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From Little Marseille

Afric McGlinchey

English Language Poets in University College Cork, 1970-1980, by Clíona Ní Riordáin, Palgrave Macmillan, 142 pp, €49.99, ISBN: 978-3030385729

Clíona Ní Ríordáin’s latest publication aims, as she puts it, “at complexifying the narrative of Irish poetry in the second half of the twentieth century” by analysing the development of a cohort of poets who studied at University College Cork during the 1970s and early 1980s. Among the poets that figure in the book are Greg Delanty, Theo Dorgan, Seán Dunne, Thomas McCarthy, Gerry Murphy, Maurice Riordan and Gregory O’Donoghue. The volume is prefaced by a foreword from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.

From the outset, Ní Riordáin acknowledges the absence of female poets among her selection, reminding the reader that publishing opportunities for women at the time were scarce. With the notable exception of Nuala Ní Dhomnaill, and, earlier, of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, female poets were a rare phenomenon during the period in question. Any women writing poetry, not just in Cork, but in the whole country, did so in a “clandestine” manner, as Ní Chuilleanáin puts it. While mentioning the INNTI (Irish language) poets, Ní Riordáin chooses to focus on the English language poets only, so Ní Dhomnaill is not included either.

A professor of English at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, where she teaches Irish literature and translation studies, Ní Riordáin was already well-researched in her subject matter, having previously edited the bilingual Poètes du Munster: 1960-2015 (Illador) as well as Four Irish Poets / Quatre poètes irlandais, a bilingual (English/French) selection that includes the work of Gerry Murphy. Other papers and publications include Perhaps now I understand the meaning of home: Cork and Elsewhere in the Poetry of Greg Delanty (July 2008).

Each chapter begins with a helpful abstract, and ends with a valuable and extensive list of footnotes. Rather than an in-depth look at each poet’s oeuvre, Ní Riordáin’s approach is to overlap, and this creates a sense of communality.

The book examines the poets as a “generation” in sociological and literary terms. As well as extensive interviews and archival research, Ní Riordáin exhaustively read back copies of The Quarryman, UCC’s literary journal, to find out who else was writing poetry at the time, and name checks Liz O’Donoghue and Catherine Phil McCarthy, two poets of the same generation. It was only much later that their first collections emerged. “Poetry, like power, would seem to have been distributed by gender at that time,” writes Ní Riordáin.

As Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin points out in the introduction, “The notion of ‘Ulster poetry’ as possessing a claim to be, on the one hand the Irish poetry best worth attending to – and on the other hand not quite Irish at all – was made in certain quarters …” The idea of Munster as an equivalent separate cultural entity was conceived, and the poets discussed clearly set about encouraging that perception, with publications such as Seán Dunne’s Poets of Munster, Greg Delanty and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Jumping Off Shadows and Seán Lucy’s Five Irish Poets, published by Cork’s Mercier Press. Such was their shared vision that the poets in this study went so far as to retrieve, collect and republish the poems of Patrick Galvin, constructing “a forbear for themselves” in the process, as Ní Chuilleanáin puts it.

Ní Riordáin also considers the seven UCC contemporaries in the light of their influences: the inimitable memoirist, short story writer and later, the founder of the “Munster Literature Centre, Patrick Galvin, whose evocation of Cork city is inhabited by ‘the dead, the mad and the murderous”, poets Seán Lucy and, in particular, the charismatic John Montague, whose energy “radiated from his massive physique, always clad in a massive overcoat, filling space with the same kind of weight as Ted Hughes”, as McCarthy put it in his Poems and Memoirs for John Montague on his Sixtieth Birthday. Montague had recently returned to Ireland after years of teaching in the US, having been accosted by Ruth O’Riada, Seán’s widow, at a wakehouse. “Seán told me a lot about you,” she said, and added firmly, “It’s time for you to come home.” And so he did.

