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Dirt, Disease and the Body in Seán Ó Ríordáin’s Eireaball Spideoige

La saleté, la maladie et le corps dans Eireaball Spideoige par Seán Ó Ríordáin
Máirtín Coilféir
p. 95-114

Résumés

Reconnu depuis longtemps comme une voix importante de la littérature irlandaise moderne, Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916-1977) est célèbre pour la complexité de son approche de la poésie. Après avoir expliqué le processus créatif dans la préface de son premier recueil, Eireaball Spideoige (1952), Ó Ríordáin a continué pendant les décennies suivantes à développer un vocabulaire métaphorique distinct visant à décrire la composition, s’appuyant sur le langage du culte religieux, de la philosophie et de l’anthropologie. Un aspect important mais sous-étudié de ce vocabulaire est constitué de la dyade de base entre le sale et le propre, ainsi que des notions qui lui sont liées selon Ó Ríordáin : malade / sain, pollué / pur, séculier / sacré. On peut penser que la négociation de ces idées, souvent appliquées au corps humain, est essentielle à la compréhension que le poète a de son propre art.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo [1966], London – Ne (...)

If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system.1

  • 2 The heralding of Ó Ríordáin as a significant voice in both modern and modernist (“nua-aimseartha” a (...)
  • 3 For a highly detailed account of Ó Ríordáin’s life and work, including his diagnosis and subsequent (...)
  • 4 For a first-hand account of the fallout of diagnosis, published during his lifetime, see Seán Ó Río (...)
  • 5 Ó Ríordáin’s corpus is generally divided into three genres: his poetry, his articles and interviews (...)
  • 6 For a reading of Ó Ríordáin’s treatment of pain via Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978), see (...)

1British anthropologist Mary Douglas’s pithy description of dirt, first published in her 1966 volume Purity and Danger, collocates three concepts that help illuminate the writing of her contemporary, the major modernist poet of the Irish language, Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916-1977).2 Firstly, by way of contrasting “the old definition of dirt”, Douglas makes explicit two aspects of a paradigm now dominant in Western thought. Dirt is, she argues, commonly indexed to disease and to biological corruption, particularly in the context of the vulnerability of the human body (“pathogenicity”). At the same time, it is negatively associated with health, cleaning and cleansing – again, primarily in a biological, anthropocentric, context (“hygiene”). That these twin, near antonymic, reference points of pathogenicity and hygiene are to the fore in popular understandings of dirt is, for Douglas, a modern development; for Ó Ríordáin, the modern writer, pathogenicity and hygiene were to become vexed reference points in everyday life. Diagnosed with respiratory tuberculosis in 1938,3 from early adulthood the poet’s own body was host to an adaptive and contagious pathogen. His biological compromise affected him physically, socially, psychologically and creatively, resulting not only in bouts of illness and intense pain, but in isolation (in a sanatorium and at home), financial stress, anxiety over relationships both sexual and platonic, as well as the burden of stigma in the wider community.4 As he negotiated the experiences and consequences of disease and its countermeasures in his professional and personal life, in his writing5 Ó Ríordáin would also investigate the metaphorical potential of sickness, health and cleanliness to multiple ends.6

2For Douglas, the anthropologist, the weight lent to the pathogenic and the hygienic in the popular imaginary is of secondary importance. The true aim of interrogating definitions of dirt, and the third of her concepts that is relevant to Ó Ríordáin’s work, is the revelation of the cognitive structure that is invariably at work beneath, the “system” that parses certain phenomena as clean, pure or healthy and others as dirty, polluted or sick. Dirt and its paradigmatic chains are, in Douglas’s view, products of social construction, flexible configurations of positive and negative that can vary greatly across cultures, but which usually reflect a decipherable, if not always readily apparent, value system. Dirt suggests classification, which in turn suggests a logic of distinction.

  • 7 The centrality of oppositional pairs to Ó Ríordáin’s thought was established as a critical touchsto (...)
  • 8 Tadhg Ó Dúshláine dubs the foreword “an réamhaiste is cáiliúla sa NuaGhaeilge ar fad, lasmuigh den (...)

3Taking Douglas’s “suggestive approach” as a point of departure, this essay argues that dynamic conceptualisations of dirt, disease and the compromised body, as well as their obverse,7 play an important yet understudied role in Ó Ríordáin’s philosophy of poetry. Often expressed through figures of incorporation, Ó Ríordáin’s meditations on the dyads of dirty / clean, sick / healthy and polluted / pure – both as rhetorical devices and as subjects of enquiry in their own right – offer a novel perspective on his own literary system. These meditations find their fullest treatment in the most important document of poetics in the literature of Modern Irish, the foreword to his first collection, Eireaball Spideoige [A Robin’s Tail] (1952),8 and are taken up, with varying degrees of explicitness, in a number of the subsequent poems. This essay, then, proposes a re-reading of Eireaball Spideoige with a view to elucidating both the prominence and the interconnectedness of dirt, disease and body in the poet’s thought. Prioritising the internal “logic” or conceptual cohesion of the collection over external theoretical frameworks, the method adopted is, broadly speaking, formalist: an exegesis of Ó Ríordáin’s complex introduction is first offered to establish the key rubrics of interpretation; these are then used as hermeneutic reference points for an analysis of the volume’s poems.

4That disease, the body and poetry are all linked in Ó Ríordáin’s thought is made explicit in the opening lines of Eireaball Spideoige. Ó Ríordáin begins by formulating the foundational mystery of his art; by way of solution, he advances a series of singular metaphors, both interrogative and hypothetical:

  • 9 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá” [“Introduction”], in Eireaball Spideoige, Baile Átha Cliath, Sáirséal ag (...)

Cad is filíocht ann? Aigne linbh? Samhlaigh beirt i seomra, leanbh agus a athair, agus capall ag gabháil na sráide lasmuigh. Féachann an t-athair amach agus adeir: “Sin capall X Uasail ag dul ar an aonach.” Sin insint. Do réir dealraimh cailleann an t-athair an capall toisc go bhfanann sé lasmuigh dhe. Abair gur galar capall. Ní thógann an t-athair an galar sin.9

  • 10 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann? / What is poetry? Seán Ó Ríordáin’s Original Introduction to (...)

What is poetry? Is it a child’s mind? Imagine two people in a room, a child and his father, while a horse is passing by outside. The father looks out and says, “That’s X’s horse going to the fair.” In this case he is telling. It seems as though the father loses the horse because it remains outside of him. Say that the horse is a disease. The father does not catch the disease.10

  • 11 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 9.
  • 12 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 231.

5In Ó Ríordáin’s conceit the horse / disease stands in for the poetic subject, while the child’s “catching” of it represents the poet’s (idealised) imaginative ability to fully integrate with the essence of that subject. At its zenith, Ó Ríordáin envisions the poet’s empathy with the subject overwhelming to the point of coalescence, the two entities giving rise to a new, composite, form of existence. This type of generative communion with another he sees as a particularly potent source of inspiration, equating it in the first paragraph with the concept or the quality of poetry (“filíocht”), if not necessarily with its manifestation in verse form (“dán”): “Sin bheith – bheith fé ghné eile. Agus sin, dar liom, filíocht11 [“That is being – being in the guise of something else. And that, it seems to me, is poetry”].12 In this initial description, the poetic moment and the pathogen are framed as being of a kind: both are externalities ready to be absorbed into the poet, both are capable of altering his constitution, his mode of existence.

