Wake: Up to Poetry
Frank Sewell on Editing and Translating Máirtín Ó Direáin: An Interview
This month, Máirtín Ó Direáin’s Selected Poems/Rogha Dánta was released in the US, the first time his work has been published outside of Ireland. We wanted to know more about Ó Direáin’s place in Irish-language poetry, as well as editor Frank Sewell’s process in selecting and translating these poems. Brian Ó Conchubhair, Associate Professor of Irish Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame, led a fascinating conversation with Sewell, the transcription of which we’ve included here.
Brian Ó Conchubhair: The Aran Islands are known far and wide by Synge’s prose writings, Liam O’Flaherty’s novels and short stories, Tim Robinson’s essays, and Sean Keating’s paintings, but the great poet of the Island is Máirtin Ó Direáin. Your new book from WFU Press is a beautiful bilingual edition of his selected poems. Ó Direáin, along with Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Seán Ó Ríordáin, is one of three major mid-twentieth-century Irish-language poets. You have previously edited and translated Ó Ríordáin for Yale University Press and now you have turned to Máirtin Ó Direáin. Why Ó Direáin and why now? What does Ó Direáin have to say to twenty-first-century readers?
Frank Sewell: For anyone who is interested in twentieth-century Irish literature (which is a plurilingual, mostly bilingual literature), Máirtín Ó Direáin is a constant and unforgettable presence that one is reminded of frequently. He is one of those writers (like Seamus Heaney with his “bogland” and County Derry terrain or, perhaps, John Hewitt with his Glens of Antrim) who is inseparable from a landscape or, in Ó Direáin’s case, two landscapes: the rural Gaeltacht of the Aran Islands off the Galway coast, and the capital city, Dublin. Readers familiar with his work cannot envisage Ó Direáin without thinking of those locations; nor can they envisage those locations without thinking of Ó Direáin. His work reflects and, to an extent, colors how we see them. Even if we see them differently than Ó Direáin did, we are aware of the light and shade that his work has cast upon them. Moreover, his experience of moving from a rural location and non-English-language cultural tradition to an urban milieu and cultural setting (dominated by English) is not unique. On the contrary, it is shared by millions across the world. And Ó Direáin finds interesting ways to image and reflect that experience, showing that his language still has substance and power, “neart agus téagar.”
For the purposes of this new Selected Poems, first published in Ireland by Cló Iar-Chonnacht and now in a revised edition by WFU Press, I turned to Ó Direáin firstly because I was asked to do so by the publisher. There had not been a bilingual, selected volume of his poems for over thirty years, i.e., in a generation. The last such volume, entitled Tacar Dánta, was finely edited and translated by Tomás Mac Síomóin and Douglas Sealy back in 1984, but it included a rather small number of poems. So, it seemed more than timely to offer readers a new and wider selection—100 poems with fresh translations, too.
My appointment as editor and translator felt like a great honor and responsibility, at times a daunting challenge, but I welcomed the opportunity to revisit Ó Direáin’s work, to read it afresh, to select not only the obvious poems (that are well known in Ireland where they are learnt at school, for example), but also some poems that, as he might have said, were gathering dust in the corners of individual collections. Many of his poems deserve to be brought out into the light because they speak to a contemporary readership (of subjects such as displacement and deracination) and also because of their intrinsic artistic merit.
BOC: Ó Direáin is regarded as the great lyric poet of the Irish language, a poet whose subjects and raisons d’être of his poetry are “the island and a woman’s love.” You write in your introduction that this work covers more than just two themes, but that even if it were characterized by those themes alone, his treatment of them would still manage to be plural and multidimensional. Can you elaborate for us?
FS: Yes, another reason why this new Selected Poems is timely is because, in recent years, some commentators on Irish literature have, in Keith Douglas’ words, “by distance simplified” Ó Direáin and his work, characterizing them as having just two themes: “the island and a woman’s love.” Even though Ó Direáin, early on, agreed with that binary summary of his work, it is truer to say that his complete oeuvre is more complicated and has a wider range of themes, including the city, the conflict between tradition and modernity, memory, the art and/or “craft” of poetry, etc. However, even within any one of those themes, you’ll find, on closer inspection, that you get diverse views and “takes” on that theme: for example, the island is sometimes (early on) viewed and presented by Ó Direáin nostalgically, even sentimentally; but, in other poems, he casts a colder, more realistic eye on “home” and his relationship to it; and in other poems again, his vision is darkened beyond realism by the cultural despair of a writer in a minoritized language and colonized culture. For those reasons and more, his poetry remains fascinating and worthy of new critical studies and explorations.
