Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill was born in England, where her parents, both physicians, were practicing. Her father took a position as surgeon at the hospital in Tipperary when Ní Dhomhnaill was five years old, and the family took up residence in County Kerry, a Gaelic-speaking region—the Gaeltacht—in the west of Ireland. This was Ní Dhomhnaill’s introduction to the Irish language, and although the young girl was fascinated by the stories and conversations she heard throughout the community and began to speak Irish as her natural tongue, she wrote only in English. At the age of sixteen, however, it occurred to her that she could more adequately express herself in Irish, and literally in mid-poem, she shifted to that language. The next year, she gave her first poetry reading, an occasion distinguished by the attendance of Caitlín Maude, a poet/singer, who became Ní Dhomhnaill’s role model because she was one of the few women included on the reading list for the leaving certificate (a diploma) course. In the early stages of her poetic life, she found that every poem she submitted for publication was “chipped and chopped with no by-your-leave” by editors who had a conception of poetry that nearly completely excluded the subject, style, language, and outlook that Ní Dhomhnaill was developing. She earned a bachelor of arts degree (1972) and a higher diploma education (1973) from the University College Cork. Then in the kind of radical transition that was characteristic of her openness to new experience, she married Dogan Leflef, a Turkish geologist, and she spent the next seven years living in Holland and Turkey. In the 1980’s, the family returned to Ireland to raise their four children in the Dingle Gaeltaecht and then in Dublin.
Her first collection of poems, entirely in Irish, An dealg droighin (the thorn of the sloe) was published in 1981 by the Mercier Press in Cork, followed by Féar suaithinseach (marvelous grass) in 1984. Rogha dánta appeared in 1984, and the Raven Arts Press in Dublin published a bilingual version, Selected Poems, with translations by Michael Hartnett, in 1988. The enthusiastic response by both critics and readers on both sides of the Atlantic led to the publication in 1990 of Pharaoh’s Daughter by the pioneering Wake Forest Press. This bilingual work featured Irish poems with English translations by thirteen poets, including Hartnett, Seamus Heaney, Medbh McGuckian, Ciaran Carson, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and Paul Muldoon. This volume not only established Ní Dhomhnaill’s stature as one of the outstanding poets writing in the United Kingdom, but also brought the Irish language to the attention of the Anglo-American literary community. The publication of Muldoon’s translations of her poems in The Astrakhan Cloak further elevated Ní Dhomhnaill’s reputation. Her work was recognized by several awards and invitations to serve as visiting professor at several American universities. She served as the Ireland Professor of Poetry 2001-2004, spending a year each at Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, and Queen’s University Belfast.