Ft Kevin Hegarty
There seems little connection between the grace of poetry and the gritty reality of the Revenue Commission. Yet both streams met fruitfully in the person of Dennis O’Driscoll who died suddenly on Christmas Eve.
In his civil service work, from which he retired in the past year, O’Driscoll specialised in ‘death duties, stamp duties and customs’!
He wrote elegantly of the relatively anonymous middle class world he inhabited: “we are a cautious, conscientious bunch on the whole, well-intentioned, middle of the road, always aware there are two sides to every story, family men in anoraks and belted raincoats, night classing woven with sensible shoes, church fund-raisers and sports club secretaries, stalwarts of the pub quiz and the amateur drama circuit. On a commuter train you can distinguish us from the business classes, our footwear less shined, our creases less sharp, our cases less chic. On the roads our tarnished Escorts and Fiesta’s are never mistaken for company cars”!
In his poetic life he produced nine collections and a compendium of essays and reviews. He wrote regularly for Irish and international literary journals. Five years ago, a book of his interviews with Seamus Heaney, entitled ‘Stepping Stones’ was published. It is a care text for all explorations of the work of the Nobel Laureate.
O’Driscoll once said that poetry is a ‘just squeezed from the fruit of experience’. His own poetry reflects this aphorism. A fellow poet Gerard Smyth offers this critique of his work: “For Dennis poetry was to be found in the supermarket aisle and the re-cycle bin. The middle-class hues of the new estate and the rituals of the office were among his preoccupations. He was a keen-eyed observer of life at its most fragile - its last chill breath”.
O’Driscoll was born in 1954. His earliest formative experiences were in the town of Thurles where he grew up - a service centre for its rich rural hinterland, the centre of Catholicism in the archdiocese of Cashel and the mecca of hurling in Tipperary.
He did not share in this popular passion. He ruefully admitted that he was not much of a hurler. He reminisced once about his short involvement in the game.
“I would make one or two asthmatic runs after a ball to stay warm during school sports sessions in the railway field. After a few wild swipes at the air with my stick (more Christy Mahon than Christy Ring) cries of ”keep out of the way Driscoll”, would reach me from a contemptuous full-forward and I would retreat to the sideline”.
It was a traditional world. Everyone knew everyone else and everyone know his or her place. One thinks of Frank O’Connor’s wry observations that in those days. “An Irish persons private life began at Holy head. Yet change was on the way.
As Seán Lemass’s government began to open Ireland to the wider world, modernity began to break in. O’Driscoll remembered Rolling Stones clones playing guitars at local talent competitions while Simon and Garfunkel filled the youth club with the sound of silence.
The town also had a vibrant and adventurous amateur dramatic tradition. O’Driscoll, whose fascination with literature began with Enid Blyton, was so thrilled by a local production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for God” at the age of 15 he wrote to this reclusive Irish writer in Paris, encouraging him to keep up the good work. Beckett probably amused by this youthful precocity, sent him a signed limited edition of one of his plays.
O’Driscoll has sometimes been compared to Philip Larkin, one of the major English poetic voices of the 20th century. They both shared a talent for the mordent evocation of ordinary experience.
There are similarities too, in their reflections on contemporary religious belief. Larkin lost faith in God. For him religion was a “vast, moth-eaten musical brocade, created to pretend we never die”. Yet he continued to visit old churches. Despite his own lack of belief he described churches as serious places, “In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, are recognised and robed as destinies. And that much never can be absolute”.
O’Driscoll’s early life was steeped in traditional Catholicism. Life experience and the complexities of modernity caused him to question the simple clarity of the faith he inherited. He wrote frequently of the absence of God: “God is well and truly dead and buried” his name no longer raised in polite company, mystery solved. Case closed. Yet he also wrote powerfully of “Missing God” in a long poem with that title which is well worth seeking and reading.
There is much to rejoice in and reflect on in the poetry of Dennis O’Driscoll. At his funeral Mass Seamus Heaney aptly described him as a many of no airs but many graces. In his relatively short life he did the important thing. He contributed to the sum of civilisation.