Ethna MacCarthy: resurrecting a lost poetic voice

The doctor’s poems were discovered among the papers of her late husband Con Leventhal

Ethna MacCarthy. Photograph: Devin A Garrity (Ed.), New Irish Poets (New York: Devin-Adair, 1948)

Ethna MacCarthy. Photograph: Devin A Garrity (Ed.), New Irish Poets (New York: Devin-Adair, 1948)


My association with Ethna MacCarthy began in the 1960s when I became fascinated by Samuel Beckett’s More Pricks than Kicks. One of Beckett’s close friends, Con Leventhal, with whom I would become friendly later, married MacCarthy in 1956. I suspect that she found the irascible charm and humour of this erudite Dubliner irresistible and his sheer irreverence must have found a like heart in a woman with daring propensities, given the restrictive mores of the period.

Con recalled, “We are the offspring of a gin and vermouth in a local public house. We swore that we were young and could assert our youth with all its follies. We railed against the psychopedantic parlours of our elders and their maidenly consorts, hoping the while with an excess of Picabia and banter, a whiff of Dadaist Europe to kick Ireland into artistic wakefulness.”

I cannot remember precisely how I met Leventhal in Paris but what I do recall is that we became instant friends. Con lived on Boulevard Montparnasse with his partner, Marion Leigh, and whenever I visited Paris (often with my wife Tona) we joined them for drinks before crossing the boulevard to La Coupole for dinner. And when Con and Marion came to Dublin, we would dine at our house on Clifton Terrace in Monkstown where long literary discussions would go on into the night.

On his last visit to Dublin in 1979, it was sadly clear that Con was dying from cancer and I accompanied him and Marion back to Montparnasse to give him what little solace I could. He died shortly afterwards, and I missed greatly his mischievous Jewish humour and our talks on life and literature. Much as I may have missed him, it was nothing to the loss Beckett felt. He had lost not only his close friend, but also his trusted and learned confidant who also protected him from the frivolous multitude clamouring at his door.

I determined to do something to honour this remarkable man of letters, who had been the first to praise Ulysses, who had written a criticism of Dublin theatre from the thirties to the fifties, and who had been a formidable influence on one of the century’s greatest writers. I brought together a group of Con’s friends and we agreed to establish a scholarship that would enable a graduate student in English or modern languages of Trinity College Dublin to study in Europe. The funds raised have enabled more than 30 postgraduate recipients of the Leventhal Scholarship to travel to various parts of the world to pursue their studies.

Shortly after Con’s death, on one of my visits to Marion in the flat on Montparnasse, she gave me a case of papers, diaries and notebooks with the admonition “You will know what to do with these”. Among this trove of literary gems was a notebook containing the poems written by Con’s deceased wife, Ethna MacCarthy, some typed, some in handwriting and some inserted from publications. About 10 years ago I typed these remarkable poems with a view to assembling a collection of her poetry, but I abandoned the notion until recently, when I showed them to Gerald Dawe, who immediately rekindled my enthusiasm, and we decided to publish the poems.

Ethna MacCarthy was subject to both medical and poetic inspirations in childhood. It was common then for the sons and daughters of a doctor to be persuaded in their choice of career by parental influences. However, it appears that MacCarthy’s initial tendencies were towards literary study, but in the mid-1930s she diverted to enter the TCD School of Medicine, graduating in 1941 with a degree in medicine and surgery. In 1946 she was awarded a postgraduate doctorate. Her medical interest was health in children, and she was appointed physician to the children’s dispensary at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital. She left this post in 1954, hopeful of being appointed to the World Health Organisation, but failed the obligatory physical examination.

Her contributions to the Irish Journal of Medical Science on topics relating to public health problems in childhood were few, but it is the poetry dealing unashamedly with the practice of medicine that is of most interest. In these, MacCarthy imparts to the life of her time a deep acceptance of what existence is, without necessarily anticipating change, or perhaps surprisingly, without voicing criticism of the poverty and its inevitable companion, misery. This philosophical acceptance of life as it pertains to her existence as a doctor is not far removed from Beckett’s “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” acceptance of the human condition.

In preparing this selection of MacCarthy’s poems for publication, we have simply placed the poems according to their date of writing. Poems is based largely upon material discovered in an archive bequeathed to me and now deposited at the Library of Trinity College Dublin. It is our hope that the editing of this collection of poems will provide the impetus for a fully-fledged biographical and literary study of Ethna MacCarthy and her contemporaries, based on the archival material related to her life and work to be found in Trinity College Dublin, along with the archives of Con Leventhal, Denis Johnston and Samuel Beckett. Had an individual volume of her poems beckoned in the 1950s, she certainly would have had the necessary record of publication and significant peer endorsements. While this was not to be, our posthumous edition is intended as the reclamation of her missing poetic voice and is dedicated to Ethna MacCarthy’s memory; a very special, multitalented and humane Irish woman.

Ethna MacCarthy Poems, edited by Eoin O’Brien and Gerald Dawe, is published by The Lilliput Press

Two poems by Ethna MacCarthy


Being ill I ate
only hake and white grapes
in the land of wine,
and the mariners talked
of ships and iodine.
Cockroaches crawled
on shaded walls;
outside light filled the street.
The cloth and the fish
and the grapes were white
but the mariners were eating meat
and laughed and talked in a tongue I knew
but could not understand
for the blankness in my head.
Where now is your ship mariner
and what was it you said?
[Archive poem August 18th, 1943]

The tension of the songs is now so high and thin
that only the dogs can hear it
and that is why they howl.
No one hears the sound of a leaf.
It is become a brutal thing
for the songs are high above.
The flowers tipple their syrup
on the harassed bee – like a drunk
without harmony.
Birds sing the harsh staccato of warning
giving substance to the glass silence
whose bitter shards
pierce the desolate ears of the dog.

Ethna MacCarthy: Poems is launched this Thursday, October 3rd, at 5.30pm, in the Long Room, Old Library, Trinity College Dublin, by Prof Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. The event also celebrates the handover of the Ethna MacCarthy archive

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