6Taken in isolation, the metaphorical set of horse, child and disease go some way towards narrativising aspects of the poet’s understanding of composition. That set is, however, only one of a number of configurations that Ó Ríordáin uses to describe the poetic process in his foreword – three paragraphs later in his discussion the poet returns to his fundamental question and offers, if not a wholly different answer, a different articulation of the same idea:

  • 13 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 12.

Cá bhfios do dhuine ar scríobh sé líne filíochta riamh? Cá bhfios dó cad is filíocht ann? […] Ach is minic a bhraitheas gnó neamhchoiteann a bheith idir lámha agam agus mé á gcumadh [.i. a chuid dánta féin]; gnó seachas scríbhneoireacht nó ceapadóireacht, gnó a bhí níos comhgaraí do ghlanadh.13

  • 14 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 233.

So how does a person know if he has ever written a line of poetry? How does he know what poetry even is? […] I’ve often felt that composing poetry was an unusual task – an activity which isn’t writing or shaping, but is closer to cleaning.14

  • 15 These are some of the many entries in Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla [Irish-English Dictionary], Niall Ó Dó (...)

7The final word in the Irish passage, “ghlanadh”, translated here as “cleaning”, is an important one in Ó Ríordáin’s lexicon. Its root form, glan, covers a range of related meanings as verb, noun and adjective: to clean, to cleanse, to clear, to clear up; cleanness, a clean people or group (as collective noun), a clearing; and, as descriptors, clean, clear, pure, bright, free from dirt, well-made, complete.15 Indeed, in the context of English-language translation and criticism, it bears emphasising that, in Ó Ríordáin’s poetry and prose, there is no “clean”, no “pure” – there is only the polysemous glan and its derivatives, bringing together various adjacent concepts under the same lexeme. That glan is a point of convergence in the elaborate network of Ó Ríordáin’s poetics is exemplified in the same passage; he connects the image of his cleaning back to the body and disease:

  • 16 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 12.

Measaim go rabhas i riocht duine a bheadh ag glanadh meirge no clúimh léith d’íomháigh agus ag lorg agus ag athnuachaint na bundeilbhe – ag lorg grinneall-dhromchla. Má cuirtear an glanadh seo, an tóch seo, i gcomórtas le casachtaigh le linn slaghdáin, is féidir an bhundealbh a shamhlú le scamhóig.16

  • 17 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 233.

I’d say that I was like someone who was cleaning [glanadh] rust or mildew off of a statue, searching for and renewing the basic image – searching for bedrock. If we compare this idea of cleaning or digging to the coughing which accompanies a cold, then it is possible to understand the basic image as a lung.17

  • 18 In fact, Ó Ríordáin’s “fuath” or hatred for his own work is mentioned in the same foreword, p. 12. (...)
  • 19 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 13.
  • 20 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 234.

8The fact that Ó Ríordáin could never fully clear his own lungs with a salutary cough suggests the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of his knowing whether the poem is worthy of the name – certainly the self-criticism in his diary entries reveals dissatisfaction with much of his published work.18 Yet, whether successful or not in its end, the endeavour of authentic composition necessitates a kind of spiritual engagement, an effort at transcendence beyond the matrix of the everyday. To plot this transcendence Ó Ríordáin draws on the vocabulary of religious worship, with particular importance given to “paidir” or “prayer”, a term he uses to describe how a thing’s essence actually manifests in this world, how it is presented to the mind (or to the imagination) of the viewer. While undoubtedly complicating an already contrived schema, Ó Ríordáin’s reference of theology allows him to introduce another important figure of incorporation that he will use to explicate his thoughts on poetry: the resurrection of Christian faith. The ideal of the risen body he styles as the most complete articulation of an individual’s essence, what he calls “ár bpaidir foirfe”,19 “our perfect prayer”.20 In the foreword to Eireaball Spideoige, the immaculate body of Christian eschatology is not merely a metaphor for the poet’s proper pursuit; it is, in itself, a flawless expression, the ultimate act of composition and communication. It, too, is defined by “glaine”, a purity or cleanliness that is possible to conceive of only in the abstract but which will, at the final hour, receive its physical embodiment:

  • 21 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 16-17.

Measaim go mbeidh glaine an rud teibí agus téagar an rud neamhtheibí sa chorp iarmbreithiúnais agus gurb í an ghlaine a shantaíonn an rud neamhtheibí agus gurb é an téagar a shantaíonn an rud teibí nuair a théann siad ag cuairteoireacht chun a chéile.21

  • 22 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 236-237.

I’d imagine that the purity of the abstract thing and the substance of the concrete thing will be in the post-judgement body, and it is the concrete thing which covets the purity and the abstract thing which covets the substance when they encounter each other.22

9By this strained series of comparisons, Ó Ríordáin’s account arrives at an equation of the mortal body, our body, with the more imperfect “prayers” that are perceptible in the here and now. These temporal incorporations are the stuff of poetry that were posited at the beginning of his introduction; these reveal the essential nature of a thing with which the child-poet can then commune:

  • 23 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 13-14.

Leagan dár bpaidir is ea an corp cré atá umainn. Ní beo-leagan é ach leagan lochtach, leagan atá faon, trom, truaillithe, neamhdhírithe […] Ach is féidir linn paidir níos glaine ná an corp cré a rá agus sinn ar an saol seo. Is féidir linn sinn féin d’ardú mar thúis i láthair Dé trí mhaireachtaint i ngníomh oiriúnach. Is é an gníomh seo ár bpaidir sa chéill is glaine agus sinn ar an saol seo, agus ní bheadh aon ionadh orm dá mba réamh-insint (nó réamh-mhaireachtaint, ba chruinne a rá) é ar an gcorp a bheidh umainn sa tsíoraíocht.23

  • 24 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 234.

And the clay body which we possess is a version of our prayer. It isn’t a living version, but a faulty version, a version which is weak, heavy, polluted, and misdirected. […] Nevertheless, while we are living we are able to say a prayer purer [níos glaine] than our clay body. We are able to raise ourselves like incense before God by living within an appropriate action. While living, this action is the purest [is glaine] state of our prayer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a pre-telling (or a pre-existing, to be more precise) of the body which we will have in eternity.24

  • 25 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 17.
  • 26 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 237.

10While Ó Ríordáin’s discussion of prayer here draws only on embodiment and glaine, the examples he uses to demonstrate his theory once again figure disease as the third co-ordinate in a triangular model of thought. Expounding on the nature of “eternity”, for example, he makes a pointed note that abstract concepts will also find concrete form there. This leads him to admit, with some ambivalence, that illness itself will become incorporate: “ní mór dom corp síoraí agus ionad sa tsíoraíocht a thabhairt do rudaí mar ghalair25 [“I must give an eternal body and a place in eternity to things like diseases”].26 Indeed, even when speculating on this inherently flawed plane of mortal existence, Ó Ríordáin’s first example of prayer-making is telling:

  • 27 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 16.

