Cathal Ó Searcaigh

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Cathal Ó Searcaigh
At home in Mín a' Leá
Born (1956-07-12) 12 July 1956 (age 60)
Gortahork, County Donegal, Ireland
Occupation Poet

Cathal Ó Searcaigh is one of the most significant poets of modern Irish. His work has been widely translated, anthologised and studied. "His confident internationalism", according to Theo Dorgan,[1] has channelled "new modes, new possibilities, into the writing of Irish language poetry in our time".

From 1975 onwards he has produced a steady flow of books: poetry, plays, travelogues. His early acclaimed poetry celebrates place, tongue and tradition, yet his late work has a Whitmanesque expansiveness about it that connects the local to the cosmic with a sweeping imaginative élan. He is a poet who utilises the full incantatory power of the Irish language to speak with a modern bardic, even a shamanistic authority. His rhapsodic, homoerotic love poems are an integral part of the ever-growing body of his work. Jody Allen Randolph,[2] remarks "his breaking down of stereotypes and new deployment of gendered themes opened a new space in which to consider alternate sexualities within a contemporary Irish context."

"Ó Searcaigh occupies many of the spaces that stand in opposition to the traditionally dominant markers of Irish identity" according to John McDonagh. In his anthology[3] McDonagh goes on to say "Ó Searcaigh's homoerotic poems are explicit, relishing in a sensuality that for many years rarely found explicit expression in Irish literature."


Cathal Ó Searcaigh was born and reared on a small hill-farm at the foot of Errigal Mountain in the Donegal Gaeltacht. He was educated locally at Cashel na gCorr National School and then at Gairmscoil Ghort a' Choirce. He gives a vivid account of his colourful childhood in a remote Gaelic-speaking community in his acclaimed memoir Light on Distant Hills.[4] It's a fascinating portrayal of an unconventional upbringing by a mother who went on Wonder Voyages into the Otherworld and by a migrant father who did seasonal work in Scotland and loved poetry, giving their one and only child a distinctive view of life and language.

The first poems that engaged his attention were those of Rabbie Burns. In the Memoir he remembers his father reading those poems to him when he was four or five years old. He was enthralled by these sonorous fireside readings. It was his first realisation, he says, of the hypnotic, oracular power of language. Tom Walsh, his English teacher at the Gairmscoil in Gortahork, encouraged the precocious literary talent of the young student. Later as a teenager adrift in London and meeting the exotic and the exiled, he began to explore his sexuality and his creativity.

Personal life[edit]

In the early 1970s he worked as a barman in London. Later he attended the NIHE (National Institute for Higher Education) in Limerick where he did European Studies for two years (1973–75) and followed that with one year at Maynooth University (1977–78) where he did Celtic Studies.

During the years 1978-81 he worked in Dublin with RTÉ television presenting Aisling Gheal, a highly regarded arts and music programme directed by the acclaimed musician Tony MacMahon. From the early 1980s has earned his living as a fulltime writer and poet.

He is an acclaimed reader of his own poetry.

In the spring of 1995 he was elected a member of Aosdána.[5]


A distinguished poet, Cathal Ó Searcaigh has travelled widely, often representing his country at literary festivals and gatherings throughout the world. His work has been translated into numerous languages – French, German, Italian, Breton, Catalan, Polish, Danish, Serbo-Croat, Romanian, Russian, Swedish, Japanese, and Nepali.

Nepal has played an important part in his life. He visited the country for the first time in 1996. His Seal i Neipeal[6] is a beautifully-written, vivid, insightful account of that country, its people and their culture. It is generally regarded now as one of the major prose works written in Irish in the first decade of the 21st century.[7]

Since the mid 1990s he has sponsored the education of many young people in Nepal.

In February 2007 a controversial film documentary queried his relationship with some of the young men he helped, focusing on power imbalance and financial accountability. At the time it raised a storm of controversy and a tabloid media frenzy. In February 2009 Ó Searcaigh was interviewed in English by Dermod Moore for Hot Press (magazine).[8] It is a forthright, comprehensive response to the allegations made against him, both in the film and in the media coverage of the scandal.

Other literary activities[edit]

Cathal Ó Searcaigh has donated his archives, an extensive library of books and a valuable art collection to the Irish State. The Donegal Library Service administers this donation at present. His house in Mín a' Leá at the foot of Mount Errigal is often the venue for literary and musical evenings hosted by the poet himself.

