‘I always thought I’d live’ - poet Kevin Higgins writes final poem just days before he dies

Higgins (56), who was diagnosed with leukemia last summer, faced death with trademark humour

Poet Kevin Higgins with a portrait of him by artist Christopher Banahan.

Last summer the poet Kevin Higgins was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukaemia. Coupled with a pre-existing lung condition, the prognosis was not good.

As his condition worsened and he was confined to a bed in the haematology ward of University Hospital Galway, he wrote what turned out to be his last poem. The title, I always thought I’d live, could be a refrain for anyone confronting the imminence of death.

Throughout his illness, he sent his musings on his illness to the Galway Advertiser. He always thought he would live to see the poem in print, but he died on Tuesday morning just before the latest edition of the newspaper went to print.

I Always Thought I’d Live


I always thought I’d live to learn how to swim

do the backward butterfly to Olympic standard

and see trickle-down economics deliver

at least one albeit slightly polluted drop.

I always thought I’d live to learn how to drive,

win at least one Grand Prix motor racing championship

and see the Democrats legislate for free

universal healthcare.

I always thought I’d live to tidy

the books off the study floor

and see fascists give up

stabbing black boys at bus stops

because peaceful protests

have eloquently made them

see the error of their ways.

But the books that made me

still decorate the study floor

and I don’t have the oxygen to shift them.

My consultants are unanimous

my days marching to places like Welling

and Trafalgar Square are over.

The risk of getting tossed into the back of a police van

by over enthusiastic members of the constabulary

is a luxury my lungs can no longer afford.

Even holding a placard in my wheelchair

would soon have me gasping for breath.

And I thought I’d always live.

Mr Higgins (56) was an irreverent, anti-establishment figure (The Irish Times was a favourite target). On the day before he died, he tweeted:

“Latest from the Haematology Ward at University Hospital Galway: great questions nurses ask you ‘so are you, like, world famous’? (as a poet). 2/3 Answer: ‘That wouldn’t be for me to say.’ Nurse’s response: ‘Ah go on, tell us.’ 3/3 Poet’s answer: ‘Lying on a hospital in a ward such as this, describing one’s self as ‘world famous’ is a quick route to madness.’ Nurse’s response: ‘Well I Googled ya and you seem pretty famous to me.’

In Galway, his death has been met with great sadness though it was not unexpected. He was more than just a poet. He and his partner Susan Millar DuMars founded Over The Edge 20 years ago to nurture the literary scene in the city.

He regularly frequented Charlie Byrne’s bookshop where he did poetry readings and book launches. His scabrous wit was much in demand. “He’ll be a huge loss,” said bookshop manager Vinny Browne. “Everybody who has been in this week has said, ‘Oh my God, who is going to fill those shoes?’ I don’t think anybody will. It was a one man operation. Kevin was driving it really.”

Mr Higgins was born in Coventry, moved to Galway at a young age, then back to England and finally settled in Galway 30 years ago. During the 1980s he was a member of the Militant Tendency wing of the Labour Party and remained committed to socialist politics. He was expelled from the British Labour Party in 2016 over a satirical poem he wrote in defence of then leader Jeremy Corbyn.

His politics weren’t to everybody’s likings, but he had a broad following. “Somebody said about him that he could be in the Morning Star, which is Britain’s only Communist Party newspaper, one day and the Irish Independent the next. His reach was wide in that sense,” said Mr Browne.

Fellow Galway poet President Michael D Higgins paid warm tribute to him and especially to his final poem. It demonstrated a “person of the deepest humanity, gifted with words and full of courage that he would wish for all to have for themselves”.

The president said he could think of nobody who did more to make the case for performed poetry and for poetry in general as Mr Higgins had done.

The president continued: “His political beliefs were clearly in the family of the Left, but he didn’t shirk from identifying the gap between what was sought, and what he saw as the failure in efforts to deliver it in practice, for the benefit of all in a changed world.

“For those of us who have known him over the decades, there is nobody who would not agree that he was a charming presence and a great friend, guaranteed to never be dull.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times