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Ó Súilleabháin, Muiris [Maurice O'Sullivan]free

(1904–1950)
  • Muiris Diarmuid Mac Conghail

Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (1904–1950)

by Vincent Henry Lines

© reserved; by courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

Ó Súilleabháin, Muiris [Maurice O'Sullivan] (1904–1950), writer, was born on 19 February 1904 on the Great Blasket Island (An Blascaod Mór), co. Kerry, Ireland, the youngest child of Seán ‘Lís’ Ó Súilleabháin (bap. 1868) and his wife, Cáit Ní Ghuithín (bap. 1873, d. 1905). Ó Súilleabháin was the great-grandson of one of the island's filí (traditional versifiers), Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (fl. 1810–1890), and the author Tomás Ó Criomhthain (1855–1937) was a great-uncle of Ó Súilleabháin on his mother's side. After the death of his mother Ó Súilleabháin spent six years in an orphanage in Dingle town on the mainland before returning in 1911 to the Blaskets where he attended the island school until 1918. It was his grandfather Eoghan Ó Súilleabháin who was to be the dominant person in young Muiris's life. Eoghan (Daideo) was a noted seanchaí (traditional lorist).

The Great Blasket Island is situated off the Kerry coast. It contained, at the time of Ó Súilleabháin's birth, an Irish-speaking community of 145 people (6 others lived on the adjacent island of Inis Icíleáin from whence Muiris Ó Súilleabháin's grandmother came). The island community and its lifestyle were essentially medieval in character, with a strong oral tradition of storytelling and seanchas (traditional lore) deeply rooted in the Gaelic tradition. The island became a focus for visiting scholars interested in Irish language and culture, and George Derwent Thomson (1903–1987) was one of those who visited, on the advice of Robin Flower (1881–1946), keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum. Thomson was a Greek scholar, later to become professor of Greek at Birmingham (1937–70). On his arrival at the island in 1923 he established a close friendship with Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and his family. He was later to dedicate his edition of the Oresteia (1938) to Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.

Thomson persuaded Ó Súilleabháin not to emigrate to America but rather to join the Gárda Síochána (the Irish civil police) in 1927. After training Ó Súilleabháin took up police duty in an Irish-speaking district at Indreabhán in west Galway and it was here that he first began to write. Thomson urged Ó Súilleabháin to write of his childhood on the island, and Ó Súilleabháin wrote a manuscript in sections, which were sent to Thomson who was then teaching at University College, Galway. Thomson edited the text as it arrived, and, with the assistance of Moya Llewelyn Davies, he also translated it into English. The translation was published as Twenty Years a-Growing in May 1933, one month after the Irish original Fiche Blian ag Fás had appeared. Twenty Years a-Growing covers the period of Muiris Ó Súilleabháin's early childhood on the Great Blasket Island, including an account of his schooling in the Dingle Orphanage, until his arrival in west Galway as a policeman. Its style is youthful and joyously exuberant, and gives a young man's point of view on the Blasket community at its strength. Its portrait may be tinged slightly with nostalgia, particularly in its moving recollections of Ó Súilleabháin's family and island friends and of his grandfather Eoghan, but its style and that of the English translation make island life accessible. From its success in translation (in French and German as well as in English), it clearly appealed to a readership interested in the romance of island life. E. M. Forster knew Ó Súilleabháin, and in his introduction to the 1933 English text he wrote:

… and though he is pleased that his book should be translated, his main care is for the Irish original, because it will be read on the Blasket. They will appreciate it more than we can, for whom the wit and poetry must be veiled. On the other hand, we are their superiors in astonishment. They cannot possibly be as much surprised as we are, for here is the egg of a sea-bird—lovely, perfect, and laid this very morning.

Muiris Ó Súilleabháin resigned from the Gárda Síochána on 5 July 1934 to become a full-time writer, and married Cáit Ní Chatháin of Doire Fheárta, An Cheathrú Rua in west Galway, on 10 July of that year. They had two children: Eoghan (b. 1935) and Máirín (b. 1944). Muiris wrote the second of what he had planned as an autobiographical trilogy—Fiche Blian Faoi Bhláth (Twenty Years a-Flowering)—between 1935 and 1940. Irish-language publishers showed no enthusiasm for it, however, and the text has remained unpublished. Freelance writing and journalism and broadcasting in Irish did not provide a living for the Ó Súilleabháin family and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin returned to the police in 1950. He died while swimming off Salthill on 25 June 1950 and was buried two days later at Barr an Doire, An Cheathrú Rua, co. Galway.

Sources

  • Fiche Blian ag Fás MS, NL Ire., MS Acc/4562
  • series of interviews with Professor George Derwent Thomson
  • N. Ní Aimhirgín, Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (1983)
  • G. Thomson, The Blasket heritage (1988)
  • M. Mac Conghail, The Blaskets: a Kerry island library (1987)
  • parish register, Kerry, Ballyferriter [baptism: parents]

Archives

  • NL Ire., MS of Fiche Blian Art Gallery Fás
  • priv. coll.

Likenesses

  • V. H. Lines, pencil and ink drawing, NG Ire. [see illus.]
  • S. O'Sullivan, drawing, NG Ire.
  • photographs, priv. coll.
National Library of Ireland, Dublin