By the hearth in Mín a' Leá

Along with poet and literary critic Chris Agee he edits Irish Pages, one of Ireland's most prestigious literary journals with a worldwide circulation.

"Creativity for me arises out of my deep attachment to this place, out of a reverential affection for its people", he says in his memoir Light on Distant Hills.[9] "My poems are devotional in the sense that they are prayerful celebrations of place, tongue and tradition. My work has become known because of its connectedness with this place. I have become a collector of its oral traditions, an archivist of its memories and its myths, a guardian of its Gaelic. This is, I suppose, a political act, acknowledging the local, recording and registering what is past or passing."

Colm Tóibín wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: "There is a section of landscape in Donegal in the north of Ireland near Falcarragh, overlooking Tory Island, which has been utterly transformed by the poetry of Cathal Ó Searcaigh."

Cathal Ó Searcaigh with his impish sense of humour, his openness, his transformative and at times transgressive poetry and his generosity of spirit continues to leave his indelible mark on the literature of 21st century Ireland.

Selected Publications[edit]


  • 1975: Miontraigéide Chathrach agus Dánta Eile, Cló Uí Chuirráin
  • 1978: Tuirlingt (with Gabriel Rosenstock and photographer Bill Doyle) Carbad, Dublin
  • 1983: Súile Shuibhne: with photographs by Rachael Giese, (a Poetry Ireland choice for 1983) Coiscéim, Dublin
  • 1987: Suibhne, (nominated for the Irish Book Awards) Coiscéim
  • 1991: An Bealach 'na Bhaile, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán, Co Galway
  • 1996: Na Buachaillí Bána, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán
  • 2000: Ag Tnúth leis an tSolas, 1975-2000, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán
  • 2002: Caiseal na gCorr (with photographs by Jan Voster) Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán
  • 2005: Na hAingle ó Xanadú, Arlen House, Galway
  • 2006: Gúrú i gClúidíní (artwork by Ian Joyce) Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán
  • 2011: An tAm Marfach ina Mairimid (artwork by Ian Joyce) Arlen House, Galway
  • 2013: Aimsir Ársa (artwork by Ian Joyce) Arlen House, Galway
  • 2014: Na Saighneáin (artwork by Ian Joyce) Arlen House, Galway
  • 2015: An Bhé Ghlas, Leabhar Breac, Indreabhán

Bilingual Poetry Editions[edit]

  • 1993: Homecoming / An Bealach 'na Bhaile (edited by Gabriel Fitzmaurice), Cló Iar-Chonnacht : winner of the Seán Ó Riordáin Prize for Poetry 1993, this book has been a bestseller and has gone into many editions
  • 1997: Out in the Open: edited and translated by Frank Sewell, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán : this collection was nominated for the Aristeon European Prize for Poetry 1998
  • 2006: By the Hearth in Mín a' Leá: translations by Seamus Heaney and Frank Sewell, Arc Publications : The Poetry Society (UK) Translation Choice for 2006
  • 2015: An Fear Glas / The Green man, with artwork by Pauline Bewick (translations by Paddy Pushe, Gabriel Rosenstock and Frank Sewell) Arlen House, Galway
  • 2016: Out of the Wilderness (translations by Gabriel Rosenstock) The Onslaught Press, Oxford

Prose Works in Irish[edit]

  • 2004: Seal i Neipeal (travel writing), Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán : winner of the Piaras Béaslaí Prize for Prose in the Oireachtas 2004
  • 2011: Pianó Mhín na bPreachán (novella) Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán
  • 2016: Thugamar Féin an Samhradh Linn (novel) Leabhar Breac, Indreabhán : (forthcoming winter 2016)


  • 2005: Oíche Dhrochghealaí: a verse drama based on the story of Salome, Coiscéim, Dublin
  • 2006: Mairimid Leis na Mistéirí: three short plays, Arlen House, Galway

Writing in English[edit]

  • 2009: Light on Distant Hills, a Memoir, Simon & Schuster, London
  • 2014: Soul Space: a book of spirirual wisdom (written under the pseudonym Charles Agnes) Evertype, Westport


  • 1994: Tulach Beaglaoich: Inné agus Inniu / Tulach Begley: Past and Present, Glór na nGael, Fál Carragh

As Editor[edit]

