Athlone man publishes his seventeenth collection of poetry

By Gearoid O’Brien

I have heard the practice of writing described as ‘ploughing a lonely furrow’ and it is, perhaps, a very apt description because writers, especially poets, can go for long stretches without any feedback or affirmation.

However, if writing in English is ploughing a lonely furrow, then God alone knows what it is like for the poet writing in the Irish language.

Seán Ó Leocháin, retired Vice-Principal of St Joseph’s College, Summerhill, has been writing poetry now for over 50 years. A native of Athlone, he had his first collection, Bláth an Fheir published by An Clochomhar Tta., in 1968 and his work has been published regularly ever since.

The critic Alan Titley once described Seán as a poet “who has worked consistently and carefully at his craft”. He is regarded as one of the leading poets writing in the Irish language today and in 2000, he was the recipient of the coveted Michael Hartnett Award.

Some 30 years ago the Franciscan scholar, Micheál MacCraith, wrote a feature length article in Poetry Ireland Review titled “Seán Ó Leocháin: sacramentalist of the countersign”. The opening lines read: “With an impressive output of seven published books of poetry and one in the press, Seán Ó Leocháin is one of the most substantial poets in modern Irish”.

In the intervening years, Seán has continued to publish and this year marks the publication of his largest collection to date. This, his seventeenth collection, which is published by Coiscéim is titled Caint san Aer: Mála Dánta le Dánta Nua.

It draws on his six most recent collections published by Coiscéim together with about three dozen new poems. The very striking cover features a detail from a stained-glass window in Ely Cathedral depicting the Tower of Babel.

The opening poem in this collection is a very moving poem about a young girl on a swing in Kiev. It was written in February this year.

The title Caint San Aer is taken from a sequence on Covid 19. Ó Leocháin’s poetry covers a diverse range of topics, and there is an element of humour in several of them. He finds inspiration in the apparently mundane (including a dual control electric blanket) and crafts it into fine poetry. His poem on the current turf controversy is aptly titled Céard a Dhéanfaimid…?

I wish I had the fluency in Irish to review this book, as it deserves ‘as Gaeilge’, but I’m almost 50 years out of school and reading this book is in itself a challenge, albeit it a rewarding one. I have to admit I had my trusty Foclóir by my side. Yet, I found myself reading several of the poems aloud because there is such wonderful music in many of the lines. Seán Ó Leocháin is a poet’s poet, he has his craft well-honed and that is surely what confirms him as one of the most important voices in Irish poetry today.

The publication of this, his seventeenth collection, is a monumental achievement. For a poet who is not a native of a Gaeltacht area to have achieved this status is nothing short of astonishing.

When I was at school, in St. Aloysius College, the two big names in Irish poetry were Máirtin Ó Direain and Seán Ó Riordáin. Ó Direain was the most prolific with 13 published collections while Ó Riordáin’s reputation was largely based on one collection Eireaball Spideoige (published in 1952) which was followed by just three subsequent books the last one of which was published posthumously.

Over the years I have been delighted when someone at a library seminar or other similar event has remarked to me ‘Isn’t Seán Ó Leocháin from Athlone?’ and then gone on to tell me how much they admire his work.

The poets of medieval Ireland were known as bards and Westmeath had an honourable tradition in terms of the Irish Bardic tradition with the Uí Chobhthaigh (O Coffey), Uí Dhálaigh (O Daly) and Nugent families all featuring largely in this story. In medieval times practising bards held a high status in Irish society, equivalent to that of bishops.

It seems that Seán Ó Leocháin has suffered the fate of the prophet in the Bible (Mark 6:4) where it says “a prophet is not without honour save in his own country”. Part of this is, no doubt, because Seán is a very private person who shuns publicity in favour of getting on with it and writing. But I think it is high time that his great contribution to poetry in the Irish language is fully acknowledged, perhaps by an honorary doctorate but that is for others to decide.

On the evidence of Caint san Aer, Seán is not short of inspiration and I am confident that he will continue to surprise us with new collections which are fresh, contemporary and above all very carefully crafted.

I warmly recommend Caint san Aer to those who have a love of poetry or a love of the Irish language – or ideally both!