Máirtín Ó Cadhain — The Man on the Stamp

By Mae Leonard.

In this 2008 piece for RTÉ Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany, Mae recalled Dublin in the late sixties — and a fascinating figure whom she did not identify until forty years later.

Everything in Dublin was new and exciting to me back then — having moved from the confining walls of Limerick to, as we called it, ‘the big smoke’. It was 1968 and I was looking at the world through the rose-tinted spectacles of a newlywed.

Dublin that September was a comfortable city at night. There were girls in daring mini skirts, there were street photographers and there was Cabaret at the Chariot Inn in Ranelagh with Buachaill ón Éirne himself, Breandán Ó Dúill, and the ballad group We 4 with Susanne Murphy. I loved the thrill of a late-night horror film at the cinema on Saturday nights and buying Sunday newspapers on the way back to the flat.

Another treat was a pint in Dawson’s Pub in Rathmines — a place to relax and, as a couple, we would sit and plan or meet friends. There were others of like mind there also and the two men who sat at the counter on tall stools were there for the same purpose. The difference was, they conversed in Irish with the blas of native speakers. I was fascinated listening to them. Fascinated by one of them in particular. The man with the spectacles and the tightly cut iron-grey hair. This man had a peculiar way of enunciating words and delivering them rapidly like the pik-pik-pik of a startled blackbird. I never knew his name but his fluency and command of Irish was spectacular.

My schoolbook Irish hadn't brought me to this level of expertise. My ear was attuned to the soft, rounded tones of Munster Irish but this was something else — this was harsh — as harsh as the landscape of Connemara.

I leaned forward to catch snatches of the conversation — it was difficult — but I managed to understand a few bits and pieces. One evening the two were discussing the recent invasion of Prague by the Russians and what might happen to Alexander Dubček. Another time, it was about the American presidential election and Nixon came in for a roasting. Soon, I found that I could follow the conversation a little better and heard them discuss the dangers of the Fosbury Flop — the head-first jump introduced at the Mexico Olympics that year. And the discussion became quite heated on the protest by the clenched fist salutes of the American Black Power athletes.

Our own discussion was a lot more mundane — mostly about the house we were about to buy and our move out of Dublin to the country. I never knew who that glorious Irish speaker was. I doubt if anyone in Dawson's Pub, Rathmines, in 1968 knew either. He was just part of the scene.

I bought some postage stamps the other day and there he was — the gaeilgeoir — looking at me just as I remember him. But I didn't know him. I didn't know of his political activities or of his internment in the Curragh military prison during the Second World War. Neither did I know that he is universally acknowledged as a pioneer of Irish-language modernism. There are books — in particular Cré na Cille — a tale of the dead in a graveyard talking to each other, which was translated into several languages — and he wrote short stories too.

We bade goodbye to Rathmines in September 1969 ignorant of the fact that he was a professor of Irish at Trinity College. Neither did we know that he had passed away the following year. I look at his face on my postage stamp and I tell the man in the post office: I remember him; I remember that man — Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

Iontaobhas Uí Chadhain is grateful to the author for her kind permission to publish this piece here.