  • 1997: An Chéad Chló: a selection of the work of new Irish language poets, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán
  • 2013: The Other Tongues: an Introduction to Writing in Irish, Scots Gaelic and Scots in Ulster and Scotland, Irish Pages, Belfast
  • 2013: Margadh na Míol i Valparaiso / The Flea Market in Valparaiso: Selected Poems of Gabriel Rosenstock (selected and introduced by Cathal Ó Searcaigh), Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Indreabhán
  • 2014: An tAmharc Deireannach / The Last Look: the Selected Poems of Colette Ní Ghallchóir (selected and introduced by Cathal Ó Searcaigh), Arlen House, Galway

Collaborations: Music[edit]

  • 2005: Tearmann (A sequence of Ó Searcaigh poems put to music by Neil Martin and performed by the poet himself with the West Ocean String Quartet), live performance, Cliften Arts Festival
  • 2009: Oileán na Marbh (Song cycle with composer Neil Martin, sung by Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill and accompanied by the West Ocean Quartet) Ae Fond Kiss, West Ocean Records
  • 2012: Síle an tSléibhe (opera monodrama with composer Derek Ball, sung by Elizabeth Hilliard with chamber group and electroacoustic sound) live performances at the Back Loft (La Catedral theatre) Dublin in Sept 2012, and the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin in Jan 2013
  • 2013: Rhapsody na gCrann (words by Cathal Ó Searcaigh, music by Ciarán and Pól Brennan, sung by Clannad) Clannad Nádúr Arc Music

Cathal has also collaborated with Altan, Brian Kennedy, Diana Cannon and many other well-known musicians.

Collaborations: Art[edit]

  • 2003: Trasnú, a collaboration with artist Maria Simonds Gooding which included an exhibition, public forum and book (published by An Gailearaí, Gweedore)
  • 2004: Luxury of a Skylight, collaboration with artist Janet Mullarney: a limited boxed edition, numbered and signed, with poems and drawings. Published by Edizioni Canopo, Prato, Italy
  • 2005: Dialann / Diary, a collaboration with artist Barbara Lea and book-maker Paulette Myres-Rich, a limited boxed edition, numbered and signed. Published by Traffic Street Press, St Paul, Minnesota
  • 2012: The Green Man, A portfolio of 10 lithographs created and printed by Aoife McGarrigle at Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc, Co Donegal, with 10 poems by Cathal Ó Searcaigh: a limited boxed edition, numbered and signed
  • 2004: The View from Bealtaine, based on Cór Úr, a much anthologised poem by Ó Searcaigh, designed and printed by Barbara Tetenbaum at Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc, Co Donegal. Limited edition, numbered and signed

Awards and Honours[edit]

  • 1996: Elected to Aosdána
  • 2000: Awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Celtic Studies from the National University of Ireland
  • 2000: Awarded the Irish Times Literature Prize for Ag Tnúth Leis and tSolas, poems 1975-2000
  • 2007: The Ireland Fund Literary Award for his significant contribution to Irish literature.
  • 2013: He has won many Oireachtas literary awards since the beginning of his literary career, the most recent being the primary prize for a poetry collection with Aimsir Ársa in 2013 and again with An Bhé Ghlas in 2015
  • His poems have been on the Leaving Certificate Irish language curriculum for many years. His work is studied extensively at university level in Ireland and abroad

Books about his poetry[edit]

  • 2000: Modern Irish Poetry: A New Alhambra, Frank Sewell, Oxford University Press
  • 2002: On the side of Light: Critical essays on the poetry of Cathal Ó Searcaigh, edited by James Doan & Frank Sewell, Arlen House, Galway
  • 2005: Na Buachaillí Dána: Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Gabriel Rosenstock by Pádraig de Paor, An Clóchomhar, Dublin

Anthologies in which he is represented[edit]

Ó Searcaigh's work has been much anthologised. He is one of the few Irish language poets to be included in all the major anthologies of modern poetry from Ireland. The following is only a sample selection.

