Tributes pour in for much-loved writer Philip Casey (67)
Author of acclaimed Bann trilogy and four poetry collections was at the heart of Irish literary world
Philip Casey listening to readings of his poetry at the launch of his Selected Poems at the Mansion House, Dublin, in August 2015. Photograph: Sara Freund
Philip Casey, the admired and much loved Irish poet, author and member of Aosdána, died on Sunday in Blanchardstown Hospice, Dublin, aged 67.
The author of four collections of poetry and an acclaimed trilogy of novels, he was also a champion of other writers, not least as founder and editor of the website Irish Writers Online, which provides biographical details of Irish writers.
President Michael D Higgins said: “It is with great sadness that I have learned of the death of Philip Casey, one of Ireland’s finest poets and novelists, and distinguished member of Aosdána.
“Philip Casey was a treasured author who produced a magnificent body of work that enriched Irish writing. His poetry gave voice to every aspect of life; joy, pain, hope, justice and love in its many forms. His generous nature, his humour and his literary talents will be missed by all those who were familiar with his work or were privileged to call him a friend.
“To his brothers Peter and John and his sister Karina, his colleagues and friends, Sabina and I send our deepest sympathy.
“Ar dheis dé go raibh a anam dílis.”
A mark of the esteem in which he was held was the attendance of many leading Irish literary figures at the launch in the Oak Room Mansion House, Dublin, of Tried and Sentenced: Selected Poems, co-hosted by Dermot Bolger and Katie Donovan. The then Ireland Professor of Poetry, Paula Meehan, described him as “one of the most beloved of contemporary poets”.
Philip Casey was born in London to Irish parents on June 27th, 1950, but his parents moved home to a farm in Hollyfort, just outside Gorey, Co Wexford, when he was a boy. He spent spent several years living in Barcelona but most of his adult life in Dublin, notably in a house on Arran Street where he was host extraordinaire to a constant stream of visitors.
His spare, elegaic poetry gives voice to themes of family, place, love in its many forms, political injustice and pain, both physical and emotional. Casey lost a leg due to complications following intense radiation to treat cancer. He began writing verse by first of all composing songs with a guitar as a teenager in his hospital bed. His perspective is one of wry, hard-won insight, suggesting passion and suffering by restraint rather than overspill.
His first collection of poetry, Those Distant Summers, was published in 1980 by Raven Arts Press and is heavily influenced by his youth on the farm in Hollyfort. “The curlew cried in the bog before a band of rain came from Croghan like an animal,” he recalled. “It sank a deep well in my imagination.”
His other collections are After Thunder, The Year of the Knife and Dialogue in Fading Light. “Things that please me in poetry are precision, compassion and images that surpass the common run of language; also that the poet must have an ear for language as a musician has an ear for music,” wrote Michael Hartnett of The Year of the Knife. “The work of Philip Casey possesses all of these in abundance.”
Casey’s trilogy of novels began with The Fabulists (Lilliput Press), which won the inaugural Kerry Ingredients/Listowel Writers’ Week Novel of the Year award in 1995. Colm Tóibín called it “a stunningly truthful and perfectly pitched novel”. The novel features a pair of Dublin lovers who are struggling with poverty and familiy ties, wooing each other with invented tales of cosmopolitan wanderings.
The Water Star (Picador, 1999) and The Fisher Child (Picador, 2001) completed what is now the Bann River trilogy, encompassing Casey’s much-loved landscape of north Wexford, as well as the Irish diaspora in London (which Casey experienced first hand – some of his earliest memories are of playing in bombsites in Highgate); how families evolve and survive through turmoil and suppressed secrets; and the terrible legacy of slavery. From the intimate streets of pre-boom Dublin where The Fabulists begins, Casey opens his fiction to international dimensions, most ambitiously in the historical strands of The Fisher Child, which moves from scenes of 1798 fighting in Wexford to the Irish-owned slave plantations in Montserrat.
He reviewed poetry for The Irish Press for a number of years and more recently established eMaker editions, an independent imprint, to make his work available globally as ebooks.
