‘Litir pharanoiach – duit féin amháin’: Seán Ó’Ríordáin, File, Fáidh agus Draoi

Recently, and in part-fulfilment of my MA in Archives and Records Management, I was afforded the opportunity to arrange and catalogue material belonging to Seán Ó’Ríordáin (1917–1977)  which had been donated to UCD Special Collections in the years after the accession of his principal collection. As a lifelong Gaelgeoir, I have always found resonance with the sense of absence in his poetry and writing due to not being a native Irish speaker. The experience of discovering Ó Ríordáin throughout my undergraduate degree in Irish and History greatly informed the process of listing this archival material, enabling me to contextualise the seemingly miscellaneous material within his life and work.

This supplementary collection of material, written and owned by the poet, diarist, and essayist, gives an enlightening insight into the soul of the great writer. Ó Ríordáin was beloved by his friends and contemporaries, including Seán Ó Mórdha who donated part of this collection to UCD Special Collections, through Professor Emeritus Liam Mac Mathúna. The other part of this collection was donated by Professor Seán Ó Coileáin (also via Mac Mathúna) and contains a wealth of articles and reviews written by and about Ó Ríordáin, including an original, intact, and extant copy of Feasta July 1953, containing the review written by Máire Mhac an tSaoi which was instrumental in launching his career. Among the collection’s gems are a manuscript copy of his last poem, Clóanna Über Alles, dated 1 February 1977, written just 20 days before his death; and proof copies of both Eireball Spideoige (1952) and Línte Liombó (1971) with extensive annotation. It is of note that the proof copy of Eireball Spideoige bears the title Ná hIarr ar an bhFírinne Sos, a line from the poem Éadóchas that appears in the same anthology. There are also a significant amount of manuscript notes and draft poems, as well as typewritten annotated drafts, many of which are untitled.

Some elements of the collection do not come as a surprise to those familiar with the work of Ó Ríordáin, for example the intense melancholy in many of his letters, reflecting the consistent presence of illness throughout his life (in 1936, Ó Ríordáin was diagnosed with tuberculosis). On the other hand, however, much of the material serves as a reminder that no one’s life is simple, and as the antithesis to today’s social media influencers, Ó Ríordáin seems to have successfully hidden a happy life and loving relationships behind his artistic sorrow. That is not to diminish his illnesses, but rather that he appears to have made peace with them in his own way. This is most evident in a letter to Seán Ó Mórdha on 13 February 1970, referring to the recent flurry of loss they had suffered:

Sórt ardú meanman isea é an oiread san daoine bheith ag fáil bháis.

It is kind of lifting my spirits that so many people around me are dying.

Ó Mórdha exchanged some one hundred letters with Ó Ríordáin, as well as keeping detailed journals during the last two years of the poet’s life. Ó Mórdha’s journal entry on the day of Ó Ríordáin’s passing reads: 

Cailleadh Seán ag 11.20pm. Dé Luain 21/2/77. Beannacht Dé leis, d’imigh sé uainn ar chuma an linbh.

Seán Ó Ríordáin passed away at 11:20pm. Monday 21/2/77. God be with him, he looked cherubic when he passed. [1]

He continued to write in the journals in the days after his death, and on 25 February he wrote:

Tá cuid mhór de m’Éirese múchta anois.

A significant part of my Ireland has been extinguished.

This entry includes a newspaper clipping announcing Ó Ríordáin’s passing. Also included is the article next to the announcement, which reflects what was (one can only assume) an eerie coincidence for Ó Mórdha: a memorial notice for a man also named Seán Ó Mórdha, who died in Dublin on 24 February 1976.

The artistic face Ó Ríordáin was and is his public one, but this collection illuminates a different vein of creativity that is clearly present across the collection. A supporter of Éamon DeValera (1882 – 1975), many doodle portraits are dotted across letters, notes and publications, as well as throughout a larger scrapbook.

There are many iconic sketches in this scrapbook, but perhaps the most interesting is the that titled ‘Golden Millar G National 1937.’ Golden Millar was an 8/1 favourite to win the Grand National in 1937, after winning in 1934 and the five previous Cheltenham Gold Cups. After leading the race up to the tenth hurdle, Golden Millar refused to jump and did not finish the race.[2] The imagery and anecdote are like the themes of the poem Malairt, from the anthology Eireball Spideoige, and one must wonder what switch flipped in the horse’s head to make him refuse the hurdle. We all have a similar switch, something Ó Ríordáin alluded to in a letter to Ó Mórdha in October 1967:

Ní fheadar an gcreidim a thuilleadh i vearsaíocht. Ní fheadar an gcreidim in nDia ach an oiread.

I am not sure if I believe in poetry anymore. I am not sure I believe in God either.

Cataloguing this collection was an amazing experience, and I encourage anyone with an interest in twentieth century Irish history and literature to peruse it. While it is predominantly as Gaeilge, for non-Irish speakers there is a series of letters in English written by Ultan MacElligott in which political notions are discussed, providing an interesting combination of Treaty and pro-Gaelic cultural ideals. They are also hilarious…trust me, you won’t regret spending an hour with these papers.

This post was researched and written by Cybi Nic Gearailt, a postgraduate student on the MA Archives and Record Management, UCD.

[1] Lit. He passed from us looking like the child.


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