If Shakespeare gave us many diverse representations and versions of love, from the passionately romantic to the murderously jealous, Ó Direáin gives us, for example, widely diverging representations of Irish women: ranging from heroines to heartbreakers, maestros to dilettantes, a pirate queen to a beloved wife. He celebrates many women, including female friends, a writer such as Caitlín Maude, the revolutionary “Women of the [Easter] Rising,” Ireland’s pirate-queen Grace O’Malley, and, central to his psyche, his own mother. But sometimes he criticizes other women (and men, too) for what he perceives as a lack of passion and commitment, for example, towards their home culture or to what he perceived as their true and best self. Thus, the island and women or a woman’s love are just two of his themes, but he approaches those themes (and others) diversely throughout his work.
BOC: Poetry often memorializes place, and captures its essence, but is that true of Ó Direáin and his poetic relationship to his home island?
FS: There is a branch of literary theory called “memory studies”—well, Ó Direáin’s work is ripe, if not crying out, for that! Memory, in Irish “cuimhne,” is a key word often repeated or imaged in his work. Tim Robinson writes beautifully in Stones of Aran about how Ó Direáin as a boy went around the island, absorbing sense-impressions deeply into his consciousness, his being. Did he already know that he’d be leaving it? Probably, since emigration was an economic reality for many; and also, despite his great love for the island, he was not entirely suited to the hard physical work there, being more of a scholar, dreamer, and fledgling artist. In any case, he left at the age of 18. But throughout his career, he drew on memory, and what he drew consisted of the language itself, the word-hoard and natural speech rhythms of his Irish-speaking (full-Gaeltacht) region and childhood; he drew on images of the island and its people, images that were precious to him. Even if they were “going out of fashion,” he still fashioned those images into poems and collections, for he was quite a prolific poet nurtured by first-hand memories.
But you are right: while he drew (words, images, inspiration, sustenance) from memories of the place and the people, he drew as much if not more from his own personal, emotional, and artistic relationship with those things, including, a painful separation from them. Poets seek or can’t avoid paradoxes; and for Ó Direáin, memory was a two-edged sword. Sometimes, it was a comforting “pillow” of support and rest; but at other times, it was “salt in the wound” of separation. Often, for him, it was both at the same time. Such paradoxes and contradictions make his work resonate long after it was written.
BOC: Despite the centrality of islands and traditional island life in his work, Ó Direáin is very much an urban poet, but is either city—Galway or Dublin—more important than the other in his work?
He lived in Galway for about ten years (1928–1937), but it was an important developmental period in his life. Because much of the population of Galway spoke Irish and there was a high level of Gaelic cultural activity there at the time, the city provided a more gentle stepping stone to mainland Irish life for the young islander. Back on the island, he had been experimenting with rock sculptures and (what we would now call) “found” art, as well as finely tuning his ear to the language and speech rhythms, and wondering at or about the “secrets” of the stones and of women. But he hadn’t really found his métier. Then in Galway, he joined An Taibhdhearc, a leading Irish-language Theatre Company and acted in some plays. There are pictures of him with hair and looking very dashing. His reading widened and he also became involved in Trade Union politics. His interest in the arts in general became more serious, he began to write some articles and essays, and it seems that he even wrote a play about the Russian poet Alexander Blok. So his time in Galway was an important, formative period or next step after Aran. But Galway itself does not get mentioned directly much in his poems, except in “Ceannaithe” (“Merchants”), a poem that highlights perspectives and their relativity; and also in “Fear Lasta Lampaí—Gaillimh 1928” (“The Lamplighter—Galway 1928”).
