Maire MacEntee Interview: Conversations with History;Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

An Irish Voice of Poetry: Conversation with Maire MacEntee, poet; 4/4/00 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much indeed.

How have your Irish roots affected the way that you see the world?

That's a very difficult one to answer, because my Irish roots are so very deep that I presume they affect everything that I experience. When, for example, we were in the Congo, I remember flying across country to a big Baluba political rally. And before we actually attended the rally I remember being met, as we left the plane, on an unpaved road, by a gathering of quite raggedly dressed men who spoke at some length to Conor [Cruise O'Brien, her husband] about the actual political situation. And I could have been on a back road in Ireland listening to a candidate for the local county council talking to the local chieftains. So immediately I felt at home, but I felt at home because of the Irish background.

But these were Africans?

Africans, yes, Africans. And of course they were talking English. But the gestures and the carriage of the head said local politicians immediately. And the fact that they were raggedly dressed in a way emphasized this rather than the opposite.

So the beauty was the universal that you saw in the particular.


How did your parents shape your character, do you think, looking back?

My father shaped our character by not being there. My father fought on the Republican side in the civil war. Maire MacEntee with her parents, Margaret and Sean MacEntee, and husband, Conor Cruise O'Brien, just after their marriage. Afterwards, in due course, he was at first very seldom with us because he was trying to bring down the existing government, and subsequently he was very seldom with us because he was maintaining the government that replaced the first government of the new state.

He was a very important figure in Irish politics; he was deputy prime minister.

He was, yes, he was. And minister for finance, which is always a very unpopular post. When my sister and I were young we used to hope that people didn't recognize us on buses because my father's taxation ideas were so unpopular. We used to hope that people didn't know us.

Any books that you read as a young person that influenced you that you remember now?

We read enormously because we belonged to the generation that precedes electronic information and electronic entertainment. When we lived, as we did for a great part of our childhood and youth, in my uncle's house in West Kerry, we didn't have a wireless. We didn't have a lot of other things. We didn't have indoor plumbing, we had one cold water tap. And until after the Second World War we didn't have a radio, so that my brother and I -- my uncle was a priest and therefore couldn't go into a public house in those puritanical and plain-living days -- we used to be sent every evening to walk a mile to the public house and listen to the six o'clock news and bring [it] back . And I remember coming back with the news that Paris had fallen. I remember that very clearly because my uncle had been a student there and was very francofied.

You also, all your life, knew Irish/Gaelic, right?

My mother and this particular uncle were great enthusiasts for the preservation [of the language]; they wouldn't allow you to say "revival," as I wouldn't allow you to say "revival" even today, because they maintained that the language was in no way dead. Their parents had been native speakers, Irish had been their first language, but they were brought up speaking English but in adolescence switched back to the study of Irish, which of course came easily to them because people in the country still spoke as if they were taking part in a scene of a play. So it was very easy to slip back into Irish. My uncle built his house in an Irish-speaking district so that his sister's family would grow up speaking Irish, knowing Irish; until I was about six years old and about to make my first Communion I assumed he knew no English. And I interpreted to him on long journeys at petrol pumps and in hotels. So I grew up not only knowing Irish but not realizing that there was anything exceptional in knowing Irish.

When you went off to school, and you have formidable academic credentials, you trained as a scholar of languages, but you also studied the law and became an attorney, although you didn't practice.

My father influenced me there. He didn't feel that there was a livelihood in Celtic studies. My mother felt similarly but she was very anxious that I should qualify. So in the long, claustrophobic years of what we call "the emergency" of the Second World War, I studied for the bar, without enthusiasm.

But then you entered the diplomatic service.

Again, that was strictly economic necessity. I had hoped for an academic post, but I was very young and I didn't, in fact (though I threw my hat in the ring a couple of times), get it. At that time Foreign Affairs were about to recruit new staff and they particularly wanted a token woman or two. So I sat for the examination and became the first token woman.

You were in the diplomatic service for ten years or so?

About that, yes.

With service in the UN, with service in Europe.

In Spain, in Franco's Spain.

So then you were never a lawyer, [you were] a reluctant diplomat ...

I never practiced but it was very useful on paper. In a CV it was very useful.

Next page: Being a Poet

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