Louis de Paor on “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” by Seán Ó Ríordáin, in Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies [Special Irish Poetry Issue, guest ed. Peter Denman] (Sept. 2009).

[ Source: The Free Library - online; accessed 07.07.2011.]

Bron se mhi d’aois agus beagan romansaithe v. bron laithreach.’
(Seán Ó Coileain, Seán Ó Ríordáin: Beatha agus Saothar).

Seán Ó Ríordáin’s critique of his own most famous poem is as harsh as much of the criticism that followed the publication of his debut collection Eireaball Spideoige in 1952. [1] ‘A six month old grief, slightly romanticised’, he wrote in his notes for a lecture delivered during his time as part-time assistant in the Department of Irish at University College Cork in the early 1970s. That bleak assessment of the earliest poem in which his poetic signature reveals itself fully is repeated in an interview with Seán Ó Mordha recorded at St Stephen’s Hospital, Sarsfield’s Court, in October 1976, three months before his death. ‘Rudai anois mar “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” ni doigh liom fein gur dan maith e. Ni doigh liom gur rud slaintiuil e sin’ (Things like “My Mother’s Burial”, I don’t think that’s a good poem. I don’t think it’s a healthy thing). [2] By contrast, Ó Ríordáin’s most scrupulous critic, Seán Ó Tuama, compared the impact of the poem on Irish language writing to that of Baudelaire on his contemporaries: ‘Frisson nua a mheastar a chuir Baudelaire i bhfiliocht a linne fein. Geit” nua a bhain “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar[...] as friotal liteartha na Gaeilge’ (‘Baudelaire’s poetry is said to have introduced a new frisson into the poetry of his time. “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” was a shock to the language of literature in Irish’). [3]

For Ó Tuama the poem represented a decisive moment in Ó Ríordáin’s development as a major poet, as his poetic voice in all its strange particularity speaks clearly for the first time in his response to his mother’s death: ‘is e ocaid an dain seo, a dearfainn, a d’fhuascail an fheith ann, a leag cibe bacanna teanga no siceolaiochta a bhi a chosc, a thug neart do scaoileadh le samhailteacha as iochtar a aigne; a chuir air cumasc a dheanamh, faoi strus, idir na gneithe iasachta agus na gneithe duchais ina chuid filiochta’ (‘it was the occasion of this poem, I would suggest, that liberated his poetic voice, and overcame whatever linguistic or psychological barriers had previously impeded him, that enabled him to release images from the subconscious; that forced him to bring together, under great pressure, the native and non-native elements in his poetry’). [4]

It was that amalgam of native and non-native elements that drew the most severe reaction from critics when Eireaball Spideoige was first published, provoking heated debate in Irish and in English, and vehement exchanges that extended beyond the usual literary and language journals to enliven the letters pages of The Irish Times. Writing under the pseudonym “Thersites”, Thomas Woods questioned Ó Ríordáin’s linguistic credentials, arguing that he was not a native speaker of Irish and could never, therefore, ‘comprehend that instinctive feel for the connotations of words and phrases that only a native speaker can have’. Brendan Behan responded by pointing to the achievements of Samuel Beckett: ‘I don’t see however that Seán Ó Ríordáin, born in Baile Mhuirne, is not as well entitled to write in Irish as Samuel Beckett, born in Dublin, is to write in French. Both are friends of mine, and bedamned if I’ll make fish of one and flesh of the other’. Patrick Kavanagh defended his right to speak of Ó Ríordáin without having read him by claiming that it was generally understood that poetry in Irish was no more than ‘the doodling and phrase-making of mediocrities’, before dismissing out of hand the arguments of Ó Ríordáin’s publisher Seán Ó hEigeartaigh: ‘As Gertrude Stein would say: A poet is a poet even in his walking down a street. And judging by what Whitehead calls ‘the act of negative prehension’, I would be inclined to think that anyone Mr Ó hEigeartaigh thought a poet would be surely the opposite’. Ó hEigeartaigh’s response was both ad rem and ad hominem: ‘This is extremely embarrassing for both of us, because I have always thought Mr Kavanagh a poet - and not merely from having seen him walk down a street’. [5]

