to him, ”she said.
She learned Latin through Irish at the age of six; and his mother “put to music the irregular French verbs to sing and jump along the roads to”
Mhac an tSaoi’s 2003 family memoir, The Same Age as the State, has been described by Garret FitzGerald as a “tender and evocative account of Ireland from the first half of the last century”. The book’s many delightful vignettes include the story of how a fleeing Éamon de Valera took refuge in Uncle Moss’s house from Mhac an tSaoi in Wicklow. The future taoiseach and president slept next to the sleeping child, Máire, saying, “Leave her there. I have five of my own. Later, Mhac an tSaoi would entertain listeners by bragging about having “slept with de Valera”.
Mhac an tSaoi enjoyed what she called a “golden childhood”. His uncle Paddy, the priest-scholar Pádraig de Brún, along with his parents and their many interesting friends, were a formative influence. At four years old, Mhac an tSaoi played a minor role in his translation of Sophocles’ Antigone. She learned Latin through Irish at the age of six; and his mother “put to music the irregular French verbs to sing and jump along the roads to”. Máire spent long periods at Tigh na Cille, the home of her uncle Pádraig in Dún Chaoin, in Corca Dhuibhne, where she attended the local national school and became an expert in the local Gaolainn. She had a deep and lasting respect and love for the people of Dún Chaoin.
In Dublin, she attended Alexandra College, where her mother taught Irish, then attended Beaufort High School. An early ambition to be an actress was cast aside when, at the precociously intelligent age of 16, Mhac an tSaoi embarked on a joint degree in Celtic Studies and Modern Languages at University College Dublin.
During her university studies, she took advantage of her parents’ network of friends to persuade well-known literary figures, such as Seán Ó Faoláin and Myles na gCopaleen, to speak to An Cumann Liteartha, of whom she was the listener. Mhac an tSaoi herself also wrote in English.
She started writing poems in the Irish language in order to fill in the blanks in the Irish-language literary journal Comhar, edited by her friends, Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh and Tomás de Bhaldrathe.
She told the Irish Times six years ago of the luck that brought her to the Gaeltacht “without which life would have been inconceivably poorer”
After a three-year period of study at King’s Inns, where she was one of only two students, Mhac an tSaoi was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1944. During this period she was also a Dublin Institute Fellow. for Advanced Studies. The resulting publication, Irish Arthurian Romances, was published in 1946. She also earned an MA in Modern Classical Irish on the 17th century poet, Piaras Feirtéar. According to her, the Irish language was vital for Ireland as “the main catalyst in the creation of a true European culture”. She told the Irish Times six years ago of the luck that brought her to the Gaeltacht “without which life would have been inconceivably poorer”. She loved Lorca’s poetry and Mozart’s music.
After the war, a deferred scholarship allowed him to study at the Institut des Hautes Études de Paris. His many adventures during this period included an invitation to dine with the Beckett’s and a nod from Pope Pius XII on a trip to Rome.
Abandoning a career as a lawyer, Mhac an tSaoi became the first female administrator to be recruited in the Department of External Affairs, becoming third secretary in 1947. After a brief return to Paris and further stays in Rome and Spain, she was seconded to the education department, where she worked on De Bhaldrathe’s English-Irish dictionary between 1952 and 1956.
His take on the Irish language might be idiosyncratic. His scathing rejection of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s now classic Eireaball Spideoige for its departure from the traditional idiom deeply moved the Cork poet.
Returning to External Affairs, she was a member of the Irish delegation to the United Nations General Assembly and was Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe in 1961.
Mhac an tSaoi’s shameless treatment of female sexuality in Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin in his first collection of poetry, Margadh na Saoire (1956), caught the attention of critics early on. Mhac an tSaoi considered the footage to be an Irish language version of Yeats’ Crazy Jane. It was reminiscent of her own love affair with a distinguished (and married) Celtic scholar.
Writing in 1972, scholar David Greene stated that while much of Mhac an tSaoi’s early work was of no particular significance, Margadh na Saoire contained “a number of sayings which surpass anything that has been written in this century – or even many centuries ago ”.