Shortly after he moved to Dublin in 1937, he attended a lecture by Tadhg Ó Donnchadha (“Torna”). The lecture concentrated on the long reach and staying power that emanates from the condensed language of poetry. Ó Direáin himself has said that this was a turning point for him, one which sent him in the direction of poetry as his medium. The lecture took place in Dublin, and most of his subsequent poems seem to arise from the tension of being and working in the capital of a modernizing and not quite post-colonial country while trying to hold on to some of one’s original values, one’s self, one’s native and minoritized culture. He lived in Dublin for the rest of his life, making occasional visits back to Aran. So, Dublin had more obvious impact on his work than Galway did. If there is a river that runs through his work, it is “an Life chianda” (“the ancient Liffey”), even if his preferred footing would be the “cloch, carraig is trá” (“stone, rock and shore”) of Aran.
BOC: In the era of #MeToo, how do you approach Ó Direáin and his depiction of women and his attitude towards them?
FS: As a selector and translator of his poems, I am not Ó Direáin’s critic, his judge and jury, his make-up guy, spin-doctor or PR guru, but someone who holds up as accurate as possible a mirror to the man and his work. My job is to show or, at least, indicate the breadth, the range of his writing on any one theme or topic. Readers rightly expect a Selected Poems to be broadly “representative,” which partly means fairly representative and not unfairly loaded. I’m reminded again of Keith Douglas’ worry that time and other people’s subsequent impressions will “simplify me when I’m dead.” Both critics and translators have a duty not to over-simplify the artist whose work they critique or translate; their duty, in my view, is to illumine the full range (or as much as possible) of the artist’s techniques and angles of approach, their concerns and ways of expressing those concerns, their would-be dogmas and their off-the-leash contradictions, their moments of balanced perception and their slips onto a fóidín mearaí or cow pat of sexism or worse.
Ó Direáin was, as they say, a man of his time and also of his place (mid-twentieth-century, rural, Catholic Ireland) and he did not escape some of the then current attitudes: for example, the apparent, T. S. Eliot-like disdain at a lovely lady “stooping to folly,” etc. We see this in Ó Direáin’s important poem “Ár Ré Dhearóil” (“Our Wretched Era”), in which the poet takes (in places) a rather high tone and judgmental attitude towards some women or types of behavior. A modern reader is unlikely to agree with every word of that poem, to support every view or attitude in it, but I would hope that they would note that there is criticism of men in the same poem, and self-criticism, too: “A prisoner before me, / A prisoner behind me, / And I in the middle / A prisoner like all.” The modern reader (with a feminist focus) is likely to find interesting what Ó Direáin praises women for and criticizes them for, and what those things reveal about him as a writer and man of his time; of interest, too, I suspect, are his writing and thoughts regarding masculinity, including his own as a writer; his occasional but recurring fear that writing or art might be a feminine activity, making a male artist something of a “softy” or even a “sissy,” if you’ll forgive such a term. Such ideas have a history in twentieth-century Irish writing that goes back further than Ó Direáin: for example, Louis MacNeice wrote in the 1930s that “we [writers] envy men of action.” Such ideas or fears are linked to writers and artists pursuing their craft during or shortly after periods of war.
BOC: Ó Direáin was a trade unionist and a trade union official, and some of his poetry addresses strikes and labor disputes. To what extent do his political views color his poetry? In today’s world where would he stand on the political spectrum?
FS: In Ireland one first encounters Ó Direáin’s work while at school, studying for the Junior and Leaving Certificates or, in my case, for O-Levels (now GCSEs) and A-Levels. In my experience, the poet’s love for Irish tradition and, particularly, Aran Island customs were emphasized and “played up,” but there was no real mention of his admiration for left-wing thinkers and writers such as James Connolly, Sean O’Casey, or Heinrich Heine. But when you read for yourself Ó Direáin’s complete oeuvre (or even this Selected Poems), you find that he does have a small (but significant) number of poems about, or addressed to, such figures, expressing his admiration, most of all, for their humanity, their concern for the poor, and not just for themselves or their own reputation (see “O’Casey”). Also, some of his political poems have not been highlighted in the past in critiques of his work, for example, but this is changing with exciting new critics such as Síobhra Aiken coming to the fore.