O Ríordáin’s rejection of “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” is based on very different criteria, a poetic philosophy elaborated in the celebrated introduction to Eireaball Spideoige and further refined in his diaries, journalism, and other critical writings. At the core of his poetics, there is his conviction that a poem should derive from, and contain, the shock or ‘geit’ of a momentary revelation that allows the imagination to discover the miraculous otherness of the world outside the self, whether it be the languor of a cat milking the sun, the cheerful vanity of a blind man combing his hair, the equanimity of a woman accused of murder whose ‘mind is free and full of light’, or the terrified wonder of a child whose imagination is so overwhelmed by ‘capall-alltacht’ (‘horse-terror’) and ‘sodar-dhraiocht’ (‘gallop-magic’) that his sense of self is submerged in the otherness of a horse passing by in the night. In each of these instances, the poet has identified the essence of his subject through a temporary surrender to its strangeness. The act of self-negation is a necessary precondition for a fuller self-knowledge as ‘an mise ceart’ (‘the authentic I’) can only be discovered by contrast with the non-self. If personal authenticity is predicated on a sense of deference to the other, the writer has a further responsibility to register that deference in language inflected by the specificity of its subject. In a letter to his lifelong friend Seamus Quigley on 9 March 1950, Ó Ríordáin applauds Seamus Murphy’s Stone Mad for achieving a proper consonance between the language of his autobiography and its particular subject matter: ‘Ar thugais an t-ionracas fe ndeara? Clochachas. Gortaigh focal ar bith san leabhar agus tiocfaidh clochfhuil as’ (‘Did you see the integrity? Cut any word in the book and stone-blood will flow from it’). [6]

By these rigorous standards, “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” is flawed, in Ó Ríordáin’s judgement, because it lacks the immediacy of the moment - a six-month-old grief rather than a present grief. In fact, it might equally be argued that it is the poet’s inability to be immediately and authentically present in the moment of his mother’s burial, to inhabit the occasion fully, that is the proper subject of the poem and that his articulation of that failure is an act of poetic and personal integrity entirely in keeping with his own ethics and poetics. At least part of the poem’s authenticity derives from its agonized and guilty exploration of the poet’s inadequate response to his mother’s death, his inability to surrender to the trauma of his loss at the appropriate time during the ritual of her interment. Despite the poet’s self-accusation, the numbing and suspension of feeling might be understood as part of the function of ritual, a temporary restraint, and a necessary deferral of overwhelming emotion. The poem is equally persuasive in tracking the progress of his own delayed reaction to his mother’s death and the eventual release of a purging grief that is almost joyful in its intensity.

The opening stanza of “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” provides one of the most famous examples of Ó Ríordáin’s iconoclastic use of language, taking us to ‘críocha coimhthiocha sofaisticiula nar thaithigh an Nua-Ghaeilge roimhe sin’ (‘sophisticated foreign places that Modern Irish had not previously frequented’):

Grian an Mheithimh in ullghort,
Is siosamach i sioda an trathnona,
Beach mhallaithe ag portaireacht
Mar screadstracadh ar an noinbhrat

(June sun in arl orchard,
And a rustling in the silk of evening,
A cursed bee humming
Is a screamtear in the eveningshroud). [7]

