On the wings of 'Icarus'


DAN SHEEHAN,its current editor, on the forthcoming 60th anniversary of Trinity College’s iconic creative-writing journal

Remembering the eagle’s high adventure

Eager to resume the ethereal search,

I sit in a suburban drawing-room-

A clever parrot on a polished perch

WITH THESE sardonic words a month short of 60 years ago, Icarusmagazine, Trinity College’s creative-writing journal, came into being, and, with the same reckless abandon as its misguided young namesake, it has never really looked back.

Founded, with a like-minded cohort, by the late Trinity English lecturer – and poetic mentor-in-chief – Alec Reid, and sold for a very reasonable shilling at the college gates, Icarussought to be a vehicle for sustained imaginative writing and to give budding scribblers a chance to flex their creative muscles. It was to be a new voice on the Dublin literary scene and would establish a community of writers concentrated at a single source, raw and unrefined, certainly, but bursting with enthusiasm and potential.

As noble an aspiration as this was, the magazine has not always been met with universal acclaim. Over the years it has been labelled everything from derivative and conservative to cutting edge and pornographic – and yet, through threatened lawsuits and bankruptcy (badges of honour for any self-respecting college publication), it has survived, still proudly flying its colours under a name that itself implies an early demise. (Reid described the choice of title as being “at once a prophecy of disaster and an insurance against it”.) It is now believed to stand as the oldest continuous publication of its kind in Britain and Ireland and shows no signs of slowing down. Inexplicable? Perhaps. But, bizarrely, the very amateurism that has long bedevilled the magazine with typos, scandalous misappropriations and spiralling budgets has also sustained it all these years.

Every year brings its own staff, full of madcap ideas and aspirations, and oblivious to the success or failure of their predecessors (who at that stage have long since retired to the pub, in some cases never to be seen again), and this is as it should be. It gives a blissful ignorance to each new volume, so that, unhampered by long-term financial implications or creative constraints (because come summertime it will always be someone else’s problem), Icaruscan get on with the business of doing what it does best: fostering and showcasing the work of its young contributors, be they aspiring prose writers, dramatists or, more often than not, poets.

Through a multitude of incarnations, poetry has remained the heart and soul of Icarus. Whether this is because there is an ever-present well of lyrical talent within the college or because the form lends itself to a particular type of student angst and indulgence we may never know, but along with the dozens of young would-be bards who have emerged every year since the beginning, most major contemporary Irish poetic voices have, at one time or another, found expression in the pages of Icarus. Brendan Kennelly, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon – three former editors from its late-1950s and early-1960s heyday – have always championed the publication. From the time they cut their undergraduate teeth in its pages right up to the present day, scarcely a college generation has passed where one or more was not hounded for a few choice words to lend that bit of extra credibility to an issue, and time and again they have obliged. Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Sinéad Morrissey, Caitríona O’Reilly and Vona Groarke have all graced the pages of Icarus, as have Justin Quinn, Paul Muldoon and another former editor, David Wheatley, to name but a few.

This is not to say that prose and drama have always waited quietly in the wings. Frank O’Connor, Louis MacNeice and William Burroughs have all made guest appearances with original short works in the 1950s and 1960s, while Marina Carr and Colm Tóibín have fought the good fight for playwrights in more recent years.

While this may sound like shameless name-dropping, the truth is that the willingness – dare we say even eagerness – of the wider literary community to contribute to the magazine has been vital in sustaining its presence for all these years. More importantly, perhaps, it has served as a wonderful incentive to hundreds of students who, despite being relative novices in the world of creative writing, have had the chance to see their work stand alongside that of the titans they emulate. For an aspiring writer, could there be a greater incentive?

On April 1st, an appropriate date by all accounts, at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin (far from the comfort of our messy nest in the Trinity Publications office), Icaruswill launch its 60th-anniversary collection. This book will showcase six decades of prose, poetry, drama and literary reviews, along with a series of articles by writers including Mahon, Longley and Boland, a broad selection of illustrations and photography, and a section devoted to the magazine’s sporadic appearances in the pages of The Irish Times, which has charted its evolution since the beginning.

For anyone passionate about creative writing in this country the collection will serve as a celebration of its many forms, as well as a chance to look back on the early work of some of Ireland’s most recognisable authors. It is a tribute to those clever parrots who first recalled the eagle’s high adventure, and the 60 years of writers who have continued that ethereal search.

60 Years of Creative Writing from Trinity Collegewill be launched by the poet Gerald Dawe on Thursday at 7.30pm in the Irish Writers Centre. All profits from the sale of the collection will be donated to Aware.

Details from icaruseditor@gmail.com