Ireland’s greatest living genius: The Parish Review interview

Ian McPherson shares an insight into the mind of poet Fiachra MacFiach

Ian Macpherson’s latest novel, Sloot, will be published by Bluemoose on October 25th

Ian Macpherson’s latest novel, Sloot, will be published by Bluemoose on October 25th

 

“A breakdown of my working methods is perhaps best encapsulated in a lengthy interview I did for the Parish Review long after it folded. The session was marred somewhat by the senility of my interrogator who insisted on referring to me as Mr Hemingway throughout. He also seemed somewhat preoccupied by bulls, alcohol and my alleged suicide. Here is my own amended version.” – Extract from MacFiach’s Journal (vol. xxxvii)

The taped interview takes place at his spartan north London bedsit where, over a shared mug of tap water, he fixes me with the famous MacFiach glower, adjusts his ever-present scarf and offers me a signed copy of Deep Probings at twice the market value. I fondle my Dictaphone and politely decline. He glowers with renewed intensity. I press go. He coughs dramatically and moves closer to me on the chair.

INTERVIEWER: Any advice for the budding artist?

MACFIACH: Read my work. Better a good reader than a bad writer.

INTERVIEWER: Did you yourself seek encouragement as a fledgling genius?

MACFIACH: I recall the somewhat defeatist guidance of my old English teacher. “Write about what you know. Failing that, write about what you don’t know. If that doesn’t work, McCracken’s Cycles of Cathedral Street, Magherafelt, are looking for a trainee sprocket polisher. No Catholics need apply.”

INTERVIEWER: Our readers, and I realise I’m treading on delicate ground here, would be curious to know more about your background. Your parents, for example.

MACFIACH: I would refer you to the relevant line in my book. “Since leaving home I regard my parents simply as material for my art.” Full stop.

INTERVIEWER: But surely a deeper understanding of their lowly peasant origins would present your own exalted status in sharper relief.

MACFIACH: On mature reflection I tend to the view that you may have a point.

A PAUSE.

INTERVIEWER: Well?

MACFIACH: I am summoning up my vague memories of their past, which frankly don’t amount to much. My father was a MacFiach of Lesser Magherafelt, a small village some miles from the metropolis, my mother one of the Clooneys of Lyme Regis. Father used to travel over every spring for the potato harvest and first met my mother while travelling in opposite directions down a row of Kerr Pinks. Mother mistook the fact that he was on his knees for a proposal of marriage and Father, ever the gentleman, was too polite to disabuse her of this fanciful notion.

INTERVIEWER: Love Irish style. What happened then?

MACFIACH: They married.

INTERVIEWER: I see. And?

MACFIACH: Mother’s dowry consisted of two milch cows, a threshing machine and some loose change, and Father would often hark back to the early days of their connubial arrangement when in his cups. “We made a good match,” he would say, “but beauty soon fades, and so it was with the cows.” The seeming cruelty of this remark was tempered somewhat by the fact that he never said it in front of the beasts in question.

INTERVIEWER: Do I take it you were born in England?

MACFIACH: (SIGHS) Obviously not. I’m a poet. No. As Lyme Regis offered little in the way of gainful employment outside the potato picking season my parents set up home in Father’s birth place. His own parents conveniently died and the other siblings were driven out in the accepted manner to try their luck with the American presidency.

INTERVIEWER: President MacFiach. It doesn’t ring a bell.

MACFIACH: None succeeded. It was, after all, a long shot, especially for the women. But at least they were out of the house. Just as well, perhaps, as my parents set about a breeding programme which was the envy of Catholics for miles round.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the farm. And the general environs.

MACFIACH: The farm was situated on the outskirts of the village, a compact little unit with four domiciles, nineteen public houses and a cathedral with a seating capacity of twelve thousand. Outside Mass hours the village was seventy-five per cent Catholic, but we co-existed peacefully with our Protestant neighbour. “And why wouldn’t we?” my father used to say, “for aren’t we all good decent Christian folk?” It may also have had something to do with the electrified fence.

