MÁIRE Mhac an tSaoi was born in 1922. It was six years after her father, Seán MacEntee, took part in the Easter Rising, a man who fought in the GPO, co-founded Fianna Fáil and served as Seán Lemass’s Tánaiste in the 1960s.
In one of her Irish-language poems, trying to tease out where herself and her father became strange with each other, Mhac an tSaoi wonders: “I am the same age as the state/ and neither turned out as you wished.”
She has taken a road less travelled. Her uncle, Fr Paddy Browne — who stayed by Seán Mac Diarmada’s side the night before he was executed in Kilmainham Gaol in 1916 — was a pivotal figure in her life. Every summer, Mhac an tSaoi’s mother used to bring her children down to the Kerry Gaeltacht where he lived.
It was around the Dingle Peninsula that Mhac an tSaoi fell under the spell of the Irish language. She used it to devastating effect in her poetry, for example, in her exploration of female sexuality in 1950s Ireland when it wasn’t fashionable to do so: “I care little for people’s suspicions/ I care little for priests’ prohibitions”.
For all her liberal tendencies, Mhac an tSaoi was still heavily influenced by her parents. They decided, for example, what course she studied at university. Her own comment, too, about being late to marry — “It’s quite hard to marry off intelligent girls” — isn’t the stuff of a feminist firebrand. She married Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was divorced, when she was 40.
The award-winning documentary maker Paula Kehoe, who has made a film about Mhac an tSaoi’s life entitled Deargdhúil: Anatomy of Passion, says her subject is a mix of several contradictions.
“While there is this incredible, transgressive, radical nature to Máire, she is also quite conservative. She has that poetry zone where anything is allowed and then, of course, there is the public persona, and that’s a different thing.
“She has always defied definition. For example, there was every reason why feminists, artists and poets in the 1970s wanted her to come on board with that movement but that was not her thing at all. She said: ‘I had always wanted to be married and have children. I had a career. I gave it away.’ She wasn’t having any of it.
“There’s a line in her autobiography: ‘When I got married I felt like a real person.’ When I read that it was really challenging on so many levels. She is quite singular and complex, and at times difficult.”
Kehoe, who co-wrote Deargdhúil: Anatomy of Passion with Louis de Paor, has fashioned a beguiling film, which includes 16mm home movie footage from the 1930s and 1940s, shot by MacEntee. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Olwen Fouéré are among the voices featured, and Maureen Fleming’s avantgarde, butoh-style dancing brings Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry visually to life.
Kehoe, too, has an inside track. She grew up in Melbourne, Australia, but has settled in the Connemara Gaeltacht and learned Irish as a second language, a linguistic lens that, like Mhac an tSaoi, has helped to change her perspective of the world.
“The world looks differently to me because of the structure of the language. It’s got a more Buddhist world view — states of being are temporary,” she says.
“When I started learning Irish, the beautiful thing about it, other than the sound of it, was its compound prepositions. If you’re sick, you’re not actually sick, ‘sickness is upon you’. It’s not a statement ‘I am sick’. Or ‘come from yourself towards me’. The world feels more dynamic in the way it can be described.”