The strange juxtapositions contained in the compound words are a feature of Ó Ríordáin’s poetic signature that is especially pronounced in the earlier work where his voice is most obviously at odds with the received patterns of Irish as spoken by native speakers. For Maire Mhac an tSaoi, the lack of deference to the living language of the Gaeltacht is unacceptable, evidence of a lack of proficiency on the part of the poet. Reading some of his more unpalatable lines is like ‘ag faisceadh ghainmhe tri d’fhiacla’ (‘crunching sand through your teeth’). She accuses him of ‘easpa maistriochta ar an dteangain agus easpa tuisceana do scop meadaireachta na Gaeilge’ (‘lack of mastery of the language and lack of understanding of the metrical range of Irish’), arguing that since Irish is a living language, a writer can not take too many liberties with it, without having a negative impact on its capacity for meaning. ‘Se toradh a bhionn ar a leitheid na comharthai nach feidir a leamh gan eochair’ (The result of this kind of approach is a series of signs that can not be read without a key’). She compares Ó Ríordáin to Emily Dickinson, arguing that both poets provide insight into a hidden private world in a particular kind of language, ‘teanga a cothaiodh sa leabharlainn agus nar ghabh tri choimheascar briomhar na daonnachta laethiula’ (‘a language that was nurtured in the library without going through the lively struggle of everyday humanity’). [8] Interestingly, Ó Ríordáin’s own views on language as expressed in his newspaper articles and elsewhere are often similar to those of his most trenchant critic. Even Ó Tuama, while accepting the poetic necessity and personal authenticity of Ó Ríordáin’s hybrid language, acknowledges that the image of rustling silk is disconcerting for a reader of Irish, like encountering a line from Tennyson, he says, in a poem by Robert Burns. [9]

Nonetheless, it is evident throughout Eireaball Spideoige that Ó Ríordáin’s idiosyncratic use of Irish is a necessary element of his technique, that his struggle with ‘a theanga seo leath-liom’ (‘language that is half-mine’) is a defining aspect of his poetic voice. Growing up in the breacGhaeltacht of Baile Bhuirne where his father’s Irish was gradually being replaced by his mother’s Hiberno-English, Ó Ríordáin’s imagination was formed and deformed in a linguistic no man’s land between the lines of Irish and English. The ‘impure’ language of the early work in particular is a measure of both personal and poetic integrity, as his fractured linguistic background has denied him access to the authority of received patterns of Irish as spoken in the Gaeltacht. To pretend to the conviction of standard Gaeltacht usage would be a betrayal of his own unstable linguistic identity and conflicted imagination. While the new coinages do not have the sanction of the vernacular, they are, for the most part, both intelligible and necessary, a measure of the emotional strain and psychological tension of the moment that provoked the poem, on the one hand, and a response to the poet’s bilingual cultural inheritance, on the other.

Ó Ríordáin’s narrative ability is evident in the opening movement of “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” as each verse progresses the story of his deferred grief in a way that is both carefully structured and psychologically plausible. In the second and third stanzas, reading an old letter from his mother leads directly to a memory of her hands that focuses on their gentleness and capacity for healing. The second movement of the poem, provoked, perhaps, by the reference to sickness, or the paleness of the mother’s hands, moves abruptly from the here and now of a sunlit orchard in June to a snow-covered graveyard by a river six months earlier where ‘do liuigh os ard sa tsneachta an dupholl’ (‘the black hole shouted loudly in the snow’):

Gile gearrachaile la a cead chomaoine,
Gile abhlainne De Domhnaigh ar altoir,
Gile bainne ag sreangtheitheadh as na ciochaibh,
Nuair a chuireadar mo mhathair, gile an fhoid

(The whiteness of a girl on her first communion day
The white of the host on the altar on Sunday
The whiteness of milk squirting from breasts,
When they buried my mother, the white earth).

Contemplation of his mother’s virtues has deflected his attention from the black hole of the grave to the more comforting image of the snow-covered ground, as though the mother’s purity was reflected by the white earth. In focusing on the comforting connotations of the snow, he has behaved inauthentically by his own exacting standards, avoiding the black hole of her death. In the next verse, he attempts to engage again more fully with his own bereavement, lacerating himself as he tries to inhabit the moment of the burial fully - ‘Bhi m’aigne a sciuirseadh fein ag iarraidh / An t-adhlacadh a bhlaiseadh go hiomlan’ (‘My mind was scourging itself / Trying to taste the burial completely’). The term he uses to convey the need to submerge himself in the moment - ‘blaiseadh’ [taste] - is synonymous with integrity and authenticity in Ó Ríordáin’s poetics.