  • 1986: The Bright Wave / An Tonn Gheal, Raven Arts press
  • 1991: The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Volumes III and IV, edited by Seamus Deane, Field Day
  • 1995: Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Patrick Crotty, The Blackstaff Press, Belfast
  • 1996: Anthologie de la Poésie Irlandaise du XXe siecle, Éditions Verdier
  • 1997: Writing the Wind: The New Celtic Poetry, New Native Press, USA
  • 1998: Das Zweimaleins Des Steins Poesie Aus Irland, Edition die horen
  • 1998: The Oxford Book of Ireland, edited by Patricia Craig, Oxford University Press
  • 1999: Watching the River Flow – A century of Irish Poetry, edited by Theo Dorgan, Poetry Ireland
  • 2000: The Hip Flask: Short Poems from Ireland, edited by Frank Ormsby, Blackstaff Press, Belfast
  • 2002: 20th Century Irish Poems, selected by Michael Longley, Faber & Faber
  • 2008: The New North: Contemporary Poetry from Northern Ireland, Wake Forest Press, Winston Salem, North Carolina
  • 2008: A Fine Statement: An Irish Poet's Anthology, edited by John McDonagh, Poolbeg Press, Dublin
  • 2010: The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty, Penguin Books
  • 2010: An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, edited by Wes Davies, The Belknap Press of Harvard University press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • 2011: Voices at the World's edge: Irish Poets on Skellig Michael, edited by Paddy Bushe, Dedalus Press, Dublin
  • 2016: Leabhar na hAthghabhála / Poems of Repossession, edited by Louis De Paor, Bloodaxe Books, Cló Iar-Chonnacht

Interviews with the poet[edit]

  • 2002: In the Chair: Interviews with Poets from the North of Ireland edited by John Brown, Salmon Publishing, Co Clare
  • 2010: Close to the Next Moment: Interviews from a Changing Ireland edited by Jody Allen Randolph, Carcanet Press, Manchester

Critical Essays on the Work of Cathal Ó Searcaigh – a selection[edit]

  • 1993: A Going Back to Sources – Michael Longley reviews "Homecoming / An Bealach 'na Bhaile, Poetry Ireland Review 39
  • 1996: Cathal Ó Searcaigh: a Negotiation with Place, Community and Tradition, Gréagóir Ó Dúill, Poetry Ireland Review 48
  • 1997: Wrestling with Angels, Sean Lysaght reviews "Out in the Open" Poetry Ireland Review 55
  • 1997: The Indelible mark of Cain: Sexual Dissonance in the Poetry of Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Lillis Ó Laoire in "Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing", editor Eibhear Walsh, Cork University Press
  • 2000: Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader, David Pierce, Cork University Press
  • 2005: Trén bFearann Breac, a discussion of Ó Searcaigh's poetry, Máirín Nic Eoin, Cois Life, Dublin
  • 2007: "For Isaac Rosenberg": Geoffrey Hill, Michael Longley, Cathal O'Searcaigh, an essay by Tara Christie in The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, edited by Tim Kendall, Oxford Handbooks, ISBN 9780199282661
  • 2010: Cathal Ó Searcaigh: a critical essay in "Scríbhneoirí faoi Chaibidil, editor Alan Titley", Cois Life, Dublin
  • 2010: Cathal Ó Searcaigh, a critical essay by Caitríona Ní Chléirchín in "Filíocht Chomhaimseartha na Gaeilge", editor Ríona Ní Fhrighil, Cois Life, Dublin
  • 2015: A Major Voice, review of "Aimsir Ársa" and "An Bhé Ghlas" by Paddy Bushe, Poetry Ireland Review 117


  1. ^ Dorgan, Theo (1996). Irish Poetry Since Kavanagh. Four Courts Press. ISBN 9781851822393. 
  2. ^ Randolph, Jody Allen (2010). Close to the Next Moment: Interviews from a Changing Ireland. Carcanet Press. ISBN 9781847773166. 
  3. ^ McDonagh, John (2008). A Fine Statement: An Irish Poet's Anthology. Poolbeg Press. ISBN 9781842233689. 
  4. ^ O'Searcaigh, Cathal (2009). Light on Distant Hills: A Memoir. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9781847370631. 
  5. ^ "Cathal Ó Searcaigh". Aosdána.
  6. ^ O'Searcaigh, Cathal (2004). Seal i Neipeal. Cló Iar-Chonnacht. ISBN 1902420608. 
  7. ^ Titley, Alan (2010). Scríbhneoirí faoi Chaibidil. Cois Life. ISBN 978-1-901176-44-5. 
  8. ^ Dermod Moore. "The Case for the Defence (subscription only)". Hot Press. 
  9. ^ O'Searcaigh, Cathal (2009). Light on Distant Hills: A Memoir. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9781847370631.