President pays tribute to poet Padraic Fiacc, who has died aged 94

Gerald Dawe salutes a gifted but troubled Troubles poet

President Michael D Higgins has led tributes to the late poet Padraic Fiacc, who died in a Belfast nursing home last night. He was 94.

The President visited him last week and read one of his poems to him.

“It is with great sadness that I have heard of the passing of Padraic Fiacc (Patrick Joseph O’Connor), acclaimed poet with a unique perspective and courageous realism. Padraic Fiacc was an esteemed member of Áosdana.

“Having experienced tragedy and loss, Padraic Fiacc was never afraid to reflect dark, deeply emotive and disturbing elements in his verse.

“He courageously raised crucial questions about the relationship between violence, poetry and language. His portrayal of the Troubles was stark and revealed an honesty like no other. It was a unique contribution at critical cost. His empathy for the frightened and maimed individuals on either side of the divide shone through his work.

“I had the privilege of visiting him last week and reading one of his poems to him, a poem dedicated to his friend Gerald Dawe. Padraic Fiacc leaves a legacy of particular intensity. Sabina and I express our deepest sympathy to his family, friends and colleagues. He will be fondly missed by all of us who had the privilege of knowing him.”

Sheila Pratschke, chair of the Arts Council said, “Padraic Fiacc was a poet of international and national significance, his work capturing the complex and layered experience of the Irish diaspora. His poetry is remarkable in its range and depth, and will undoubtedly be read and studied for generations to come."

Fiacc was the subject of an exibition at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast last June, Faces of Fiacc, including works by Neil Shawcross, Bill Kirk, Frankie Quinn and Stevie Raelynn Johnson.

Born Patrick Joseph O’Connor in Belfast in 1924, Fiacc adopted his pseudonym in honour of his friend and mentor, poet Padraic Colum. (Loosely translated from the Irish, Padraic Colum means Padraic the Dove while Padraic Fiacc means Padraic the Raven.)

After the family’s Lisburn home was burned in an anti-Catholic pogrom, his father emigrated to New York, leaving Joseph to be raised by his maternal grandparents. The rest of the family emigrated to New York in the late 1920s. Raised in the notorious Hell’s Kitchen district of the city, he was educated at Commerce High School and Haaren High School.

It was at this point that the young writer became acquainted with Colum and he produced four plays and a volume of poetry – since lost. He enrolled at St Joseph’s Seminary and studied for five years under the Irish Capuchin Order. Unhappy at the life of a prospective priest, he left the seminary and – in order to avoid military service – left for Belfast in 1946.

In Belfast he began forging a reputation as a poet, appearing in New Irish Poets (1948). His work also appeared in Irish Bookman, Poetry Ireland and The Irish Times.

The early fifties saw him traversing the Atlantic to look after the rest of the family back in New York. However, in 1956 he settled in the suburb of Glengormley with his new wife, the American artist Nancy Wayne. In 1957 he won the AE Memorial Award for his anthology Woe to Boy (never published in its original form). During the 1960s he was a presence in the local literary scene but he was never truly established until his first full collection, By the Black Stream, was published by Dolmen Press.

Other volumes quickly followed: Odour of Blood (1973); Nights in the Bad Place (1977); The Selected Padraic Fiacc (1979); Missa Terriblis (1986); Ruined Pages (1994); Red Earth (1996) and Semper Vacare (1999). A miscellany of his critical and autobiographical work, My Twentieth-Century Night-Life, appeared in 2009, which included two biographical pieces for radio: Hell’s Kitchen and Atlantic Crossing.

At the centre of his work are two overriding concerns: the correct poetic response to the moral, political and civil disintegration of Belfast in the face of violence and the re-imagination of a Celtic Twilight in a modernistic, self-expressive aesthetic.

In addition to Northern Ireland’s civic strife, Fiacc suffered the collapse of his marriage to Nancy and the sectarian murder of his friend Gerry McLaughlin, causing him to suffer a complete mental breakdown in the early 1970s. This coincided with his most controversial Troubles anthology, The Wearing of the Black (1974).

After years of marginalisation, Fiacc was finally recognised for his contribution to Irish literature when he was elected a member of Aosdána, in 1981.

Gerald Dawe paid this tribute:

In the mid-1970s Padraic Fiacc’s reputation took a critical pummelling, first with negative reaction to Odour Of Blood (1973) and then with the controversial anthology The Wearing of The Black, which he edited the following year. It is 45 years since that anthology was published. It was launched in December 1974 with a party at Fiacc’s Glengormley home attended by many of the younger writers included in the anthology, for several of whom it was their first publication.