Montague’s students immediately became his disciples as he directed their attention towards American, British and European poetry rather than domestically parochial Irish writing. “He had the holy status of an ‘Ulster poet’, the real thing,” writes McCarthy in Gardens of Remembrance. Under his guidance, Ní Riordáin writes, the poets began experimenting with alternative styles. They also became interested in European poets and in translation, and some created heteronyms, which broadened their scope in terms of personae and tone. This opened them up to unfamiliar and unanticipated ways of using language, Ní Riordáin suggests, furthering the new avant garde approach in Ireland which had been kickstarted by James Joyce and Beckett, the latter having described experimental poetry as “an art of pure interrogation”. In his diary, McCarthy writes: “Montague feels (and I’ve been saying this for two years) that the time is ripe for a new Munster movement in poetry.”

Later, Peter Sirr, in a blog titled “The Munster Republic”, argues “perhaps the case for Munster would be less strenuously articulated if it didn’t have Cork in it. It’s certainly hard not to feel that in the argument above, Munster is essentially another name for Cork,” and perhaps Ní Riordáin agrees. The study, focusing on Cork poets, would appear to indicate this.

We Irish do like stories and characters above all, and Ní Riordáin’s forensic research unearths some wonderful anecdotes. For example, Seán Ó’Riordáin, a very influential Irish-language poet (and I wonder if he’s related), spent a period of time at UCC as one of the first writers in residence, but felt guilty that this was not “real” work, and after his death “many uncashed paychecks were found among his belongings”. The book comes to life at such moments, when individual personalities appear on the page, and I’d like to have seen more of these, as it is through such glimpses that we get a sense of the poets’ dynamic exchanges, anxiety of influence and confluence, banter and arguments during lectures or informally in pubs.

The study offers a vivid literary landscape, with numerous names of Irish writers of the day and the recent past. It also gives us a clear sense of the energies and activities of the time, and the friendly rivalry that clearly existed. During the early seventies, Gregory O’Donoghue, Paul Durcan and Maurice Riordan each won The Quarryman Prize for poetry. Thomas McCarthy founded UCC poetry workshop, which was later run by William Wall, followed by Louis de Paor. Poems here were read, exchanged and commented upon in what Gerry Murphy describes as a “robust fashion”.

As a poet based in Co Cork myself, and acquainted with most of the poets under study, I was very interested in gaining a sense of their influences, context and vision. Ní Riordáin writes a “group biograph”’ of the poets in question, dwelling on their shared working class and school origins, and the educational bill that enabled them to gain a university education, the first generation of their class to be able to do so. As well as a “linear narrative of the poets’ lives” she considers their “habitus” and literary occupations, and this is the most engaging aspect of the book for me, vividly evoking not just the personalities of the poets, but the city at the time. Ní Riordáin consistently embeds Cork as a key character, describing how the poets would read their work in the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Prince’s Street, at the Lobby Bar, the Tubular Gallery (the forerunner of the Triskel). She quotes a diary entry of Tom McCarthy’s: “Corkery rain O’Connor rain …” She offers Paul Durcan’s description of Cork as being as “intimate and homicidal as a little Marseille”. She mentions Seán Dunne speaking of Greg O’Donoghue as a man, “who always seemed to have a cigarette, a theory, and, if I needed it, a fiver”. And Theo Dorgan gives us a sense of the atmosphere of that time: “The electronic age and the first world generation were upon us, rock and roll had thundered out across the world and the short-lived counter culture, for a dizzy moment, held the commanding heights.”

Irish poetry has always hidden its sharpest criticism under the mask of the comic, as the work of Gerry Murphy in particular demonstrates. He stands out in this regard, although Paul Durcan, an older, already published poet who also attended UCC in the seventies, could have been associated with him if he had been included in the cohort. He and Murphy do share a certain sensibility with regard to satire. As an extension of Montague’s influence, she describes how William Wall, a younger student, organised visits to schools, and how Patrick Cotter, another younger UCC poet, would go on to found the Three Spires Press and become director of the Munster Literature Centre.

