Thomas McCarthy’s diaries: Robert Graves’ magic mushrooms; the last of the Geraldines

Extracts from the poet’s diaries, including the end of John Montague’s 15 years at UCC

May 5th
A sensational English Literature Society reading. Robert Graves came to visit us from Majorca. I sat beside him and his wife at the Oyster dinner. He said to me that Rupert Brooke was 'the nicest of the Georgians'. He also said that 'of that lot' Winston Churchill was the only gentleman. He said that poetry is no longer being written in England but that he got 'the sense of poetry' when he landed in Ireland. I doubt this statement on poetry in England. Poetry is a natural occurrence in the population, very like a winter virus. England with its vast population must have at least ten times more poets than Ireland.

At the reception after his reading he was besieged by people. Very fatigued, with a face the colour of aluminium. He looked at the crush of students, then looked at me, the Auditor of the English Lit, and seemed very frightened. He expected me to do something, to control somehow the adoration of this Irish crowd. I went over, sat beside him, actually held his hand, and talked to him for a while.

Then Montague announced that I’ll be the first gardener-poet of Ireland. Graves looked up at him, wondering what this statement had to do with anything in the great poet’s life. For all his personal anarchy and independence Montague has a very academic, categorizing mind: he sees himself as the Exile-Poet, Heaney as the Farmer-Poet; and now he wants me, his student, to become the Gardener-Poet. He is happiest once a category has been settled upon. I find such categorizing really tiresome, even annoying. Maybe I’ll end up living in brilliant penury, like Michael Hartnett in Inchicore, and become a dark Urban-Poet.

One thing is certain, Robert Graves has never ceased to be the Servant-Poet of the White Goddess: the firmness of his poetic convictions is thrilling. He is exactly as he should be, exactly as his books The Common Asphodel and The White Goddess announce him: ‘The nucleus of every poem worthy of the name is rhythmically formed in the poet’s mind, during a trance-like suspension of his normal habits of thought, by the supra-logical reconciliation of conflicting emotional ideas.’


When Graves tells us that he’s been to heaven several times what he really means is that he has lived frequently in a territory where great poems are formed. At one point in the evening, at dinner, Graves turned to me and said, ‘You know, Thomas, I have been to heaven.’ I thought he had taken too much drink, until he showed me his box (silver with what looked like an emerald set into the lid), a little box of hallucinogenic mushrooms that had been a gift from Carlos Castaneda. Graves’ wife slapped him on the wrist and said, ‘You mustn’t ruin that young boy with your dirty mushrooms!’ He returned his magic mushrooms to his pocket very sheepishly. What an old devil he is, what a pure, irresponsible lyricist of the mid-century! Still, his sanity is recovered every 10 years with every new version of his Collected Poems.

Later, at the seminar in the English Department, the immortal Graves was asked if he had any advice for budding poets. He answered, ‘Poets! If you are budding come into bloom!’

September 27th
Last night I helped Montague to pack his books at UCC's Brighton Villas. We brought 10 large boxes, but there are so many books and papers left we will need eight or nine further boxes. It was an emotional moment for John – at times he stood back from the shelves and asked, 'What am I doing? Am I doing the right thing?' The books, only a fraction of his personal library, with their annotations and bulging reviews of the period, create a sort of mystique of Montague's life. Apart from his work they constitute the best description of his nature. Among the papers were cards and love-notes from old girlfriends (mainly American), manuscripts of some poems, a letter that he'd never opened from Oxford University Press offering £250 for a story, letters from several young Dublin poets, old French postal wrappers from his fastidious first wife, timetables, lists of students' names for seminars, a note from Evelyn, dated January 1987, saying that she couldn't collect him because her car was snowed in, souvenirs from the Rotterdam Festival 1973, a catalogue of a sculpture exhibition with an introduction by Ezra Pound. All of this is just a partial list, a selection from the life of a successful international academic poet. Of course, it was his 'office', his teaching library, so that the selection of books was painfully academic and pedantic. There wasn't even one book on flowers or gardens or show business; nothing even remotely erotic or kept for pleasure.

