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The Searching Heart: Adieu Derek Mahon

Essay by John Wilson Foster

Derek Mahon’s death in October reduces to one the trio of contemporary Ulster poets who triple-handedly created for a time the first admired school of Northern Irish poetry. There had been Northern Irish poets before, of course, and have been since, but no cohort had combined precocious merit with a tight age-group identity: only two and a half years separated the births of the three poets.

The convergence was due to the Northern Ireland government ‘s Education Act of 1947. That year was in time for Mahon (b. 1941) and Seamus Heaney (b. 1939), both of modest background, to be given free grammar school and then university education. Without that Act it is highly unlikely that Mahon or Heaney would have become poets. Heaney would probably have become a small farmer, Mahon an apprentice in a Belfast engineering firm, his father and grandfather having worked in Harland & Wolff, the giant shipbuilders that built the equally giant Titanic. Both poets were the first generation of “graduates” of the Act, the first discharge of mentored talent that hitherto would have gone unrecognised and unblossoming. Michael Longley (b. 1939) would probably have gone in any case to Royal Belfast Academical Institution, a famous Belfast school newly accessible to bright, exam-passing pupils like Mahon and where the latter first published poems, in the school magazine.

And like Longley, Mahon then went over the border to Trinity College Dublin, an Oxbridge-type remnant of English rule; students from Ulster (all Protestants back then) lost their distinctive dialect at Trinity. Heaney graduated instead (as I did) from the red-brick, i.e. provincial, Queen’s University Belfast where, however, he found inspiring lecturers from England and after graduation found the encouragement of the English poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum (as I did in critical theory when Hobsbaum was my thesis supervisor). All three poet-graduates were members of The Group, Hobsbaum’s weekly interactive poetry seminars, and although Mahon later downplayed Hobsbaum’s contribution, Hobsbaum’s candid tutelage surely toughened these budding poets as well as helping to provide an English greenhouse for their blooming. Mahon’s Night-Crossing (1968), Lives (1972), The Snow Party (1975) and The Hunt by Night (1982) were published by Oxford University Press, just as Heaney was published through his whole career by Faber & Faber (London) and Longley has been by Jonathan Cape (London).

These high-powered launches must have given an edge to the rivalry in a friendship that was really something of a coterie. Through letters and meetings, each knew what the others were writing and how they were faring and developing. And rivalry is a binding as well as divisive state of affairs. I was at a publisher’s party in Dublin thrown to celebrate Heaney’s Nobel Prize. Late, Mahon announced himself by saying “Well, it seems anyone can win the Nobel Prize these days” - an ice-breaking joke, of course, but Heaney had won the ultimate accolade and the apprentice days of yore must have reproachingly swum into his mind.

The “Ulster Renaissance” as it was called, with some forgivable hyperbole, and spearheaded by the trio of poets, acquired a tauter convergence by the civil disorder in Northern Ireland. Longley has irritably disavowed any inspirational impact of “the Troubles” (i.e. of violence, to which he has a deep moral revulsion), and of course there was historical coincidence at work. Heaney’s first real volume, Death of a Naturalist, appeared in 1966, Mahon’s Night-Crossing in 1968, Longley’s No Continuing City in 1969. The first overtures of real trouble in Northern Ireland were heard in Belfast in 1966, the serious gunfire and bomb explosions made their horrific debut in 1969. This was a conjunction that each of the poets must over decades have pondered: what would my poetry have been like had the Troubles not happened?

Oddly enough, since the poets’ work was maturing as conflict erupted, the fact of exceptional poetry being written out of philistine Northern Ireland was itself an oblique answer to a question that wasn’t actually (in my recollection) being asked at all: Where are the war poets? The exhilaration of the poetry suddenly in our midst was somehow confused with the deplorable exhilaration of the conflict. The question wasn’t being asked because the sordid violence wasn’t dignifiable as war. Moreover, “Where are the war poets?” was an English question asked by some during the Second World War when the dearth of poetry of the quality of the best Great War poetry became evident. The dignity of the desiderated poetry implied a chivalrous holdover of manly battlefields, though of course Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg gave the lie to that while nevertheless achieving a dignity of response even with their imagery of blood and brains

As it happens, poetry of The Years of Disgrace (as I prefer to call the Troubles) was being written by Padraic Fiacc (b. 1924) and James Simmons (b. 1933), if one thinks that war poetry demands candour, anger, and immediacy. Simmons’ second wife was the sister of the Derry poet Michael Foley (b. 1947) whom I remember terming Heaney, Longley and Mahon “the tight-ass trio”. If Longley is an admirer of British Great War poets, especially Edward Thomas, and Heaney was an admirer of Wilfred Owen, in both cases it was the poet qua poet that was uppermost in their admiration. The fraternity of the trio may well have encouraged a preoccupation with form, since their juxtaposition encouraged a shared apprenticeship to craft and tradition. These were three of the most accomplished versifiers in the islands. Perhaps Foley thought that a formal addiction during civil commotion was a kind of anal-retentiveness, or perhaps that a coterie was itself a tight-ass state of affairs.