At the moment of his greatest anguish and guilt, the poet’s self-accusation is suspended as his attention is distracted again by a robin that flew through the white silence, unconfused and without fear:

Agus d’fhan os cionn na huaighe fe mar go mb’eol di
Go raibh an toisc a thug i ceilte ar chach
Ach an te a bhi ag feitheamh ins an gcomhrainn,
Is do rinneas ead fen gcaidreamh neamhghnach

(And stayed above the grave as though she knew
Her reason for being there was invisible to all
Except the one waiting in the coffin,
And I envied their extraordinary intimacy).

Although the bird’s presence seems a harbinger of redemption and consolation, bringing ‘aer na bhFlaitheas’ (‘the air of paradise’) and ‘meidhir uafasach naofa’ (‘a terrible holy joy’) down into the grave, the poet hesitates to follow its lead. He remains disengaged, an uninitiated novice in the mysterious business of death, psychologically removed from the black hole of his loss by a reluctance, or inability, to lose himself in grief.

In the last verse of this decisive movement which provides the emotional and psychological fulcrum of the poem, he finally capitulates to a self-annihilating grief that brings its own relief:

Le cumhracht bróin do folcadh m’anam druiseach,
Thit sneachta geanmnaiochta ar mo chroi,
Anois adhlacfad sa chroi a deineadh ionraic
Cuimhne na mna d’iompair me tri raithe ina broinn

(My lascivious soul was drenched with the fragrance of sorrow,
Snows of chastity fell on my heart,
Now I will bury in the heart made whole
The memory of her who carried me nine months in her womb).

Finally he is capable of a full and authentic engagement with the trauma of his mother’s death, an act of integrity that allows him to be overwhelmed by the occasion to the point where his own lascivious soul participates in the purity which is an essential and defining aspect of the mother’s otherness. Now that he has bridged the metaphysical distance between them, he shares something of the terrible joy of the bird whose unusual intimacy with the dead woman he had envied in the previous verse.

The two time-frames of the poem are reconciled as his delayed grief allows him to ‘taste’ his mother’s burial fully six months after the event. Having surrendered himself belatedly to the moment of her interment, he has discovered a capacity for grief appropriate to his loss. He can now recover his own separateness, deepened by the self-knowledge achieved in accepting his final separation from his mother. As elsewhere in Ó Ríordáin’s poems, self-negation is a prelude to self-discovery, and the surrender of self a necessary precondition for greater self-awareness. Having confronted his loss, he can lay his mother to rest ‘in the heart made whole’ again by grief.

In the final movement of the poem, the poet is now an observer of inauthentic behaviour in others. As the gravediggers fill in the grave, he sees a neighbour brushing his knees, worldliness in the priest’s face. Through a cathartic act of imagination, he has revisited the site of his loss and submerged himself retrospectively in the occasion of his mother’s burial, experiencing fully and for the first time, apparently, both the devastation of her death and the relief afforded by acknowledging his bereavement. From the vantagepoint of authentic grief he has become acutely aware of the detached behaviour of others who remain untouched by his mother’s death, having failed to ‘taste’ the experience fully.

In a late article published in The Irish Times, Ó Ríordáin’s speaks of his deep suspicion of the forces at work under the cover of religious ritual during a neighbour’s burial. A funeral, he says, confirms a sense of community that unites the living and the dead, but its rituals are based on a conspiracy, a tacit and shared acknowledgement among those present that they are engaged in a necessary deceit. ‘Bhi crothadh lamh agus focail chornhbhrOin fluirseach. [...] Omos ab ea e nios mo na comhbhrOn - omos riachtanach. Ghortofai daoine mura dtabharfai an t-Omos sin’ (‘There was much handshaking and commiseration. [...] It was more homage than commiseration, a necessary act of homage. People would be offended if that homage was not paid’). His own ‘coinsias sochraide’ (‘funeral conscience’) prevented him from fully participating in the performance of a ritual which was both humanizing and consoling, albeit derived from an agreed deception. ‘Cur i gceill chomh maith le cur i gcre is ea sochraid. Bionn si ag ttiirt le fios gur cathair mar a tuairisc i no gur pobal mar a tuairisc e. Nior shloig aoinne e seo ach me fein. Sin e fe ndear mo choinsias reilige.’ (‘A funeral is a pretence as well as an interment. It pretends that both the funeral and the community are what they purport to be. No one else swallowed this except me. That explains my funeral conscience.’) His inability to participate in the performance of a ritual which is a necessary element in the enactment of community sets him apart, an uneasy outsider who recognizes the extent to which genuine consolation can be afforded by an inauthentic act of solidarity but is unable to give himself up to the humanizing charade. [10]