Nuair a thiteann duine i mbreoiteacht nó i naofacht nó i bhfeirg, tagann an rud ina dtiteann sé ag paidreoireacht ina theampall agus cloistear ann an phian nó an salm, nó an racht is oiriúnach dá staid.27

  • 28 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 236.

When a person falls into a state of illness or holiness or anger, that state prays at his temple, and there you can hear the pain or the psalm or the fit which is appropriate to his condition.28

11Like the body of the resurrection, Ó Ríordáin’s temporal prayers are also measured according to their glaine. Having now explained his idea of paidir, towards the end of the introduction he loops back to a point made some eight pages earlier, re-emphasising the cleanness / purity of the poetic subject and drawing it towards the figure of the body:

  • 29 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 20.

Cad é an bhundealbh áthasach úd, an dromchla úd ar a rabhas ag labhairt? Is é paidir chruaidh ghlan dhealfa an ruda ar a ndéanaimid machnamh é. Ball de shníodóireacht na fírinne seachas sinn féin é. Réamhbhlaiseadh ar an nglaine foirme a bheidh máguaird sa tsíoraíocht é – corp de choirp na síoraíochta.29

  • 30 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 239. A more literal translation might read “purity of (...)

What is the basic joyous image, the bedrock of which I was speaking? It is the hard, pure [ghlan], elegant prayer of the thing which we contemplate – a part of the sculpturing of truth beyond ourselves. A pre-tasting of the pure form [nglaine foirme] which will be surrounding us in eternity as one of the bodies of eternity.30

  • 31 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, in Eireaball Spideoige, 2nd ed., Baile Átha Cliath, Sáirséal Ó Marcaigh (...)
  • 32 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 240.
  • 33 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 24.
  • 34 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 242.

12One curious aspect of Ó Ríordáin’s lengthy exposition is how little he discusses the actual writing process – the construction of the poem, the employment of form and metre, the experimentation with language. In the foreword it is the recognition of the poetic quality that takes his attention; once the poet is attuned to the form of the “paidir”, he assures us, “Tá sé chomh fuirist, geall leis, focail a chur ar an bhfoirm seo agus a bheadh sé veist a chur ar leanbh31 [“It is almost as easy to put this form into words as it would be to put a vest on a child”].32 The final sections shed little light on the role of “cruinneas foirme” [“precision of form”] or “traidisiún uile an fhile” [“the whole tradition of the poet”] in his poetics, beyond presenting them as bullet points in the list of things “a chím i bhfilíocht33 [“that I see in poetry”].34 Yet the poet’s reticence on craftsmanship merely directs us back to the chief concern of his essay: the priming of a 1950s readership for his own novel approach to subject matter – chief among which we number the triumvirate currently under discussion. While the body, disease and dirt are far from the only themes Ó Ríordáin takes up in Eireaball Spideoige, foregrounding his multifaceted understanding of them allows not just for a more sensitive reading of individual poems, but for the tracing of paths of connection throughout the collection.

13The significance of embodiment to the volume as a whole, for example, might be detected in the untitled, italicised work that immediately succeeds the foreword. Couched in the classical rhetorical device of captatio benevolentiae in which the author laments the weakness of his writing, the cerebral preferences of academia are contrasted with the primary concern of this book, “bualadh croí” [“the beating heart”]:

  • 35 Seán Ó Ríordáin, untitled, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 26. The three-stanza poem is listed as “Seo L (...)

Má chastar libh fear léinn sa tslí,
Bhur rún ná ligidh leis, bhur sians,
Ní dá leithéid a cumadh sibh:
Tá baint agaibh le bualadh croí
Ar chuma an éinín bheannaithe.
35

  • 36 The poem is titled and translated by Frank Sewell in Seán Ó Ríordáin, Selected Poems… as “Seo Libh (...)

Now if an expert crosses your path,
don’t betray your song or secret.
Not designed for the likes of him,
you’re on the side of the beating heart,
the same wing as the holy spirit.36

  • 37 For feoil (flesh / meat) and corp (body), see “Ualach na Beatha”, p. 34; “Domhnach na Cásca”, p. 74 (...)
  • 38 For fuil (blood), cac (shit) and seile (spit), see “An Leigheas”, p. 29; “Ní Raibh Sí Dílis”, p. 38 (...)
  • 39 For dall (blind) and daille (blindness), see “An Dall sa Studio”, p. 28; “An Doircheacht”, p. 42; “ (...)
  • 40 Bás (death), pian (pain) and related concepts are to be found in “An Cheist”, p. 31; “Torann agus T (...)

14This association that Ó Ríordáin makes between biological body and body of poetry is played out in Eireaball Spideoige in multiple ways. At the most rudimentary level, many of the individual poems contain references to flesh, organs and limbs;37 bodily functions and fluids;38 physical and physiological afflictions;39 corporal suffering and decay or death.40 Perhaps the most frequently deployed of these tropes is one already seen: croí, meaning “heart”, occurs a total of thirty-nine times across the fifty-four poems, inflected to the point of exhaustion by the poet’s grammar. As if all possible forms of its representation were being measured, the word is found bare, lenited and elided; as nominative, accusative, dative and genitive; and qualified by the possessive adjective in the first, second and third person. Indeed, so intensively is the corporeal imagery worked in Eireaball Spideoige that the body might usefully be read as book’s central and unifying figure, the physiological its dominant paradigm.

  • 41 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Roithleán”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 53. In Seán Ó Ríordáin, Selected Poems…, C (...)
  • 42 My own literal translation.
  • 43 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cuireadh”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 44.
  • 44 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Invitation”, Celia de Fréine’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 25.
  • 45 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 67.
  • 46 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, Paul Muldoon’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 69.

15For all of their number, many of the references to the body are straightforwardly denotative or idiomatic. When not, they often serve a highly legible metonymic or metaphorical function – “cnead na maidne im chluais41 [“the morning’s sigh in my ear”],42 for example, being used to suggest the narrator’s own exhaustion, or “bímse chomh dall le dlíodóir43 [“I am as blind as a barrister”]44 to describe ignorance, or “Mo chuid fola ar fiuchadh le neart45 [“my blood boldly running its course”]46 to convey resolve. Some poems, however, offer particularly salient instances of the body-as-writing trope and can be noted here among the clearest expressions of an important pattern.

  • 47 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Dán”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 113.
  • 48 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “A Poem”, Colm Breathnach’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 117.

16In “Dán” [“A Poem”], the subtitle – “blúire de dhán fada”47 [“an excerpt from a long poem”48] presumably unfinished or unpublished – immediately sets the work in the context of the compositional process. The main text re-enforces the theme by taking as its subject writerly aspiration, while the self-referentiality is presented in terms of the reproductive cycle:

  • 49 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Dán”, p. 113.

Mar thoircheas i mbroinn
Bíodh an bhéarsa seo a chím,
Ní iarraim ach a iompar
Idir an dá linn.
49

  • 50 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “A Poem”, p. 117.

Let this verse that I see be
in the womb like a pregnancy
all I ask is to carry it
in the interim.50

  • 51 The title of this poem was amended in the second edition to “A Sheanfhilí, Múinídh Dom Glao”, the p (...)

