An Irishman's Diary


A GREAT 20th-century poet, WH Auden, once remarked, in infamously dismissive judgment on his former colleagues in British preparatory (ie private primary) schools, that “no one knows, and no one cares, where private schoolmasters die”. One wonders, in a similar vein, what happens to that huge legion of poets whose lives are forgotten, and to their work.

Part of the answer, at least for this country, is provided, and celebrated, in two new books being published on November 20th by the Lilliput Press. Dublin’s Other Poetryand Ulster’s Other Poetryare both edited by John Wyse-Jackson and Hector McDonnell, who produced Ireland’s Other Poetry, a similar work on a national theme, in 2007.

McDonnell, a well-known artist whose eclectic works now command prices in their tens of thousands in London galleries, has also illustrated each of these books with cartoons of an idiosyncratic originality which, in this writer’s view, capture uncannily the spirit of the poetry resurrected from obscurity in these volumes.

Readers can get a sense of this from the illustration accompanying this article, of Zozimus, the Dublin street-poet and balladeer of the early 19th century, who lived his entire life in that small area bounded by the Liberties, South Great George’s Street and Capel Street. Two examples of Zozimus’s work finish the Dublin volume, of the Rhymes and Songs of the City, as the sub-title puts it.

In his day, Zozimus, whose real name was the rather more prosaic Michael J Moran, was probably regarded as a harmless eccentric. Blind from a fortnight after his birth, circa 1794, in dire poverty in a laneway called Faddle Alley, long demolished, off Blackpitts in the Liberties, he earned his living eccentrically but creatively, regaling Dublin pedestrians with his own home-spun poetry-cum-balladeering, delivered al fresco from street corners and pavements.

He died as he had lived, poor, by legend surrounded by fellow balladeers, in a house in Patrick Street, where straw was the only furniture.

That might have been that, were it not for a re-igniting of interest in Zozimus over the past generation, which built on a scholarship sufficiently respectable in the past to indicate that however forgotten or unfashionable he became after his death, his memory kept on surfacing.

In recent years, the actors Liam Young (presently to be seen in The Tudors) and Paul Turner produced an ambulatory theatre show on Zozimus, later carried on by another company, and today, as I write, there is even a television station named in his honour, Zozzy TV, ( which aims to broadcast videos in central Dublin over the coming Yuletide.

Zozimus had a biography devoted to him in the early 1870s, by a writer sufficiently discreet (and perhaps unsure of his facts) to disguise his identity as Gulielmus Dubliniensis Humoriensis, whose Memoir of the Great Original Zozimus (MM) the celebrated Dublin Street Rhymer and Reciterwas re-issued in a facsimile edition by Carraig Books in 1976, although John Wyse-Jackson cautions that Gulielmus “is not the most reliable” source.

By this time Zozimus had also inspired the name for a sort of literary-cum-satirical magazine, edited by one Richard Dowling which was described by the Cambridge History of English and American Literature as “the Irish Punch”. WB Yeats, a poet to rival Auden at least, in his Celtic Twilight,(1893) referred to Moran as “the last Gleeman of the Pale”, the term “Gleeman” meaning, apparently, a Celtic shaman-type figure. This book also contains an engraving of Zozimus by Jack B Yeats.

Michael J Moran could scarcely have guessed that he would one day be celebrated by one of the greatest men of letters, and also one of the greatest artists Ireland has ever produced.

It was indeed an extraordinary tribute to one who, of course, having become blind as an infant, remained technically illiterate all his life, and whose admirers, it should be remembered, for the most part the sighted poor of Dublin, were themselves very probably illiterate, as the national school system did not commence until the 1830s.

After Yeats, at least in his native city, Zozimus appears to have slipped into obscurity again, although he was included in Colm O’Lochlainn’s Anglo-Irish Song Writersin 1947. But from the late 1960s, there were signs his fame was waxing again: the Dublin City Ramblers ballad group located his grave in Glasnevin Cemetery, and erected a plaque there some time in the later 1960s (the co-ordinates are AG 30, South); the late renowned song-collector Frank Harte included him in his Songs of Dublin,(1978), and the late and equally renowned music folklorist Hugh Shields wrote a piece on him in the Dictionary of National (Irish) Biographyin the 1980s.

When exactly Zozimus was laid to rest in that Glasnevin grave is uncertain. Some sources give his date of death as in April, 1846. However, as the very last work in Dublin’s Other Poetry, The Last Words of Zozimus, a sort of encomium to himself penned by Moran before his death, includes a wish that he be buried “in the O’Connell circle” and of course O’Connell didn’t die until 1847; his passing may have been later.

Although many, certainly of the Establishment, may not have cared where Michael J Moran died, assuredly today there are many who care for him now. I mean, which of us has a television station to call our own? Truly, you never know where you’ll end up.