The penultimate verse of “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” finally withdraws from the occasion of the mother’s funeral. By repeating the opening verse, Ó Ríordáin disentangles again the two time-frames which he had previously integrated, re-establishing an appropriate distance between them. The closure effected in the final stanza parallels the emotional closure achieved in the body of the poem:

Ranna beaga bacacha a scriobh agam,
Ba mhaith liom breith ar eireaball spideoige,
Ba mhaith liom sprid lucht glanta glun a dhibirt,
Ba mhaith triall go deireadh lae go brónach.

(Writing lame little verses,
I would like to catch a robin’s tail,
I would like to banish the spirit of those who brush their knees,
I would like to travel to the end of day in sadness).

Having withdrawn from the moment of his mother’s burial, purged by grief, he now withdraws from the poetic moment that had enabled him to release that grief and assuage his guilt.

As always with Ó Ríordáin, integrity and anxiety are closely linked. Authenticity can only ever be fleeting and the exhilaration that accompanies the submersion of self in a momentary sense of solidarity with the other is followed by a deflated return to the exhausted and insufficient self. Poetry collapses into versifying, and he envies again the robin’s intimate communion with the dead. By contrast with the bird, the detachment of the inauthentic mourners is all too present and he appears unable to distance himself from their empty performance of ritual. The switch to the conditional tense in the last three lines reflects a collapse of conviction in his capacity to sustain the grief he had finally discovered and articulated in the course of the poem. The last line suggests, perhaps, that he doubts his ability to maintain a genuine grief for even a day. Again, contrary to what both the poet and the poem say, it is a measure of Ó Ríordáin’s personal and poetic integrity that he explores what he sees as his own inadequate reaction to his mother’s death with such extraordinary candour that he admits finally the impossibility of sustaining a grief sufficient to his bereavement.

In his seminal essay on Ó Ríordáin, Ó Tuama identified the use of an integrated cluster of images to carry the emotional burden of the poem as the most significant technical innovation introduced to poetry in Irish in “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar”. The three central images that derive directly from the immediate occasion of the poem - the grave, the snow, and the robin - are complicated and interwoven so that they correspond to, and contain, the poet’s fluctuating and contradictory feelings in a way that deepens our understanding of both his guilt and his grief: ‘[E]irionn leis an Riordanach gniomh ceart cruthaitheach a chur de sa dan seo tri cheile, eirionn leis - i gcorp an dain go speisialta - sinne a dheanamh rannphairteach i ngach cor, nach mOr, da thocht priobhaideach fein’ (‘O Ríordáin accomplishes an authentic creative act in the course of this poem: he succeeds - particularly in the main body of the poem - in making us participate in almost every aspect of his own private grief’). [11] That sense of participation, of being present in the immediacy of the moment, is precisely what Ó Ríordáin himself insisted on as a measure of a personal and poetic integrity in the introduction to Eireaball Spideoige.

