Review: Seán Ó Ríordáin, Na Dánta

Author: Alan Titley (trans. Ronan Doherty)

Seán Ó Ríordáin: Ná Dánta
  Seán Ó Ríordáin (Author), Seán Ó Coileáin (Editor), Seán Ó Flaitherata (Illustrator)
Cló Iar-Chonnacht
216 pages. ISBN 9781905560738


It is only fitting that we have this book 35 years after his death. No matter how excellent each individual collection, offered as ceremonial wafers of sacramental bread, one after the other, every major poet deserves that his work be collected together sooner rather than later. As such, this edition—which includes artwork from the brush of Seán Ó Flaithearta—is an appropriate celebration in presentation and print.

You would think that almost everything has been said about Ó Ríordáin’s poetry by now, but Seán Ó Coileáin’s accomplished introduction, which prefaces the book, is a clear, concise statement regarding the poet’s work. It was Ó Coileáin who researched and wrote the preeminent biography of the poet, and he had the privilege of access to Ó Ríordáin’s diaries. He has let it be known elsewhere that those diaries did not always make for comfortable reading and that he did not desire to peer any further into their depths. If there is darkness in those diaries, they are nonetheless illuminating as regards the man and his poetry.

In the introduction, fair use is made of the diaries in order to intimate Ó Ríordáin’s thinking, particularly as regards his own poetry and how it was received by others. It is no surprise that precedence would be given to Máire Mhac an tSaoi's review of Eireaball Spideoige and the debate that followed. That debate is of great importance, not only because it wounded Ó Ríordáin deeply, but also because it is there we find condensed a large share of contemporary discourse on the value of poetry as well as judgements as to what constitutes acceptable diction in modern Irish language writing.

To revisit the debate here would be futile, but the affair marked a fundamental misunderstanding as to the capacity of the Irish language to expand and liberate itself. It was not true that Ó Ríordáin could not be understood without English, no more so than it was true of Máirtín Ó Cadhain, who twisted and inverted the syntax of the Irish language in his latter stories. It might be more true to say that Seán Ó Ríordáin could not be understood without imagination. There is no reason on earth why that fictional creature, the Irish person without English, would not comprehend compound words like “scillingsmaointe” and “sreangtheicheadh” and "scamallsparán" and "ár gcúrintinn éadrom" and dozens more besides. If Daithí Ó Bruadair, a man who forged many novel words and phrases and who stretched and bent the language on the rack, was understood in his time, then Seán Ó Ríordáin, a speaker as native as the next person—except, perhaps, the Ó Grianna brothers, and Ó Direáin and Ó Cadhain—posed no challenge either.

The major poems are here, because all the poems are here. Moreover, there is hope that a few of the other poems, neglected until now in the shadow of his more acclaimed works, might be noticed. I think particularly of “An Doircheacht” and “An Dual,” which do not yield readily to interpretation. Yet, if read in sequence, these poems reveal the same concerns time and time again, dressed in various guises. There is some substance to Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s assertion that Ó Ríordáin’s poems deal solely with turmoil in the conscience of the ordinary Catholic. On the other hand, it is not easy to comprehend the magnitude of such turmoil for someone who habitually faced death, with only the traditional teaching of the Church as his primary discourse of understanding.

The miracle is that he succeeded in putting this terror into words. He succeeded in fashioning a language, removed from the language of the Church, that would express his own state of mind. He sculpted something new from remnants that lay dormant in his own mind while he was immersed in the catechism. Against this, readers today have little interest in the generations before them and their crisis of Catholic conscience. Their plight is a source of head-scratching and puzzlement. It is the poetry that lives, the miraculous poetry of words. 

And it is poetry, still, that captivates us. Words and phrases newly conceived in the language: the farmer “ag tomhas na gaoithe”; the “chomharsanacht suite ar mo mhéar”; the “ráflaí naomh san aer máguaird”; the “reilig ag síorphaidreoireacht”; “dreancaidí na drúise”; “an oíche” jumping “isteach im scámhóig”; “an Uimhir Dhé, is an Modh Foshuiteach / Is an tuiseal gairmeach ar bhéalaibh daoine.” The “fios a scagadh as mo shaol ar fad.”

Phrases and sentences and idioms that would be absorbed into the language were the language in its prime. Not only was the poetry novel, but the creation of language was equally as innovative. If we do not have poets to mold the language anew, who then have we?

It was not that poetry ever came willingly to him, like how Seosamh Mac Grianna said that translation was as easy as tying his shoelaces. There is a deftness in the early poems, however, that refutes claims that Ó Ríordáin did not have command of the traditional poetic mode, even if such a mode was often loosely applied. “Ualach na Beatha,” “Ceol,” “Odi Profanum Vulgus,” “Éadóchas,” and others at least echo traditional meters, in such a way as you might think that tradition held too much sway over him. Yet, there is so much diversity in his poetry that it resists categorization. Despite a certain disparity—for what else would be expected, but that some of his audacity waned as the years passed—Seán Ó Coileáin is correct in asserting that Ó Ríordáin's poetry had a kick to it right until the end, as is clear from the latter works which still betray his taste for mischief.

An integral part of this wonderful, valuable book is the art of Seán Ó Flaithearta in which he interprets particular poems through the medium of pen pictures. A difficult task, no doubt, and I am not best placed to judge their worth. Still, the image of the key set across a head is a powerful representation of “Tost”; as are the persons mirroring each other alongside “Mise”; the scrub that accompanies “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”; the Zimmer frame with “Bás Beo”; the crisscrossing head with “Scagadh”; the stick people of “An Bóthar” and so on. They will be remembered as a supporting testament to the poems, just as this collection will be accepted as an authoritative statement, and that it is without fail.