Coming away at 11 pm, locking the steel gates of this UCC English Department on Western Road, John was speechless with emotion (‘What can I say? What is there to say?’) and depressed. He had closed the chapter of his life that had lasted for over 15 years, the 15 most creative years of his life. I suspect that he feels he’s come to the wrong end of a creative curve. I borrowed The Letters of Flaubert: ‘What a number of the dead we carry in our hearts. Each of us bears his cemetery within.’ (Letter to George Sand, 12/13 Nov 1866).

May 24th
Last night, after a day of appalling tension in the Cork2005 office, Cathy and I went to dinner at the Café Mexicana in Carey's Lane.

Just now, another phone call from Emma. The Brigadier is very bad. She wants me to come down to Glenshelane House. I must go.

May 25th
Our belovèd Brigadier died today. Catherine and I had just left his bedside at Glenshelane when the nurse rang my mobile. 'He's gone, Thomas,' she said.

Impossible to believe. Impossible.

May 26th
I have kept two simple photos. The Brigadier and Peter Fleming, brother of Ian Fleming and Old Etonian, in France, 1930, plus a cutting from The Tatler and Sketch of June 17th 1953 of the Brigadier with the Duchess of Rutland and others at the Coronation Ball in the Savoy, London.

May 28th
The Brigadier's Death Notice in the (London) Times today. 'No letters by request.' That says everything. There is no Geraldine left at Carton, Kilkea or Stansted House who might grieve enough to require a letter.

May 29th
We buried the Brigadier today after a beautiful service in Lismore Cathedral. The Marquis of Kildare read the lessons and Sir Richard Keane gave a fine eulogy. I recited five of my poems, written over the years: The Leinster FitzGeralds, Survivors of War, Hours Ago, 1973, Viburnum Fragrans, A Geraldine Officer. Afterwards we carried the coffin to the graveside – Sir Adrian FitzGerald, Michael my brother and my cousins Anthony and John. So three men of the displaced Munster Eoghanachta and one Geraldine nobleman carried him to his final resting place. Adrian and I, and Michael and Anthony, lowered his coffin into the good earth of Lismore. I said farewell, but I tried not to be too sad – for he had a long and beautiful life, immensely privileged and elegant. He surrounded himself with beauty and friendship all his life, certainly, all his life after the War: Bogdani pictures, Geraldine prints and miniatures, silks, family silver, polished desks and ebony handled cutlery. For most people unconnected with the Anglo-Irish world or European noble families his lifestyle would have seemed unimaginable. It was unimaginable in this day and age, that unselfconsciously aristocratic Geraldine life. But it was undeniably noble: to be the grandson of Ireland's premier duke, to be descended directly from both Silken Thomas and Lord Edward Fitz-Gerald, to have had Carton, Kilkea Castle and Johnstown Castle as one's childhood homes. It was a life utterly removed from the life of ordinary Irish people. But he was brave and he absolutely did his duty as a soldier, both in the Norway campaign of 1940 and, later, when he commanded his battalion in the night crossing of the Rhine in 1944. Like many a Kildare Geraldine before him he took part in events that changed history. But he died alone, without family, without wife, son or daughter. That is a great sadness.

I knew him for 30 years and I admit that I basked smugly in the abiding certainty of his praise. I will never again find anyone who will praise me as unreservedly as he did. In a sense his death is truly the end of my long childhood and adolescence. His death forces me into that complete mental isolation known as adulthood. In a very real sense his passing makes my life truly ordinary, and desolate in the ordinary way that most Irish poets' lives are desolate. Knowing the noble old Geraldine, living under his umbrella of praise, allowed me to live a life that constantly denied its ordinariness: no more Geraldine poems, no more Anglo-Irish drawing rooms where a lyric poet of the South could hide from an oppressive Catholic Irish Free State life. But more than anything it's his brilliant storytelling that I'll miss.
Poetry, Memory and the Party by Thomas McCarthy is published by Gallery Books