Máire Mhac an tSaoi is one of a handful of major poets who transformed poetry in Irish in the period during and after the Second World War. Her work is particularly significant in that it anticipates the emergence of women's voices at the forefront of Irish poetry in both Irish and English during the 1970s and 80s.
A generation before the groundbreaking achievements of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Eavan Boland and others, and in more daunting circumstances, Máire Mhac an tSaoi's poetry speaks to and from the intimate experience of women at a time when women's voices were marginalized both in literature and in Irish society. Her most famous poem 'Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin', is a powerful challenge to the orthodox morality of Ireland in the 1940s and subsequent decades:
The intellectual integrity and emotional independence that characterise her poetry is evident again in Máire Mhac an tSaoi's public life. In reviewing her autobiography The Same Age as the State¸ Seamus Heaney says 'there is truth to experience here, a forthrightness about passion and transgression that is thrilling and exemplary'.
Throughout the book, she speaks frankly of her own experience as a civil servant and career diplomat during a period of dramatic change and political turbulence in Ireland, Europe, and the developing world. During her time in the Department of External Affairs, she was, in her own words, the 'token woman' on Ireland's first delegation to the United Nations. As chargé d'affaires at the Irish Embassy in Madrid, she was invited to the Palacio del Oriente, where she met with General Franco, an experience she describes as 'both baroque and absurd'. She also spent time with her husband Conor Cruise O'Brien in the Congo, Ghana, and elsewhere in dramatic times and dangerous circumstances. One of the most powerful passages in The Same Age as the State recounts a violent incident in Katanga and an apparent attempt to assassinate Dr O'Brien.
Ms Mac an tSaoi's appointment is a timely one, according to Dr Louis de Paor, Director of the Centre for Irish Studies at NUI Galway. "While she is highly regarded by other poets and by critics, the full extent of Máire Mhac an tSaoi's contribution to twentieth-century Irish literature and politics has yet to be fully appreciated and acknowledged. In recognition of her achievement, as a groundbreaking poet and as a public figure who participated significantly in some of the key moments of recent Irish, European, and world history, it is entirely appropriate that she be appointed to this honorary position."