Enda Wyley on Dennis O’Driscoll: a wedding and a funeral

Ten years after the death of Dennis O’Driscoll, Enda Wyley remembers humour in both the poet and the man

Dennis O’Driscoll: affectionately known as the only poet in Ireland with a job. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

One August afternoon in 2001 I met the poet Dennis O’Driscoll on George’s Street in Dublin.

It’s not surprising at all that I met him there, as he worked close by in Revenue and Customs service and did so for nearly 40 years. I can see him now before me, his raincoat flapping, his thin frame resolute on the pavement, cloth bag filled with papers and books in his hand.

I couldn’t hide my excitement. I’m getting married, I blurted out. Won’t you come to our wedding? I’m so sorry, but I can’t, he replied. But why? I wasn’t going to give up.

I knew Dennis from poetry readings and events in Dublin in the 1990s, used to meet him on the Dart as I made my way into the inner-city school I worked in as a young teacher, was always up for poetry conversations with him as we were jostled by early morning commuters. What was I reading? What had he been reading? It didn’t take long for me to discover on those early morning train journeys the truth in poet David Wheatley’s remark that asking Dennis had he read any poetry was like asking Matt Talbot had he said his prayers.


And then there were Dennis’s postcards with their distinctive writing ­– dark ink curls, that poets in Ireland were always chuffed to receive. As though a new poetry collection of yours wasn’t fully validated without the O’Driscoll stamp of approval. The flap of a card falling onto a hall floor. Words of praise to goad you on to new poems, better ways of writing. Dennis, after all, was well skilled in writing postcards. Hadn’t he written to Enid Blyton when he was a child? And she had replied and praised his handwriting! But he also wrote to Auden and Beckett, Stevie Smith, Brian Patten and received responses from them, as well. No wonder then, that he wrote to us Irish poets too.

But I digress, I am still standing on George’s Street, not giving up. Do come to our wedding, I insisted again. I can’t. I only do deaths and funerals, Dennis said. And there it was, on a rainy afternoon in Dublin, the ironic wit and deadpan humour so evident in his poetry being spoken by the man himself. A humour that to this day, I still love to encounter in his work and that continues to energise me as a reader and poet.

He did come to our wedding with his wife, the poet Julie O’Callaghan, and it was a huge privilege to have them both there. But thinking back now on his initial response to my invitation, I am reminded of his poem, No, Thanks, which energetically pokes fun at humans and their often painful urge to be social. But it’s a poem which also pokes fun at Dennis himself – who was an utterly charming man but a determinedly private one too.

‘No, I don’t want to drop over for a meal

on my way home from work….

No, I haven’t the slightest curiosity about seeing

how your attic conversion finally turned out…'

It’s a poem which, when he was alive, drew much laughter from audiences, for Dennis was a memorably dry and witty performer of his work. I purposefully use the word performer, as sitting in the audience hearing Dennis read his work was an experience, not easily forgotten. He was an exemplary poet with a unique voice. A voice once heard you never forgot, both in person and on the page.

‘What is Mass like?’ our daughter once asked when she was little. Then quickly added, ‘Is it as boring as a poetry reading?’ Dennis would have got a great kick out of Freya’s comical wondering – she is actually not baptised – especially as her comment very much taps into his own mischievous teasing of the world and its rituals. There was a devilment there, a healthy cynicism of life and work. He wrote of subjects that as Heaney said, quoting Robert Frost, ‘were common in experience but uncommon in books’ - the dull commute to work, office parties, departure lounges. And, at the end of the day, ordinary questions like, what’s for dinner? Who will turn on the immersion?

When all is said and done

what counts is having someone

you can phone at five to ask

for the immersion heater

to be switched to ‘bath’

and the pizza taken from the deepfreeze.

Home, from Quality Time, 1997.

This year marks a decade since Dennis O’Driscoll’s death but as long as we continue to read his poetry, he will live on, inspiring us in the multitude of witty, wry poems of his that buzz with a humour all of their own.

Enda Wyley’s recent collection of poetry is The Painter on his Bike (Dedalus Press). This article is an abridged version of a talk she gave commemorating Dennis O’Driscoll at the Kildare Readers Festival 2022.