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Máire Mhac an tSaoi

Agus mé imgreachaile,’ adúirt sí,’
Chreidinn go raibh na Flaithis
Lán de chumhracht na meala
Agus na mísmín
Agus daer na farraige.
Anois gabhaim leor le grá Dé!

Máire Mhac an tSaoi 

In Spring 2005, the distinguished poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi was appointed to the position of Adjunct Professor of Irish Studies at NUI, Galway. Máire Mhac an tSaoi is one of a handful of major poets who transformed poetry in Irish in the period during and after the Second World War. Her work is particularly significant in that it anticipates the emergence of women’s voices at the forefront of Irish poetry in both Irish and English during the 1970s and 80s. A generation before the groundbreaking achievements of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Eavan Boland and others, and in more daunting circumstances, Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poetry speaks to and from the intimate experience of women at a time when women’s voices were marginalized both in literature and in Irish society. Her most famous poem ’Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin’, is a powerful challenge to the orthodox morality of  Ireland in the 1940s and subsequent decades:

Beagbheann ar amhras daoine,
Beagbheann ar chros na sagart,
Ar gach ní ach a bheith sínte
Idir tú agus falla-

I care little for people’s suspicions, I care little for priests’ prohibitions, For anything save to lie stretched Between you and the wall-

The intellectual integrity and emotional independence that characterise her poetry is evident again in Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s public life. In reviewing her autobiography The Same Age as the State¸ Seamus Heaney says ’there is truth to experience here, a forthrightness about passion and transgression that is thrilling and exemplary’. Throughout the book, she speaks frankly of her own experience as a civil servant and career diplomat during a period of dramatic change and political turbulence in Ireland, Europe, and the developing world. During her time in the Department of External Affairs, she was, in her own words, the ’token woman’ on Ireland’s first delegation to the United Nations. As chargé d’affaires at the Irish Embassy in Madrid, she was invited to the Palacio del Oriente, where she met with General Franco, an experience she describes as ’both baroque and absurd’. She also spent time with her husband Conor Cruise O’Brien in the Congo, Ghana, and elsewhere in dramatic times and dangerous circumstances. One of the most powerful passages in The Same Age as the State recounts a violent incident in Katanga and an apparent attempt to assassinate Dr O’ Brien.

While she is highly regarded by other poets and by critics, the full extent of Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s contribution to twentieth-century Irish literature and politics has yet to be fully appreciated and acknowledged. In recognition of her achievement, as a groundbreaking poet and as a public figure who participated significantly in some of the key moments of recent Irish, European, and world history, her appointment to this honorary position is a very welcome one.


from ’Contemporary poetry in Irish 1940-2000’, Louis de Paor, pp 325-8, The Cambridge History of Irish Literature Vol II: 1890-2000, edited by Margaret Kelleher & Philip O’Leary

The most consistent challenge to the prevailing moral consensus of the 1940s and 50s is contained in the work of Máire Mhac an tSaoi (b. 1922) which, on occasion, admits the absolute nature of female desire as a threat to the prevailing social and moral order. While the women whose subversive integrity is invoked in ’AthDheirdre’ and ’Gan Réiteach’ appear careless of the consequences of their unappeasable desire, the author’s dedication of her first collection, Margadh na Saoire (1956) ’don té a léifidh le fabhar’ (to the well-disposed reader) indicates a certain apprehension as to the sanction her work might provoke. The need for discretion is further evident in the organisation of the poems into different categories under the headings of ’Liricí’ (lyrics), ’Eachtraíocht agus amhráin tíre’ (tales and folk songs) and ’Aistriúcháin’ (translations). That this is not merely a scholarly convenience or a hangover from her academic work is evident in the progress of the work itself from one section to another. While the lyric poems are more or less orthodox in form and sentiment, the personae through which her poetic voice articulates itself in the imitations of traditional folk models allow a more subversive ethic to gradually assert and distinguish itself from the anonymity of pastiche. The transgression is most clearly voiced in the final section of the book in her translation of Lorca’s ’An Bhean Mhídhílis’ (The Unfaithful Wife) as though such immorality might be tolerated only at a historical and geographical remove.

