As part of the "Irish Living in France" series, acclaimed Irish-language poet Derry O'Sullivan talks to Tootlafrance.ie about life, family and poetry in the City of Light.
“I remember coming out of the metro in Paris for the first time, smelling the air and the first word that came to my mind was ‘freedom!’ Gradually, I began to appreciate that atmosphere of free speech and the whole gamut of expression of people who refused to be oppressed and who weren’t afraid to analyse things and talk openly – both men and women – about their emotions, about their ideas.”
This is how West Cork man Derry O’Sullivan describes his first time in Paris. It was 1969 and the air was still scented with the particularly revolutionary odours of Molotov cocktails and tear gas from the 1968 riots, but it was a turning point for the newly-arrived Irishman too.
He arrived in Paris as a soon-to-be-ordained priest but barely a year had passed since his ordination when he decided that he could no longer continue to preach certain dogmas of the Catholic faith without, as he says, lying to his congregation.
“It was impossible to return to Bantry at that time. Things have changed, of course, since then, but at that time, it would have been extremely embarrassing to go back.”
And so, he remained in the French capital. In many ways, things went quite smoothly for O’Sullivan once he had made the decision to quit the priesthood. With a strong academic background under his belt (he obtained a degree in Latin and Philosophy from UCC), he quickly landed himself a job teaching English. It was his first major step outside of the institution that had been his life for seven years up to that point. It took some adjusting, as he explains:
“I wore sandals for seven years – no socks. We made our own habits with a bit of rope to tie it with and when I came to Paris, I hadn’t handled money for seven years.
“Some Dutch friends of mine got me some addresses and on the Champs Elysées there was an English-language school. I went for the interview and I got the job. I was delighted and I ran down to my friends, shouting ‘I got a job! I got a job!’ I was so proud. And they said ‘What’s your salary?’ I didn’t know. I never thought of asking about the salary! I was used to living on nothing, but they were shocked. I was like a Martian to them – they hadn’t seen this aspect of me. And then, they used to ask me things like ‘What would you like to eat?’ In the monastery, you’re never asked what you’d like to eat and you don’t bother. So I would say ‘Oh, I don’t mind’ and this used to piss them off. In some ways, I was a bit like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde!”
Derry continued in the teaching profession, working his way up to lecturing positions in the Sorbonne University. In the meantime, he continued his love affair with poetry in the Irish language. Although he’s not from and Irish-speaking area or family background, all of his writing has been in Irish:
“I’ve been writing in Irish only since I was 17 as a sort-of secret obsession. There was so much Irish around me in Bantry in one way: The place names that people used, for example… Bantry people also use a lot of Irish words in English generally. In fact, the Irish language is better suited to their accents and speech patterns.
“I don’t know where this obsession came from exactly. I always loved Irish and all my friends at school hated it in the 1940s and 50s, when the stick was used plentifully… I never told my friends about my love of Irish and when my first poetry book came out many years later, they were absolutely stunned!”
Derry was fortunate from a writer’s point of view in that his writing always remained a hobby, albeit one which he followed passionately. As he continued to “explore the possibilities of expression in the Irish language”, success found him rather than he spending energy running around chasing success. He has never had any problems in getting published:
“In France it (writing poetry in Irish) is looked on quite well. I’m often asked to give readings in France – at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, for example. I gave a reading once at the Sacre Coeur Cathedral once. At the Institut du Monde Arabe, I’ve been invited to read twice… I do it for passion, of course, and I’m just delighted that there’s anybody out there interested.”
At the moment, there are quite a few people interested. As well as the attention he gets in his adopted home country, O’Sullivan’s poem “Stillborn 1943: Calling Limbo” (translated by Kaarina Hollo) recently won the Sunday Times Stephen Spender Prize. In doing so, he beat off stiff opposition that included works from such luminaries as Beowulf and former fellow-Paris resident Paul Verlaine in a competition that honours the work of Spender as a poet and a translator. O’Sullivan is also the first poet still living whose original work inspired the winning entry.
As an Irish artist in Paris, he has integrated well with Parisian life but has also met other exiled Irish, including the late Samuel Beckett and the portrait artist Reginald Gray. The latter was born in Dublin and painted many well-known artists and writers, including Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan (for whom he was best man), Samuel Beckett, Francis Bacon, Jean-Paul Sartre and O’Sullivan himself.
O’Sullivan’s wife Jeanne is also Irish. She worked as a singer for many years and it was on a tour to France that she met her future husband. The couple have lived in Paris ever since and they have three children.
“Our children were born and brought up here, obviously, but they feel both French and Irish. I never spoke Irish to them: I didn’t know how to, to be quite honest. I felt that French and English was already hard enough for them.”
O’Sullivan remains clear about his own affections for his adopted country. He found out early in life that he was not prepared to be priest, but he holds no bitterness or negative feeling about the Irish Catholic Church and still attends Mass every week in Paris: “I just love France,” he says, “I’m really attached to the French people and to Paris.”
Poetry Books Including Derry O’Sullivan’s Work: