Fellow writers salute Philip Casey at 65 as he publishes his Selected Poems

‘Philip Casey is that rare gift among his fellows – a poet and fictionist free of ego or selfish impulse, generous by nature, genial in aspect and graceful in praxis’


"One of the most beloved of contemporary poets," is how Ireland Professor of Poetry, Paula Meehan, describes Philip Casey. Poet, novelist and member of Aosdána, Philip Casey will be honoured by friends, family and the Irish literary community tonight in the Oak Room of the Mansion House when a launch of his Selected Poems will take place.

Co-hosted by Dermot Bolger and myself, this event will celebrate Casey’s many achievements, including four collections of poetry and three novels. Casey is also the founder and editor of the website Irish Writers Online, which provides biographical details of Irish writers. A free resource, it is used worldwide.

Casey’s vision is both local and international. He spent several years living in Barcelona and has connections in Germany where he still is a regular visitor (his play, Cardinal, was produced in Hamburg in 1990). He was born to Irish parents (from Laois and Sligo) in London in 1950 but spent formative years on a farm in Hollyfort, Co Wexford. He has long been based in central Dublin and is a familiar figure at literary events, which he attends with determined loyalty.

His spare, elegaic poetry gives voice to themes of family, place, love in its many forms, political injustice, and pain, both physical and emotional. Casey lost a leg due to complications following intense radiation to treat cancer. He began writing verse by first of all composing songs with a guitar as a teenager in his hospital bed. His perspective is one of wry, hard-won insight, suggesting passion and suffering by restraint rather than overspill.

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That Casey is held in high regard by his peers is reflected in the fact that tonight’s event could not be opened to the public due to limitations of space, because so many of Casey’s literary colleagues wanted to be there in person to celebrate the man and the work.

Guests include the novelists Sebastian Barry and Joe O’Connor, the artists Alice Maher and Dermot Seymour as well as poets Paula Meehan, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Macdara Woods, Pat Boran, Gerard Smyth, Mary O’Donnell and many more. A few of the guests including poets Aidan Murphy, Heather Brett and Terry McDonagh will read poems by Casey which have personal resonances for them, as will friends and family members. German guest Ulrike Boskamp and her daughter, Klara, who have flown in from Berlin, will each read a poem that has been dedicated to them.

Philip Casey's first collection of poetry, Those Distant Summers, was published in 1980 by Raven Arts Press and is heavily influenced by his youth on the farm in Hollyfort. "The curlew cried in the bog before a band of rain came from Croghan like an animal," he recalls. "It sank a deep well in my imagination." Tonight several of his Wexford friends will be present, including Sean and Kay Halford, who will also read a poem.

Tried and Sentenced is edited by Marion Kelly and includes a selection of poems from all four of Casey’s collections (the other three are after thunder and The Year of the Knif e, both published by Raven; and Dialogue in Fading Light, published by New Island). “Things that please me in poetry are precision, compassion and images that surpass the common run of language; also that the poet must have an ear for language as a musician has an ear for music,” wrote Michael Hartnett, in a review of The Year of the Knife. “The work of Philip Casey possesses all of these in abundance.”

Launching Casey’s Selected Poems tonight is writer Ronan Sheehan, who reviewed Casey’s first novel, The Fabulists (1994), with the following: “This is a passionate, erotic, mature novel that displays many of the virtues which contemporary Irish fiction so conspicuously lacks: an intelligent vision of an adult relationship coupled with an intelligent vision of contemporary Irish society. Plus he has a supple prose style which is a constant joy to read.”

Casey’s trilogy of novels began with The Fabulists, first published by Antony Farrell’s Lilliput Press, which won the inaugural Kerry Ingredients/Listowel Writers’ Week Novel of the Year award in 1995, and earned praise from Martha Gellhorn and Colm Tóibín (who called it “a stunningly truthful and perfectly pitched novel”). The novel features a pair of Dublin lovers who are struggling with poverty and familiy ties, wooing each other with invented tales of cosmopolitan wanderings.

The Water Star (Picador, 1999) and The Fisher Child (Picador, 2001) completed what is now the Bann River trilogy, encompassing Casey’s much-loved landscape of north Wexford, as well as the Irish diaspora in London (which Casey experienced first hand – some of his earliest memories are of playing in bombsites in Highgate); how families evolve and survive through turmoil and suppressed secrets; and the terrible legacy of slavery. From the intimate streets of pre-boom Dublin where The Fabulists begins, Casey opens his fiction to international dimensions, most ambitiously in the historical strands of The Fisher Child, which moves from scenes of 1798 fighting in Wexford to the Irish-owned slave plantations in Montserrat.

