THE best Irish language poet since the Famine is how poet Seán Ó Riordáin is described by his biographer, Seán Ó Coileáin.
Ó Coileáin will give the keynote speech on Saturday as part of a three-day commemoration event, starting this Thursday, marking the centenary of Ó Riordáin’s birth in Ballyvourney, Co Cork on December 3, 1916.
Generations of Irish school children are familiar with Ó Riordáin’s poem, ‘Cúl an Tí’. Ó Coileáin points out that while the poem seems light-hearted, it’s actually quite dark. “It represents Ó Riordáin being out at the back of the house with the rubbish tip. He has been to the sanatorium [having been diagnosed with TB as a young man and suffering poor health until his death at the age of 60]. An addition to the house has been made for him so that he can live, as it were, apart from healthy folk.
“While he describes the world he lives in humorously, he very much resented the isolation he felt and much of his work is about this. It is a world that is very much to the fore in his prose writing and later in the Irish Times, and indeed in his diary which he kept from 1940 until a few days before his death.”
Ó Riordáin felt cast aside and labelled diseased. “He wasn’t treated properly for TB as there were no proper drugs at the time. So his hostility shows.”
But, as Ó Coileáin points out, the sickly poet’s hostile attitude isn’t the only mindset that emerges in his writing. “He comes across as sympathetic for the person who is broken down and has lost everything. He was an extraordinarily sympathetic person who recognised other human beings in the same straits that he was in.”
The eldest of three children whose father died from TB, Ó Riordáin struggled with the Catholic faith that he was born into. “There are times when he seems to have totally abandoned it. I know for a matter of fact that even though he was dying and knew it, it rankled very much with him that he was virtually forced, on his death bed, to confess and receive communion and extreme unction.”
Ó Riordáin didn’t like authority or pontificating. “That final act of authority, reclaiming him, is something he wrote about across a page of his diary (when he was dying.) He wrote in Irish that (being administered the last rites) ‘doesn’t mean I’m a Catholic.’
“With Ó Riordáin, there was the uncertainty of a person who has been very much brought up in a tradition and has tried to reject it. He had rejected so many other things, such as traditional modes of writing in Irish. But it was as if he was being forced back to the Church.”
Ó Coileáin says that paradoxically, Ó Riordáin’s isolation made him more central in the sense that he spoke directly of his own condition.
“That was immediately recognised as the human condition. He wrote out of despair, sickness and sometimes hopelessness.
“He was talking basically about existentialism, what it is to be a human being. In that way, he related to an audience much more personally and immediately than those who were writing using a more traditional model, the Daniel Corkery tradition,” says Ó Coileáin.
While Ó Riordáin read widely, it was almost by accident that he was part of the European tradition.
“He was universal rather than writing in more formal modes with the traditional themes that other poets were using.
“He was certainly a modernist and his poetry translates and resonates in a way that much other poetry does not.”
Ó Riordáin, who published four books, was criticised by traditionalists, with the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi, in particular, drawing attention to his standard of Irish. He was not a native speaker of the language in the strict sense.
“He was born in the breac (speckled) Gaeltacht in Ballyvourney. The Irish language was yielding to English in that area in Ó Riordáin’s time. His father was a native Irish speaker, as was his grandmother who lived close to him. He had uncles in the neighbourhood who were all native speakers. His mother, on the other hand, came from Carrigadrohid and was an English speaker. So English would have been the normal language of the home.
“Again, this was a dilemma that he grew up with. He had to choose his medium. Over a period of time, he came to realise that for his purposes at least, writing in Irish was more meaningful and accessible to him than writing in English.”
Ó Riordáin, who at the age of 15 moved with his family to Inniscarra and attended the North Monastery on Cork’s northside, saw his youth in Ballyvourney as giving him the credentials for writing in Irish.
“Of course, he went on to develop his credentials in Irish in later years. He spent periods in the Gaeltacht in Dunquin, west Kerry.”
Ó Riordáin never married and worked as a clerk in Cork City Hall from 1936-1965 and was given a part-time position in UCC’s Irish department from 1969-1976. He died in 1977 and is buried at Reilig Ghobnatan near Ballyvourney.
While illness blighted his life and influenced his writing, his work transcends the misery of TB.
As Patrick Crotty writes in his anthology of modern Irish poetry: “Startling imagery and an undercurrent of anarchic, self-deprecating humour play against the grimness of Ó Riordáin’s themes.”
- A day of commemorations will take place on Saturday in Ballyvourney.