Behind the lines of Seán Ó Ríordáin: A poet’s isolation

Seán Ó Ríordáin's diaries give an insight into the poet's isolation and illness, as well as politics, literature, and the social stigma of living with TB, writes Pet O'Connell.

Behind the lines of Seán Ó Ríordáin: A poet’s isolation

Seán Ó Ríordáin's diaries give an insight into the poet's isolation and illness, as well as politics, literature, and the social stigma of living with TB, writes Pet O'Connell.

From discussing international politics and European literature to contemplating his TB-induced phlegm and failure to take his own life, Seán Ó Ríordáin’s diaries are at once far-reaching and intimately personal.

In parts “truly harrowing”, the diaries of the Irish language poet, who died in 1977, shine a light on the social stigma attached to tuberculosis sufferers in Ireland less than 80 years ago and the isolation felt by the writer of works such as ‘Fill Arís’, ‘Oíche Nollaig na mBan’, and ‘Cúl an Tí’.

Though drawn upon extensively by Seán Ó Coileáin in his Ó Ríordáin biography, in Tadhg Ó Dúshláine’s Anamlón Bliana, and Louis de Paor’s documentary Mise Seán Ó Ríordáin, the Cork poet’s diaries have never been published in their entirety and were for years stuck in copyright limbo.

With the rights now held by Irish language publishing company Cló Iar-Chonnacht, the two earliest diaries have been transcribed by DCU assistant professor of Irish, Dr Pádraig Ó Liatháin, and are soon to be published in a single volume.

Ó Liatháin plans, over time, to publish all 49 diaries in as many as eight volumes, his project assisted by the recent announcement of a Royal Irish Academy scholarship, funding his work on the second volume.

Though few of the later diaries match the length of the first — at 350 pages handwritten in non-standardised Irish— Ó Liatháin’s is a mammoth project. However, it is one he believes will enhance Ó Ríordáin’s reputation as a writer and thinker with breadth of vision, while providing an insight into society’s response to TB.


Born in Baile Mhúirne in 1916, Ó Ríordáin’s life was blighted by illness, being stricken with pneumonia then tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his father before Seán was 10 years old.

Spending long periods in recuperation and isolation, Ó Ríordáin began writing a diary in Irish on January 1, 1940, relying on it as his confidante and a form of therapy, though its tone indicates he anticipated it would one day be published. He continued to made regular diary entries until his death in February 1977, making it one of the longest such works in 20th century Ireland.

“He discusses in great detail his illness, even to the extent of whether he had mucus and coughed up that day, and what colour it was,” says Ó Liatháin, who highlights the value of such a rare narrative of pulmonary tuberculosis in an Irish context to the field of medical humanities.

“There’s been very little evidence like this because there was such a stigma attached to it, whereas Ó Ríordáin, while admitting the stigma and admitting his reluctance to say anything about the illness in public, writes it all in his diary, so it’s a fascinating record.”

Some of his personal thoughts are “truly harrowing,” says Ó Liatháin, who draws parallels with fellow 20th century writers Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Katherine Mansfield, all similarly afflicted by TB and all of whom kept diaries.

Copyright: Special Collections UCD Library
Copyright: Special Collections UCD Library

“What is extraordinary about Ó Ríordáin is that he regularly discusses TB in all its aspects: His daily struggles, weight-loss, high temperatures, his time in a sanatorium, interaction with other patients, the stigma of living in the open with the disease.”

From an annex behind his family’s home following their move to Inniscarra, Ó Ríordáin watches people pass by his window but does not communicate with them. On his return from Heatherside sanatorium near Buttevant, he deliberately isolates himself: “Tréis teacht abhaile ón Sanatorium dhom sa bhliain 1938 AD do dheininn na rudaí go léir nach mór do Chríostaí dhéanamh más mian leis maireachtaint i measc a chomh-Chríostaithe. Anois táim deighilte amach uatha. Taim im aonar go huaigneach. Ní théim go teach an phobail ná ní théim go teach an óil.”

Depression follows, and Ó Ríordáin submits himself to excoriating abuse as he laments his fate. He contemplates suicide, decrying his lack of courage for not going through with it.

“Cad chuige ná maróinn me féin? Níl aon chreideamh agam a chuirfeadh srian liom. Bhí mo mháthair ag brath orm bail chompórdach a chur uirthi nuair a éireoinn suas chuici ach mo chreach láidir do bheadh sé chomh maith di bheith ag brath ar an gcat.

"Dá bhrí sin go léir ba cheart dom me féin a mharú. Níl aon ghrá agam don saol a gheobhainn gan sláinte. B’fhearr liom bheith marbh. Cad ’na thaobh mar sin ná múchaim m’anam san abhainn?.... Níl sé de mhisneach agam me féin a mharú.”


Though Ó Ríordáin’s darkest thoughts may enlighten students of his poetry, these are by no means the sole content of his diaries. In them he discusses European literature and history, Irish and global politics, the Second World War, and the Irish language, poetry, and song.

They also show how even as a young man he had mastery of the Irish language — the subject of a notorious spat between Ó Ríordáin and fellow poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who in a review questioned his linguistic credentials.

“It’s so interesting because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about Ó Ríordáin and there were debates about his competency in Irish. In 1940 his prose-writing is effortless, and there’s never a sense of difficulty in expressing himself,” Ó Liatháin says. “Interestingly, he doesn’t speak of himself as a poet in volume one.”

What is apparent, however, is that Ó Ríordáin was a keen artist. “Diary one opens with sketches and a few scribbled notes, then he discusses [Éamon] de Valera towards the end of diary one and his fascination with his features, and he has five sketches of de Valera,” Ó Liatháin remarks.

“At the end of diary two he has about 14 pages of sketches, of people real and imagined.

Copyright: Special Collections UCD Library
Copyright: Special Collections UCD Library

“The importance of visual art is really emphasised. At one point he specifically mentions that he has to decide what he’s going to do with his life: ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be a writer or an artist and that’s a weakness in me because really I should know’.”

What Ó Liatháin believes to be an early Ó Ríordáin poem appears in the diaries, though attempts to decipher it have failed. “There is a poem written and scribbled out very vigorously and it’s impossible to read. It seems to me like his first poem.

“He reads an awful lot and takes sections out of the book he’s reading and he quotes them and then discusses and contemplates them. He reads Daniel Corkery, Belloc; he discusses medieval Catholic history; he’s very taken with Yeats.”

In short, “everything is there” and Ó Liatháin’s intention, bar adding a brief introduction and notes, is to let Ó Ríordáin’s diaries speak for themselves.

“I’m not interested in correcting or standardising his spelling very much, just the odd time to make it clear to the reader,” says Ó Liatháin, who draws on his experience editing 17-19th Century manuscripts, and lecturing on Ó Ríordáin’s poetry.

“I endeavour to provide a text both for scholars and for the reading public, without losing the personal ‘blas’ and the sense of immediacy.”

The first volume of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s diaries, January-May 1940, will be published by Cló Iar-Chonnacht in 2020

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