Padraic Fiacc: The Outsider by Gerald Dawe

A tribute to a difficult, brilliant poet whose life and work spanned New York and Belfast

Padraic Fiacc, left, with fellow poet Gerald Dawe. © Reproduced by kind permission of Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, Boston College.

Padraic Fiacc, left, with fellow poet Gerald Dawe. © Reproduced by kind permission of Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, Boston College.

 

In a decade of commemorations, it is undeniable that with the experience and impact of the past year and more as the pandemic ravaged communities north and south, the marking of the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Northern Ireland has been muted.

In comparison with the debates and public attention surrounding such events as the beginning and ending of the first World War, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the establishment of Northern Ireland – alongside the Border and Partition – looks like a much more scaled down affair.

Yet the lives of a generation who experienced the trauma of those troubles one hundred years ago remain an important point of historical, political, cultural and literary understanding of the conflicted past of this island. It propelled many families in directions they would not necessarily have followed and scattered relatives not only inside the two new states of Ireland but also further afield, to the UK, to North America and elsewhere such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa.

Generally, in an effort to remove themselves from the turbulence of their home places, but also to find a place to work in, free of violence, sectarianism, and fear. One such family was that of Patrick Joseph O’Connor, otherwise known as the poet Padraic Fiacc (1924-2019).

Aodán Mac Póilin, Fiacc’s late friend and editor, describes the background: “His father, who came from a family of well-off shopkeepers in County Cavan, worked as a barman in Belfast and was active in the IRA. During an anti-Catholic pogrom in 1920 his mother’s family had been driven from their home in Lisburn, County Antrim, and their futniture – including the piano – burned. They settled in the Markets area in Belfast, where his mother worked in a fancy box factory. His grandfather never worked again.”

In a matter of five years, the young O’Connor/ Fiacc and his siblings would move with their reluctant mother to Manhattan in New York and begin the emigrant life which would see the poet eventually return in the late 1940s to Belfast where he would subsequently reside, write and publish his poetry for the rest of a long, but much-troubled life.

Today, Padraic Fiacc’s poetry (and to a certain extent, his own self) is generally viewed as that of a rejected figure; a position he was both attracted to and played upon, as “anti-establishment”, an outsider. And yet this wasn’t really the case.

From the 1980s Fiacc received recognition: his poetry had a readership, and his own personal and literary history, from that emigrant life in pre-second World War New York to his return to pre-Troubles Belfast, had found resonance in wider society. There was the relative success of his writing, too, including the early awarding of the prestigious AE Memorial Award, the publication by the Dolmen Press of By the Black Stream, his first collection, in 1969, regular contributions to numerous Irish broadsheets and literary journals, broadcasts on national radio, and inclusion in poetry anthologies such as James Simmons’s Ten Irish Poets.

Fiacc became known briefly as “The Man Most Touched”. But he gave as good as he got. And there were the two BBC Northern Ireland programmes – Hell’s Kitchen and Atlantic Crossing – produced by Paul Muldoon, which are well worth listening back to or reading in My Twentieth-Century Night-Life, a Fiacc miscellany, edited by Patrick Ramsey.

It was Muldoon, also, who described Fiacc as a figure representative “of the condition of being a poet that many, including me, shy away from. I admire Fiacc for that and for what he’s done and what he represents”, which seems like a fair estimation to my way of thinking. Padraic Fiacc’s quixotic presence is becoming increasingly understood as part of the history of Northern Irish writing.

I met and knew Fiacc, who I knew as Joe, from 1973 – to be exact – and during the 1970s visited him regularly in Glengormley. He also ventured forth to Galway, most memorably in 1976 to attend and give a reading at the Second International IASAIL (as it then was) conference in UCG (now NUIG). That is a story all to itself and best left for another time.

By the mid-1980s I was seeing less of him, until Aodán Mac Póilin and I decided to edit a new updated edition of Joe’s poems, since Terence Brown’s important edition of 1979 was no longer in print. We spent quite some time getting this work together and it was duly published in 1994. It was an extraordinary few years leading up to the publication and, thanks to several local supporters and friends, and to the photographer John Minihan (who got Joe out and about again), his drift into a kind of dangerous itinerant existence, moving from rooming house to rooming house, was resolved. Finally, he would settle in the secure and compassionate environment of a residential care home in south Belfast in the 1990s.

I recall, though, the earlier challenges such as, for instance, the task of chaperoning Joe to give an interview on BBC Radio Ulster. Prior to the interview taking place – a torturously stop-start affair of silences and stutters filled by my efforts at connecting the dots at the interviewer’s imploring nods – we sat in the hospitality room drinking coffee. We were joined shortly afterwards by a well-known singing duo of the time who were promoting their tour as their hit was being played widely on the airwaves. Not that Joe would have known this, of course. The couple, a man and a woman, sat down with us and, under Joe’s beady eye, the gold bracelets and rings and fashionable clothes of the performers drew a remark in typical mid-Atlantic accent: “Are you’se Mafia?” followed by the rasping high laugh. They didn’t know what to make of it all, nor, alas, did the goodly interviewer.

By the time I had Joe bundled into a taxi and returned him to Wellesley Avenue, the telephone exchange at BBC HQ was buzzing with complaints about “this poet” and his manner, views which followed Fiacc wherever he went and led to his rebellious anti-hero reputation.

The truth of his life was rarely, if ever, touched upon, or the anarchic, satiric energy he embodied in his unique view of things, such a telling part of the Belfast he identified with, at odds with the official versions of the city provided by varying political agendas and their expected manners and decorum.

Joe could be infuriatingly (and wearyingly) disruptive and, at his worst, destructive. But that was only an element of the personality, inflamed by distress and disappointment, along with sexual confusions and the legacy of his vulnerable mental health. There was an emotional delicacy and care that the poems reveal, and a wicked sense of fun, too – urbane, rascally New York-Belfast wit, one-liners which could bring the house down. There was a touch of the genius buried within the self-pity and the recklessness.

Once, when our rendezvous in Galway went astray, he called into the local convent where my partner was teaching in the early 1970s and, having met the Mother Superior, joined the rest of the nuns for tea and biscuits. Later in the week Joe gave a reading at the school’s request to a spellbound assembly hall full of Leaving Certificate students. He could produce such moments of simple yet sublime calmness and intensity without frightening or alienating his audience.

There is no one like Fiacc. No one else could or should follow in his tempestuous and alarming footsteps along the abyss, but at long last it looks like the reality of his life and the meaning of his work are coming increasingly into critical alignment with a younger generation of readers and scholars.

As John Minihan remarked, Fiacc reminds him of the artist Francis Bacon. An outsider, most certainly, but one whose life was inseparable from his passionate, disputable art, Fiacc is a poet who belongs equally in the company and wider frame of European modernism as much as being read as the chronicler of the shocking local history of the Northern conflict and its sectarian savagery: “Glowing with the school-empty screech/ Of a flock of heady girls, men//With penny-coloured brief eyes/(Like pearls on the skin of the newborn)/ Climb the heavy-with-childhood hull,/Hang on to the anchor-chained walls,//Wave flags over Belfast on fire,/Afraid of the gale-torn posters on//The empty lot hoardings.”

This is an extract from A City Imagined: Belfast Soulscapes by Gerald Dawe (Irish Academic Press)

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