Nevertheless, there’s often a question about the quality of overtly political poems by any writer: how aesthetically good are such poems? Do they fall into the trap of flat statement or of turning into rhetoric, as even W. B. Yeats worried? Probably, in Ó Direáin’s case (as with W. H. Auden, Yeats, and others), the best poems which contain a political element also contain other elements, including strong imagery, genuine personal engagement and feeling as well as thought, perhaps some self-questioning or self-examination, too. Two of the overtly political poems that stand out to me are “Mná na hAiséirí” (“The Women of the [Easter] Rising”) and “Trí Gháire” (“Three Laughs”). The first poem is very much a traditional praise-poem, honoring the courage and sacrifice of the often unsung women who fought for Irish freedom. It has the feel of an occasional poem and is likely to have been written around the fortieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. In formal meter, it is sincere in its praise but consciously and deliberately traditional in its imagery and diction. Therefore, it does not aim for originality in the way that, say, a contemporary Paul Muldoon poem would; it aims instead for an aesthetic of traditionalism. Yet it still is a very striking and important poem. I happened to be translating it around the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, when some poets in Ireland were suggesting that no male poet had written a poem celebrating the “women of the Rising.” Clearly, they had not read or heard of Ó Direáin’s poem by that very name. So it felt very timely to select, translate, and highlight that particular poem, a work which should be read alongside Yeats’ men-of-the Rising poem “Easter 1916.”
The other political poem which stands out for me is a forgotten Ó Direáin poem called “Trí Gháire” (“Three Laughs”) which provides one little scene or image that lingers in the mind of the reader: a coin is thrown down a muddy road by a middle-class school inspector and it is picked up by a poor young man (“an stócach”), while the reader is left with the perspective of each, the value that each one puts upon the “half crown.” The image resonates, in my view, more than, say, political commentary or argument would do. It resonates all the more when one considers that this might well be an autobiographical poem, especially as the young Ó Direáin was called by some on the island “An Stócach.”
BOC: The Aran Islanders like to quip that Ireland is an island off the coast of Aran. To what extent, if any, does Ó Direáin’s poetry transcend Ireland and the urban/rural divide? Can he be read as a poet of the diaspora, speaking to the emigrant’s dilemma on returning home to an imagined home, a home that no longer exists?
FS: Islanders say the same thing on Rathlin Island, near Ballycastle in Co. Antrim! I love that fresh angle of vision, the fact that it shifts our perspective which can become too capital-city based, too centralized.
Critics such as Eoghan Ó hAnluain have said that one reason why Ó Direáin’s poems were so popular in mid-twentieth-century Ireland was that while he was writing about his own personal sense of displacement, of being “stoite” (“uprooted” like a tree), his work chimed with the experience of millions of people in the Ireland of his day. He found unforgettable images for the pain of emigration and separation, their toll on families and communities: “is chímse fós gach máthair faoi chás / ag ceapadh a háil le dán a cuimhne” [“And still I see each bereft mother / Hold onto her children with the bond of memory”]. So, for me, his work does not seek to transcend the rural/urban divide but to explore it, find images for it, provide a way of seeing and saying it that rings true to his own experience and that of many other people.
But, yes, I think you’re right that he was a kind of internal exile within Ireland: an Irish speaker in a majority English-speaking Dublin, whose visits home increasingly suggested to him that the island he missed was an Árainn Mhór/Arranmore of the mind and memory more than the actual physical one in the Atlantic: “ó thosaigh na clocha glasa / Ag dul i gcruth brionglóide i m’aigne” (“since the grey stones started / Turning into dreams in my mind”), he writes in the fine poem “Berkeley,” referring to the bishop and philosopher, not the university. An immigrant reader from Puerto Rico or Cuba could easily identify or empathize with such a poem.
BOC: You mention that ever since Ó Direáin’s work was published, readers including poets such as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Celia de Fréine, Pól Ó Muirí, and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn admire his work—its sound, sense, memorability, and quotability. To what extent is Ó Direáin’s legacy present in the current crop of emerging poets?
FS: Ó Direáin certainly influenced the very next generation of poets, the INNTI generation. True to any new generation, they set off in their own directions away from the known point (including the known point of Ó Direáin’s work); but they carried the best elements of his poetry with them—the natural speech rhythms, the pursuit of strong and lasting images. Some of that INNTI generation of poets (including Michael Davitt) have written poems that namedrop Ó Direáin, that quote or allude to him. Cathal Ó Searcaigh has a poem called “An Fuascailteoir” (“The Liberator”) which credits Ó Direáin as a liberator of words from the “fortress of amnesia.” And I know from speaking to other contemporary poets such as de Fréine and Mac Lochlainn that Ó Direáin’s work has had an impact upon their writing. Pól Ó Muirí has written about this, too, in his journalism for The Irish Times.