17A similar framework of imagery lies behind “A Sheanfhilí, Múin Dom an Glao”51 [“Old Poets, Teach Me the Call”]. The figure for the conception of inspiration is, again, the womb, the poem itself the infant. The poem’s hermeneutic key is rendered virtually unmissable in the original by the repetition of the word corp, meaning “body”, translated variously by Colm Breathnach:

  • 52 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “A Sheanfhilí, Múin Dom an Glao”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 36.

Tá aisling ann, is is eol dom í,
Ag fiuchadh i mbroinn mo shamhlaíochta,
Lasair gheal gan chorp mar ghaoith,
Is corp oiriúnach á impí aici,
Abhar linbh í ag santú saoil,
Bean mé nach maighdean is nach máthair,
A sheanfhilí, múin dom an glao
A mheallfadh corp dom shamhailt-gharlach.
52

  • 53 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Old Poets, Teach Me the Call”, Colm Breathnach’s translation in Selected Poems…, (...)

There is a vision, that I know well,
simmering in the womb of my imagination,
a bright flame without substance [chorp], a breath,
pleading for an appropriate shape [corp],
this potential child, eager to be born.
I am a woman, neither virgin nor mother;
old poets, teach me the call
that will bring form [corp] to my imagined urchin.53

18Perhaps the most intriguing example of the poet’s fascination with the human body is, however, to be found in “Scagadh”. Translated succinctly by Sewell as “Sifting”, the verbal noun of the title is capacious, denoting not just the physical act of filtering but also a conceptual or intellectual separating out, a critical examination, a parsing. Here the unrelenting gaze of the amorous speaker dissects the body of his “love” into its component parts. The poem is a veritable catalogue of limbs and atomised features, punctuated by the same final long vowel sound and finally brought to a close in a bathetic couplet:

  • 54 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Scagadh”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 110.

Tá cloigeann scagtha ar mo ghrá,
Is foirm scagtha a corp iomlán,
Mar scag an intinn smaoineamh lán
Ó smaointe ag líonadh is ag trá,
Do scagas ceann is cos mo ghrá,
Is glún is cíoch is dul a cnámh,
Is labhairt a béil, is intinn ard,
Ó gach a bhfuil díobh siúd ag mná
          Is nuair bhí sí scagtha d’fhág sí slán,
          Is d’imigh uaim le scag-leannán.
54

  • 55 This is my own literal translation, mired in the difficulty of rendering the titular verb, scag, in (...)

My love has a sifted head
Her entire body is a sifted form
Because the mind sifted a full thought
From thoughts flowing and ebbing,
I sifted the head and foot of my love,
And the knee and the breast and the shape of her bones,
And the speech of her mouth, and her high mind,
From all of those that [other] women have
          And when she had been sifted she bade goodbye,
          And went away from me with a sift-lover.55

  • 56 Perhaps relevant here is Ó Ríordáin’s own explanation of the emergence of the poem: “Do chorraigh a (...)

19Largely undiscussed by critics, perhaps the primary merit of “Scagadh” lies in the unusual parallels that it suggests between human form and poetic form. Although it is ostensibly predicated on a sense of possessive, and failed, lust, read against Ó Ríordáin’s foreword, the invasively close inspection of the body assumes the quality of an exercise in composition.56 The speaker’s scrutiny in examining the object of his desire not just corresponds to, but effects, the poet’s attention to detail when treating of his subject – the thoroughness of the “scagadh” reflects the full commitment to the “paidir” that is needed to produce an authentic poem. The unsettling voracity of the male viewer reminds us that, in Ó Ríordáin’s philosophy, engagement with the other is to approach totality, consumption, integration. Indeed, recalling that he employs figures of the body to describe his sources of inspiration, his “prayers”, the subject matter of “Scagadh” suggests its own self-reflexivity.

20In the sense that “Scagadh” is a composition that evokes its author’s own theory of composition, it has at least one clear partner in Eireaball Spideoige. In “Paidreoireacht” [“Praying”], the narrator finds himself caught between feelings of terror and courage in the middle of the night. The intensity of these two impulses results in both assuming their eternal form, an embodiment, which is finally set in contrast to the vulnerability of the speaker’s own heart:

Is do dhúisigh mo mhisneach
As codladh teibí,
Is do mhúnlaigh go hionraic
A cholainn shíoraí
Nuair d’iompair sé an sceimhle
Trí chnocaibh mo chroí.

  • 57 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Paidreoireacht”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 108-109.

Is do dhúisigh an sceimhle
As sceimhleacht theibí,
Is do ghnóthaigh sé meáchan
Is colainn shíoraí,
Is do luigh sé a mheáchan
Ar thalamh mo chroí
Ar ghuaille mo mhisnigh
I ndeireadh mo chroí.
57

And my courage woke
From an abstract sleep,
And moulded with honesty
Its eternal body
When it carried the terror
Through the hills of my heart.

  • 58 My own literal translation.

And the terror woke
From an abstract terror-ness,
And it gained weight
And an eternal body,
And it leaned its weight
On the ground of my heart,
On the shoulder of my courage
At the end of my heart.58

  • 59 Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin…, p. 133-134.
  • 60 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Éadochas”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 103.

21As the connotative functions of the body expand to include aspects of composition, so composition and the body become intertwined with tropes of disease and health, dirt and cleanliness. In “Éadóchas” [“Despair”], Ó Ríordáin brings disease, and the figure of the body it so often implies, to bear on the art of writing. Artfully contextualised by Ó Coileáin as the poet’s response to his own sense of infirmity in the aftermath of his mother’s death,59 the maternal figure is present only metonymically as a “lámh […] á lobhadh” [“a hand […] rotting”], while the author’s self-styling as “[c]ruiteachán” [“hunchback”],60 betokens his compromised state. Seven stanzas of a vague, at times cryptic, sense of dread give way to the final quatrain, Ó Ríordáin’s most overt signalling of the relationship he sees between writing and illness:

  • 61 Ibid., p. 104.

Tá an dán fite fuaite den tinneas,
          Is muintir an eolais á mheas,
Is eol dóibh an locht is an binneas,
          Ach an tinneas, cé dhéanfadh a mheas?
61

  • 62 My own literal translation.

The poem is woven of sickness,
          And the learned are assessing it,
The know the flaw and the sweetness,
          But the illness, who will assess it?62

22A more subtle coupling of writing with sick body is achieved in “Siollabadh” [“Syllabication”]. Here the effect begins with Ó Ríordáin’s use of the word cuisle, which can denote a vein, a pulse, a forearm, or the regular beat of blood flow whose rhythm is sometimes approximated in certain metrical feet, as well as in the alternating stresses of the poet’s Munster dialect. Evoking the rounds of medical monitoring that formed his daily routine in the sanatorium, the nurse’s checking of vitals suddenly transforms the patients’ bodies into the morphemes and metre of poetry:

  • 63 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Siollabadh”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 111.