He is survived by his brothers Peter and John, his sister Karina and nephews and nieces Vincent, Damien, Amy, Eadaoin, Laoise and Iseult.
His friends and fellow writers paid these tributes.
To have no Philip in the world, now there is an utter blackness. The memory of all his deep thinking, rescuing, loving words, infinite attention to friendship, now there is a brightness. The old stars will feel the company of a new light in the heavens. Dear beloved, perfected, perfecting Philip.
Sebastian Barry’s latest novel, Days Without End, was the Costa Book of the Year 2017
In a world many of us experience as disintegrating, culturally and historically, Philip Casey was a source of light and steady humanity. Integration was what he sought, in his poems, in his novels and in his life. He was, and will remain in the memories of so many, a good soul — compassionate, courageous and wise. The humanity of his lyric poetry, the depth of his insight in the novels, his pioneering work on the internet and his passionate activism, these things amplified in the community of writers and readers and inspired those of us fortunate to be among his friends. His life’s work will continue to reach out into the wider world as testament and witness to the life of a beautiful man.
Paula Meehan is a poet and former Ireland Professor of Poetry
Philip Casey, the man, was widely and deeply loved. We admired him for his stoic endurance of a cruel fate, his quick and often hilarious wit, his deftness with words, his vast compassion for the afflicted. Philip Casey, the poet and novelist, was unswerving in his commitment to his craft and art, a gifted lyricist, an incisive and surefooted novelist, a humanist in the deepest sense because he believed absolutely in the powers and responsibilities of language. He was a friend to his fellow-poets with a generosity that few, if any, could match — supportive, shrewd with his advice, always seeking to praise when praise was merited. Unsurprisingly, he would shrug away praise of his own work with the shyness and modesty of the true artist — who wants always and only that the next effort should be somehow better. We loved him dearly, the man, the poet, the novelist and friend. His work and his gallant soul will live with us forever
Theo Dorgan is a poet. His latest collection is Nine Bright Shiners
I met Philip Casey first in Gorey at the Arts Festival, organised by Paul Funge, in 1971. He had read widely in contemporary American poetry, especially the Beats, and was dedicated even then to developing his own tone as a poet, finding a style that would match his own sensibility and his own experience. As a person, he was warm and friendly, with a tremendous laugh and the strongest handshake I have ever come across. He was a great listener and noticer, someone with a rich inner life. Although he had spent a great deal of time in hospital, it was something he did not talk about much. But it had marked him; it made him resilient and brave.
Later, he lived in Barcelona, making a small set of streets around Placa Lesseps into his own territory, his own village. I thought of him as a born poet, someone who loved how a poem could turn on the single image around which he gathered the poem's tension. I was amazed, then, when I read his first novel The Fabulists, published in 1994. It is a great, vivid novel about Dublin, with a marvellous opening chapter, which plays the personal against the political in a time of change.
He was an exemplary presence in our literary culture, warmly engaged as a reader and someone who loved painting as well as poetry. He was fully social when that was required and then ready to withdraw, be quiet, get on with his reading and his work and his living the life of the mind, exploring his own immense talent as a poet and novelist.
Colm Tóibín is Chancellor of the University of Liverpool. His latest novel is House of Names
Philip Casey’s death this early February breaks our hearts in ways we’ve had too much practice at.
Philip saw in all the world’s darkening and desolations, visions of a new world struggling to be born. He lived in hope and saw in everything, the possible goodness, the chance for progress. His work outlives him and remains his gift. The great dignity with which he made his way in the world was happily contagious and an afternoon or evening in his company made us all more likely rise to the occasions for kindness, intelligence and grace. I shall always see him in the evening’s half light, crossing the Grattan Bridge, after a visit at the Clarence, to make his way up Capel Street. In his heart the Liffey has become the Slaney and Ó Cathasaigh is making his safe way home.
