Saturday, December 3, 2016

I know my own death

‘I feel that I know my own death, and have known it tor a long time. I feel that I died long ago, the same death I shall die later on. When I think of my own death, I do not think of something that has yet to happen, but of something that happened long ago but was forgotten. When I am of this mind, it seems to me that my death is what is most me. I think it is much more me than all the rest of my life.’ This is from the diaries of Seán Ó Ríordáin, born a 100 years ago today, who is one of most important of  Irish-language poets. Although he kept diaries for much of his life, few extracts have ever appeared in English.

Ó Ríordáin was born in Ballyvourney, County Cork, on 3 December 1916. When he was only 10, his father died of tuberculosis, a disease that he would also contract as a young man, and leave him with chronic poor health. His family moved to Cork city, where he and his brothers were sent to a Christian Brothers school. From 1936, he worked in the motor taxation office, remaining there until he took early retirement in 1965. During the latter years of his life, he wrote a column in The Irish Times, commenting strongly on national affairs, and lectured at University College Dublin. He died in 1977. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, Transcript Review or Cork Institute of Technology.

But, it is for his poetry in the Irish language that Ó Ríordáin is remembered. He only published four collections in his lifetime, roughly one every decade. According to Transcript Review: ‘His writing is the product of patient distillation, and as a result is resonant and potent. [He] forged a personal idiom unlike that of any other Gaelic writer. It is an idiom made of key-words representing key-ideas, innovative compounds, and bombastic adjectives coined by the poet. His telling vocabulary is coupled with clarity of syntax.’

Ó Ríordáin was also a diarist for much of his life. A few excerpts from his journals have appeared in Irish-language publications - in the Irish-Language literary journal Comhar, and in Seán Ó Coileáin’s 2011 biography. More recently, the Irish-language publisher Cló Iar-Chonnacht has brought out Anamlón Bliana: Ó Dhialanna an Ríordánaigh, an anthology of 365 entries from Ó Ríordáin diaries, as collated by Tadhg Ó Dúshláine, one for each day of the year. ‘Together,’ the publisher says, ‘they provide a unique insight into the tortured mind of the poet, from 1940 when he first began to write in his diary.’

According to Róisín Ní Ghairbhí writing in The Irish Times, ‘The Ó Ríordáin of the diaries is precocious, erudite and articulate, and these excerpts are a fascinating insight into the troubled mind of a poet.’ She goes on: ‘The diary excerpts reveal a man with a mystic’s mind, a scholar’s passion and a generous cosmopolitan outlook. The raw intimacy of some of the writing is unsettling; elsewhere the reader will laugh out loud at Ó Ríordáin’s self-deprecation. His dim view of Irish bishops (he deems them Pharisees), his irreverent humour (he compares his suffering to that of Jesus, who at least, he says, had the consolation of wine and Mary Magdalene) and his repeated crises of faith remind us that he had a rebellious streak, which, although often overlooked since, was a great inspiration to the next generation of writers in Irish.’

The only extracts from Ó Ríordáin’s diaries that I have been able to find in English were published nearly 20 years go in The Diaries of Ireland: An Anthology 1590-1987 (The Lilliput Press, 1998) edited by Melosina Lenox-Conyngham. Here are several extracts.

11 August 1964
‘I have just returned from a funeral. A Protestant who died yesterday was being taken to the church at seven this evening. I went into this church for the first time and felt a strong sense of eeriness. I stood at the door and looked in. A small chapel was visible. The congregation was standing, its back to me, facing the altar. It was divided in two, a path in the middle. The altar and the minister could be seen at the end of the path. ‘Holy - Holy - Holy’ was written on the altar cloth. The place had the appearance of poverty, although the building seems ostentatious from the outside. The coffin was at the foot of the altar. I must confess that I was deeply moved, that is to say that every part of my mind was moved and renewed, and every moment of my life back to the days of my youth, and I might even say that I felt the hundreds of years between me and the Reformation slipping away when I looked into that holy place this evening. It was as though I had opened a door in my own soul that I had not had the courage to open until now. That was the strangest thing of all: that it seemed to me that I was looking at something which concerned me closely but that I had neglected, and I felt guilty. It was though I had visited relatives with whom my own family had long been at odds, people whom we had denied and avoided, and suddenly a hidden part of my own heritage was revealed to me. I found it difficult to satisfy my eyes. If allowed, I would have remained till midnight, peering about. There before me was Protestantism within which I hitherto had seen only from without. These are the people whose faith and way of life and destiny I had thought was to remain outside. This evening I saw them inside - inside though still outside. I felt that here was spiritual shelter. Although they had separated from the larger flock at the time of the Reformation, observe the heed they paid to the altar, to the altar cloth, to the priest’s vestments, to the rail, to the chapel itself, and observe how they had preserved these and other things. Who would claim that they did not preserve something of faith and sanctity and efficacy? Who would claim that their prayers are not heard?

I have long known a man of this congregation, but I never saw him pray to God until today. I looked on his back and on his grey hair and felt guilty. Why guilty? Because, I suppose, this thing has been happening among us for ages and we closed our eyes firmly to it. I felt also that I had been here before, although I had not. There is a part of Ireland and a part of the Church and a part of me here that exists nowhere else. Simple and not so simple people have been worshipping God, in this way, in this kind of church, for hundreds of years. Behind this worship is one great historical deed: the rejection of the Pope’s authority. It took great courage to risk damnation, but it required even greater faith to believe in the teaching of this severed Church. What a thing a great deed is, be it right or wrong! To do is to live! Think of the suffering, the love, the hate, the bloodshed, the philosophy, the history that followed this deed. All this activity must have contributed greatly to the light of truth.’

1 August 1963
‘I feel that I know my own death, and have known it tor a long time. I feel that I died long ago, the same death I shall die later on. When I think of my own death, I do not think of something that has yet to happen, but of something that happened long ago but was forgotten. When I am of this mind, it seems to me that my death is what is most me. I think it is much more me than all the rest of my life.

Like everyone else, I am a rich man for I have death in the bank. I cannot be drawn upon, however; death cannot he spent until it has matured. Death is land that cannot he sold or tied up in money, and we must live our life without it. We are often impoverished, without as much as a penny to spend, despite all this wealth we have stored up.’

2 June 1964
‘I saw a fat, ugly, middle-aged woman the other night. She is long married. Where is the snow that was so bright last year? I remember when she was a vision, when I thought I was in love with her. There was no beauty or contentment in the world then but what could he found in her. Now I wouldn’t care if she didn’t exist. She is a fat, ugly, old woman. Other, younger women, now hold the sway that she once held. This is an old story - the departure of youth and beauty. But it is even worse when they don’t depart but still remain, and we continue to crave them. People matter not a whit. They come and they go. But youth and beauty are eternal, and however old we may be they remain our constant goal. It was always people between twenty and twenty-five that Marcus Aurelius saw on the Appian Way. That is enough to break one’s heart.’

21 March 1974
‘I have been grasping for breath today and yesterday. Perhaps death is near. It doesn’t bother me in the least. I remember a fine, sunny day long ago in Clondrohid. I lived in Ballyvourney at the time, and cannot have been yet fifteen. I think my aunt Kathleen (now dead) was there. I don’t remember who else, but there were many. I got a spin in a large motor car that had no roof. The world was very airy. It is only a memory. Everyone is dead.’

The Diary Junction

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