Noticeably, some women writers have responded tangentially to Ó Direáin’s work: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, while living in Turkey and surrounded by the Turkish language, used to listen to recordings of Ó Direáin reading his poems, recordings which gave her goosebumps and which contributed to her return to Ireland and to writing poetry in Irish. Having said that, she does not share all of his views or his worries, for example, about being “stoite” or uprooted. In the generation after Ní Dhomhnaill, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn has spoken of his admiration for Ó Direáin’s diction, not just for its accuracy and range but for the sound and sensuousness of his word-choices: for example, the word “faoiseamh,” which sounds a bit like “fwee-sshivv” (a poor approximation). For Mac Lochlainn, that word sets a wind rustling in the forest of the mouth and sets the mouth watering for the very “rest” or “respite” that the word might translate (rather prosaically) as in English.
BOC: Daniela Thein has written of the similarities of Máirtin Ó Direáin and the Czech writer Bohuslav Reynek, but you see an affinity with Russian writers. Is this linkage thematic, stylistic, or linguistic?
FS: To a certain extent, literary critics compare poet X to poet Y (rather than Z), because they know the work of poet Y, but not the work of poet Z! To my shame, I don’t know the work of Bohuslav Reynek, but I like the way that critic Daniela Thein has led you, and now me, to Reynek via Ó Direáin. This is a reminder that while we are discussing specifically Irish literature, it is also world literature, and (as long as the evidence is in the work) we can genuinely make such comparisons. Ó Direáin said in interviews that he himself read widely, including French and Russian literature, some philosophy (including Nietzsche, Berdyaev, and Spengler) which “made [his] thoughts dance…” He was an internationalist in his reading and openness to influence. See, for example, the poem “Solas” (“Light”): “I never rejected light / From anywhere when it came; / But I ask the foreign light / Not to drown out my own.” So, for all those reasons, it seems appropriate that critics should compare his work with that of others, including perhaps a Czech author writing in the shadow of the Russian empire and language.
As for the nature of Ó Direáin’s links with Russian literature, some of it has to do with a worldwide interest in Russia during the 1930s. Ó Direáin was attracted to left-wing politics and so was naturally curious about Russian society, history, and culture, including the poet Alexander Blok. But his interest might just as well have been highly personal: Blok wrote of the poet not being able to survive because of “lack of air.” Ó Direáin (to an extent) felt the same way, being an Irish-language poet in an Anglicized, not-past-the-post-colonial country. Of course, that “lack of air” takes on a more visceral meaning when one thinks of Black Lives today.
BOC: Síobhra Aiken recently curated an exhibition entitled Máirtín Ó Direáin: Fathach File/Reluctant Modernist. What specifically marks Ó Direáin as a modernist poet?
FS: I’ve written about this in the chapter on Ó Direáin in my monograph Modern Irish Poetry: A New Alhambra, where I suggest that what makes him modernist (and Dr. Aiken is right that he’s in some ways reluctantly so) is that he is caught up in what Marshall Berman calls the maelstrom-like “experience of modernity,” a modernity to which he often responds with “cultural despair.” It would be easy, too easy, to conclude that he is not willing, flexible, or imaginative enough to embrace modern city life, to even see the “beauty in this vast organism grown out of us” (as Louis MacNiece puts it); but one should (in my view) take into account that Ó Direáin was writing in a minority/minoritized language in danger of being “drowned out” and shouted down by the all-consuming, imperial language that is English. There was good reason for him to feel cultural despair in a partly independent Ireland still traumatized by colonialism, anti-Irish racism, and consequent self-loathing.