Thomas Lynch, of Michigan, Moveen West, is a poet, essayist and undertaker
I met Philip Casey first at 18 years of age when he bestowed on me the friendship, kinship and generosity of wisdom that he bestowed on so many people who crossed his path. He was a huge presence in my life over the past 40 years. I never lost that initial sense of wonder at being in his company but my appreciation grew ever deeper of his integrity, his humanity, his rich sense of humour (the warmth of his laughter could never be forgotten) and, at times during those years, of his stoicism in accepting terrible setbacks to his physical health. His last years were difficult, with frequent long spells in hospital, but you only ever saw the pain in the lines in his face and never in his words as he talked because he bore his illness with the same innate dignity with which he lived his life.
In any society certain gifted writers exist who are as essential and sometimes as unnoticed as plankton. Philip Casey was never an unnoticed presence in Irish writing, but – through his poetry and novels – was most certainly an essential presence. He was a writer’s writer, a man deeply respected by his peers and by shrewd connoisseurs of Irish fiction, but someone who – as the quiet man of Irish writing – perhaps never received the public acclaim that his work, most especially his rrilogy of novels, deserved. This made the novels and poems an even more unexpected pleasure for those who encountered them.
His acclaimed debut, The Fabulists, remains a remarkably evocative picture of 1990s Dublin with its story of love on the dole and its two superbly drawn protagonists: Tess, who has descended into despair since her separation, and Margo, who on the surface has little to offer Tess but the warmth of his vivid imagination. They conjure tales that draw them close together in a bittersweet examination of extramarital love and the realities of survival in a dowdy Dublin with no signs that a Celtic Tiger would transform it.
Other streets are definitely being transformed in Philip Casey’s second novel, The Water Star: the ruined streets of postwar London where Casey was born. Eighty per cent of Irish children born between 1931 and 1941 needed to emigrate. Casey’s parents were unexceptional in needing to leave Ireland in the late 1940s but were exceptional in being among the rare few emigrants able to return home to the remote Wexford farm where Casey grew up. His early memories of London’s bombed streets remained sufficiently vivid for The Water Star to work as a brilliant evocation of London in all its diversity, prejudice, redemption, wounds and rebirth. It captures the British and German experience of the aftermath of war, and the experience of the migrant Irish seeking rebuilding work there, who were initially overwhelmed by the scale of the city itself, never mind the devastation. In this ambitious book the torched buildings of Hamburg in RAF raids become as real as the improvised mountain slopes of Wexford that its main protagonists leave behind in their quest for economic survival.
But perhaps the most ambitious book is The Fisher Child. A blend of historical and contemporary drama with a cinematic edge, it ranges in time and location from present-day Italy, London and Wexford to the bloody 1798 Rebellion in Wexford and the slave plantations of Montserrat.
I was thrilled to see him enjoy recognition as a novelist but for me over the past 40 years he was first and foremost a very special poet. I was proud to publish three of his collections with Raven Arts Press, being fascinated to watch each book develop. Over that time I had my life enriched by the gift of his friendship. This week I feel I have lost someone with whom I had a truly unique friendship, but such was Philip’s gift for friendship that I know dozens if not hundreds of people today have exactly the same feeling. This was his great gift, to make all of our friendships with him feel unique by allowing us to walk away with our souls warmed by his generosity and wit, his fierce intelligence and integrity and by allowing us to share in his uniqueness so that we all walked away feeling taller and more special simply for having being allowed to spend special time with him.
Dermot Bolger is a novelist and poet and founder of Raven Arts Press and New Island Books
Philip was part of a group of writers from my native north Wexford, whom I met when I was a teenage poet in the late 1970s. My father was keen to nurture my literary leanings, and introduced me to James Liddy, poet and editor of the wonderfully entitled literary magazine The Gorey Detail. Through the ebullient James and the artist Paul Funge – co-creators of the Gorey Arts Festival – I met a group that included Philip, Eamonn Wall, Mick Considine and Paddy Kehoe. I gave my first public reading, aged 16, trying my best to look like I knew what I was doing.
My father was already friendly with Philip, the pair having discovered a mutual interest in the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin. But, as we were both living in Dublin and both writing poetry, it was Philip and I who remained in regular contact. Thus began a close friendship that lasted 40 years.
