Interview with Derry O’Sullivan, by Barbara O’Donnell

Derry O’Sullivan is a multi-lingual poet, writer and lecturer, originally from West Cork, now based in Paris. He has lectured at all the major universities in Paris and is a former priest.  His poem “Blip” was featured in a public art project in 2014, by the artists Cleary and Connolly, along with the children of Gaelscoil Bheanntrai. 

You say that you felt it would have been impossible to return to West Cork in 1969 after taking the decision to leave the priesthood. Did you feel exiled in a way?

In June 1969, my parents, 10 younger siblings, uncles, and in-laws came to Ards, Donegal for my ordination in the Capuchin monastery. My family knelt individually before me for my first blessing. Then, in my native Bantry, hundreds of townspeople knelt before me one by one in Bantry Catholic Church for my laying hands on them. The following month, July, Armstrong landed on the moon and, in August, the Capuchins sent me to Paris to prepare a thesis in French on Catechetics and Comparative Religion studies. I had never studied French and had one month in Tours to learn enough to be able to follow lectures in Biblical form criticism, child psychology, and Dogmatics.
Within 6 months, the “Ipsissima Verba” floored me.  My French studies of how the Bible was written, not being “the very words of Christ”, destroyed my beliefs and I explained to Pope Paul the Sixth that I could no longer talk to people about teachings I doubted and was given papal permission to leave. Not wanting to embarrass people in Ireland, I opted to stay in France even though Ireland wasn’t in what was later to become the EU.

Have you retained your Catholic faith? How easy was that out in the world beyond the priesthood?

Teaching became my profession. In 1970, firstly at the SHAPE international school with some 2,500 pupils, half of whom were non-French. I taught in the British Section 12 year olds to 18 year olds. These kids often changed countries with their parents, so in my first class i asked if they had heard of Lord Tennyson and a 12-year old girl piped up: “I played piggy-back with him!” And it was true – with his great- grandson! I asked my 13 year olds if they had heard of Shakespeare and a girl shouted: “My daddy does a lot of Shakespeare!” Her daddy, Peter Brooke, frequently brought his group to our classes.  In 1978, I was asked to be director of the Anglo-American department of a new French International boarding school and I wanted an American woman history teacher. I gave the job to an excellent candidate who left some months later because the French government stonewalled Americans for work papers.  Many years later, watching the John Kerry presidential bid on CNN, I saw my history teacher again: she was John Kerry’s sister! I gave a job to John Kerry’s sister without knowing it!
I taught the American and British Constitutions to thousands of First Year Law students at the Sorbonne, working simultaneously at an Engineering school, doing poetry workshops with Stanford students, the Catholic University’s English degree classes and several Grandes Écoles. There has been thousands of written and oral exams yearly over 43 years, not to mention with the International Baccalaureate of Geneva since 1981, plus examining teachers and other examiners in over 100 countries, as many as 20 yearly thanks to the computer.

You write and speak English, French, Irish and Latin. This is, in part, a result of your studies as well as an active interest. You grew up in an English speaking family. Had you already started working as Gaeilge before you got to University College Cork, and found Seán Ó Tuama’s encouragement?

At the age of 17, studying Greek, Latin, Irish and Philosophy, I was inspired by the wonderful teaching of Seán Ó Tuama, to devote my life to Irish. But at 18, I joined the Capuchins and finished the BA in Latin and Philosophy and Theology in Donegal, where we had regular contact with the Brennans and the budding Clannad.

Working multi-lingually, it seems inevitable that you will end up translating and being translated. Your work has been translated by various people, including Michael Davitt.  The most well known of these translations is the one done by Kaarina Hollo, of “Stillborn 1943: Calling Limbo”, which won the Sunday Times Stephen Spender Prize in 2012. How do you feel about your work being translated? Is it usually done in collaboration with you?

Apart from Jean’s inspiration, I have received inestimable help from the Irish government, the late Michael Davitt, Louis de Paor, Pádraig de Paor of Trinity, Kaarina Hollo, the Stephen Spender Prize, the people of Bantry and others acknowledged in my books in France, the U.S, Canada and elsewhere. Especially the support of Coiscéim and Pádraig Ó Snodaigh. I continue to explore the Irish language. So many people have helped me and continue to do so. Of late, Monsignor Pádraig Ó Fiannachta has window cased my work through An Sagart. I am also indebted to Conor Power in The Times and to the Bantry Boys’ School and to the Bantry Gaelscoil where government funding of the Clery-Connoly project on my poem “Blip” has been inscribed on its magnificent walls.

Irish has been called “a language of loneliness”. It is easy to think of it as a language of isolation; a minority language, only spoken in a few parts of the world. They are all invariably quite far-flung, eg Ireland, Scotland, Newfoundland. Added to this was the drudgery and punishment many felt in schools at being pushed into learning it. Peig herself was flung out in the Blaskets. You have noted that using words as Gaeilge tends to be part of the vernacular for those in West Cork. 

Irish is part of our landscape which was named by our ancestors, anglicised by army and absentee landlords. Without Irish, we inhabit an island whose vocal cords have been snipped: Bantry, Cork, Dublin, Belfast, Derry, Limerick – the last mentioned rhyming with a rude word in English – and thousands of others. Our English, so necessary for our survival, is often full of Irish-language phonemes; we need both English and Irish for our roots in history.

The debate in Ireland over the usefulness of the Irish language is ongoing. However, Gaelscoils are now a normal part of educational institutions in Ireland and the Fulbright Commission sponsors student and teacher exchanges between Ireland and the US.  TG4 has been added to the national television channels in Ireland.  Do you think Irish is only for those who have a serious interest in Languages?   What do you think when you hear people say “Irish is dead”?

Our children need our hybrid culture to survive both economically and culturally, enabling them, finally, to understand other peoples with equally diverse linguistic roots and attachments. Irish and English must be spoken freely and joyously without linguistic hang-ups, being unafraid to mix the two in real, everyday life. It is a fabulous blast. Of course, it is enhanced with a love of Merriman and Shakespeare, Wilde, the mighty “craic” of Connemara, Kerry, West Cork, Donegal and the urban Irish-English of our cities and towns and our diaspora. No barriers between the communities of our island.

See here for Dr. Karina Hollo’s prizewinning translation from Irish, of Derry’s poem “Marbhghin 1943: Glaoch ar Liombo/Stillborn 1943: Calling Limbo