Cork poet Seán Ó Ríordáin was a man far ahead of his time

Sean O Riordain is the subject of a newly published collection of essays.

CORK poet Seán Ó Ríordáin was “one of the most important thinkers of the modern age” whose existentialist philosophies were on a par with those of Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche, writes Pet O’Connell.

According to its co-editor, a recently-published collection of essays is the first book to examine in depth the significance of Ó Ríordáin as a thinker, and may help to further international recognition of the Irish language writer.

UCC lecturer Dr Tríona Ní Shíocháin, who with Dr Ríona Ní Churtáin of the University of Limerick edited the book, Ní insint dán ach bheith: Aistí ar Smaointeoireacht an Ríordánaigh, says the extent of Ó Ríordáin’s legacy is only now beginning to be understood, 42 years after his death.

Baile-Mhúirne-born Ó Ríordáin, whose works include ‘Fill Arís’ and ‘Cúl an Tí’, has an unassailable reputation as a poet in his own country, she says.

“The greatest 20th Century poet in Irish is unquestionably Seán Ó Ríordáin,” asserts Dr Ní Shíocháin. “His recognition as a poet among the Irish-speaking community and among Irish scholars is unparalleled. He has been totally canonised.”

The Irish language lent Ó Ríordáin an alternative perspective outside that of writers in mainland Europe, but may have been a factor in the paucity of international recognition for his work.

“He wouldn’t be known so well internationally and it’s only recently that his work has been translated and that people can now read it in English,” she says.

“Because he was a speaker of a minority language he’s an extremely important thinker conceptually, but he isn’t as well known all around the world as he should be. We’re hoping that through this book, in which his importance as a thinker is highlighted, it will inspire more scholarships, and maybe it will have an international reach, that people will look to Seán Ó Ríordáin in the way they look to Jean Paul Sartre and Nietzsche eventually.

“Seán Ó Ríordáin is one of the most important thinkers of the modern age and his poetry and his prose encapsulated an incredible understanding of the modern condition,” adds Dr Ní Shíocháin.

But he was quite different from the existentialist thinkers on the continent, people like Sartre, because he was from a very different sort of community. He was a post- colonial subject; a native speaker of a minority language, and that meant that he had a unique perspective.

“His outlook on the world was defined by this experience of being always in-between, neither here nor there. That’s common in lots of post-colonial countries, that there’s this feeling of huge trauma of the colonial past, and even after independence, somehow we can never get back to the way we were before.”

The essay-writers in the collection are drawn from the speakers at a 2016 conference, ‘Comóradh an Ríordánaigh’, held in Baile Mhúirne on the centenary of his birth. They include Gearóid Denvir, Seán Ó Briain, Tadhg Ó Dúshláine, and Máire Ní Annracháin, while poets Colm Breathnach, Dairena Ní Chinnéide, and Caitríona Ní Chléirchín examine in essays the influence of Ó Ríordáin on their work.

Ó Ríordáin’s biographer, Seán Ó Coileáin, explores the poet’s complex relationship with Baile Mhúirne, the Gaeltacht village he left following the death from TB of his father, a native Irish speaker.

Ó Ríordáin’s own health was blighted by TB, and both stigmatisation as a result of the disease and separation from the Irish language of his youth profoundly influenced his thinking.

“There was a huge sense of being in-between in his poems. He never knew whether his poetry belonged to English language culture or Irish language culture — there was this tension,” Dr Ní Shíocháin says.

As a dweller on the threshold, Ó Ríordáin was ahead of his time among European thinkers, she adds: “Social theorists have begun to explain the modern condition in terms of what they would call ‘permanent liminality’, or being in a constant state of in-between, but Seán Ó Ríordáin in the 1950s was communicating that which social theorists finally started talking about in the 1990s.”

‘Ní insint dán ach bheith’ is out now, published by An Sagart

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