In 2015, in honour of Philip’s 65th birthday and the publication of his Selected Poems, Dermot Bolger and I planned a special gathering at the Mansion House. A huge crowd of family, friends and well-wishers appeared to fete Philip. Acclaimed novelist and poet, Philip’s spread of talent and dedication was impressive, but he revelled particularly in supporting other writers (he created and maintained the website Irish Writers Online). Modest and dignified as ever, he blushed with delight when he entered that packed gathering to celebrate his own achievements.
For a man whose life involved many vicissitudes, Philip had an inimitable gift for laughter. He eschewed self-pity, but could write with tenderness and poignancy about suffering. His writing shines with the outrage of injustice and the quest for integration. Although he spent most of his adult life in Dublin, right in the centre of its bustle and commerce, his poems about his youth in rural Wexford have a fresh and lasting ring to them. He was comfortable writing about Hamburg, 18th-century Montserrat, or 1950s London. Like all the great Irish writers, his broad vision encompassed both the wider cosmopolitan world, and the intimate details of the beloved local scene.
Katie Donovan is a poet. Her most recent collection is Off Duty (Bloodaxe Books)
In 1991, when I travelled to Ireland for the first time, I told my friends and my family and myself some earnest and honourable nonsense about going to Dublin to study literature for the summer. The truth is I’d gone there to meet Philip Casey, only I didn’t know it at the time. Nothing I learned in a lecture hall that season compared to what I learned sitting in his book-filled house off Ormond Quay.
Over tea and the bread he baked most mornings back then, we talked about poetry and art and politics. Philip’s seriousness, a strain of gravitas that was personal and hard-won, is evident in much of his literary production. What comes through less often (though it is not absent from the work) is his powerful, playful humor. That summer, making Philip laugh emerged as one of my life’s greatest pleasures and pursuits, because no one was more generous with laughter than Philip, and because his was an utterly unrestrained, full-body affair. (If I listen for it, I can hear it now). Of course, he made me laugh, too – especially when he cracked himself up in the middle of one of his own funny stories, so hard that he’d momentarily lose the thread.
The Year of the Knife: Poems 1980-1990 had come out not long before we met, and Philip gave me a copy. His poem The Walking Shadow particularly moved and thrilled me then – and it still does, mostly for these magnificent lines:
Macbeth, I learned by heart
against the warm belly of a cow,
every syllable matched by a rich
swish into a frothing bucket.
That’s Philip Casey right there: Warm, tender, literate, precise, and physical.
How lucky I am that he sat down beside me in Grogan’s on a summer night more than a quarter of a century ago, entered my life, and stayed.
Rosie Schaap is author of the memoir Drinking with Men
Philip Casey was the bravest man I have ever met. He overcame terrible disability and constant pain and debilitation to produce an outstanding body of literary work, and he did it without complaint, with stoic humour and grace.
I first met Philip at the end of the ’70s, when Raven Arts Press published his first collection of poems, which we loved for their warm, wry humanity, their unfailing imaginative sympathy and insight. As Philip had spent years of his childhood in Cappagh Hospital, myself and Dermot Bolger decided to make him an honorary Finglasman. Philip was nothing if not a villager, and he created his own village around him, both in the environs of Arran Street East, and on the digital frontier, where he was a pioneer.
I remember the shocked delight I felt on reading his first novel The Fabulists, with its loving and humorous portrait of Dublin Bohemia in those grim decades. The next two novels, The Water Star and The Fisher Child, were astounding achievements, exploring subjects like the Irish Diaspora, the legacy of the second World War and slavery, in a profound and formally daring fashion.
Despite prizes and critical acclaim, his career as a novelist never seemed to acquire the traction of some of his contemporaries. He had neither the temperamental inclination, nor, after marshalling his resources to produce these major works, the energy, to engage in self-promotion. Like many of his generation, his work would have been impossible without the support provided by Aosdána.