Northern Ireland society was in freefall during the 1970s, yet the extraordinary thing about the early verse of Mahon, Longley and Heaney was the equanimity of the speakers. This entailed a certain measured obliviousness to the social formlessness around them. Perhaps this was a function of their third-level education which requires a concentrated self-preoccupation. This equanimity is especially the case with Mahon whose speaker is assured, sceptical and occasionally superfluously eloquent. The obvious poetic forebear is the Ulster poet Louis MacNeice (b. 1907), who is extolled in Mahon’s early “In Carrowdore Churchyard”. MacNeice inspired Longley, too, and also Paul Muldoon (b. 1951), perhaps bequeathing to the latter among other things a Mahonesque attitudinal escape route from the binary prison of Northern Irish life - mock-pedantry, wit, nonpartisanship.

Heaney’s own escape route was not just formal accomplishment and versatility (as well as a Harvard professorship, fame, and the travels that fame invites) but excavation of the origins of the violence going on around him. He dug to get to what he thought might be the truth. Like Mahon, he showed Northern Ireland a pair of heels (they both settled in the Republic) but not, like Mahon, a clean pair of heels: Heaney was wearing his mud-caked Mossbawn and Bellaghy boots when he left. Unlike Mahon and Longley, Heaney was a Catholic, and a Catholic from the country moreover, where that kind of identity was as well-preserved as otherwise perishable objects in bogs. These identities lay beneath education, camaraderie, and literary coterie. Both species of origin came into reluctant play and it became clear that his own precursor was rather the rough-edged Ulster countryman Patrick Kavanagh (b. 1904) than the urbane MacNeice, however much Heaney consciously pursued and analysed the craft of poetry. And before the Catholicism - old enough to be sure - were the pagan belief systems. Northern Ireland’s violence, he decided, was re-enacting rituals traceable to the elder faiths of the European North. Interestingly, Ciaran Carson (b.1948), a Belfast poet who like Longley stayed through thick and thin, found Heaney’s delving a kind of evasion, a way of letting our terrorists and assassins off too lightly - indeed, a kind of aestheticism. Again, cultivated form over the imperatives of experience.

In any case, the individual talent trumped tradition and Northern Irish poetry was a School only when you included Carson, Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian (b. 1950). The pioneering trio went their separate ways. Longley has become a lyric poet of exquisite locution and a nature poet of delicate observation. He didn’t flinch during the years of disgrace from the atrocities that scarred Northern Irish life, but always he settled painfully a kind of membrane or caul of spirituality and hope for redemption over his existential despondency. No tribal obligations complicate his dual British and Irish affiliation. Despite Carson’s reservations, Heaney however did not escape the bonds of identity. He may have resisted the tribal importunities -”When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write/Something for us?” (“The Flight Path”, The Spirit Level, 1996). He did so, however, with much Hamletish self-interrogation, and his poetry is troubled by emigrés, absconders, deserters. But on a famous occasion he also reminded the English that British he was not. Indeed, he has become something of a tribal bard, especially since his death in 2013, perhaps a counterweight to the Anglo-Irishman Yeats who stoked Heaney’s creative fires.

Mahon by contrast decisively rejected his tribe from the start. He preferred to re-fashion himself and sever his roots (suburban Belfast in British Ulster) - more decisively than MacNeice, almost as decisively as Samuel Beckett (b. 1906), both also self-deracinating Protestants. There was Paris (the Sorbonne, 1965-66) and Canada and the United States (travels in 1966-68), then Dublin for a good few years, and eventually Kinsale in Co. Cork for the last decades, as far south of suburban Belfast as possible. He may have voted with his feet to be Irish, as did Heaney, but Irishness entails identity politics and Mahon’s poetry presumes and asserts total freedom from any such thing. The fate of Titanic for him had nothing to do with his people who built it (“After Titanic”), but rather with the unmoored J. Bruce Ismay’s anomalous exile in County Galway. Mahon eschewed the dependable affiliations, preferring the sea in winter to the familiar ports and harbours. Life itself was unmooring, a matter of incarnations, metamorphoses and flux, as “Lives” (an oblique hymn to cultural appropriation) and other poems attest. The only continuity is inevitable desuetude and abandonment, as his most famous poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wicklow” exemplified. The only truth to belonging is found in the oceanic reach and earthwide compass of his work. What some readers have decided is his envoi, “Everything is Going to be All Right”, reads on the face of it like a sentimental retraction.

Note: Mossbawn was the Heaney family farm near Bellaghy village, Co. Derry. J. Bruce Ismay, to save deck space, was responsible for the Titanic’s having fatally few lifeboats aboard.

John Wilson Foster is the author of The Achievement of Seamus Heaney (1995). His latest book is The Space-Blue Chalcedony: Earth’s Crises and the Tyler Bounty (2020).

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #26