Coming alive in the archive: the elusive poet Ethna MacCarthy
Maria Johnston’s archival discoveries about the poet, who died on this day in 1959
Ethna MacCarthy: one of the few women included in The Irish Times’ Poems from Ireland, edited by Donagh MacDonagh
Following on from our fascinating dive in the Irish Times archive, poetry critic Maria Johnston writes about the archival discoveries that she made as she went in search of the elusive Irish poet and doctor Ethna MacCarthy (a remarkable woman for her time, who died on this day in 1959) and reflects on the crucial importance of archives when it comes to retrieving the work and lives of Irish women poets who have been lost from view.
Scholars of Samuel Beckett’s work will be familiar with the name of Ethna MacCarthy. As his first love and a cherished lifelong friend – they met as undergraduates studying modern languages at Trinity College Dublin in the 1920s – she was one of Beckett’s trusted readers of his work in progress and the model for the character of the Alba and for the girl in Krapp’s Last Tape.
After lecturing in French and Provencal literature at Trinity, the formidable MacCarthy went on to study medicine (working as a paediatric doctor at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital throughout the 1940s) but as the publication of her Poems (edited by Gerald Dawe and Eoin O’Brien) in 2019 brought to renewed attention, she was also an impressively gifted poet and translator in her own right and not merely a muse for other writers.
MacCarthy never published a collection of poetry but she kept a notebook which serves as a vital record of her development as a writer who was very much engaged with the literary culture in Ireland of the time. I was lucky to be able to consult this wondrous artefact in the archive of Trinity College Dublin (before successive lockdowns put an end to such transgressive intimacies) in which she compiled clippings of her work in print and detailed the life of her poems as they made their way in the world appearing in magazines and in various anthologies.
One such anthology was the Irish Times’ Poems from Ireland, edited by Donagh MacDonagh, which included among its small percentage of women poets, Freda Laughton, Irene Haugh, Sheila Steen and Rhoda Coghill. That MacCarthy took herself seriously as a writer is in no doubt.
As is the case with other women poets of the period, such as Laughton, there are few biographical details available for MacCarthy. Indeed, we know more about her grandfather, the 18th-century poet and scholar Denis Florence MacCarthy (who addressed his own “Ethna” in his poetry) than we do about the poet Ethna MacCarthy. She was born in 1903 in Derry to Dr Brendan and Eleanor MacCarthy. The family moved to a house on Dublin’s Sandymount Avenue some time during the 1910s, and Ethna, having first studied music, entered Trinity College Dublin in 1922.
It was through the archive of The Irish Times that I began to piece together a real sense of her as a living presence at large in the literary scene of her day.
When I started researching the life of Ethna MacCarthy it felt as though all that would ever be possible was the odd glimpse here and there into an almost total dark. It was through the archive of The Irish Times that I began to piece together a real sense of her as a living presence at large in the literary scene of her day. The texture of MacCarthy’s immensely rich and multi-dimensional life is wonderfully present in the back issues of this newspaper.
“Dr Ethna MacCarthy will be away from Desmond, Sandymount Avenue, Ballsbridge, for a few weeks”, the Social and Personal column of this newspaper announces in June 1946. Where she went, we do not know, but it is as tantalising in its wayward mystery as her own shimmering and shifting poems are. We do know that she is back in Dublin on May 11th, 1947 as the same newspaper lists her among the speakers at a PEN International debate on Fights in Literature, along with Blanaid Salkeld, Rosamond Jacob and AJ (Con) Leventhal.
The commitment of The Irish Times to publishing new poems is one of its most valuable contributions to the literary culture of this island
MacCarthy and Leventhal married in 1956. Reporting on the happy occasion, which took place in London’s Chinatown, The Irish Times pronounced it “a most unusual wedding reception”, with guests from the world of the arts including Hilton Edwards and Valentin Iremonger.