When I think of him the same image always appears: as he was back in 1980, barrelling down O’Connell Street, long hair flying behind him, alive with plans and lust for life, as myself and Dermot struggled to keep up with him. To quote his own words back at him: he was bloody marvellous.
Michael O’Loughlin’s Poems 1980-2015 were published last year by New Island
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Philip was a bright, very generous and very courageous man. Bright not just in that he was intelligent and humorous – so that memories of his bursting laugh will make his friends smile even at a time like this – but with a kind of joy in everything he did in spite of the burden of illness and disability. To have known him as one of the “young poets from Gorey” and then to watch him coping with amputation, pain, sometimes with exhaustion, and still writing poetry and fiction excellently well, still exploring ways of making technology serve the literary community, is to have the sense of having watched a full life being lived against all odds.
Stories of him dancing on his prosthetic leg in Sicily, tales of his travels in Germany and Spain, remind me of what a thirst he had for life. His novels show the breadth of his sympathies and the sheer inventive talent he had. He was a kind and sympathetic critic of other people’s work too. But poetry was really at the heart of his writing life and the publication of his selection, Tried and Sentenced, in 2015 was a great event in the Mansion House. I and other friends had hoped it would be only an interim marker in a longer writing career; but he has left a notable body of work to be discovered by the readers that will never have the pleasure of knowing him.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is Ireland Professor of Poetry
As publisher of his first novel The Fabulists (1994), sold on to the late Stephen Hayward at Serif in London a year later, when it won the Listowel Writers Week Book of the Year 1995, it was my privilege to know Philip Casey. He was the most generous of men, amplifying the dictate ‘You are what you give’. He was dedicated to his craft as novelist and poet while championing fellow scribes through his Irish Writers Online. His sweet disposition of character was that of Keats the well-beloved, vulnerable to passion and to the shimmering beauty of the natural world.
And like Keats he left us too soon.
Antony Farrell is publisher of Lilliput Press
I loved Philip Casey. Any of his friends will know what that means, because I’m pretty certain they did too. His was a pure spirit, but he was also a man of huge literary talent, equipped with a mind to match. He carried no animus towards anyone, none of the old, too familiar rancours that many of us occasionally emit. Outside that Arran St house he made so much his home, he once photographed the passionfruit plant he’d planted there, sending me a copy. A passionfruit plant in the inner heart of Dublin. It was so typical of Philip to cultivate the exotic, the beautiful, right at the heart of his life.
To enter his home through that bright red front door was to enter a world of utter welcome, kindness, and also wicked fun, because his sense of humour was mad, labyrinthine and turned this crazy world on its head. Through years of increasing discomfort, then pain, he carried suffering with grace and unbelievable questing. He quested on, researching the next wondrous novel, which I hope will be published some time. He wrote through it all, and he entertained so many of us in that place of books, work, in a self-contained world which, despite all, was never closed off from the outside. Yes, I loved him, as we all did, and the whole world, never mind the literary world, is enhanced because of him.
Mary O’Donnell is a poet and novelist. The Light Makers was reissued last year
First and foremost, Philip was rightly known as a skilled poet, admired and loved by all his peers, but I would add that the novel that most evocatively captures the 1980s Dublin in which I was young is his masterful book The Fabulists. The two novels that followed, The Water Star and The Fisher Child, made it clear that here was a prose writer with lasting gifts. Philip was an adorable man, full of humour, irony and generosity. A great attender of literary events, he brightened every room he entered.
I have a lovely memory of one night when I happened to be sitting beside him at a not very good play in the Peacock and some awful line gave him a fit of the giggles. Watching him trying (and failing) not to laugh was like being in the presence of a bold schoolchild. But he was such a serious and shrewd reader, too; Philip often seemed to me to have read everything. I will miss his shy, beautiful smile, his gentlemanly kindliness, his wisdom and the courage with which he bore his difficulties.
