Derry O’Sullivan
(Ireland, 1944)   
Derry O’Sullivan

Derry O’Sullivan was born in Bantry, County Cork, in 1944 into an English-speaking home. He attended University College Cork, where he received particular encouragement in his study of Irish from the scholar and poet Seán Ó Tuama. After university he trained for the priesthood and was ordained in 1969, by which time he was already living in Paris, his home to the present day. He left the priesthood not long after his ordination, and subsequently taught for many years at the Sorbonne, the Institut Catholique de Paris, and the Institut Supérieur d’Electronique de Paris.

In O’Sullivan’s debut collection, Cá bhfuil do Iúdás?, he features many of the key elements that would go on to colour his poetry over the succeeding decades. While his debut is thematically varied – taking quotidian life in Paris, reminiscences of first love, family history and philosophical meditations – there is always the sense of a lively and curious intellect at work. The collection is varied in style and form. Some poems, like ‘Cill Bheanntraí’, employ a very direct and simple diction, while others are very dense, employing a complex and sometimes-arcane vocabulary. The collection features ‘Marbghin 1943: Glaoch ar Liombó’, probably O’Sullivan’s most anthologized and reprinted poem. Its intense emotional punch is created in its juxtaposition of its heartbreaking matter with the utmost stylistic simplicity and self-containment. 
The collection includes poems that are obviously the work of an author intoxicated by sound and etymology, by rhythm and rhyme. The are a number of poems composed in short lines, with intricate rhyme schemes and a dizzying density of sound patterning and word play. There are five poems in sonnet form that display a similarly rich aural patterning, among them the very moving ’Beirt Bhaintreach Bheanntraí’ and ‘Pósae Pósta’, which features the memorable line “’S mise im bheach ar meisce le mil / Ag cealgadh le ceol cluas cóisirí” (“and I am a bee tipsy on honey / lulling with music the ear of the wedding-party”).

Cá bhfuil Tiarna Talún L’Univers, O’Sullivan’s second collection, displays a similar variety of theme, structure and style while also showcasing a new lighter touch. There are serious poems, including a number of clear-eyed reflections on family life and a restrained and affecting account of a mother’s burial day. But there is also a new admixture of humour, for example in the several poems based on the Greek island of Skyros, including the vividly conjured ‘Tuirne Chúlsráide’ and the evocative ‘Ar Théad an Aingil’. 

An Lá go dTáinig Siad (2005) is an ambitious long poem told partly in the voice of a young Parisian Jewish girl. It was inspired by the revelation that the flat in which O’Sullivan lived had belonged to a Jewish family deported by the Nazis in 1944. 

O’Sullivan’s most recent collection An Bhfuil Cead Agam Dul Amach? (2009) continues his development. ‘Aisling Phéist Chabáiste’ displays a sly and sympathetic humour while ‘Fón Póca nó Citeal Deora’ works beautifully towards its final image of ‘soithí salacha do shúl / ar maos i gciteal deora’ (‘the dirty dishes of your eyes / steeping in a kettle of tears’).

In ‘I gCaife ‘Le Saint Placide’ i bPáras’, the author revisits the image of himself as the boy ringing the Angelus bell that we first met in ‘Ar Théad an Aingil’. In this poem we encounter once again the imagery of glass, mirrors and twinning that recurs throughout O’Sullivan’s work from his first collection onwards. The reader is drawn into the poet’s reverie, before being released, beautifully and contingently, like ‘an ex-angel on a tight schedule.’

© Kaarina Hollo


Cá bhfuil do Iudás?, Coiscéim, Dublin, 1987
Cá bhfuil Tiarna Talún l’Univers, Coiscéim, Dublin, 1994
An Lá go dTáinig Siad, Coiscéim, Dublin, 2005
An bhfuil cead agam dul amach, más é do thoil é, Coiscéim, Dublin, 2011


Profile of O’Sullivan in The Sunday Times
Article in the Guardian on the Stephen Spender Prize
Interview with O’Sullivan on a French website


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