Cork, in particular, has been known as a county of dissidents, and Ní Riordáin’s study argues that this separates this poetry from the general “weave” of Irish poetry. I’ll admit that I’m sorry a comparison wasn’t made about poets writing at the time in Dublin, Galway and elsewhere in the country, so that we could distinguish more clearly how the UCC poets differed in approach. What we do learn is that Montague taught them that to be a poet was “not something to be taken lightly: it was not a hobby, it was a serious way of being”, as McCarthy put it in his Poetry of Exile and Return. This raised their aspirations in terms of subject matter. With the exception of McCarthy (“the Fianna Fáil poet”), the Cork poets mostly engaged with Ireland through the medium of translation from the Irish, history and mythology. In terms of the latter, The Táin had just been published in 1969 by Dolmen Press, and was a massive influence. Like the Ulster poets, and before them, the British poets of the Thirties, the Cork poets (with the exception of McCarthy) eschewed political categorisation, Ní Riordáin points out. They feared that that their poetry might be harnessed to content “determined by political concerns, impeding the form, subsuming it to programmatic writing”.

Ní Riordáin also evokes the atmosphere of Cork city at the time: a physical, geographical sense of the working port is palpable, particularly when viewed through the eyes of a returning emigrant: “the terraced streets of this hilly city, an Irish Bergen or San Francisco, from which I could gaze down at the flashing harbour lights, reminding me that Cork was still a bustling port”, as Montague put it in The Pear is Ripe. Dorgan’s Cork is an industrial one, “buzzing to the noise of the breweries and the roars of trucks” and also one of poverty and deprivation, evoking Blackpool and Fairhill, as does his fellow Northsider Gerry Murphy. Murphy’s work abounds with mention of Cork street names, and although he has “no truck with the history of place”, he certainly evokes its present and presence. McCarthy summons nineteenth century Cork in Merchant Prince (and Ní Riordáin’s discussion of this collection is particularly detailed and interesting) while Greg Delanty, who also emigrates to the States, views it from afar, constructing his own relationship with the left behind urban space. Sean Dunne “provides us with a series of snapshots of domestic life in Cork”. Most of the poets share Galvin’s engagement with the city and also his social conscience. But Ní Riordáin demonstrates how their poetry is primarily marked by “internationalism” and a determined search for outside influences and cultures.

A highlight of the book for me is Ní Riordáin’s chapter “The Brindled Cats: Language and Translation”, where she discusses the heterogeneous, hybrid nature of the seven poets’ work, and their shared love of coding and encryption: Theo Dorgan’s merging of the Cork of his childhood with Greek tales and his retelling of Orpheus in Sapphic metre; Thomas McCarthy’s The Last Geraldine Officer, which entwines journal entries, recipes and poems in Irish, and the transposing of fellow-poets, including Ní Dhomhnaill, into Italian characters (“La Principessa Nigonelli”) in his translation of The Italian Question; Gerry Murphy’s magpie translation techniques, which include a “reworking of Schwerter’s talk on a Tom Paulin translation of Mayakovsky’s final poem”; Greg Delanty’s ventriloquising via witty heteronyms: Gregory of Corkus, Gregor and Danichorus etc. As for Riordan, who was conscious that the Irish etymology of his name made him “the poet of the king”, his work was “studded with translations from the Irish, revitalising language through this interplay”. He and Delanty both use other landscapes (his The Holy Land, Delanty’s American Wake) to explore the space of their childhoods. “The shadows of another language and another tradition” were also present in the work of Gregory O’Donoghue, “perhaps the most elusive of the poets of this generation”, who liked to play with differing registers and even the language of previous centuries, often using Elizabethan words. These complex, multi-layered forms of experimentation indicate a high level of ambition and a sense that they spurred each other on to greater heights.

Thanks in large part to Thomas McCarthy, whose diaries indicate his sense of that period as being one of history-in-the-making, Ní Riordáin’s study makes a strong case for raising the status of these poets, and paying more attention to the ambitious complexity of their poetry.

1/6/2020

Afric McGlinchey’s most recent book is Invisible, Insane (SurVision). Ten of her poems were published by SurVision, in an anthology of surrealist poetry, Seeds of Gravity, in May 2020. www.africmcglinchey.com

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