Breathnach was born Cork City in 1961. He studied philosophy and Irish at UCC and now works as a terminologist with the Department of Education and as a translator with the Government translation service. He is four times winner of the Oireachtas premier prize for poetry in Irish.
‘. . . just the clear exposure of a soul
without self pity or shame . . .’ (‘Heart and Rock’)
This Cervantean attitude to life and the world, and hence to the subject matter of his poetry, in which bravery and equanimity play a major part, accepting and daring to delight in the multifariousness of the human condition, intimates the essence of Breathnach’s poetic vision.
His first collection, The Canticle of the Mute (1991) takes its title from the Irish version of the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but, as Robin Flower observed, the Irish were naturally Franciscan. Herein is celebrated that native spirit, full of the vitality, freshness and clarity of early Irish nature poetry, together with occasional glimpses of the native homo ludens and his penchant for goliardic parody. But the poignant ‘Sleep tight’, the poet’s first attempt to deal with his father’s death through the catharsis of poetry is also found here. And, most thrilling of all, perhaps, is the theme of romantic love in the graceful, evocative sensuality, reminiscent of the Song of Songs, in poems such as ‘Nach álainn tú, a rún’ (‘You are so beautiful, my love’) and ‘Summer Evening, with its modern imagery of pop and film and celebration of Cork.
The Speckled Land (1992) sees the poet, unlike his master and predecessor, Seán Ó Ríordáin, no longer agonising over the state of the language, or the problem of being, but at home in the speckled, variegated condition of humanity. The theme of romantic love and sense of place are continued, as is the preoccupation with his father’s death (three poems) and the emergence of a concern with global injustice and violence, in ‘Let us speak of other things’, a powerful anti-war poem in its deliberate understatement, by self-accusation of one’s own indifference and dismissal, rather than by exaggerated outrage and hypocritical public diatribe, as is often the case in the genre.
Scáthach (1994, called after the mythical Scottish female warrior, and dedicated to Somhairle MacGill-Eain) is regarded by discerning scholars as one of the finest collections of poetry in modern Irish. Concerning itself for the most part with an exploration of the darker side of the psyche as this collection does, the some half dozen love poems, though passionate and steeped in the rich tradition of the Irish amour courtois, exude an overriding feeling of angst and vanitas at the realisation of the transitory nature of existence. Some dozen are best appreciated as metaphysical poems of meditation of the de contemptu mundi type, while ‘Stones of the Century’ deserves to be considered one of the great anti-war poems of our time.
Heart and Stone (1995), the paradoxical title of which alludes to the biblical prayer, ‘Take away our hearts of stone, O Lord, and give us hearts of flesh’, is full of warmth and humanity, contentment and confidence, stemming from a sense of place and belonging, in celebration of the poet’s home place of Carrigrohane and that he has passed through the fog and darkness, to arrive at a stoical acceptance of Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8, as celebrated by the Byrds. Here too everything turns, turns, turns. Here too a fair sprinkling of play and laughter, culminating in a gem of a love poem, ‘The Muppets in Colour’. Even the handful of meditations, particularly ‘Ashtray’, have a devil-may-care, c’est la vie, air to them.
The Dead Man (1998) contains a pun in the title, being the common name for the most northerly of the Blasket Islands and symbolising the poet’s ongoing preoccupation with his father’s death. But for all its immediate, personal matter, this collection achieves the universality of great poetry, and even that authentic ring of Irish wakes and funeral games in ‘Good Night, ya Bastard’ and ‘8.10. a.m., 26 February, 1947 / 1996’.
Chiaroscuro (2006) is the poetic equivalent of Caravaggio’s use of tenebroso and pentimenti, in declaration of that ultimately positive and optimistic message of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola: that man has an influence on the shaping of his destiny.
Like all good art, Breathnach’s work demands revisiting, providing consolation and encouragement to engage with and relish the vicissitudes of the human condition, the agony and the ecstasy of life and love and death, and by capturing them so artistically, ensuring that these human experiences never quite disappear, as in the eternal echoes here back through the story of Irish poetry, from Michael Davitt to Ameirgin.
Colm Breathnach himself remarks that one can be in exile from place, people and oneself. His own poetic vocation has been to regain that lost ground, that sense of our shared humanity and, above all, that sense of self that accepts and rejoices in its own destiny.
Cantaic an Bhalbháin, Coiscéim, Dublin,1991
An Fearann Breac, Coiscéim, Dublin,1992
Scáthach, Coiscéim, Dublin,1994
Croí agus Carraig, Coiscéim, Dublin,1995
An Fear Marbh, Cló Iar-Chonnachta, Indreabhán, 1998
Chiaroscura, Coiscéim, Dublin, 2006
Cat agus Luch (translation with Dr. Andrea Nic Thaidhg of the novel Katz und Mausby by Günter Grass)
biography Includes the poem ‘Birdways’
In Irish and English
Poem from The Great Book of Gaelic