Dardis Clarke is gone; Dublin has lost some of her soul

Dardis Clarke, 'a small man with a gigantic embrace'

Dardis Clarke, 'a small man with a gigantic embrace'

Fri, Mar 8, 2013, 00:00

FIFTYSOMETHING:The phone was ringing in the kitchen. It only rang six times. I belted down the stairs to get it. My brother Bob was on the line, calling from Bristol.

“You seen the paper?” he asked. I hadn’t. “Dardis is dead,” he said, “Dardis Clarke is dead.”

In the 30 years or so that I knew Dardis Clarke, journalist, author, editor and former chairman of Poetry Ireland, I suppose it never occurred to me that there would come a time when he wasn’t part of the Dublin landscape. Dardis seemed timeless, enduring, utterly unchanged from the first time I met him in the shadowy interior of O’Donoghue’s pub on Baggot Street to the last time, last summer, in the Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green, for an annual memorial to remember former employees of The Irish Times.

We sat and listened to poetry and pipe music and a roll-call of the dead, his father, Austin Clarke, among them, one of RM Smyllie’s people and, arguably, one of the great poets of 20th-century Ireland.

Dardis never shaved, not once in his entire life, or so he told me. That first time I was introduced to his whiskers, I was cautiously terrified. He was a small man with a gigantic embrace, his arms, stretched for flight, wrapped around me, eyebrow to eyebrow. His kiss was

chaste(ish) and alarmingly hairy. But for the black hat and suit and shirt (always black, only black), he could have been an errant helper of Santa Claus; sprite-like, he could have been dangerous.

Outside, Dublin was bleached white with sunlight, but we sat in O’Donoghue’s in the reassuring gloom, Dardis, myself, my father, Bob, and friends, gentlemen, who gathered most lunchtimes over beef and onion sandwiches, dewy pints and red wine. They were a congregation – some successful, some skint, most loosely connected through newspapers, magazines and advertising – who continued to meet, weekly in more recent years, right up until the day before Dardis’s sudden leave-taking.

Convivial, humorous company, they talked about politics and sport and art, and they gossiped, too, like maiden aunts at a slumber party.

In those days there were no smartphones or smartarses, no one panting to get to the top of some shimmering heap. They accepted me into their coterie, these gentlemen, whenever I turned up, broke, hungry, optimistic.

Occasionally, when times were good, Bob would call me to say that a plan had been hatched to eat Japanese food in a Baggot Street basement or Chinese food on Pembroke Street.

Sometimes the flock would migrate from O’Donoghue’s to Doheny and Nesbitt’s. Another favourite place to roost was by the window of the Baggot Inn, as it was then, where they could watch Dublin reveal itself, a silent movie of pretty girls in shoulder pads and busy men in silky suits, tired strangers grateful for the bit of sun, and tourists looking for the rain.

They’d peel off, the gentlemen, back to offices and agencies. Bob and Dardis would remain, pillars of humorous cordiality. They both worked in the mornings, Bob drawing cartoons, Dardis gathering news for a bureau in the EU. Up at 5am to work, Dardis would swim when his copy was filed, 70 lengths a day, some said 100; so many, so early, that the pool attendants gave him a key.

Bob and Dardis would carry novels in their pockets, Dardis’s wrapped in brown paper to discourage casual literary conversation from strangers.

You see, for all his warmth, for all those seismic hugs that emptied you of oxygen, he was critically, admirably private. He was a regular at poetry readings, occasionally a lone, encouraging audience of one. He never missed a deadline. And, beneath the gently bobbing black hat, he was a man of oceanic emotion. When Bob was dying, I held Dardis in Kehoe’s, on South Anne Street, while he wept, tears like confetti storming his face.

Dardis was of the city, a mapper of the maze. He would move from nest to nest across town, from Baggot Street to Grafton Street, down to Parliament Street, back up to Camden Street, roosting, talking, listening.

Black horses with black plumes carried Dardis on his last journey to a humanist service in Mount Jerome Crematorium. They had to be black; they should have worn wide-brimmed leather hats, too. Poets gathered, old friends, President Michael D Higgins slipped quietly into a seat, and Dardis’s beloved daughter, Aoife, graciously listened to a city talk about her da.

Decades pass like hurtling buses, years spill out of our pockets like coins, we can’t hold back time. Dardis aged so infinitesimally slowly over the years that it was invisible. And now he is gone and Dublin has lost some of her soul.

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