Fanfare for Roscommon Man

An Irishman’s Diary: How one Irish county overcame its natural modesty in matters literary and artistic

‘Being on the way to so many other places, Roscommon has detained a few famous wayfarers. Thus John McGahern (above)  was born in Leitrim, but moved to Cootehall when his mother died. O’Carolan was born in Meath, but found patronage and a spiritual home with the MacDermott Roes of Ballyfarnon. And of course ex-president Mary McAleese was born in Belfast but visited Roscommon often as a child and now lives there.’ Photograph: Frank Miller

‘Being on the way to so many other places, Roscommon has detained a few famous wayfarers. Thus John McGahern (above) was born in Leitrim, but moved to Cootehall when his mother died. O’Carolan was born in Meath, but found patronage and a spiritual home with the MacDermott Roes of Ballyfarnon. And of course ex-president Mary McAleese was born in Belfast but visited Roscommon often as a child and now lives there.’ Photograph: Frank Miller

Wed, Dec 4, 2013, 01:00

The county of Roscommon and the Latin Quarter of Paris have at least one thing in common: they both occupy the Left Bank of a famous river. But contrary to what you might think, comparisons may not end there.

To judge from a new book called The Roscommon Anthology, the Irish Left Bank also rivals the Parisian one in the extraordinary array of writers, artists, and bohemians who have passed through it down the decades.

Never mind Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Hemingway. Roscommon can claim McGahern, Wilde (William, that is, father of Oscar) and – pending an appeal from Longford – Goldsmith, with many others besides.

There’s also the great composer O’Carolan, and the Irish scholar who became the nation’s first President, Douglas Hyde. And there are painters too. Where the Rive Gauche had Picasso, Roscommon can boast Percy French, whose water-colours may not have been as influential as the Spaniard’s but he also wrote a string of much-loved songs, which is more than Picasso could manage.

All told, it’s an ironically impressive line-up for what another former president Mary McAleese, writing the anthology’s preface, calls “a humble county not given to boastfulness”. But then she herself, as the daughter of a Roscommon man, is a key to the list’s inclusiveness.

The joint editors, Michael and John O’Dea, also strike a modest note on their county’s behalf. Being long, narrow, and in the Midlands, they point out, Roscommon tends to be crossed a lot, and too quickly, by travellers. It is “not a destination”, they lament, more “a roadside hello and goodbye on the way to somewhere else”.

But in being on the way to so many other places, it has detained a few famous wayfarers. Thus McGahern was born in Leitrim, but moved to Cootehall when his mother died. O’Carolan was born in Meath, but found patronage and a spiritual home with the MacDermott Roes of Ballyfarnon. And of course ex-president McAleese was born in Belfast but visited Roscommon often as a child and now lives there.

As for Goldsmith, the O’Deas admit his birthplace is disputed. Even so, they stake a claim on behalf of Elphin. So thanks to all these, and the nearly 30 others over whom the county can claim partial or exclusive paternity, the editors have found in Roscommon a cornucopia of literary delights.

Among the collection’s many well-known names are some once famous but now forgotten, notably Bithia Mary Croker. Born in 1849, the daughter of a rector in Kilgefin, she went on to huge international success as a writer of romantic fiction.

Her early fans included the then British prime minister Gladstone, who was spotted reading one of her novels during a House of Commons debate. And although the style of books like The Road to Mandalay may have dated somewhat, the anthology’s extract – entitled “The Cocaine Den” – retains a certain contemporary relevance.

Then there’s Thomas Heazle Parke, whose rifle-wielding statue now guards entry to the Natural History Museum in Dublin. Less noticeable, but more interesting, is a plaque below the statue showing him in the act of saving a soldier’s life, by sucking poison from an arrow-wound in the man’s chest. For the Roscommon-born Parke was a surgeon and explorer, primarily, the first Irishman to cross Africa.

If not a literary figure, exactly, he merits inclusion in the book for his expedition diary, an amusing diversion from the usual history of colonial exploitation. In the extract, Parke and company are at the mercy of rapacious chiefs, who control the local food supply and part with it only grudgingly, in return for various of the visitors’ possessions, all of which they covet.

Well might the Dublin statue be holding on to its gun, because that’s what the real-life Parke was trying to do too. He writes of the chiefs: “Their object in giving us little or no food is to starve us into parting with our rifles and ammunition: which we are determined not to do – at least till all our own belongings go first . . .”

The anthology ranges widely in time as well as material. It includes a famous love-song from the mid-1600s: Tomás Láidir Mac Coisdealbha’s Úna Bhán. And, happily, it also takes in many living authors: ranging alphabetically from the poet Gerry Boland (Dublin-born but in Roscommon exile) to John Waters (the reverse).

The Roscommon Anthology is now available in respectable bookshops. And having shrugged off the county’s once-crippling modesty, the O’Deas are not stopping there. They see the collection as only the beginning of a “grander project” that will trace the wealth and diversity of literature from and about Roscommon, honouring “all her writers past and present”.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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