A great Irish poet’s evidence of his faith and art

A great Irish poet’s evidence of his faith and art Micheal O’Siadhail

Thomas McCarthy


Testament, Micheal O’Siadhail (Baylor University Press, $24.99/ €22.99; distributed in Europe by Eurospan, email: direct.orders@marston.co.uk)

In the Irish poetry world Micheal O’Siadhail has been a writer of towering brilliance for over 40 years.

A life dedicated to language and ethics has seen him study in great depth both the structure of the Irish language and the scope of Icelandic saga. Jesuit-educated, he has been a prolific poet in two languages as well as research professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies and, currently, distinguished poet-in-residence at Union Theological Seminary of Columbia University.

He is the epitome of what one might call the still very much alive ‘Irish Catholic genius’, Yet running parallel with this Joycean life of undoubted genius has been Mr O’Siadhail’s perpetual anxiety of faith, an ethical restlessness that has surfaced constantly in his memorable, personal poetry of love, despair, history and displacement.

Testament is a milestone in this ethical journey. His new book is a paramount Christian endeavour.


Verbally, it is a kind of jazz improvisation on the Word of God. Here is a book of two parts; the first, Psalter, comprises of 150 psalm-like poems of joy, delight and despair; the second, Gospel, is a vivid retelling of Gospel stories from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Reading from a single source, as every poet knows, is also one of the most powerful ways of creating a gathered community.

There is such immense power in repeating the promises of Christ, there is such embedded resilience within, that poets will always be drawn back to those first principles of faith – often despite themselves. Matters of faith and rumblings from the passage of ‘big questions’, have always been part of Mr O’Siadhail’s aesthetic as well as academic quest. In Testament we come to a moment in the poet’s life when “My time ripens, my days mellow”.


It is the writer’s sheer pleasure in the uncontrollable resonance of faith that distinguishes this book from all the other published works of the poet. This is a joyful book, first and foremost, and a great deal of its joy comes from the verbal capture of those promises of Christ:


“Eternities of joy deny

Time’s ruthless arrow on the fly—

O promise that they do not lie.


We laugh and laughing you’re nearby,

All fun is reaching for your sky—

O promise that it doesn’t lie.”


The tight, John Donne-like rhyming creates a sense of timelessness in the reader’s mind; and one feels that this is the sense the poet is after. The intrinsic coherence is propelled beyond literal sense by the effect of accumulated rhymes; the effect is hallucinatory joy. We may read words but we should succumb to faith – this is the higher message that the poet, the word-smith, wants to tell us. In other words, faith has made his life rhyme.


Being grateful is almost a prerequisite to this sense of joy, which is difficult in this world where we are trained by therapy to feel entitled but hardly ever grateful. The poet puts our dilemma like this: “I bless you God although I don’t know how/to thank enough for air, for light, for food. /I do not take for granted – I receive.” The astonishing power of gratitude is, therefore, a keynote of Testament.

“A mustard-seed faith tackles any task,” the poet writes bluntly in Gospel. The poems in part two of this collection have an earthy, sun-drenched quality taken from the Galilean and Judean landscapes of the original gospels. This earthiness is hugely effective, giving a strong backbone to the lyrics, to that world of pressed olives and lamb, of Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary. This is the Christ-landscape where every worker in the vineyard will get a full day’s wage no matter how late in the working-day they began.

Mr O’Siadhail recreates this ultimate metaphor of the bounty of heaven, wonderfully, lyrically. But that is only one of the many landscapes that Micheal O’Siadhail makes vivid through his skilled verse-craft in this inspiring and very beautiful book.