One of Ireland’s foremost Irish language poets and scholars, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, died aged 99, on 16 October. Her fellow poet Louis de Paor said of her work that it reflected “the intimate experience of women at a time when women’s voices were largely inaudible”.
Born in Dublin on 4 April 1922, her Belfast-born father Seán McEntee had fought in the GPO in 1916 and was elected for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election. Her mother, Margaret Browne, also active in the republican movement, acted as a courier during the Rising. Recalling “a really big row” at home in 1937 over the new Constitution “because of the article stating that women should not be compelled by financial necessity to work outside the home”, Mhac an tSaoi gives some idea of where her emancipatory aspirations for the women of Ireland were born: “My mother, who had carried the finances of the family all the way since 1922, while my father earned hardly anything, was furious. She couldn’t bring herself to talk to him.”
From a privileged background, she embarked on a formidable academic career. Because of Irish legislation banning married women from the public service, which only changed in 1973, Mhac an tSaoi had to resign from the diplomatic corps in 1962 to marry Conor Cruise O’Brien, a relationship that affected her political views. However, she opposed the Vietnam war and resigned from Aosdána, the Irish association of artists, when Francis Stuart was nominated to be a 'Saoi', the highest artistic honour in Ireland, because of his perceived Nazi sympathies. In the early 1970s, she also helped in the campaign against closing down a national school in Dún Chaoin, in the heart of Irish-speaking Kerry by bringing out an LP of her poems, “Ómós do Scoil Dhún Chaoin” (Homage to the School in Dunquin).
Mhac an tSaoi engaged deeply with the Irish language, stating it was “the prime catalyst in the creation of a truly European culture” and thereby vital to Ireland. She began writing in Irish. The theme of female sexuality featured prominently in Mhac an tSaoi’s first poetry collection, Margadh na Saoire (“The Hiring-Fair”, 1956), especially in Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin (“Mary Hogan’s Quatrains”). Mhac an tSaoi herself compared the sequence to an Irish language version of Yeats’s Crazy Jane. Writing in Irish helped evade the Censorship of Publications Act, which may well have stopped this volume from appearing had it been written in English.
To get some idea of Mhac an tSaoi’s writing, I will look at a short poem from this early collection, “Margaret in the hairdresser’s” (“Máiréad sa tsiopa cóirithe gruaige”). This is a translation into English of the Irish original.
Five years old! My amber flower!
It was foolish of me to fix your hair
So lightly you stepped to the hairdresser
To be soaped and scissored, pinned and dried
With such good grace, willing and obliging
As a lamb to its raddle for shearing and marking
Until you landed on earth like Shirley Temple,
Though not so pale, a charming girl,
Before the mirror revealed the new you... and then
Oh such lamentation may I never hear again!
With your head in my lap you wept your fill -
I won't pretend I don't know what horrified you
Love, marriage, the monthly blood, all
Staring back, childbearing, the common lot.
Bless your little head and your crowning glory
As you bawl your eyes out at your mother’s waist
With hatred for the female and no escape from it!
My soul’s treasure, if only I could help you I would.
The title suggests an ordinary, everyday event. The opening exclamation “Five years old!” drives home a young age, a child leaving early childhood and entering primary school age. The world is getting bigger, there is still great closeness between mother and child: “My amber flower!” In the next line, the mother already blames herself for not preparing her daughter for this step outside the home, feels she has over-protected her, that Mairéad is unprepared for what awaits her. Mairéad is unsuspecting and expects only good from the world, “So lightly you stepped to the hairdresser”.
The verbs in the very next line, “soaped and scissored, pinned and dried” suggest an assault, cutting and pinching, emphasised by the hissing sibilance, a caesura and then another attack in the punch-like sounding verbs that follow. This attack is endured with “such good grace, willing and obliging” – a line that offers brief hope that all might be well. Then Mhac an tSaoi turns the emotions around again dramatically, as she compares the child’s innocence to “a lamb to its raddle for shearing and marking”. Here we get a first sense of sexualisation in a very rural image: raddle is a coloured pigment used to mark sheep for various reasons, including to mark the backs of ewes a ram mates. These are the thoughts that go through the mother’s head before the girl sees herself in the mirror.
Mairéad’s mother realises the transformation, that puts her child into a league with Hollywood's child film star from 1934 to 1938, Shirley Temple, dating the experience related in the poem to the late thirties or forties. Again, there is a struggle between attraction and repulsion, as the mother on the one hand sees how her daughter is transformed modelled on the fashionable child beauty of the day, at the same time realising how this appearance sexualises her.
However, when the girl sees herself in the mirror, some possibly unformed realisation hits her, and her reaction is unequivocal: “such lamentation may I never hear again!” She understands at some level that an irreversible transformation has taken place that allows for no return to innocence. She seeks comfort in her mother’s lap – at the same time a very young child’s need for a mother’s protection, as well as a symbolic desire to return to the womb.
The mother/speaker intuits the reason for her daughter’s shock at what she sees as she looks at her ‘new self’ in the mirror: “Love, marriage, the monthly blood, all/ Staring back, childbearing, the common lot.” She empathises completely with her child. Once more, the girl’s small stature is emphasised, “at your mother’s waist”. Her mother is more resigned to what seems like her daughter’s inevitable future lot, tries to comfort her and refers to the ‘beautifying’ hairstyle. The speaker understands her daughter’s “hatred for the female” – meaning the female lot – and the realisation that there is “no escape from it!”
The poem ends with the speaker’s deep regret at her powerlessness to truly protect her daughter against the condition of women in Ireland at that time: “My soul’s treasure, if only I could help you I would.”
It wasn’t until 1979 that some form of contraceptive became available in Ireland, with some further easing in 1985. But it was only in 2018 that Ireland decided overwhelmingly by referendum to finally end the constitutional ban on abortion, which had led to the Magdalen Laundries, the unhappiness, distress and the deaths of untold numbers of women. As trailblazer for female poets in 20th century Ireland, Máire Mhac an tSaoi recoded this experience in her poetry, and helped pave the way for others.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.