While Mac an tSaoi’s imitation of the forms and poetic diction of earlier phases of Irish poetry from the bardic period through to the folk songs familiar to her from extended childhood visits to Dún Chaoin has been criticised as pastiche, the almost classical rigour of her language also provides a cover for a more subversive enterprise, deflecting attention from the challenge posed to standard morality in her most achieved work. The ventriloquism that allows an alternative morality to be articulated through a mask may be a necessary subterfuge, a strategy which allows otherwise prohibited emotions to be expressed discreetly. The near anonymity of the initial ’M’, the signature to her earliest published work in Comhar, which conceals her gender as well as her personal identity, is another form of subterfuge that allows the otherwise unspeakable its say. Her work, in any case, is more conflicted than is immediately apparent. That her most famous poem, ’Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin’, [i] should be attributed to a persona whose name is synonymous with the folly of young women is, to some extent, a corrective to the transgression enacted in the course of the poem where the world extends no further than the edge of the bed and the woman abused in love declares herself careless of people’s suspicion and of clerical prohibition. Although she prays God to liberate her in the opening line of the poem and declares her desire to conform to the established moral order, she reiterates in the closing verses her willingness to repeat the transgression even as she repents her original sin.

That tension between individual desire and conventional values is central to Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poetic method. The orthodox sentiments expressed in many of her poems are less a genuflection to the prevailing moral codes than an indication of the ambivalence and confusion dramatised in her best work. The nationalist sentiment of her elegy for an executed sixteenth-century Irish chieftain, ’Inquisitio 1584’, is moderated in the later ’An Fuath (1967)’ where she reminds herself and the reader that hatred which blooms in conflict might also sustain a garden built on sand-dunes between two tides ’mar a maireann ár mná ’s ár bpáistí’ (where our wives and children live). The conflict in the North provokes an even more fundamental realignment in ’Fód an Imris: Ard-Oifig an Phoist, 1986’. The reverence of ’Oíche Nollag’ and ’Amhrán Céad Chomaoine’ is countered by a fundamental doubt and half-belief in ’Bás mo Mháthar’ while an uneasy reconciliation is effected in ’Moment of Truth’ when the ultimate question as to God’s existence posed by a dying woman is answered with less than wholehearted conviction:  ’Am briathar ná feadar/Ach nach mór dom creideamh na gcomharsan/mar mhapa chun go mbreacfainn marc air’ (I honestly don’t know/only that I need the neighbours’ faith/as a map I can leave a mark on).

The powerful female antecedents whose exemplary courage she is incapable of or unwilling to follow in ’AthDheirdre’ and ’Gan Réiteach’ provide the heroic model for ’Adhlacadh Iníon an Fhile’ where death is preferable to old age and, indeed, for a poem of homage to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, ’Do Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’, whose achievement might be seen as a vindication of some of the more transgressive elements in her own work. The emergence of a subsequent generation of women poets in Irish may account, in part, for the growing conviction of the dramatised ’I’ in Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s later collections where she flouts the standard conventions of authorial discretion by exploiting the overlap between her public and private personae. In addressing by their proper names members of her immediate and extended family and others, she provokes the reader to relate her poems to the known details of her intimate but nonetheless public life. Despite the conventions of contemporary critical practice which would disallow such a conflation of biography and poetry, her later work exploits common knowledge of the domestic details of her private life to produce work that allows the intimate to infiltrate the public, to reorder and rewrite it from within.

Although her work has been sporadic, a measure, perhaps, of the difficulty of sustained innovation, the most persistent aspect of her achievement is the precedence given to the intimate and the domestic in her poems. Long before the publication of Eavan Boland’s groundbreaking volume in English, Nightfeed (1982), which placed the nursing mother and her infant child in a nighttime suburban kitchen at the heart of a poetic universe, Máire Mhac an tSaoi had effected a similar revolution in the language and thematics of poetry in poems such as ’Do Shíle’, ’An Chéad Bhróg’ and ’Comhrá ar Shráid’. The same reversal of values informs later poems such as ’Do Mháiréad sa tSiopa Cóirithe Gruaige’, and ’Codladh an Ghaiscígh’ where the baroque language is matched by unusual intensity and intricacy of feeling. The central ambivalences of her work and the integrity of her own refusal to effect a facile reconciliation between them is still evident in her most recent poems where she continues, despite her own stated religious convictions, to celebrate the independence of women who refuse to be intimidated by the authority of the Church and its moral sanctions. There is a further emotional complication in the more intimate poems as the passage of time causes a deepening tenderness in filial relationships on the one hand and a growing horror on the other at the imminence of physical disintegration, barely assuaged by the consolation of Christian belief. The integrity of her achievement, her subtle interrogation and gradual subversion of prevailing orthodoxies, and her influence on the generation of women poets who emerged in the 1980s has been considerable although understated and, perhaps, insufficiently acknowledged.

[i] According to tradition, Máire Ní Ógáin was the mistress of poet Donnchadh Ruadh MacConmara (1715-1810).