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
WINNOWING / AG CÁITHEADH
Here we go again,
trying to separate
life’s brilliant possibilities
from the cushy numbers
we’ve settled for.
In the end
none of us will know
whether it was the wheat or the chaff
that flew off in the wind.Translated by Peter Sirr
THE WEATHER ON MARS / AIMSIR
A dark, spirit-slumping
kind of day. Beside me
the black cat snores in his chair,
folded in on himself. On the hob
spuds boiling for the hens …
Something I heard recently
is lodged in my inner eye:
that snow falls from the skies of Mars,
pouring down from the black depths
only to vaporise
before it could touch the ground.
The snow sings in its great distances
and the cats joins in:
not ours to reason why,
our lot is to freeze and melt,
freeze and melt forever,
the red will never be white.Translated by Peter Sirr
BEDOUIN / BEDOUIN
The sod is hard with frost at dawn,
Hunkered cattle chew the cud, steam above them,
Twin mountains stand – the Géarán and the Géarán’s Point
(the names are not important, nor the words, but what is seen) –
Stand swathed in white symmetry, an abstract form
With angles straight and gentle rising on each flank
To the zenith of the two peaks, and between
There sags a narrow ridge, a perfect curve;
Saddle bow on the hard horse of the world;
Or a recurve bow in Olympian hero’s grip –
He hits the heart, the bulls-eye every time;
Or Cupid’s bow atop luxuriant lips
Which make us itch to match them to our own.
But no, those images are all wide of the mark,
For now the mind throws up a simple shape
Full of mystery and standing in the lee
Of a crescent dune deep in the desert heart,
High angles from each side to each pole-tip
– two of them – and the canvas looping down
A breathless arc between, the night had come
And next the solitary tent there winked
A small fire’s boldness in orange and gold.
It has burned clear through my mind to the far side,
How I saw it through thin purple air
At hour of star-unfolding, clear
From the window of a cruising jumbo jet,
Craning my neck forward to look back,
Wishing I need never lose the sight,
But the angle narrowed, perspective became lost
And now maybe it was just a winking fire.
PERMANENT ECLIPSE / BUANÉICLIPS
As it is a fact that the bones
Of the ancestors from
the womb of Newgrange
Are some time since evicted
To archive boxes
In the museum’s bowels,
And a fact also that
Sun shines not on them here
Any day of the year,
Not even at solstice so that
The eternal circuit should remain intact,
This winter will last forever.
THE LAMENT FOR HENRYK PIOTROWSKI / CAOINEADH HENRYK PIOTROWSKI
Comrade from the east
I mourn your downfall,
you might have been me
on a different road,
I also was goaded
by the sting of madness
to make a dash
for the door and to
take off down the road,
to turn my back
on all I had planned,
on family, on love,
on friends, on homeland,
all things familiar,
on hope itself
When – in spite of
all good fortune,
flights of fancy,
of transformation –
I felt my life
was a zero sum
of pointlessness, aimlessness,
driven by darkness,
my out of control
world was in a downward spin,
such that I felt
I had been abandoned,
and every tether
on my body and soul
tightened beyond release.
Comrade from the east
I understand your downfall.
For what good to you
is any compassion
which your dead ear
may not hear
nor your living ear
The world observed you
for a long time
with an eagle’s cold eye,
evaluation is finished
by the market,
no subtle author
created the metaphor
that dropped your body
on a garbage tip,
but comrade from the east
I pity your downfall.
I sing for those
with no wealth to share,
I sing for those
who earn no praise,
I sing for those
with no name, nor place to stay
I sing for those
whom god has turned away,
I sing for those
with a fence in the mind
closing them off
from home and kind,
I sing for those
who condemn themselves
to endless digging
I sing for those
for whom slant, skewed,
perverted is the course
that is plotted
through life, from the embrace
of a mother’s arms
to the embrace
of those iron jaws.
Comrade from the east
I grieve for your downfall.
WILDERNESS / FÁSACH
For Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill
And in spite everything I have now,
Especially in spite of the easy life,
The vision still lives intensely within.