Do sheas sí os gach leabaidh
          Agus d’fhan sí seal ag comhaireamh
Is do bhreac sí síos an mheadaracht
          Bhí ag siollabadh ina meoraibh,
Is do shiollaib sí go rithimeach
          Fé dheireadh as an tseomra.
63

  • 64 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Syllabication”, collaborative translation of Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Mordha, Fran (...)

she stood above each patient
in studied concentration,
jotting down the rhythm [meadaracht, lit. metre]
that beat between her fingers,
then left the pulses beating,
and beat it from the room.64

23This immediately precedes a moment of actual prayer, “an tAngelus” [“the Angelus”], whose recitation temporarily obscures the rhythms captured by the nurse. In the final lines, however, as the Catholic devotion comes to end, the body is reinstated as the primary source of poetry, its peculiar monasticism perhaps recalling the author’s own idiosyncratic understanding of prayer:

  • 65 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Siollabadh”, p. 111.

Ach do tháinig éag ar Amenibh
          Mar chogarnaigh sa tseomra:
Do leanadh leis an gcantaireacht
          I mainistir na feola,
Na cuisleanna mar mhanachaibh
          Ag siollabadh na nónta.
65

  • 66 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Syllabication”, p. 115.

till round the room it faded
to a dying Amen;
but the chanting continued
in the abbey of the flesh,
the pulses like monks
reciting the syllables
of afternoon prayer.66

  • 67 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 64.
  • 68 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, p. 63.
  • 69 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 65.
  • 70 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, p. 63.

24The metaphorical language of “Siollabadh” echoes two other poems in the collection that are germane to our discussion. The first is “Filíocht an Phíopa” [“Poetry of the Pipe”], in which the narrator’s cuisle or pulse is agitated by “blas líne obann filíochta” [“the taste of a sudden line of poetry”] – the perception of poetic inspiration again made manifest in the human body. The second is “Cnoc Mellerí” [“Mount Melleray”] whose narrator is a pilgrim in the presence of monks, tormented by his own lustful thoughts which he sees “mar bhreoiteacht ar mo chuimhne67 [“hanging over me like a disease”].68 The poem hinges on a stark contrast drawn between the brothers’ wholesomeness and the narrator’s fallen state; this is described in Manichean terms of purity and fault, light and darkness – their lives are “chomh bán le braitlín” [“white as a sheet”], while his is “chomh dubh leis an daol69 [“beetle-black”].70 It is, however, the peculiar linking of the vocabulary of prosody with the concept of glaine that gives the contrast its most striking expression:

  • 71 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 66.

D’fhéachas ar bheatha na manach anonn,
D’aithníos dán ar an dtoirt,
Meadaracht, glaine, doimhinbhrí is comhfhuaim,
Bhí m’aigne cromtha le ceist.
71

  • 72 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, p. 69. Muldoon’s translation here is quite loose; a more literal (...)

I looked at the life of that monk over there
and the idea of a verse immediately found me out –
the strictness, the clean lines [glaine], the depth, the little chimes here and there –
and I was burdened by doubt.72

  • 73 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 67.
  • 74 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, p. 71.

25That “Cnoc Mellerí” is itself a highly polished work of verse begs the question as to its own glaine, its own purity – and, by extension, the possibility of the poet achieving satisfaction through composition. The question is not resolved in the poem, but the final line suggests that this particular “súgán […] filíochta73 [“straw-rope of poetry”]74 may not be strong enough to harness the moment of epiphany bestowed at the monastery.

  • 75 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 78.
  • 76 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, translated by Denise Blake (with Frank Sewell) (...)
  • 77 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 79.
  • 78 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, p. 91.

26Poetry and glaine, the sickness of the mind and the desires of the flesh – apparently a singular set of reference points, these same tropes are in fact woven through a second poem of pilgrimage, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile” [“This Island and the Other Island”]. The opening section performs a lament of language: the very currency of poetry has become impoverished; too long exposed to “bréithre gan bhrí75 [“words without fervour”],76 the speaker now finds himself weary “den bhfocal gan draíocht77 [“from words without mystery”].78 The site of Christian devotion is again a locus of potential rehabilitation. Searching for a portent of transcendence, the speaker finds it in the island’s trees, only for these to be transfigured into human form, later identified as male:

Do chuardaíos comhartha ar oileán,
Do fuaireas é i gcrannaibh.

  • 79 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 81.

Im thimpeall d’eascair crainn chas-fháis,
Dob achrannach a leagan
Do lúbadar ’ngach uile aird
Mar chorp á dhó ina bheathaidh.
79

I searched the island for some sign
and found it there within the forest.

  • 80 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, p. 95.

Twisted trees appeared around me,
all misshapen and entangled,
writhing outwards in every direction
like a body being burned alive.80

27The recognition of this sign then prompts a general revision of the poet’s surrounds; everything is transformed into writing and into body, both general and strangely specific:

  • 81 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 81.

Mar scríbhinn breacaithe ar phár
Is scríbhinn eile trasna air
Chonac geanc is glún is cruit is spág,
Fá dheoidh chonac dealramh Gandhi.
81

  • 82 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, p. 95.

I saw, like writing on a piece of parchment
with more writing across and over it,
a snub nose, a knee, a hump, a clumsy foot
and, finally, I saw the likeness of Gandhi.82

28Signifying in this passage the advent of inspiration, two stanzas later flesh seems to take on a more negative sense. Its “ceo” [“fog”] must clear – the verb used is glan – before the true forms of things can be apprehended. The unsettling ambiguity of the metaphor’s meaning is then amplified in the final stanzas of the penultimate section, the cryptic association of blood and language evoking a state that appears to straddle the utopian and the bereft:

A insint féin ar Fhlaitheas Dé,
Ag sin oileán gach éinne,
An Críost atá ina fhuil ag scéith
An casadh tá ina bhréithe.

  • 83 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 82-83.

Is macasamhail dá oileán féin
Oileán seo Barra Naofa,
An Críost bhí ina fhuil ag scéith
An phúcaíocht áit i ngéagaibh.
83

Every individual’s island
is their own version of Heaven,
and the Christ who flows in their blood
is the twist and turn in their words.

  • 84 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, p. 97.

This blessed place of St Finbarr
is the replica of his own island,
with the Christ who flowed in his blood
spookily disguised in branches.84

29The final conceit in Ó Ríordáin’s metaphorical language returns us to our starting point, dirt. As is perhaps evident by now, the multivalent concept is more frequently attended to by reference to its absence or opposite, glaine. That said, one poem in Eireaball Spideoige, “An Leigheas” [“The Cure”], takes dirt as one of its primary terms. It opens with the narrator having spent some time out with an unknown party; in the lonely world of Ó Ríordáin’s personae, this gives rise to a violent pathetic fallacy:

  • 85 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “An Leigheas”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 29.

Do chaitheas tráthnóna le caidreamh,
Is scamaill go fuilteach sa spéir,
Gur súdh an fhuil as na scamaill,
Is fágadh ann salachar mar chré.
85

  • 86 My own literal translation.