In 1967, she was arrested (as was the poet Allen Ginsberg) during a demonstration against the Vietnam War in New York.
In 1962, Mhac an tSaoi married diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien, whom she had known since 1956. He had previously been married to Christine Foster with whom he had three children. “Is deacair cailíní meabhracha a phósadh”, a dúirt Mhac an tSaoi agus í faoi agallamh ag tuairisc.ie sa bhliain 2015, “agus féach go bhfuaireas feared mo dhionghmhála”.
Although poems such as Ath Dheirdre and Suantraí Ghráinne were read as feminist testimonies, Mhac an tSaoi hinted at a more complex and less radical view of female identity. “After my marriage, I felt, for the first time in my life, real.”
Although she resigned from the diplomatic corps to get married, she seized the opportunities that life with “her Conor” had brought, by taking an African studies course while living in Ghana. They eventually took up residence in Howth. The couple adopted two children, Patrick and Margaret. His poem Codladh an Ghaiscigh is a beautiful meditation on his son. Although his political views changed after his marriage to Cruise O’Brien, who died in 2008, Mhac an tSaoi was no stranger to political action.
In 1967, she was arrested (as was the poet Allen Ginsberg) during a demonstration against the Vietnam War in New York. When the Dún Chaoin National School had to close in the early 1970s, she was among those who campaigned for its survival, volunteering as a teacher. Having been elected to Aosdána in 1996, she resigned the following year to protest the alleged anti-Semitic views of another Aosdána member, Francis Stuart.
After receiving an honorary doctorate from NUI in 1991, Mhac an tSaoi was appointed to the post of Assistant Professor of Irish Studies at NUI Galway in 2005
In 1968, Filíocht Ghaeilge na Linne Seo by Frank O’Brien recognized Mhac an tSaoi as a great Irish-speaking poet. After Margadh na Saoirse, she published translations of Irish poems in A Heart Full of Thought (Dolmen, 1959), English translations of poems by Monsignor de Brún in Miserere (Gill & Macmillan, 1971) and A Concise History of Ireland (Thames and Hudson, 1972), with Conor Cruise O’Brien. Subsequent original poetry collections included Codladh an Ghaiscígh, 1973, An Galar Dubhach, 1980 (both Sairséal agus Dill), An cion go dtí seo (Collected Poems, published in 1987) and Shoah agus Danta eile, 1999 (both Sairséal Ó Marcaigh).
The last years of Mhac an tSaoi saw a new flowering of his literary and scholarly work. The publications included another book of translations, Trasládáil, (Lagan Press, 1997), a short story on Piaras Feirtéar, A Bhean Óg Ón (Cló Iarchonnacht 2001) and the scientific book Cérbh í Meg Russell? (Leabhar Breac, 2008), with Máire Mac Conghail and Liz Ó Droma. His novel Scéal Ghearóid Iarla won the Gradam Uí Shúilleabháin for Irish Book of the Year in 2011.
In the same year, then-President Mary McAleese offered her personal congratulations when An Paróiste Míorúilteach / The Miraculous Parish, a bilingual selection of Mhac an tSaoi’s poems edited by Louis de Paor, was published by Cló Iarchonnacht .
In 2013, Leabhar Breac published her translations of Rilke’s famous Duino Elegies. Recognized as an “enabling force” for later Irish-language writers by Professor Máirín Nic Eoin, Mhac an tSaoi also influenced English-language writers such as Mary O’Malley. After receiving an honorary doctorate from NUI in 1991, Mhac an tSaoi was appointed to the post of Assistant Professor of Irish Studies at NUI Galway in 2005. She was honored by the Imram Festival in 2009 and by Listowel Writers Week in 2013 His short story An Bhean Óg and his poem Jack were included in the Leaving Certificate course. Years later, she wished she had spent more time on her poetry.
She is survived by her children Patrick and Margaret, her daughter-in-law Fedelma and an extended family.