But on the other hand, and in some ways, he was a modernist writer who shifted Irish-language poetry towards free verse and natural speech rhythms; and he did that partly under international influences which he did embrace: for example, the poetry and essays of T. S. Eliot, which he often quoted from memory and in English, including when he was writing or speaking in Irish. He also found or forged in Irish a language and store of images that could reflect post-colonial unease as well as his own modern experience of life around him; and his experience as an islander in the city is just as valid as any other person’s experience. One might not fully agree or be comfortable with some of his comments or attitudes, for example, his briefly held hope (born of despair) for a great male savior, a “fear de mo chine fáin” (“a man of my own exiled stock”) in the poem “Cloch Choirnéil” (“Cornerstone”); but many other of his poems give light and hope, celebrating the underdog, the disregarded, including “Fear Lasta Lampaí—Gaillimh 1928” (“The Lamplighter—Galway 1928”), a poem that provides an image that befits the poet himself. Above all he showed that there could be modern poetry in Irish, something which some critics doubted in mid-twentieth-century Ireland before Ó Direáin began publishing his work.
BOC: What was the greatest challenge in translating these poems, in getting the tone right?
FS: To get the tone or voice as “right” as possible in the target language is, perhaps, always the greatest challenge when translating anyone’s work, especially a lot of their work. I had to immerse myself in Ó Direáin’s writing, to listen to interviews with him, to read his essays… Part of the challenge was that he is a man of a different era. He wore suits, drank sherry, tended to be serious, worried about sounding or seeming “foolish,” valued silence, tradition, the underdog. He had all that in common with many people who “move up from the country” to the city and are unduly sensitive about being self-educated rather than university-educated. I also knew from previously studying and critiquing his work that certain ideas were important to him: integrity, dignity, for example. I knew his voice was very different, say, from the sometimes playful voice of a contemporary poet such as Cathal Ó Searcaigh, whose work I have also translated. But all the clues, the tips, the leads to follow are always there in the original work. So, for example, paying careful attention to Ó Direáin’s rhythms was one of the things that helped me to find a voice in English similar to his voice in the original poems.
One example is the famous poem “Dínit an Bhróin” (“The Dignity of Grief”). The rhythm in the original poem is that of natural speech but it also has three stressed syllables in every line, just as there are three main points of focus throughout the whole poem: the pair of women, the crowd, and dignity. Luckily for me as a translator, the target language (English) allowed me (in this particular case) to “stay true” to the original’s rhythm. And the tone followed partly from that and partly from following also the naturalness, the conversational style of the original. But there is also a slightly formal, slightly arch tone in the original, for example, in the hint of disdain for the “slua callánach mór.” And that note, that element of the tone persuaded me to use, in my translation, some slightly antiquated diction such as “loud, vulgar throng.” Ó Direáin’s poem is free verse but there are recurring rhymes or echoing o-sounds, which I also tried to mirror on the page and echo in the ear of the target-language reader.
Perhaps the lines that gave me the greatest trouble (as a translator) were the famous opening two: “nochtaíodh domsa tráth / dínit mhór an bhróin,” which in translation are frequently reversed along these lines: “grief’s great dignity / was revealed to me once.” But I allowed myself to stay even closer to the original: “Laid bare to me once / was grief’s great dignity.” I was aware that the word order was slightly archaic, slightly formal, etc., but in this case, those very factors fitted or suited, in my view, the poet and the poem. Furthermore, Ó Direáin begins his poem and first line with a verb derived from the adjective “nocht,” meaning naked or bare; and he starkly contrasts that initial nakedness/laying bare with the mourning clothes of the two women and the noisy materialism that the crowd are wrapped up in. Consequently, the revelation or laying bare is of foremost importance, which seems to be why he places it first in his poem, persuading me to do the same in my translation; something I probably would not do (as a translator) for another poet or poem.
BOC: How do you describe your approach to this poet and these poems as translator?
FS: Above all, I hope it was respectful. His aesthetic seemed largely based on crafting lines that balanced the naturalness of speech with the demands and potential of the poetic line; so I tried to mirror and/or echo that in the translations into English. Each poem had its own challenges with the target language proving more or less stubborn or permissive from line to line and poem to poem. As a translator, you have a few masters ruling over you: the original poem, the target language, and the genre itself. You always hope that the end product reads like a poem or as close to one as possible. No translation of a poem can “carry across” everything that is in the original, but it is worthwhile carrying across as much as possible. The alternative (of not producing or reading translations) could be complete silence and ignorance, never finding out anything of what has been, or is being, written elsewhere in Cornish or Navajo or Greek, etc.
