Colm Tóibín on that fine writer Anthony Cronin

Cronin was a fine critic who lived the interior life of the mind with grace and style

Anthony Cronin was a brilliant thinker and critic and wonderful company. His analysis of the world around him was sharp and acute. His journalism was rational, thoughtful; his style as a broadcaster could be wry and funny, as were his novels and his classic memoir Dead as Doornails. Before he was anything else, however, he was a poet.

His poetry too could have a rational edge, using logic and statement of fact, coming to tentative conclusions as though everything stated had to be tested and proved.

It was clear in his poetry that he loved reason until you went to one of his readings when he showed that he loved language just as much. He allowed his sense of the magic and mystery of words to rub against his refusal to deal in twilights or easy emotions or what is called the natural world.

Rich poetics

Sometimes, you could find a poem that seemed the very opposite of what you thought his poems were. A Revenant, for example, deals with the "amazing grief" that the beginning of autumn can bring:


“For suddenly summer gloaming

Turns into Autumn night,

Raindrops spatter the roses

And the heart cries out.”

But such sharp and simple feeling must be interrogated, treated with suspicion:

“How can that identical grief

Spring on the heart again,

When the circumstance such as it was

Made it ludicrous even then?”

While refusing to deny the original feeling, he seeks to tease out what it means:

“What is the meaning of this,

That the heart is stabbed with grief,

At the onset of Autumn evenings,

At memory’s twitch on the leaf?

The meaning is summer going,

Ridiculous ecstasy, pain,

And the heart agreeing with something

Which was, and which ought to be, plain.”

Anthony Cronin was an Enniscorthy man who made himself into a Dubliner, although in later years he came to view his origins with fondness. He was a socialist who became an adviser to Charles Haughey because he believed that Haughey in power would put the arts and the artist at the centre of Irish life.

Cronin's great legacy from those years remains Aosdána, which gave Irish artists an important place in our society, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Tony loved an argument. In 1985, when he was living in London, I remember going with him and Anne Haverty, whom he later married, to see an exhibition at the Tate of paintings from St Ives. When he saw that I was moved and inspired by the paintings, Tony began to shake his head.

They weren’t wonderful, he said, smiling his hesitant smile. Some of them were decoration, he went on, and insipid decoration to boot. “All of this colour,” he added, “gets us nowhere.”

Cheering for culture

"But Tony . . ." Anne Haverty began. He turned towards her, amused and delighted and exasperated all at the same time, like a great teacher. "No, Anne, no," he said, and he marched us slowly through the Tate building, away from abstraction towards some paintings of heads by Francis Bacon, whom he had known, and drawings by Georg Grosz. "Look at how much more is in these, the anguish, the city, the face, the crowd. This is how we live, Anne."

He turned to me, the gaze fiercely amused. “And that’s what the novel should be about too,” he said.

He was, that day, against nature; he was cheering for culture in all its twisted diversity. He was insisting on modernity against our romanticism.

He lived his old age with grace and style. Sitting by the fire in his house in Ranelagh a few days before Christmas, he offered me a most acute analysis of Donald Trump’s victory. He took an immense pleasure in being alive. He lived the life of the mind, following the news with care and close attention.

His memory was prodigious – for poems, for horses, for what people such as his friends Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O'Brien had done and said. It might be easy to say that he was the last of a generation, but it never felt like that in his company.

He was so totally alive and involved in the moment, and so generous and daring in the way he lived, that it is impossible to believe his sparkling presence in the world has now come to an end.