From Socialist Voice, December 2010

“Ne’er a wing, ne’er a wet”


The centenary of the birth of Máirtín Ó Direáin was marked in 2010. Many people whose knowledge of Ó Direáin is confined to a couple of his early “simple” poems may not be aware of his true place in Irish literature. He was a deep and complex thinker and an imaginative word-artist of great ingenuity. His quiet, gentle exterior hid a huge concern and anger at the state of Ireland in his day. He is regarded as the father of modern poetry in Irish, who pioneered new modes and themes.
     His personal difficulty as an Aran Islander of the early twentieth century fitting into city life spurred him to consider the society in which he lived but that he felt was alien. The concept of alienation is central to much of his later work. In “Ár Re Dhearóil” he wrote:
        Tá cime romham,
        Tá cime i mo dhiaidh,
        Is mé féin i mo lár
        I mo chime mar chách.
[There is a prisoner in front of me, | a prisoner behind me, | and me in the middle | as much a prisoner as anybody.]

        An macha cúil
        Tráthnóna Shathairn,
        An cluiche peile,
        An imirt cártaí
        Is ósta na bhfear
        Ina múchtar cásamh.
[The back yard | on Saturday afternoon, | the football match, | the card game | and the men’s pub | where concern is smothered.]

Máirtín would have a lot to say about the current situation. He once wrote (in “Lá an Scriosta”):
        Céard is díol éimhe
        Is an bás ina shuí
        Ar chirín an domhain?

        Ráta malartáin na huaire?
        A fhir bhig an úis
        Ní cabhair duit a pháirt
        Lá an léin.
[What is the cost of complaint | with death sitting | on the crest of the world? || The current exchange rate? | Little man of the (loan) interest | it’s no damn use to you | on the day of anguish.]

Ó Direáin’s loyalty throughout his life was always to the cosmhuintir, and he had contempt for their exploiters. He thought a lot about politics and once said (our translation): “You ought to be able to sit down at your breakfast . . . and examine the latest statement from the Central Bank, and know what is going on . . . You should be able to understand plenty of things of that kind, instead of going out to vote once every fourth or third year, and only get your vote and have no hand, act or part in the work after that. I don’t think that is democracy.’
     Hearing the phrase “merchant princes [of Galway]” caused him to comment: “Bhí ceannaithe i nGaillimh agus tá mé siúráilte nach dtabharfaidís pingin rua duit dá mbeifeá ag fáil bháis ar an dtairseach, agus ní raibh aon spéis acu in ealaín na i litríocht ná in aon rud mar sin.” (“There were merchants in Galway and I’m certain they would not give a penny if you were dying on the threshold, and they had no interest in art or literature or anything of that sort.”)
     The idea of the paranoid establishment having detectives following its perceived political enemies around, here, there, and everywhere, amused Máirtín, and he remarked that he supposed that they had Peelers following Karl Marx from his house to the British Museum.
     When Ó Direáin lived in Galway the workers in Hynes’s wood mills went on strike for a rise of one shilling. There was little strike pay, and one of the strikers told Máirtín that they had “ne’er a wing nor a wet.“ (A wing was a pre-decimal penny; a wet was a drink.) The result was the poem “An Stailc.”
        Scilling bhreise an focal faire!
        Ó bhéal na mbocht, ó chlann an duig.
        Scilling a dhiúltaigh na toicí móra,
        Scilling bhreise san uair do na fir.
        “Ne’er a wing, ne’er a wet.”

        Scilling an focal, scilling an déirce
        A tharraing ar na toicí racht na mbocht.
        Na cruimhe á gcreimeadh thíos faoi na fóda
        Á ghuidhe dóibh arís le fórsa
        “Ne’er a wing, ne’er a wet.”

        Droim le balla ag caoineadh an tuillimh,
        Ag agairt na hainnise ar an sotal,
        Scilling an focal, scilling an t‑éileamh,
        Bia, deoch, cíos is éadach.
        “Ne’er a wing, ne’er a wet.”

        Scilling á hiarraidh, beart is daonna
        Na codáin á ríomhadh mar éileamh,
        Á ríomhadh ar chaoi nach léir dom,
        Fios a d’fhionnas ó chlann an duig.
        “Ne’er a wing, ne’er a wet.”
[CDF]

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