I spent an afternoon socialising,
The clouds were bloody in the sky,
The blood was sucked from the clouds,
And left there was dirt, like clay.86

30The reader recognises this bizarre perception as the moment of poetry, as the inspiration on which the work is based. In his diary, Ó Ríordáin makes clear that the “salachar” [“dirt”] of the poem is in fact a coding of a lewd fascination with the female body, expressed publicly by a group of unnamed protagonists of which he was one:

  • 87 Quoted in Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin…, p. 148.

Bhíodar ag faire go dlúth agus go drúiseach, leis, ar gach cailín a ghabhadh an bóthar agus do thabharfainn an leabhar nár chuaigh colpa bog, ná ghlúin sobhlasta ar rothar, amú ar dhuine acu ná ormsa.87

  • 88 My own translation.

They were looking closely and lustfully, too, at every girl that passed on the road and I swear that no tasty calf or thigh that went by on a bike was lost on any one of them or on me.88

31Taking part in such leering and lurid talk is, however, better than the isolation of home, with its cold comfort of literature. In succumbing his lifeblood to the popular discourse, the narrator finds his titular, distasteful cure:

  • 89 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “An Leigheas”, p. 29.

Níor fhéadas suí socair sa bhaile
Ag suirí le leabhraibh an léinn
[…]
          Do thomas an fhuil ins an salachar,
          Sin príomhleigheas an daoscair ar phéin.
89

  • 90 My own literal translation.

I couldn’t sit still at home
Courting the books of learning […]
          I dipped the blood into the dirt
          That’s the commoners’ main cure for pain.90

32That “salachar” [“dirt”] wins out over “leabhraibh an léinn” [“books of learning”] in “An Leigheas” suggests the image of a work of writing being sullied and this is taken up explicitly in “An Stoirm” [“The Storm”]. The first fourteen lines describe an old woman in a house as the roof is battered by rain; the final four enact two swift transitions as the rain suddenly breaks the fourth wall, falling onto the narrator’s hand. On closer inspection the water is transubstantiated into the ink that writes the very poem, and the two substances are finally juxtaposed as stained and clean, “glan”:

  • 91 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “An Stoirm”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 43.

Do ghortaigh dealg fuar fearthainne mo lámh,
D’fhéachas de gheit;
Braon duibh as an bpeann reatha dhein an smál,
Bheadh braon fearthainne glan.
91

  • 92 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “The Storm”, Frank Sewell’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 23.

a freezing dart of rain stung my hand,
startled, I looked down:
a dark drop from the moving pen made the mark,
a drop of rain would be clear [glan].92

33In all of the examples discussed so far, the tropes of dirt-stain-blackness are very obviously negative in their connotation. As a final example, however, “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar” [“My Mother’s Burial”], Ó Ríordáin’s most celebrated poem, shows that the poles of the antonym can become reversed, the negative turning positive. Indeed, the work as a whole leans heavily on a technique of inversion: the present summer’s day becomes the winter’s interment, the sacred ritual becomes profane and, in his grief, Ó Ríordáin’s own corrupt soul is at last cleansed – the autonomous verb used is “folcadh”, literally “washed” – if only by sorrow:

  • 93 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 57.

Le cumhracht bróin do folcadh m’anam drúiseach,
          Thit sneachta geanmnaíochta ar mo chroí,
Anois adhlacfad sa chroí a deineadh ionraic
          Cuimhne na mná d’iompair mé trí ráithe ina broinn.
93

  • 94 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “My Mother’s Burial”, Paul Muldoon’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 47.

My concupiscent soul was wreathed [folcadh] in a sorrow-scent.
          The snow of chastity fell on my heart. Now I’m making room
in that selfsame, steadfast heart
          for one who carried me for nine months in her womb.94

  • 95 Muldoon translates this as “grubby” in Seán Ó Ríordáin, Selected Poems…, p. 47.
  • 96 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, p. 57.
  • 97 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “My Mother’s Burial”, p. 49.

34Anticipating these inversions, in the second stanza we read that the beloved letter that prompts the speaker’s recall is “shalaithe”, “dirtied”.95 The “scríbhinn” or text of the letter then recalls the hand that wrote it until the figure of the mother is wholly reconstituted as “Cuimhne na mná d’iompar mé trí ráithe ina broinn96 [“one who carried me for nine months in her womb”].97

35In the context of the burial, of course, dirt primarily signifies the earth that will lie atop his mother’s coffin, and so assumes an unassailably sacred quality for the narrator. In “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, then, the profane act is not to sully oneself, but to wipe from oneself the clay, as he sees other mourners do. Now the act of glanadh is a grotesque affront, not pure but polluting:

  • 98 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, p. 57.

Tháinig na scológa le borb-thorann sluasad,
          Is do scuabadar le fuinneamh an chré isteach san uaigh,
D’fhéachas sa treo eile, bhí comharsa ag glanadh a ghlúine,
          D’fhéachas ar an sagart is bhí saoltacht ina ghnúis.
98

  • 99 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “My Mother’s Burial”, p. 49.

The gravediggers came with a terrific clanking
          of shovels and hurled
earth into earth. I turned away. A neighbour brushing [glanadh] his knee.
          I turned to the priest. The face of a man of the world.99

36The trauma of this particular act of cleaning is carried forward and repeated in the final stanza. As the quatrain emphasises glanadh as defilement, it also hints at the concept’s foundational role – not just in the poem, but in the collection whose title’s source is now revealed:

  • 100 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, p. 58.

Ranna beaga bacacha á scríobh agam,
          Ba mhaith liom breith ar eireaball spideoige,
Ba mhaith liom sprid lucht glanta glún a dhíbirt,
          Ba mhaith liom triall go deireadh an lae go brónach.
100

  • 101 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “My Mother’s Burial”, p. 51.

They’re so limp and lame, these stanzas I’m writing.
          I’d like to grasp the robin’s tail. As for those brushing clay
from their knees, I’d like to brush them off completely.
          However heavy-heartedly, I’d just like to get through this day.101

37Despite his attempt to schematise his philosophy of poetry for a public audience, Ó Ríordáin’s deployment of his key concepts is nonlinear, creative, contextually dependent. Indeed, this caveat applies, perhaps especially so, to that same schematisation: it may not be an exaggeration to say that the foreword to Eireaball Spideoige, designed to clarify, presents as many hermeneutic challenges to the reader as any of his poems. By the same token, the tropes of dirt, disease and the body resist succinct summary for their variety of application, for their freedom of signification. This very dynamism, however, rather than undermine their function or importance, instead calls on the reader to attend more closely to their potential meanings and interrelations. That these meanings may never be fully captured is to be expected; Ó Ríordáin’s system of poetics, like Douglas’s system of dirt, emerges from a “suggestive approach”.

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Notes

1 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo [1966], London – New York, Routledge, 2002, p. 44.

2 The heralding of Ó Ríordáin as a significant voice in both modern and modernist (“nua-aimseartha” and “nua-aoiseach”) poetry begins with Professor Seán Ó Tuama, first in an essay published in the college journal An Síol, 1949-1950, then in his foreword to an important anthology published two years before Ó Ríordáin’s debut collection: Nuabhéarsaíocht [New / Modern Verse], Seán Ó Tuama (ed.), Dublin, Sáirseál agus Dill, 1950, p. 9-18. For a useful contextualisation of Ó Ríordáin’s work as “more in keeping with the prevailing spirit of European modernism than that of any of his contemporaries”, see Louis de Paor, “Contemporary Poetry in Irish: 1940-2000”, in The Cambridge History of Irish Literature, Margaret Kelleher, Philip O’Leary (eds.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, vol. II, p. 328.

