Seán Ó Ríordáin

Seán Ó Ríordáin

Seán Ó Ríordáin (1917-1977) was born in Múscraí , County Cork, in the south-west of Ireland. His native area was rich in Gaelic literature, and Irish was the language of Ó Ríordáin's environment until, aged fifteen, he moved to an English-speaking area close to Cork city. This move came to represent loss and alienation for the poet. As a young man, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and, though he lived until the age of sixty, he was constantly in poor health, and spent much time bed-ridden. He laboured in death's shadow, and yearned for a state of wholeness, cultural, physical and spiritual.

Ó Ríordáin published four books. A modest body of work, they are Eireaball Spideoige (Robin's Tail) (Sáirséal Ó Marcaigh 1952, 1986), a volume of some hundred pages, and three subsequent booklets, Brosna (A Handful of Twigs) (1964), Línte Liombó (Lines from Limbo) (1971), and the posthumous Tar éis mo Bháis (After my Death). His writing is the product of patient distillation, and as a result is resonant and potent. Ó Ríordáin forged a personal idiom unlike that of any other Gaelic writer. It is an idiom made of key-words representing key-ideas, innovative compounds, and bombastic adjectives coined by the poet. His telling vocabulary is coupled with clarity of syntax.

A reading of O Ríordáin's poetry reveals a preoccupation with a small number of themes. One, if it may be expressed in a single phrase, is cultural (more pronouncedly than political) nationalism. The Irish language is the chalice which the nation must drink from in order to rediscover its true self. This theme is fundamental to much twentieth century Gaelic writing. The second major theme in Ó Ríordáin's work is the Christian faith. His work is not an expression of faith, though it is easy to construe it as such, but a questioning and testing of faith. Ó Ríordáin, ill and weak, seeks guidance and inspiration from the Christian faith (rather than of the institution of the Church).

Ó Ríordáin in his work strives to record his fleeting experiences of the essence of things. Some of these things are tangible: the river's voice expresses riverhood. Others are abstract and more difficult to grasp: where is nationhood to be found, and how can it be expressed? Also, the world is full of statements of falsehood: Ó Ríordáin identifies and describes these too, the better perhaps to clear a path which might lead to sainthood.

Seán Ó Ríordáin has been described in Ireland as a European poet. This description is intended to imply that his work is great. The claim is not without ground, but is vague. In a European context, his ideas have been compared to those of the existentialists. He and Kierkegaard on the one hand do seem to overlap, but his culture is distant on the other hand from the urban ennui of the postwar French existentialists. 'European' parallels for Seán Ó Ríordáin are perhaps best sought in Catholic pre-Romantic France, in Pascal's Pensées, for example.

As well as writing poetry, Seán Ó Ríordáin wrote a column in The Irish Times during the latter years of his life in which he spoke vehemently about national affairs. A number of his poems have appeared in English translation. See for example Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology (ed. Patrick Crotty). The selection to be found in this issue of Transcript are published for the first time.

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