BOC: Which poem presented the greatest challenge as a translator? Is there any translation which you think the poet himself might be particularly pleased with?
FS: It’s hard to recall which translation presented the greatest challenge. Many of them were difficult, and most involved multiple drafts. Writing poems (and perhaps even poems in translation) has been compared to giving birth, including by Ó Ríordáin and Ó Direáin. Any mother would disagree, however, and rightly so. But, metaphorically speaking, there’s often a difficult linguistic and technical or metrical birth with each poem or translated poem. Sometimes there were tonal difficulties linked to generation or writing era, a degree of formality in the original, as I mentioned before regarding “Dínit an Bhróin” (“The Dignity of Grief”), which I had to adjust to. Sometimes there were difficulties linked to dialect. Ó Direáin was a native speaker of Connacht Irish, while my school- and community-learnt Irish is in the Ulster dialect and, in particular, the Belfast variety. So, for example, I almost translated the poem title “Gasúir” as “Boys” when, in Connacht Irish, it means “Children,” which I had forgotten but which suits the poem far better. I was saved from a few errors of that kind by having some contact with an Aran Island Irish speaker.
There are other Aran-specific terms and concepts which I would have found obscure and tricky to translate if I had not been able to consult Ón Ulán Ramhar Siar: Máirtín Ó Direáin ag Caint ar Chúlra Saoil cuid dá Dhánta, ed. by Eoghan Ó hAnluain (2002): for example, the term “pota ar leith” [space for one’s own cooking pot?] in the poem “Gleic Mo Dhaoine” (“My People’s Struggle”). Perhaps I should have footnoted and glossed this term but I chose, in this instance, to try to clarify the meaning within the text of my translation: “making room for a family of my own,” with the hinted sense (in the context) of “making a room.” I took a risk there, emphasizing clarity regarding the sociological meaning, and thereby losing some of the metaphorical richness. In any translation, there can be losses, but hopefully (as Salman Rushdie has said) more is gained overall than is lost. In that poem, what I couldn’t lose, I thought, was clarity of meaning in the stanza as a whole.
One last example is the long and impressive poem “Ó Mórna,” thought by some critics to be the poet’s most sustained achievement. It’s a powerful poem about a reckless, drunken, and highly abusive landlord. In the poem, Ó Direáin seems to partly empathize with the landlord (as an outsider) or, at least, he expresses some small degree of sympathy. This was puzzling for me and demanded an extension of my own capacity to be understanding, to keep in mind (as the poem requests) all the factors that drove the landlord to his monstrous behavior. Ó Direáin, as a poet, shows more understanding towards Ó Mórna than I was capable of. So, as a translator, I had to stay as “true” as possible (to the original) politically as well as in the usual linguistic and aesthetic ways.
BOC: A final question. What is his literary status at present? With the emergence of the INNTI generation and subsequent generations, has he suffered a reduction in status or is he still a “major” poet?
FS: Ó Direáin remains a highly important figure, who made a unique contribution to Irish literature in general, specifically Irish-language literature of the mid-twentieth century. He was very, maybe too, aware of his own limitations and he publicly welcomed (in speeches and essays) other writers, encouraging the next generation to go further, to go beyond what he himself had achieved. Subsequent poets have responded to his work and legacy. At times, our image of him has contracted, “by distance simplified” him too much. His work continues to inspire critical debate and reinterpretation. This bilingual Selected Poems from WFU Press will hopefully draw even more readers toward Ó Direáin’s work and to the questions and issues that arise from it. International readers and critics from diverse cultural backgrounds are likely to find interesting resonances and chimes with their own experience and national literatures.
Often called “Ireland’s unacknowledged poet laureate,” Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910–1988) was one of the foremost poets of the Irish language in the 20th century. Born and raised on Inis Mór, he grew up speaking Irish only. He later lived in Galway and Dublin and worked as a civil servant. Pól Ó Muirí, writing in the Irish Times, said that Ó Direáin “is part of the founding trinity of contemporary poetry in Irish … who gave voice to a new sensibility, whose work struck a chord with readers.”
Selected Poems/Rogha Dánta by Máirtín Ó Direáin, selected and translated by Frank Sewell, was released in the US by WFU Press on September 1, 2020.