Simon Ó Faoláin

- Ireland -

Simon was born in Dublin but raised in the West Kerry Gaeltacht of Corca Dhuibhne, where he now lives. His work is informed by an archaeologist’s understanding of the deep histories and ecologies of places, and many of his poems are inspired by physical landscape features and their historical and mythological resonances. Relationships between natural and cultural heritage – and between human and non-human life – are explored through striking visual imagery and the adoption of an array of viewpoints, as in the poem sequence ‘Tréigint Eilean Hiort: cuimhní ceathrar’ (‘The Desertion of St Kilda: memories of four’) in Anam Mhadra, where the desertion of this remote Scottish island in 1930 is examined through the perspective of a house mouse, a fulmar petrel, a human inhabitant and a dog. 

Simon Ó Faoláin is one of the most exciting Irish-language poets to come to prominence  since the turn of the millennium. He published his first collection Anam Mhadra (Dog’s Soul) to critical acclaim in 2008, and this was followed by As Gaineamh (Out of Sand, 2011), Fé Sholas Luaineach (By Unsteady Light, 2014), and the illustrated bilingual publication Baile Do Bhí / A Home That Was (2014), featuring material from Fé Sholas Luaineach. Having trained as an archaeologist, he worked for many years in the academic and commercial spheres, during which period he was a contributing author to John T. Koch’s An Atlas for Celtic Studies: Archaeology and Names in Ancient Europe and Early Medieval Ireland, Britain and Brittany (Oxbow Books, 2007). He now works full-time as a writer and translator and his latest books are A’ Mheanbhchuileag / An Corrmhíol (The Midge, 2019), a translation from the Scottish Gaelic of Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh, and An Fheadóg Fia: Rogha Dánta (The Deer Whistle: Selected Poems, 2020), a translation of a selection of poems by Chinese poet Jidi Majia. Simon has received numerous literary awards, including the Glen Dimplex Prize, the Strong Prize, the Walter Macken Prize and the Colm Cille Prize. A selection of his poems, with translations by Peter Sirr, were included in the important bilingual volume Calling Cards: Ten Younger Irish Poets (eds Peter Fallon and Aifric Mac Aodha, 2018).


Vulnerability and marginality are recurring themes in Simon’s poetry, be the subject a young child orphaned due to AIDS (‘Sa Dílleachtlann SEIF, Blantyre, Malawi’ [‘In the AIDS Orphanage, Blantyre, Malawi’], Anam Mhadra) or a homeless immigrant suffering violent death by misadventure in an Irish city (‘Caoineadh Henryk Piotrowski’ [‘Lament for Henryk Piotrowski’], Fé Sholas Luaineach). This latter poem was published, with Polish translation by Justyna Mackowska and English translation by John Kearns and Paddy Bushe, as ‘Trilingual Elegy’, in Irish Pages / Duillí Éireann 9/2 (2017). Human vulnerability is the theme of the long poem by Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh translated by Simon – where the irony of human suffering caused by a tiny insect is extended to a broader examination of the limits of human agency and autonomy. Many of his own most contemplative poems address similar questions, some exhorting a stoical acceptance of the reality of conflict and pain (for example: ‘Do dhuine fén mbráca’ [‘For the distressed’] and ‘Ómós do Marcus Aurelius’ [‘Homage to Marcus Aurelius’], As Gaineamh), while others remain more equivocal about the contingencies of the human experience. 


The vulnerability of wildlife in an anthropocentric world is addressed in all three original collections. From the demise of wild animals by motor traffic (‘Aisling Bóthair 1’ [‘Road Vision I], Anam Mhadra) to the irony of seals and wildlife finding sanctuary in the hands of their ancestral enemy (‘Tearmann’ [‘Sanctuary’], As Gaineamh) or the fate of wild fowl raised to be hunted (‘Saoirse an Phiasúin’ [‘The Freedom of the Pheasant’], Fé Sholas Luaineach), the overarching concern is the relationship between the human and animal world. The theme is most marked in the collection As Gaineamh, which includes poems dealing with the extinction of species (‘Tyger’, a poem in conversation with William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, but written in response to a significant decrease in the Indian tiger population; ‘Clabhsúr’ [‘Closure’], written in homage to animal conservationist and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall; and ’Scannán: an Thylacine deireanach, 1933’ [‘Film: the last Thylacine, 1933’]).  


Simon’s interest in questions of peripherality and minority attracted him to the work of Jidi Majia, one of the most critically acclaimed poets of the Yi-Nuosu ethnic group in the Chinese province of Sichuan. The poems in the volume An Fheadóg Fia are in tune with his own poetic concerns, particularly in the manner in which they valorise indigenous and local cultures and recognise the global importance of diversity in the animal and human worlds.  Similarly, his translations from Anglo-Saxon and classical sources in Fé Sholas Luaineach are clearly motivated by their relevance to contemporary social and political issues.


Compelling features of each of Simon Ó Faoláin’s collections to date are the range and versatility of style and form employed and a sustained ability to surprise the reader with fresh perspectives. All the collections include short meditative pieces, vivid and sensuous studies of nature or wildlife, dramatic sketches (ironic or humorous) set in urban or rural settings and longer poems or poem sequences that address particular events or issues and their ethical or political implications. Sources of reference include Irish and classical history and mythology, and the poems demonstrate deep knowledge of a range of natural science disciplines, especially botany, zoology and ornithology. The role of religion in a secular age is a recurring theme. The poem ‘Bestiarium’ (Anam Mhadra), for example, eschews Christian anthropocentrism, while the poem ‘Kapadokya’ (As Gaineamh) addresses the challenges for the analytical mind posed by sacred architecture and visual art. A forthcoming collection includes a series of fifteen poems in sonnet form, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs, as part of the 1500thanniversary of the birth of the celebrated Irish-Scottish Early Christian saint, Naomh Colm Cille (St Columba). The series, entitled ‘Colm Cille cecinit’, imagines the exoticism and novelty of Christianity in Colm Cille's time and draws on historical, literary, hagiographical and folklore sources to explore the Columban tradition from a creative and critical contemporary perspective.  


Simon has a long record of involvement in poetry events and readings, both as a participant and as an organizer. As well as reading his own work at many festivals, he was organizer of the monthly Irish-language literature event ‘Aos Cró’ in Corca Dhuibhne, curator of the 2020 international Crossways festival and is long-standing director of An Fhéile Bheag Filíochta, a bilingual poetry festival held in the West Kerry village of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh.


Máirín Nic Eoin