Celebrating Derek Mahon, one year on

Trinity College Dublin, where the poet studied, is to mark his 80th birthday this week

November 23rd, 2021 would have been Derek Mahon’s 80th birthday. The School of English, Trinity College, where he had been a student in the 1960s, was planning to celebrate that occasion already over a year ago when the sad news came through of his death on October 1st, 2020. Poignantly, he sent a card giving his blessing to what was being planned, a card which arrived just two days before he died.

He is gone but the legacy of his work remains, and Derek Mahon: a Celebration, a two-day conference on November 19th-20th, held in the Trinity College Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, organised by the School of English in association with Poetry Ireland, will gather together major poets and scholars to explore his achievement. Due to Covid restrictions, the conference is limited in numbers so has to be by invitation only. But to complement and support it Trinity College Library, in partnership with the Stewart A Rose Library of Emory University (which holds the Mahon archive), is mounting the online exhibition Derek Mahon: Piecing Together the Poet available to lovers of his poetry around the world.

Mahon was recognised as a star from his first publication in Icarus in his very first term as an undergraduate in 1960, a star in that wonderful Trinity generation of poets that included Brendan Kennelly, Michael Longley and Eavan Boland. His authentic voice, wry, witty, at once lyrical and ironic, sounds already in Glengormley from his first collection Night-Crossing (1968):

Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man


Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge

And grasped the principle of the watering-can.

He never forgot his Belfast background – Lives (1972) featured a photo of shipyard workers with the Titanic in the background – but he was open to influence from around the world, as in the beautiful Japanese-styled The Snow Party or the contemplative The Mayo Tao. His imagination went out to people isolated and disgraced, outcast and forgotten, expressed in his famous poem A Disused Shed in Co Wexford.

Mahon was always inspired by painting: in Courtyards in Delft he inserts himself into Pieter de Hooch’s picture space as “a strange child with a taste for verse”. Painters as different as Uccello and Munch provided starting points for poems such as The Hunt by Night and Girls on the Bridge. He had the capacity to go out not only to what he saw in the world, but to “everything that is the case imaginatively”, as he puts it in Tractatus. He is a wonderful poet of inanimate things, as in his arresting poem Lives, dedicated to Seamus Heaney, where he imagines a whole set of transmigrations from a “torc of gold” to “a stone in Tibet”.

Mahon lived for many years abroad, in the US and Canada, in London, Paris and Rome; his time in New York resulted in the verse letter sequence The Hudson Letter (1995). But after settling in Kinsale, there was a return to the lyric form in the marvellous volume Harbour Lights (2006). The animating force in his later work was a sense of anger and indignation at all we are doing to destroy the planet, voiced in Life on Earth (2008). His last two books Against the Clock (2018) and Washing Up (2020) continued to express this concern for the despoiled environment, a concern all the more urgently relevant in the wake of COP26.

Highlights of the conference will be keynote lectures by Hugh Haughton, Lucy Collins and Edna Longley, all of them to be podcast subsequently. Harry Clifton, Leontia Flynn, Paula Meehan and Michael Longley will give a reading of Mahon's poems and their own. Among the many speakers from Ireland and abroad will be Gerald Dawe, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Lucy McDiarmid, Matthew Campbell and Seán Hewitt. The exhibition features readings by Mahon himself and by Stephen Rea, especially commissioned interviews with friends and colleagues, archival manuscripts and atmospheric photos by John Minihan. Between the conference and the exhibition what will emerge is a renewed sense of the sheer range and amplitude of the work of this great Irish poet.
Nicholas Grene is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Trinity College Dublin