“In general Irish people dislike diaries; they are too much like a private betrayal of careless remarks.” Thus muses Thomas McCarthy, the author of this edited volume of diaries which cover the years 1974 to 2014, in which we see McCarthy grow and develop, from a poetry-obsessed undergraduate at University College Cork until his retirement, aged 60, from Cork City Libraries, with his commitment to poetry undiminished.
We track his formative moments: the Patrick Kavanagh Award at 24; his year at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop two years later; his election to Aosdána; his editorship of Poetry Ireland.
This is a life lived by and for literature, and it contains reflections on the creative process (ideas for books that come to fruition over a period); insight into the camaraderie and companionship of fellow writers (on Seamus Heaney and the Nobel Prize: “he has withstood all the narcotics of success” ; Michael Harnett’s decision to write in Irish “I can understand the politics of his decision, but from the point of view of poetry it is a huge mistake”; the presence of John Montague in Cork, “marooned in UCC” ); questions of craft (the importance of workshops, the process of redrafting); the details of the nitty gritty of the writing life where issues of publication (Dolmen, Anvil, Carcanet), circulation and reception are debated.
McCarthy’s interests and connections span the globe; he dined with Robert Graves, heard Hugh MacDiarmid read, roomed with Dimitri Nollas, chatted to WS Merwin, debated the role of the Chinese communist party with poet Zhao Lihong during a visit to Shanghai. For those interested in literature, this is addictive reading material, offering unparalleled insight into the many joys and sundry frustrations of someone who determined early to devote himself to the pursuit of his literary vocation.
However, as the title of the book indicates, this diary offers more than a behind-the-scenes view of Irish letters. Thomas McCarthy has lived many lives. Poet, novelist, memoirist, critic he may be, but he is also a librarian, visiting professor and a leading figure in the organisation of the Cork City of Culture. A witness and participant in the life of the Big House, he is equally a man whose early life placed him at the grassroots level of Fianna Fáil party politics.
From the outset, we are aware of McCarthy’s introduction to Anglo-Irish society as the first diary entry for January 1974 places him at Glenshelane House, home of Brig Denis FitzGerald, “the direct descendant of Lord Edward FitzGerald”. FitzGerald offered McCarthy a room of his own, an income from his work in the gardens, and an introduction into the life of the west Waterford ascendancy. We catch glimpses of characters like Molly Keane, Claud and Patricia Cockburn, or the Stevensons of Castle Dodard, and lives punctuated by picnics, luncheon parties and the spoils of auctions at Christie’s. McCarthy learns about life as a Lloyd’s name, fine wines, an existence marked by “capitalists, directors and shareholders of publishing houses”. This is material which has nourished McCarthy’s own work, notably The Last Geraldine Officer. It leaves him with a sense of empathy and respect for that disappearing world, reaching for “a Protestant meaning of the past” and what he calls “ a looser kind of Irishness”.
McCarthy writes fascinating accounts of the political atmosphere in Ireland at various junctures. In 1974, he evokes the actions of the “history-licensed beasts of anarchy so feared by Yeats”, and the presence of armed detectives on Lismore Bridge on Christmas Eve, searching his carrier box to find only memoirs and A Book about Roses. McCarthy parses the intersection between poetry and politics in the weeks preceding the deaths of the hunger strikers. He is always an acute observer; referencing the beef tribunal and the Haughey scandals, and later the financial meltdown: “There is something Bourbon and Romish about our financial crisis – I mean the delusions, the subterfuge, and the bankers acting like a secret Curia. They have brought such shame upon our nation. Absolute shame.” These lines are the prose correlative to the white-hot angry poems that litter the pages of Pandemonium, the collection published in 2016.
McCarthy’s writing has been nourished by his own reading of other people’s diaries. Chief among them are André Gide and Henri Bayle, whose nom-de-plume was Stendhal. Stendhal’s purpose, outlined in his first entry was to write the history of his life day by day, never to censor himself, never to erase anything. One imagines that McCarthy’s process was informed by that maxim. These diaries (now housed in Princeton) have been edited to allow occasional glimpses into McCarthy’s personal life, making the book more of a journal extime than a journal intime. More detailled than a memoir, more compelling than an autobiography, a companion-piece to John McGahern’s Letters and Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves, the book gives an unrivalled account of life in Ireland over a 40-year period.
Clíona Ní Ríordáin teaches literature and translation at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is one of the judges for the 2022 Dublin Literary Award