Excitement was high, an expectation and uncertainty given voice by the youngest poet in the group, Gerry McLoughlin. There was a feeling, naive as it may have been, that some marker had been laid down, some local response in the teeth of the madness. While the anthology became ensnared in controversy about the ethics of writing “about” violence and victims, in a matter of months McLoughlin was murdered, one April morning in Belfast, in a sectarian assassination. He was 20 years old.

Fiacc never recovered from the loss of his friend, such a promising and eager young man, reminiscent perhaps of himself when he had started to write poems in New York, during the late 1930s. Fiacc’s poems from the mid-1970s can be read as an in memoriam to the death of that young spirit and as the symbolic loss of hope Fiacc felt as increasingly more vicious acts of violence took place throughout the province.

Fiacc survived. The work he would publish during the subsequent four decades is testament to that fact. Indeed, his poetry can be read as an interior monologue, with different parts of his self involved, being addressed, sifting through the damage; or as an inner history of the cutting edge of the Troubles. The books he published tell this story in a shocking way, offending many with their often barbarous and fragmented utterance but lit throughout with black irony and gallows humour.

Odour of Blood had preceded The Wearing of the Black by barely a year. Read together, Fiacc’s seemingly dramatic change of tone, and shift away from the Gaelic mythologies of his first collection, By the Black Stream (1969), raised important issues of poetry as witness. Nights in The Bad Place (1977), the retrospective Selected Padraic Fiacc (1979) and Missa Terribilis (1986) were barely noticed, or discounted as the work of a poet who had become unhinged by events in his native city.

Unlike most other contemporary writers, Fiacc had experienced life as a vulnerable emigrant, having been raised in New York in the 1920s and early 30s, and then uprooted from his family home and all its familiar securities. He embodied the diaspora condition in an intense and clearly unreconciled form. His work was often viewed with suspicion and, with equal measure, he was at times viewed as an unfathomable, unpredictable presence in the wider community. Those close to him knew the difference and the extent to which Fiacc was playing a self-lacerating role as a kind of anti-hero.

Some forms of acknowledgement began to emerge in the late 70s and 80s: Arts Council awards, the Poetry Ireland Award (1981) and his election to Aosdána. Paul Muldoon produced for BBC Northern Ireland two important radio programmes scripted by Fiacc in the early 1980s (and well worth re-broadcast) and somewhat later a documentary devoted to Fiacc’s Belfast life was produced for German television.

Fiacc gave occasional readings in Ireland and elsewhere, enthralling audiences with his mid-Atlantic accent and ironic self-deprecation. By the mid-1990s Fiacc was reclaiming some recognition, including a series of fascinating photographic studies by leading Irish photographers, John Minihan and later, Bobbie Hanvey. He was acknowledged as a significant Irish poet even though his work remained critically in the shadows.

In 1994, to mark his 70th birthday, Ruined Pages, a revised Selected Poems, was published in Belfast, followed almost 20 years later, in 2012, by a new enlarged and updated edition. Between times further volumes appeared: a pamphlet of the 1957 AE prize-winning collection Woe to The Boy (1994), Red Earth (1996) and Semper Vacare (1999). A Fiacc miscellany, My Twentieth Century Night Life (from ‘Der Bomben Poet’, his poem of 1941 commemorating the Belfast blitz and the horror of war) appeared in 1996.

Having produced work which poses questions about, for instance, cultural and artistic influence beyond the Anglophone priorities of much criticism of Irish writing, Fiacc’s relationship with US and European modernism opens up challenging critical and historical perspectives on the Irish tradition. Whatever we as readers may ultimately make of it all, his achievement is much more diverse than it is currently credited, though a younger generation of scholars might well make the difference.

It may also be the case that Fiacc's artistic and existential experience is itself "historical", that a significant part of the history of modern Ireland is encoded in the broken bits and pieces of his writing life. The violence, the emigration, the shock of the new world, the loss of the old, the struggle to pursue the American dream, the life found vulnerable, the return home, the brief "possibility of a possible life" in 1960s Belfast: all these and more are caught in Fiacc's unforgettable poetry. Living his senior days in the stable surroundings of a nursing home in south Belfast, the poet passed away on Monday 21st January in his 95th year.
This is an updated version of an article, originally based upon a lecture given by Gerald Dawe at Burns Library, Boston College, which appeared in The Irish Times on January 25th, 2005. The biographical notes are courtesy of hisd publisher, Lagan Press