John Betjeman, Britain’s poet laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984, had a deep love of Ireland that pre- and postdated his near three-year term as British press attache in Dublin during the second World War.
He first visited Ireland as an Oxford undergraduate in 1925 and he made many enduring friendships here, particularly among the Anglo-Irish and, later, in literary and media circles. “Oh God, to be in Ireland again and happy as we once were,” he wrote to Michael Ross of Birr Castle in 1940, shortly before he was appointed to the British mission in Dublin by the ministry of information after he had been rejected by the RAF and the Royal Marines on health grounds.
I have written all that I have written which was worth writing in Ireland— John Betjeman
His job allowed him to develop friendships with a coterie of Irish writers including Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin, and he was briefly targeted by the IRA for assassination as a suspected spy. His only daughter Candida was born in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital, and Kavanagh wrote a poem about her. Betjeman in turn helped to find a London publisher for Kavanagh’s epic The Great Hunger.
A Romantic and a Victorian, Betjeman loved visiting Ireland’s castles, churches and countryside. He said that Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village had influenced him more than any other poem in English. “I still think it is one of the best English poems and it gave me a longing for Ireland from which I have never really recovered,” he told his wife Penelope in 1976.
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He had a number of extramarital liaisons and affairs in Ireland, but this did not prevent Penelope from naming one of her horses Tulira, after the Co Galway castle of that name.
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“I have written all that I have written which was worth writing in Ireland,” Betjeman told his mother in 1938. “I thought it was the most perfect place on Earth,” he recalled, four decades later.
This short book is described by its author – a Trinity College Dublin graduate living in west Cork – as “an entertainment” and “not a work of scholarship”. Although containing many repetitions, it is an affectionate overview of Betjeman’s many Irish links and a rewarding introduction to his life and poems.