As mainstream publishing struggles to adapt to a changing world, Casey has taken back ownership of his printed works, like many writers and musicians, seeking greater creative control and using his considerable expertise with technology. He established eMaker editions, an independent imprint, to make his work available globally as ebooks on Kindle and as print-on-demand editions via Amazon, the Book Depository and Barnes & Noble. In Ireland his books can be found in Books Upstairs (Dublin) , Kennys (Galway), and Zozimus Books (Gorey).

I first met Philip Casey through the late lamented James Liddy and Paul Funge, who together produced the pioneering but now sadly defunct Gorey Arts Festival and its spin-off, the wonderfully named Gorey Detail literary magazine. Philip was one of several Wexford poets I met through James and the festival, including Eamonn Wall, Paddy Kehoe and Mick Considine (who will attend tonight). As a newbie teenage poet, I was delighted to be a satellite of such fun-filled, exciting company. Although it is decades hence, I have the same feeling about tonight.

Tributes to Philip

Dermot Bolger, novelist and poet

Since his debut collection in 1980, Philip Casey has been a treasured author who has enriched Irish writing not only through his acclaimed poetry collections and celebrated Bann River Trilogy of novels, but also through his pioneering works on behalf of Irish writing. These include the famous Irish Writers Online website, which he originated and has maintained as a free online resource and is used worldwide. Tonight we salute his contribution to the cultural life of Dublin as well as his new book Tried and Sentenced: Selected Poems, which showcases one of Irish writing’s most esteemed voices. Casey is an essential presence in Irish writing over the past quarter century.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, poet

Philip Casey has been a wise, joyful presence among Irish writers, a devoted chronicler and adviser, innovative and courageous in literature as in life. It’s great to revisit his poetry and to have an opportunity to celebrate the most important thing, his outstanding creative achievement, with the publication of Tried and Sentenced.

Thomas Lynch, poet and essayist

After we are all gone to ground again, Philip Casey’s work in words will be happily haunting new readers and old ones. His fictions and poems ennoble the species and the art. Quite apart from his own writerly output is his work in service of other writers, early on taming the frontiers of daunting new technologies to lengthen the table of our community. Philip Casey is that rare gift among his fellows – a poet and fictionist free of ego or selfish impulse, generous by nature, genial in aspect and graceful in praxis: a gift.

Maureen Kennelly, director of Poetry Ireland

The publication of Philip Casey’s Selected Poems offers a wonderful opportunity to remind us of his many poetic achievements which have maybe been overshadowed in more recent years by his prose. And it’s an occasion to celebrate the very rich part that he continues to play in Dublin’s poetry landscape.

Paula Meehan, Ireland Professor of Poetry

Philip Casey is one of the most beloved of contemporary poets. His compassion, his courage and his great gift for friendship are valued by his fellow poets nearly as much as we value the wisdom and humanity of the lyric poetry he makes. In his novels he has delineated the soul’s journey towards integration in the face of cultural and historical disintegration. In his pioneering work on the internet and as an activist, he has served all that is good and liberating in a lifelong search for truth and justice.

Gerard Smyth, poet

Before I met him, which must have been through that gatherer of poets James Liddy, I had read his bulletins from the Land of Lorca. Unlike myself at the time, Philip had been off to experience exotic places and brought back those places in the lyrical and exquisite poems of his debut collection Those Distant Summers: The Chamartin-Barcelona Termino Express, Missing a Lady in Calle Padua, La Extranjera. The long-haired Philip I first met during a distant summer of the early seventies stills beams his broad, lovely smile from the back cover of that book that so impressed me. The hair may now be a bit shorter but the smile is the same whenever we meet. Like the poet himself, his poems are a blend of tenderness and fortitude. All these years later his “old songs make their way to my heart”.

Antony Farrell, editor of Lilliput Press

Lilliput Press was thrilled and proud to publish The Fabulists, Philip Casey’s pre-Tiger first novel in the mid-nineties, reflecting a cosmopolitan Dublin of hope and futurity, contemporaneous and emotionally engaged in the spell of its protagonists Tess and Mungo. Launched by Sebastian Barry, it won critical acclaim, and went on to win the Listowel Writers’ Week Book of the Year 1995. A coming of age for us all.

A Poem by Philip Casey

An Indian Dreams of the River
(for Terry and Kevin)

I can no longer smell freedom on the river.
A woman's life is always hard, but at least
I had my teeth, then. My smile was famous
in the village.
They have polluted the river with the burning leather
of their jackboots.
At night, when the fireflies eat my brain,
I think of how they broke my husband,
bone by white bone.
Curse by obscene curse they raped me,
clutching José's eyes open
to see our shame.
I cannot eat fish anymore because they remind
me of their eyes.
Sleep comes like a caravel of conquistadores,
gleaming Toledo bayonets flecked with blood.