3 For a highly detailed account of Ó Ríordáin’s life and work, including his diagnosis and subsequent treatments, see Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin: Beatha agus Saothar [Seán Ó Ríordáin: Life and Work], Baile Átha Cliath, An Clóchomhar, 1982.

4 For a first-hand account of the fallout of diagnosis, published during his lifetime, see Seán Ó Ríordáin’s article “Aicme Íseal” [“A Low Class”], The Irish Times, 13 February 1971. For more recent scholarly accounts of Ó Ríordáin and tuberculosis, see Ciara Breathnach, “‘Heavier the interval than the consummation’: Bronchial Disease in Seán Ó Ríordáin’s Diaries”, Medical Humanities, vol. 40, no. 1, 2014, p. 11-16; Pádraig Ó Liatháin, Ciara Breathnach, “Trácht ar an Eitinn i nDialanna Luatha Sheáin Uí Ríordáin 1940-50” [“Commentary on Tuberculosis in the Early Diaries of Seán Ó Ríordáin 1940-50”], COMHARTaighde, no. 8, 2023, DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.18669/ct.2022.04.

5 Ó Ríordáin’s corpus is generally divided into three genres: his poetry, his articles and interviews (with particular emphasis on the later opinion columns for The Irish Times), and his diary entries. The poetry collections published during his lifetime number three: Eireaball Spideoige [A Robin’s Tail] (1952), Brosna [Kindling] (1964) and Línte Liombó [Limbo Lines] (1971); Tar Éis Mo Bháis [After My Death] (1978) was published posthumously. His articles for The Irish Times were published weekly between 1967 and 1975. His diaries, unavailable to most scholars until recently, were begun in 1938; the extant entries record events from the first day of January 1940 until shortly before his death in February 1977. They are now being readied for publication, with the first two books of forty-nine already available: Seán Ó Ríordáin – Na Dialanna 1 & 2, 1940 [Seán Ó Ríordáin – The Diaries 1 & 2, 1940], Pádraig Ó Liatháin (ed.), Indreabhán, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2022. Until that project is further advanced, the most comprehensive secondary source for Ó Ríordáin’s diary entries remains Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin… A selection of some 365 entries, with calendric arrangement, can be found in Anamlón Bliana – Ó Dhialanna an Ríordánaigh [A Year’s Soul Sustenance – From the Diaries of Ó Ríordáin], Tadhg Ó Dúshláine (ed.), Indreabhán, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2014.

6 For a reading of Ó Ríordáin’s treatment of pain via Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978), see Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, “Séan Ó Ríordáin agus Aisling na Feola” [“Seán Ó Ríordáin and the Dream of the Flesh”], in Fill Arís: Oidhreacht Sheáin Uí Ríordáin [Come Again: The Legacy of Seán Ó Ríordáin], Liam Mac Amhlaigh, Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith (eds.), Indreabhán, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2012, p. 54-66.

7 The centrality of oppositional pairs to Ó Ríordáin’s thought was established as a critical touchstone in the first major essay on his poetry (Seán Ó Tuama, “Seán Ó Ríordáin agus an Nuafhilíocht”, Studia Hibernica, no. 13, 1973, p. 162).

8 Tadhg Ó Dúshláine dubs the foreword “an réamhaiste is cáiliúla sa NuaGhaeilge ar fad, lasmuigh den díonbhrollach le Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, b’fhéidir” [“the most famous introductory essay in the entirety of Modern Irish, with the possible exception of the preface to Foras Feasa ar Éirinn”], referencing Geoffrey Keating’s 17th-century work of historiography (Tadhg Ó Dúshláine, Paidir File: Filíocht Sheáin Uí Ríordáin [A Poet’s Prayer: The Poetry of Seán Ó Ríordáin], Indreabhán, Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 1993, p. 16).

9 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá” [“Introduction”], in Eireaball Spideoige, Baile Átha Cliath, Sáirséal agus Dill, 1952, p. 9.

10 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann? / What is poetry? Seán Ó Ríordáin’s Original Introduction to Eireaball Spideoige (1952)”, John Dillon (trans.), in Selected Poems, Frank Sewell (ed.), New Haven – London, Yale University Press in association with Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2014, p. 231. This recent bilingual edition is used here to provide translations for Ó Ríordáin’s works, where available. Where the Selected Poems offers no English version of a given poem, I offer my own literal translation, as noted below.

11 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 9.

12 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 231.

13 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 12.

14 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 233.

15 These are some of the many entries in Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla [Irish-English Dictionary], Niall Ó Dónaill (ed.), Baile Átha Cliath, An Gúm, 1972.

16 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 12.

17 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 233.

18 In fact, Ó Ríordáin’s “fuath” or hatred for his own work is mentioned in the same foreword, p. 12. For a more detailed, perhaps more authentic, account of his self-appraisal, see Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin…, p. 234-266 and analysis of individual poems passim.

19 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 13.

20 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 234.

21 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 16-17.

22 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 236-237.

23 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 13-14.

24 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 234.

25 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 17.

26 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 237.

27 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 16.

28 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 236.

29 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 20.

30 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 239. A more literal translation might read “purity of form” instead of “pure form”. Glaine here is not an attributive adjective but rather takes the primacy of the noun.

31 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, in Eireaball Spideoige, 2nd ed., Baile Átha Cliath, Sáirséal Ó Marcaigh, 1986, p. 21. This particular sentence is taken from the slightly amended version of the foreword that Dillon seems to have consulted for his translation. In the first edition, Ó Ríordáin’s wording was slightly different, slightly more certain: “Tá sé chomh fuirist focail d’fháisceadh um an fhoirm seo agus atá sé ionar a theannadh um leanbh” [“It is as easy to fit words on to this form as it is to fit / squeeze a tunic / vest on a baby”] (my own translation).

32 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 240.

33 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Réamhrá”, p. 24.

34 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cad is filíocht ann?…”, p. 242.

35 Seán Ó Ríordáin, untitled, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 26. The three-stanza poem is listed as “Seo Libh” in the table of contents to Eireaball Spideoige but has no heading in the collection itself.

36 The poem is titled and translated by Frank Sewell in Seán Ó Ríordáin, Selected Poems… as “Seo Libh a Dhánta tríd an Tír…” and “Onward, Poems, through the Land…”, p. 2-3. A more literal translation of the stanza might read: “If you come across a learned man / don’t reveal to him your secret, your meaning [or melody], / you were not composed for the likes of him: / you have to do with the beat of the heart / like the blessed little bird”.

37 For feoil (flesh / meat) and corp (body), see “Ualach na Beatha”, p. 34; “Domhnach na Cásca”, p. 74-75; “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 81-82. For lámh (hand / arm) and cos (foot / leg), see “An Dall sa Studio”, p. 28; “Bacaigh”, p. 37; “An Stoirm”, p. 43; “An Dual”, p. 45; “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, p. 56; “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 65; “Na hÓinmhidí”, p. 88; “Dán”, p. 113.

