Richard Power: ‘The Hungry Grass’ author a great loss to Irish letters
Power’s admirers included Benedict Kiely, Máirtín Ó Direáin and EL Doctorow
Richard Power in 1969. Photograph: Maxwell’s
Richard Power, not yet 42, died quietly in 1970 but not in obscurity. A few weeks before his end he declined an invitation to appear on Gay Byrne’s Late, Late Show. His passing was eulogised in English by Benedict Kiely, in Irish by Máirtín Ó Direáin and by a lengthy notice in the pre-Murdoch Times of London. Power published only three volumes in his lifetime, one in Irish. A fourth, The Rebels and Selected Short Fiction, has just appeared.
His best-known work, the novel The Hungry Grass, had been published to international acclaim just before this and had a high berth on the Irish best-seller list at his death. The darkly ironic action depicts the final year of Fr Tom Conroy in rural Ireland. It has remained in the public eye for half a century, being republished four times. The last, by Head of Zeus in London in 2016, contains an introduction by Declan Kiberd. RTÉ radio dramatised it in 1978 with a script by Owen Ashe.
In both Ireland and the United States, where he pursued a Master’s Degree at the famed Iowa Writers’ School, Power has enjoyed the attention of well-placed admirers. Terence Browne of TCD was among the first to publish on him, followed by Ulster-born critic John Wilson Foster. His Irish language texts have been praised by Alan Titley. His most prominent American champion was John V Kelleher of Harvard University, the godfather of Irish studies in the US. In a 1980 interview Kelleher ranked Power ahead of all his then contemporaries. While Power was at Iowa, the programme head Paul Engle chose the story The Rebels, title work of the new collection, for the anthology Midland, in effect, “Iowa’s all-time greatest hits”. The Rebels subsequently appeared in the first volume of the revived literary journal The Dial. That choice was made by editor EL Doctorow, later the author of Ragtime.
Born in Dublin of Waterford lineage, Power was raised in Naas, Co Kildare, where his father was a banker. The father’s death when Richard was 16, along with the news that there was no insurance policy, brought a change in fortune. The aspiring novelist grew up in a cultivated home but not a privileged one. In a move to Dublin he became an assiduous student of the Irish language, often using the Irish form of his name, Risteard de Paor. His complicated university education included study at both UCD and TCD and two degrees, one in commerce and the other a dual external degree in English and Irish. At TCD he met his future wife Ann Colvill and began publishing with the student journal, Icarus.
Professionally Power was employed in the Department of Local Governments, the same office in which earlier Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien had toiled. Housed in Dublin Castle, Power described the daily routine at the department as “Dickensian”. He held several posts there, finally as press officer. He once said that he “ . . . was writing speeches for the commissioner of sludge”. This work also led to his writing six film scripts, some directed by names that would rise with the Irish film industry, Jim Mulkerns, Colm Ó Laoghaire and George Morrison. Power also allowed that the daily routine “ . . . kept him in touch”.
Despite working long hours and fathering six children, Power was an indefatigable writer in several genres: journalism, poetry, film scripts and stage plays as well as fiction. His Oidhreacht (Inheritance) won the Oireachteas competition for new plays in Irish. Compared with John Osborne’s then popular Look Back in Anger, it was staged at the Abbey Theatre under the direction of Tomás MacAnna.
There were two respites from the daily regimen. The second was the pursuit of a creative writing degree in Iowa, but the earlier was a sojourn on the Aran Islands. Gael Linn had offered a grant to a young writer who would go to the archipelago and write a book in Irish about the experience. Power’s competitor for the prize was the then unknown Brendan Behan, who did not ingratiate himself with the islanders. Power, who by this time spoke fluent Irish, immersed himself into the population. The result was his first book, Úll i mBarr an Ghéagáin (1958), a fictionalised memoir, translated by his brother Victor Power as Apple in the Treetop (1980).
In his 60 or so short works in both Irish and English, Power speaks in diverse voices, urban and rural, tragic and comic. The 16 contained in the new collection, The Rebels and Other Short Fiction (Syracuse University Press, 176pp, €30), were written over a 20- year period, from his first in Comhar, 1950, until the time of his death. Many of the works were recognised in his lifetime, starting with the twice-published title story, The Rebels, about a room full of youngsters overthrowing what they perceive to be an oppressive master. Seán O’Faoláin selected the most political item in the collection, Republicans, to appear in The Bell.
Unusual among mid-20th-century writers, Power is deeply empathetic to women and women’s issues. Several stories are told from a female point of view, such as Deór na hAithrí (Tears of a Prayer), the concerns of a worried mother. In the touching A Summer Evening, a rough boy looking for girls does a volte-face when one of the pursued reveals something he never expected.
Several of the works are long enough to be thought of as novellas, such as An Outpost of Rome, dealing with some of the same characters and themes as his novel, The Hungry Grass. A previously unpublished story, Neighbours, portrays the harrowing encounter of a bourgeois artist and a nearby Traveller encampment. It ends badly. This is followed by a jeu d’esprit in which a wizened Traveller undergoes a personal transformation after visiting Lough Derg.
For all the variety of tone and polished style, The Rebels and Other Short Fiction supports Kelleher’s claim for Richard Power’s high place in Irish letters.
James MacKillop wrote the foreword to The Rebels and Other Short Fiction (Syracuse University Press, 176pp, €30)