This book deals with the saddest and darkest elements that any human life can experience
Deadlines is an example of northern humour as much of it was written after a cancer diagnosis
Fionnbharr Rodgers with his father John
“Ring the bells that still can ring… there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” wrote Leonard Cohen, a great influence of my Dad’s life. It seems appropriate then, in a morbid manner, that as Adam Cohen releases a final, posthumous album of his father’s, I am working on the publication of a book of my own father’s poetry and writing which will be launched as part of the Rostrevor Literary Festival on November 23rd.
Deadlines is an example of Irish, and particularly northern humour, reflecting that many of the poems were written as part of a creative writing MA course at UCC that my Dad started in September 2017; and that just as he began his second semester, he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. It was a particularly aggressive form, as it would have to be to have any chance against a Newry man, and my Dad died on June 29th that year. I chose the quotation at the beginning of this article as it encapsulates the tone of the book, as well as my Dad’s general approach to life: happiness and sadness exist in partnership in our minds. They do not negate nor diminish each other, yet each pays for the other.
Writing was a constant part of my Dad’s life and his timeline can be charted by them as they reflect on the major milestones of it. For this reason I have chosen to arrange them in a chronological order, so that the final product may be read as a sort of autobiography.
John Rodgers was born on March 2nd, 1957, Pancake Tuesday, in the Meada, Newry where “wee mountains rise, denying where big borders run”. You could call it the Meadow but you’d look an eejit. There are many people, from child psychologists to journalists, who would judge my Dad’s upbringing, for obvious reasons, as being deprived, yet when he looked back he primarily saw “sun-filled days” with his dog Towser in “the land where you say ‘grand’ when people ask you how you feel”.
There are poems here which relate to the Irish experience in general, for example the rite of passage of a summer romance with a dark-haired girl in the Gaeltacht straight “off the Armada’s wreck”, and then those which relate more to the North. My Dad first attended the Gaeltacht at 12, his first time away from home. That was 1969, when British troops were first deployed to Northern Ireland and “the beating of the chopper blades, drowned out the Gaelic song”.
Readers will be pleased to know that there are plenty of poems which deal with growing up in the Troubles, as God forbid we should have a piece of art come out of Northern Ireland that doesn’t have a good bomb in it. There are also many pieces which deal with the grand scope of Irish history. One of my Dad’s great heroes was Fr William Doyle, the Jesuit priest who died at Passchendaele, and so the “face of virgin men” upon which “the Devil wrote his hate” sit side by side with more modern pieces on the Troubles.
Those pieces are there, and they are powerful when they are. More prevalent, however, are the more personal pieces which deal with family issues such as my uncle’s suicide, and later on with divorce and its aftermath, with love and the loss of it, dealing with death, and dealing with dying.
Many of my Dad’s writings on the Troubles are reminiscent in tone and nature of the Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls, which is always billed as a show set in conflict but is much more accurately described as a show set in Derry, and a show set in the 1990s. In fact Irene, a friend and classmate of my Dad’s at UUC, from Cork, said how true Derry Girls was to her own experience at school. In that first scene of the first episode in which the family react with horror to a bomb on a bridge because the children will never get school, and one character will never make it across town for her nail appointment, regardless of the trauma and regardless of the stress, life has a way of adapting. When the times bring out the worst in people, people have a way of bringing out the best.
Again, typical of the Irish experience, my Dad spent a long time outside of Ireland: “digging for gold on the streets of London” as a chartered building surveyor. This time is reflected on with such poems as A Pint in Kilburn where the narrator makes clear that “the colour of my lemonade is red”. Yet throughout this time, he always returned regularly home, and specifically to south Armagh, which is a very important detail.
He retired officially in 2017 and “ran away from home” to become a writer, and for a short lifetime became the personification of happiness as his days were spent writing, reading, and studying poetry. Returning to the lyric at the start, this is a detail of the most significance. This book deals with the saddest and the darkest elements that any human life can experience, but it is important to not let darkness conquer the memory of life. Grief is the price of love, and each must exist together.
Furthermore, arguably just as significant as growing up in the Troubles was the fact that my Dad was a child while The Goon Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus were being broadcast, and so there still exist as many laughs here as there would be in the Bridge Bar, Newry or Crawford’s bar, Rostrevor, had cancer decided to give over a wee bit. To that end, I shall end on this note:
Did Jesus have a Mortgage?
Or Paul a little flat?
Did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Discuss interest rates?
Stamp duty, all that
Did Mark say to Jesus
It’s all right for you
You will just go home
Your dad will cover your arse
Did Jesus turn to him and say
Have you not listened to a word?
There’s room enough in our house
For you and all the world
Deadlines by John Rodgers will be launched as part of the Rostrevor Literary Festival on November 23rd