38 For fuil (blood), cac (shit) and seile (spit), see “An Leigheas”, p. 29; “Ní Raibh Sí Dílis”, p. 38-39; “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 67; “Oilithreacht fám Anam”, p. 71-72; “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 72.

39 For dall (blind) and daille (blindness), see “An Dall sa Studio”, p. 28; “An Doircheacht”, p. 42; “An Stoirm”, p. 43; “Cuireadh”, p. 44; “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 65. For cruit, meaning “hunch”, and cruiteachán, its bearer, see “Ualach na Beatha”, p. 33; “Oilithreacht fám Anam”, p. 72; “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 83; “Éadochas”, p. 103-104.

40 Bás (death), pian (pain) and related concepts are to be found in “An Cheist”, p. 31; “Torann agus Tost”, p. 40; “An Cat”, p. 55; “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, p. 57; “Na Fathaigh”, p. 59-60; “An Bás”, p. 69; “An Dilettante”, p. 116; “Duan an Oireachtais, 1948”, p. 91; “Éadochas”, p. 103-104; see also corpán (corpse) in “Cláirseach Shean na Gnáthrud”, p. 48.

41 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Roithleán”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 53. In Seán Ó Ríordáin, Selected Poems…, Ciaran Carson translates loosely: “morning whispered in my ear” (see “Whirl”, p. 41).

42 My own literal translation.

43 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cuireadh”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 44.

44 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Invitation”, Celia de Fréine’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 25.

45 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 67.

46 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, Paul Muldoon’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 69.

47 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Dán”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 113.

48 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “A Poem”, Colm Breathnach’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 117.

49 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Dán”, p. 113.

50 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “A Poem”, p. 117.

51 The title of this poem was amended in the second edition to “A Sheanfhilí, Múinídh Dom Glao”, the plural form of the imperative verb and the dropping of the article being more in keeping with the traditional grammar of Irish.

52 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “A Sheanfhilí, Múin Dom an Glao”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 36.

53 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Old Poets, Teach Me the Call”, Colm Breathnach’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 11.

54 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Scagadh”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 110.

55 This is my own literal translation, mired in the difficulty of rendering the titular verb, scag, into serviceable English. The final compound word of the original, “scag-leannán”, evokes (in this reader) a sense of caricature or parody: the prefix scag- is phonetically close to the slightly more common scig-, meaning “mocking”.

56 Perhaps relevant here is Ó Ríordáin’s own explanation of the emergence of the poem: “Do chorraigh an teanga féin []. Is mÓ dán […] a tháinig as líonrith, as excitement, na teangan féin (e.g. ‘Scagadh’)” [“Language itself inspired me. Many of the poems […] came from the excitement of language itself (e.g. ‘Scagadh’)”] (quoted in Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin…, p. 209).

57 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Paidreoireacht”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 108-109.

58 My own literal translation.

59 Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin…, p. 133-134.

60 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Éadochas”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 103.

61 Ibid., p. 104.

62 My own literal translation.

63 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Siollabadh”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 111.

64 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Syllabication”, collaborative translation of Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Mordha, Frank Sewell and Robert Welch in Selected Poems…, p. 115. Whereas this English version opts for “beating” and “beat” in the latter two lines, the original plays with a neological verb, siollaib, whose infinitive would translate to “to syllable”. The link between language and illness is thus more apparent in Ó Ríordáin’s poem.

65 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Siollabadh”, p. 111.

66 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Syllabication”, p. 115.

67 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 64.

68 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, p. 63.

69 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 65.

70 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, p. 63.

71 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 66.

72 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, p. 69. Muldoon’s translation here is quite loose; a more literal rendition might read: “I looked at the life of the monks there / I immediately recognised a poem / metre, glaine, deep meaning and assonance / my mind was bent by a question”.

73 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Cnoc Mellerí”, p. 67.

74 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Mount Melleray”, p. 71.

75 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 78.

76 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, translated by Denise Blake (with Frank Sewell), in Selected Poems…, p. 89.

77 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 79.

78 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, p. 91.

79 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 81.

80 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, p. 95.

81 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 81.

82 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, p. 95.

83 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Oileán agus Oileán Eile”, p. 82-83.

84 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “This Island and the Other Island”, p. 97.

85 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “An Leigheas”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 29.

86 My own literal translation.

87 Quoted in Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin…, p. 148.

88 My own translation.

89 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “An Leigheas”, p. 29.

90 My own literal translation.

91 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “An Stoirm”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 43.

92 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “The Storm”, Frank Sewell’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 23.

93 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, in Eireaball Spideoige, p. 57.

94 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “My Mother’s Burial”, Paul Muldoon’s translation in Selected Poems…, p. 47.

95 Muldoon translates this as “grubby” in Seán Ó Ríordáin, Selected Poems…, p. 47.

96 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, p. 57.

97 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “My Mother’s Burial”, p. 49.

98 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, p. 57.

99 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “My Mother’s Burial”, p. 49.

100 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “Adhlacadh mo Mháthar”, p. 58.

101 Seán Ó Ríordáin, “My Mother’s Burial”, p. 51.

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Máirtín Coilféir, « Dirt, Disease and the Body in Seán Ó Ríordáin’s Eireaball Spideoige »Études irlandaises, 49-1 | 2024, 95-114.

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Máirtín Coilféir, « Dirt, Disease and the Body in Seán Ó Ríordáin’s Eireaball Spideoige »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 49-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2024, consulté le 28 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/etudesirlandaises/18103 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/etudesirlandaises.18103

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Auteur

Máirtín Coilféir

School of Irish Studies, Concordia University, Montreal (Canada)

Máirtín Coilféir est maître de conférences en langue et cultures irlandaises à la faculté d’études irlandaises de l’Université Concordia à Montréal (Canada). Sa première monographie, Titley (Baile Átha Cliath, Leabhair Comhar, 2018), a été finaliste du prix Oireachtas du livre de l’année en gaélique, tandis que certains de ses poèmes ont été publiés dans une anthologie bilingue, Calling Cards (Oldcastle, The Gallery Press, 2018), avec des traductions par Paul Muldoon. Une collection d’articles, An Scéim : An Gúm, 1926-2016, a été publiée par les éditions de l’État irlandais, An Gúm, en 2020. Il travaille actuellement sur un projet intitulé « Indigenous and International : Tracing Irish-Language Literature across the Globe », financé par le Conseil canadien de la recherche en sciences sociales et humanités.

Máirtín Coilféir is assistant professor of the Irish language and its cultures in the School of Irish Studies at Concordia University in Montréal (Canada). His first monograph, Titley (Baile Átha Cliath, Leabhair Comhar, 2018), was shortlisted for the Oireachtas Book of the Year award, while his poetry has been anthologised in the bilingual collection Calling Cards (Oldcastle, The Gallery Press, 2018) with translations by Paul Muldoon. An edited collection of essays, An Scéim: An Gúm, 1926-2016, was published by the Irish State publisher An Gúm in 2020. His current research project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and is entitled “Indigenous and International: Tracing Irish-Language Literature across the Globe”.

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