An Irishman's Diary
In the bleak month since he died many tributes have been paid to Dennis O’Driscoll the poet, critic, columnist and biographer. People have spoken of the qualities of compassion, insight, generosity, and warmth that characterised not just his writings but also his interactions with family, friends and colleagues of the written word.
These same qualities characterised his career of 40 years as a civil servant in the Revenue, which he joined on his 16th birthday.
I got to know Dennis during my time as a commissioner and later as chairman of Revenue from 2002 to 2008. Dennis was then deeply immersed in the minutiae of customs policies and legislation in Dublin Castle. He had also published several volumes of poetry and was establishing himself as a critic and columnist. We both had the doubtful pleasure in those years of regular travel to EU meetings and I was taken by how, in his poem Delegates, Dennis so cleverly captured what we, and countless other civil servants, were at: “always a harried official,/plastic ballpoint in mouth/like a thermometer, checking the viability of a draft/beginning with the words,/ notwithstanding the provisions of . . .”
Notwithstanding (and to my lasting shame) I probably categorised Dennis then as “that writer guy below in Castle House” and I probably had the notion that he was more interested in poetry than Customs work.
I was right and I was wrong.
Right that of course Dennis was more interested in poetry than the byways of Customs – no blame there.
Gloriously wrong that this preference interfered in any way with his day job. Because Dennis brought to his Customs work and to his earlier Estate Duty Office work the very same sense of commitment, excellence and intuition that is so evident in his writings. Indeed there’s many a policy document, many a speech, many an Operational Instruction (yes indeed!) in the Dublin Castle files that bears the imprint of DO’D and that is all the more readable for that. Years ago on the wireless I heard a poet (possibly Dennis’s great friend Seamus Heaney – but I may be wrong there – if so apologies all round!) speak of, and intone the old Penny Catechism as poetry. So there’s an opening there when some of those Customs files are released in 30 years time . . .
In 1999 Ireland hosted a three-day meeting of the Heads of Europe’s Customs Services in Dromoland Castle in Co Clare. More than 60 delegates had to be managed, entertained and generally looked after by our Customs Service. We wanted to put on a good show for Ireland and were determined that the organisation and logistics of this event would leave nothing to chance. When my colleague Tom Duffy suggested Dennis for the key logistical role my initial reaction was, “A poet? we’re putting a poet in charge of the logistics of this?” Wrong again – by a mile.
Dennis and his colleagues left nothing to chance and the whole event was a resounding success. I still have the fondest memories of Dennis from that meeting. He was everywhere at once, on hand with revised drafts in his most elegant script, arranging transport, diplomatically seating people at dinners and on one occasion sprinting after the bus containing the German delegate who had left his commemorative plate behind! And he urged me in my welcoming speech to refer to the geological (if not geographical connection) between Co Clare and the Eastern European countries present – according to Dennis this connection was the “karst” limestone common to both!
Others are better qualified to recognise the greatness of Dennis the writer. I would like to recognise the greatness of Dennis the public servant who never short-changed the day job and was an exemplary colleague. His friends in poetry have referred to his unstinting support for others as a mentor and sounding board. His Revenue colleagues would echo that to the hilt.
The last time I met Dennis was just a few months ago at the launch of his poignantly titled collection Dear Life, (Anvil 2012). Afterwards he sent me a card with a typically warm and encouraging message. Dennis always chose his postcards carefully. This one was a picture of author Anne Enright, whom Dennis noted “is the daughter of my first Boss, Donal, – you may not have known that ”.
I can see the twinkle in his eye as he wrote it. I treasure the card.
Of all the tributes, Seamus Heaney put it best. Dennis, he said, was one of the few worthy of the tribute Auden once paid to Elliot, “So long as one was in his presence one felt it was impossible to say or do anything base”.