It is in the pages of The Irish Times that MacCarthy in her roles as both writer and medical doctor is brought freshly back to life. The results of her final medical examinations are published on July 12th, 1939. Throughout the 1940s, many of her finest poems, including Viaticum, Exile, Insomnia, Frost, Advent, Evergreen, Harlequin, War and the Rose, and The Charity feature in the pages of this newspaper alongside articles and reviews by major literary figures of the time, such as Patrick Kavanagh, Padraic Colum and Austin Clarke.
Moreover, Clarke himself praises MacCarthy’s Ballad of St Simon’s as a “fine translation” from Spanish in an Irish Times review of 1947. The commitment of The Irish Times to publishing new poems is one of its most valuable contributions to the literary culture of this island and it is thrilling to behold the vibrant lines of a poem by MacCarthy in its contemporary context surrounded by the news, reviews and adverts of the day.
But it’s not only poems that she contributes to these pages; the range of her expertise is staggering. In May 1943, Dr Ethna MacCarthy’s lengthy and informed review of the study Tuberculosis in Childhood makes a strong case for the urgent treatment of TB in Ireland: “It will take the full force of strong enlightened public opinion to break this evil chain of disease and death”, MacCarthy warns. In this she may be seen as building on the legacy of her father, Dr Brendan MacCarthy, a “recognised authority on Public Health” who died in April 1934 and who, as the Irish Times obituary acknowledges, “did splendid work during his career in combatting outbreaks of typhoid and other diseases”.
In 1949 we find Ethna MacCarthy back in literary mode, reviewing a new study of the work of the French dramatist Jean Racine for the Irish Times. “The appreciation of Racine has always been difficult for English-speaking people,” she observes, going on to prove her own authority as a scholar of French language and literature.
A decade later, MacCarthy’s lively 1957 review of Honor Tracy’s Silk Hats and No Breakfast: Notes on A Spanish Journey makes room for her trademark sensitivity to matters of poverty and degradation: “Those who visited Spain before the Civil War will remember only too well the procession of diseased and crippled beggars in front of the great cafes of Madrid and Barcelona”.
A particularly high-profile moment in MacCarthy’s career also made headlines in a number of newspapers in 1950s Ireland. “Dr Ethna MacCarthy of Sandymount Avenue has been appointed as Medical Leader of the World Health Organisation’s Maternal and Child Health Project in Baghdad Iraq”, The Irish Times reported on September 12th, 1953. Sadly, the post did not materialise as MacCarthy, despite having signed the contract, failed the required routine physical examination.
As Beckett’s letters of the time relate, she spent some months in Paris trying to reverse the decision, but it was not to be. As we know from James Knowlson’s magisterial biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame, the news of Ethna’s imminent death (from throat cancer) in 1959 left Beckett “in speechless sorrow”. She died in a London hospital on May 24th, 1959; Beckett’s last letter to her arriving too late for her to receive it.
Although her own private pain is never the overt subject of her poetry, MacCarthy’s work is profoundly intimate with the inescapable reality of human suffering. Published in The Irish Times in July 1947, her poem The Charity opens with an unshakeable image of an impoverished Dublin city in the 1940s, as it merges with the shadowy underworld of Greek mythology:
Shivering and hungry mothers bore
their sickly infants, doomed before
they saw the light, both soon frail flotsam
on far Lethe’s shore.
“I remember Ethna MacCarthy when her beauty and wit threw a vivid light over the front square of Trinity College and over the lectures,” a contributor to this newspaper’s Irishman’s Diary recalled after her death in 1959. She is a luminous presence in Irish poetry and in the life of literature in Ireland during the 20th century. Her work, with its roving, cosmopolitan intellect, forensic attentiveness to the dark realities of modern life, and fierce passion for languages and the life of words, deserves to be granted a new readership.
“People who talk about women’s lives as being unrecoverable are quite often absolving themselves from looking in the archives”, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin once remarked. As we work to reclaim the lost voices of Irish women poets, archives such as The Irish Times are indispensable for these essential acts of recovery. Without them, the story of poetry in Ireland and beyond is incomplete.
Maria Johnston’s essay on Ethna MacCarthy will be published in Irish Women Poets Rediscovered, edited by Maria Johnston and Conor Linnie, forthcoming from Cork University Press.