INTERVIEWER: About your mother –

MACFIACH: My mother was essentially a shy woman and had all her children indoors. I was born, it seems, with my bunched left fist pressed firmly against my chin, a solitary finger disappearing up my cheek in typically pensive mode. What I was being pensive about I no longer recall, but I may have been giving Mother’s bedside reading the once over. The fact that I began screaming with purple-faced rage seems to bolster this theory, as Mother favoured the Mills and Boon imprint, and this would certainly have offended my innate literary sensibilities.

INTERVIEWER: Weren’t you a bit young?

MACFIACH: Perhaps, but my earliest recollection has me sitting in my high chair in the kitchen. I was, I would think, about eighteen months old and wore a tweed romper suit with leather arm patches and – proof, I fancy, that Mother wanted a girl – a small hand-knitted scarf in the colours of Greater Magherafelt Camogie All-stars. At any rate there I sat, absently pulling pages from Still Beats My Heart by Edith Wimple.

INTERVIEWER: You have brought the subject back, rather neatly, to yourself.

MACFIACH: Indeed.

INTERVIEWER: Did any of your 16 siblings approach your level of achievement?

MACFIACH: Hardly. Finnias, admittedly, became a cause célèbre when he modelled a pair of jockey shorts in the early days of Irish television. Because of the backstage machinations of the church he was obliged to counter allegations of immodesty by simultaneously wearing a Donegal three-piece suit, which rather defeated the point of the ad. But this scarcely reflects to his credit and the sales pitch in question will not, I fancy, live on.

INTERVIEWER: To your poetry.

MACFIACH: I am relieved to hear it.

INTERVIEWER: You wrote Lines In Memory Of My Mother while she was still alive. Why?

MACFIACH: I rather think she might be a better person to answer that. I’d waited around long enough.

INTERVIEWER: You recently completed an anthology of 3,000 years of Irish verse.

MACFIACH: I know.

INTERVIEWER: No women.

MACFIACH: One has to make tough editorial decisions.

INTERVIEWER: No Swift, Heaney, Yeats –

MACFIACH: Pressure of space.

INTERVIEWER: I see. (PAUSE) You appear to have included your entire output to date.

MACFIACH: (sic)

INTERVIEWER: Every translation from Gaelic is preceded by “Version: MacFiach”.

MACFIACH: I’m glad someone noticed.

INTERVIEWER: Mise Raftaire An File becomes I Am MacFiach The Poet.

MACFIACH: One has to make the imagery live for a modern audience.

INTERVIEWER: Finally. Some fitting memorial for future generations. A statue, perhaps.

MACFIACH: Certainly not.

INTERVIEWER: This seems, if I may say so, uncharacteristically humble. Why not?

MACFIACH: I recently made a pilgrimage to an erection in honour of celebrated transsexual poet Joseph Mary Plunkett. In Ballsbridge. It suffered sadly from neglect, was used as a flush toilet by certain philistines of the pigeon world, while the inhabitants of that nondescript suburb’s French quarter obviously mistook it for a pissoir.

INTERVIEWER: So. No statue. What, then?

MACFIACH: It’s not unknown for great figures in history to have cities named after them.

INTERVIEWER: Dublin, perhaps?

MACFIACH: I was thinking more of a country in the present case.

INTERVIEWER: What? Ireland?

MACFIACH: Hmn. (PAUSE) Bit small?

With that MacFiach pours the remains of the mug of tap water back into the tap and turns his seat to the wall. Difficult to know what he intends by such gestures so I remain seated and await further instructions. I study the back of his magnificent head for several hours. The light fades. Shadows envelop the Great Man. The Dictaphone captures the silence. Impossible to transcribe –

See?

– but a profound silence. A silence beyond silence. The silence of genius.

Ian Macpherson’s latest novel, Sloot, will be published by Bluemoose on October 25th

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