In the same essay, he identified ‘uaigneas’ (‘loneliness’) as one of the preconditions for poetry, the empathetic ache of the self for the non-self which provokes the imagination’s attempts to reconcile the two, an aspiration as absurd as trying to catch a robin’s tail, and nonetheless neccessary fora deeper sense of our shared humanity. The enduring achievement of “Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” in that regard is further confirmed in an article by Michael Davitt, the ringleader of the next generation of poets in Irish after Ó Ríordáin, who would take the language even further from its traditional comfort zone than the rustling silky afternoon of a summer orchard. As part of a captive school audience reading the poem for the Leaving Cert, Davitt says he realized that literary criticism practices its own necessary subterfuge as a cover for a more visceral response to the emotional disturbance of a poem. The young student resorts to the apparently detached language of criticism, pointing to ‘ionramhail chearduil teanga’ (‘careful manipulation of language’) and ‘treoru dilis sruthanna athshondacha comhfheasa’ (‘proper control of conscious patterns of resonance’) before finally capitulating to the poem:

A Mhichil, cén fath go bhfuil tu ag gól? Nil ann ach dán, in ainm Dé!’
A Bhrathair, taim i lathair ag adhlacadh mhathair Sheain Ui Ríordáin.
Tá a sochraid tar eis siul tri mo cheann.
Tá uaigneas agus cumha orm.
’ [12]

(‘Michael, why are you crying? It’s only a poem, for God’s sake!’
‘Brother, I’m there at Seán Ó Ríordáin’s mother’s burial.
Her funeral has just walked through my head.
I feel lonely, bereaved’).


Adhlacadh mo Mhathar” by Seán Ó Ríordáin is included in his collection Eireaball Spideoige (Baile Atha Cliath: Sairseal agus Dill, 1952) and in the following anthologies: Duanaire Nuafhiliochta, edited by Frank O’Brien (Baile Atha Cliath: An ClOchornhar, 1969); Scathan Vearsai: Rogha Danta le Seán Ó Ríordáin, edited by Cian Ó hEigeartaigh (Baile Atha Cliath : Sairseal agus Diil, 1980); Poets of Munster, edited by Seán Dunne (London and Dingle: Anvil Poetry Press/Brandon, 1985); Coisceim na hAoise Seo, edited by Seán Ó Tuama and Louis de Paor (Baile Atha Cliath: Coisceim, 1991); The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. III, edited by Seamus Deane et al. (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1991); An Crann faoi Bhlath/The Flowering Tree, edited by Declan Kiberd and Gabriel Fitzmaurice (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1991); Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Patrick Crotty (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1995); Duanaire an Cheid, edited by Gearóid Denvir (Indreabhan: Cio Iar-Chonnachta, 2000); Fearann Pinn: Filiocht 1900-99, edited by Greagoir Ó Duill (Baile Atha Cliath: Coisceim, 2000).

1. Seán Ó Ríordáin, Eireaball Spideoige (Baile Atha Cliath: Sairseal agus Dill, 1952), p.56.
2. Scriobh 3, edited by Seán Ó Mordha (Baile Atha Cliath: An Clochomhar, 1978), pp.163-184 (p.174).
3. Seán Ó Tuama, Filí faoi Sceimhle: Seán Ó Ríordáin agus Aogan Ó Rathaille (Baile Atha Cliath: An Gum,1978), p.5.
4. Seán Ó Tuama, Filí faoi Sceimhle, p.4.
5. Seán Ó Coileáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin: Beatha agus Saothar (Baile Atha Cliath: An Clochomhar, 1982), pp.247-9.
6. Seamus Ó Coigligh, ‘Shaun agus Shem’, in An Duine is Dual: Aisti ar Shean Ó Ríordáin, edited by Eoghan Ó hAnluain (Baile Atha Cliath: An Clóchomhar, 1980), pp.28-60 (p.42).
7.Ó Tuama, p.5.
8. Maire Mhac an tSaoi, ‘Filiocht Sheain Ui Ríordáin’, Feasta (Marta 1953), 17-19 (p.17), and ‘Scribhneoireacht sa Ghaeilge Inniu’, Studies (Spring 1955), 86-91 (pp.88-9).
9.Ó Tuama, p.9.
10. Seán Ó Ríordáin, ‘Coinsias sochraide’, in The Irish Times (15 June 1974).
11.Ó Tuama, pp.5-6.
12. Michael Davitt, ‘Uige an Chuimhnimh ...’, Comhar (Nollaig 1984), 32-3 (p.33).

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