Poet and critic gave poetry 'a good name'


Dennis O’Driscoll, who has died aged 58, made his name as a poet and critic while working at the Revenue Commissioners, where he specialised in “death duties, stamp duties and customs”.

He was the author of nine books of poetry, of which Dear Life (2012) is the most recent, three chapbooks [or pamphlets] and a collection of essays and reviews. He contributed poetry, reviews and criticism to a wide range of Irish and international publications.

Seamus Heaney said at the funeral Mass that O’Driscoll gave poetry a “good name”, and that his work had added a “new growth ring to the old traditional tree of Irish poetry”. He knew the value of O’Driscoll’s friendship, having collaborated with him over many years on a book “that needed to be written, but might not have got written” without his input.

Fellow poet Gerard Smyth wrote: “For Dennis, poetry was to be found in the supermarket aisle and in the recycle bin. The middle-class blues 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’.”

Irish Times literary correspondent Eileen Battersby described him as “that rare creature: an intellectual whose learning was matched by an astute intelligence both refined and intuitive”.

Steeped in arts

Born in Mullauns, near Thurles, Co Tipperary, in 1954, he was the son of James and Catherine O’Driscoll. He came from a family steeped in the arts. His sister Marie Bartelink is a painter in Holland; Eithne Corbett is a strong supporter of Gaelscoil Bhríde, Durlas Éile; brother Declan is a jazz and contemporary music critic; Séamus owns a garden centre and is a keen attender at arts events; while Proinsias has written extensively on 19th-century Irish-language literature.

Proinsias this week recalled: “Dennis was a poetry and literature enthusiast from an early age, beginning with Enid Blyton and progressing to Samuel Beckett, to whom he wrote a letter of encouragement after seeing Waiting for Godot at Thurles drama festival!” The 15-year-old O’Driscoll received a signed limited edition copy of All That Fall in response.

He attended Thurles CBS and, after joining the Civil Service at 16, continued his education at University College Dublin, where he studied law, and the Institute of Public Administration.

Interviewed by this newspaper in 2000, he described himself and his fellow civil servants thus: “We are a cautious, conscientious bunch on the whole, well-intentioned, middle of the road . . . family men in anoraks and belted raincoats.”

He explained the difference between job and vocation: “In the Civil Service you are assigned a grade. You know your status. Whereas with poetry, you never retire and you never really know your grade – it will be assigned posthumously.”

His first poems to be published appeared in Poetry Australia, and his first collection of poetry, Kist, appeared in 1982.

Early poetry reviews were published in Hibernia in the late 1970s. He interviewed countless poets for Poetry Ireland Review and established a reputation for being thoroughly au fait with what was happening in the world of poetry.

Loyalty to poetry

He believed the reviewer’s principal loyalty was to the art of poetry itself, and held that poetry in Ireland suffered because so many publications commissioned Irish poets to review Irish poetry: “If poets are doing the judging and friendships and enmities then enter – how do you decide who is talented?”

A major undertaking was Stepping Stones (2008), effectively the biography of Seamus Heaney as told through a series of interviews conducted over five years with the Nobel laureate. Awards include a Lannan literary award, the EM Forster award of the American Academy of Letters, the O’Shaughnessy award from the Center for Irish Studies, Minnesota, and the Argosy non-fiction book of the year award. He was a member of Aosdána.

He was influenced by the eastern European poets, such as Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert. Often compared to Philip Larkin, he nevertheless nominated Bertolt Brecht as his poet of the century in 1999.

He was always available to young writers, and his advice to aspiring poets was: “Poetry is a form of play. Play is a diversion from work. All play and no work will make Jack a dull poet.”

He met his wife Julie O’Callaghan at a reading by Heaney at the Lantern Theatre, Dublin, in 1974. A native of Chicago, she also is an accomplished poet, and the couple made their home at Naas, Co. Kildare. She survives him, as do his brothers, sisters, nieces nephews and the O’Callaghan family.