There’s a beehive hut high on Screag
– Roofed still between earth and sky –
That would be enough.
Ravens speaks fraternally there,
A hare runs uphill,
Golden plovers are incandescent.
I’d have no bean-row at all there
(It’s common knowledge that beans
Don't grow on islands, or exposed mountains).
I’d live on fraughans, silverweed roots, chickweed,
And maybe a bottle of Laphroaig
Hoarded in a niche in the wall of the hut.
I’d have the odd drop on fine evenings,
Perched between the door-jambs watching
The sun set blood-red over Sliabh an Iolair.
Ingrained in the turf-smoke of every sip
Would be taste of all the bridges I burned,
And let that be no occasion for remorse.
IMBOLC / IMBOLC
I woke far and deep into the dark
Solemnities of winter’s last night.
Two things woke me: a need to piss
And, beyond that, the echoing
Sound of a vixen under a dog fox
On the craggy slope as they mated.
Bodily business behind me,
I listened to the screeching,
Plain desire plainly articulated.
Ears filled by a vixen under a dog,
I stood naked under the attic window
With a feral pang through my gut.
A proclamation from Cnoc a’ Chairn: 
The deepest dark of winter has gone.
 title Imbolc is the pagan Gaelic festival marking the beginning of Spring. Christianized as Lá le Bríde, Saint Brigit's
 Cnoc a' Chairn is the name of the mountain above the West Kerry town of An Daingean (Dingle).
HORIZONS / LÉASLÍNTE
The canary had been dead as a dodo this past while,
But somehow, as we groped around in terror in the darkness,
Our hands chanced upon the airlock’s wheel
And turned it.
When our heads broke the surface luck was with us:
A white plastic nut swam among the wreckage
And bloomed – yellow like a water lily –
Into a life raft.
Huge bubbles issue from the depths
With the collapse of each bulkhead:
Pay it no mind – we are no longer in that place –
But raise your head.
Though our provisions will not last long
And who knows what weather front approaches,
Are these waves not beautiful,
CEASEFIRE / SOS COGAIDH
Come down, dismount your piebald pony,
Leave cloud of doubt and halo of fury,
And I’ll lay aside prejudice’s helmet.
Do you know me now, dark glowering man,
Or do we all look much the same in your eyes?
On the edge of Kilmallock you pulled a knife.
And although the point was turned on me,
It was as though you could not see,
It was as though you fought with shadows.
And although your hand controlled the hilt,
I felt like a surgeon observing a reflex,
For the knife was your answer to all your ills.
I never wish to deny free will,
But who can deny conditioning
Instils salivation in dogs and men?
Yet might both of us pull out of Pavlov’s disease
And see the face behind the mask,
No cloud or halo, no helmet or knife?
UNDERWATER CONTACT / TEAGMHÁIL FOTHOINN
It was not the vision’s ultrasound
That bore your being home to me,
But deep blind sonar of the ear,
The liquid beat of a tiny heart
Exactly like a swishing prop,
And I am a diver once again
Sensing mysterious vessels glide
Upon the surface overhead.
With fate’s currents all disturbed now
An eddy of life swells deep below,
Rise, my heart, but steady, slow,
Avoiding danger of the bends
Ascend the slender bubble-thread
Through silver-sequinned clouds of fish.
BACK WEST / THIAR
This corner of the townland
Where the fields are not neat and rectangular
With parallel boundaries,
But small and irregular, speckled with boulders,
Like a cluster of cancer cells in healthy tissue
Or the absolute opposite.
Above, the zig-zag course of the green track
Back and forth across the mountain’s screen
Shows a pulse, a still-beating heart,
Or perhaps I am mistaken.
No boat nor punt stirs the harbour below,
Be there shoaling or – most often – nothing.
It is not the water only which is like a sheet,
For a sheet lies on this scene’s every part.
Perhaps the riddle could be untied,
the spell broken,
Had we the correct words
Or knowledge of the combination,
Like the chrome keyboards
On the gateposts of the empty houses,
But there is a hollow silence within
and silence has slipped the leash.