Joseph O’Connor is Frank McCourt Chair of Creative Writing, University of Limerick. His latest novel is The Thrill of it All
I met Philip Casey around the time his book The Year of the Knife was published by Raven Arts Press (1991). In Dublin, you are always running into people. More recently, it seemed to be always around Temple Bar Food Market on a cold day that we met. Usually at the hot chocolate stand where I had one or other cold child stamping their feet awaiting chocolate. Phil was the type of man who shook hands with and spoke to children as if they were the most incredibly important person in the whole place. I appreciated that, it was very kind. At some point in the last few years, he had emailed me for a biography and photo for Irish Writers Online. I thanked him on such a cold day, because I was unused to being asked for my writer information. I do it myself, but I hardly expect it. Phil created Irish Writers Online, an extensive reference bank for contemporary Irish writers which we should all be glad of and proud of. I am unsure if his extensive archival work on forgotten Irish poets, his work on Irish Writers Online or his wonderfully gentle manner will be missed most but I am grateful to have met him. I am now glad I thanked him for his work. I love that poets of commitment who value the work of writers, who wish to make it visible to all of us, just get on with it. We have a wonderful resource, a legacy of demonstrable commitment to the arts thanks to Phil. He will be missed.
Christine Murray is a poet and curator of Poethead
Philip Casey’s home on Arran St in the heart of Dublin has always been a zone of warmth, laughter, culture, punctuated by Philip’s great laugh with light shooting out from his soft face and gorgeous eyes. When I called to see him on my trips home, we would cover a year of days in a brief hour of high-spirited recollection. Though Philip’s own accounts would always begin with news of others, his family in particular, before eventually arriving at news of his own doings, ambitions, and achievements—all of them considerable and enduring.
I first met Philip in the early 1970s at the Funge Arts Centre in Gorey, Co Wexford. Paul Funge, believing that there was a need for decentralisation of the arts in Ireland, created his Arts Centre to bring the visual arts, music, and writers to Gorey and to encourage local people to become involved in these activities. James Liddy organized the publications and readings for the Arts Centre and Festival and it was here that Philip published his first poems and gave his readings. Thirty years later and an established author, he often down to Enniscorthy to help Paul O’Reilly, Niall Wall and others, set up workshops and readings for beginning writers—a man always willing to support others who wished to explore the writing life. Also, though a Dubliner for much of his life, he remained loyal and indebted to the Wexford soil that had nurtured him.
I can’t think of anyone who read poetry in public as quietly as Philip did though his listeners heard everything. In his beautifully crafted lyric poems, Philip brought urgent news from distant planets and local hearths. His was a wise vision. He was a true original. And a great friend.
Eamonn Wall is a poet, essayist and Smurfit-Stone Professor of Irish Studies and Professor of English at the University of Missouri-St Louis
Oh Philip Casey. Today I’m so deeply sorrowful to hear of your death. You have been on my mind for days since your wonderful friend and soulmate Marion Kelly messaged me to tell me that you were near the end. I met you first at Mary O’Donnell’s book launch and we spent the night laughing and I raving about your writing which I had long been an admirer of. We became close friends.
It was a literary friendship, meeting over the years at readings, launches, painting shows, and afternoons sitting in the empty side bar of the Clarence Hotel in Dublin, while the sunlight poured in the window; over pints of Guinness, your gentle manner, your generosity, your intellect, your passion for writing all spilling out in that soft lilting Wexford accent.
Many times I sat in your little Dublin house just off the Liffey. You made me cups of tea in that kitchen small enough for you to go crutchless and I would be spellbound and apprehensive as you swung around on your one leg with a full pot, hopped and lurched from counter to table without spilling a drop. We drank our tea surrounded by overflowing bookshelves that seemed like an extension of your exquisite mind. Our conversations would span centuries. You had an intricate, innate understanding of how history was never over but always here with us and a quiet trembling outrage for those who were dispossessed by power. I learned so much from you and when writing my latest novel consulted your encyclopedic knowledge on matters of history.
You were a great supporter of my writing and proposed and championed me for Aosdána and frankly was more upset than I was at the rejection. We had a mutual love for Frida Kahlo, you wrote a poem for her that I taught to my students in Trinity, and when ever I was traveling in Mexico and saw something to do with her I would bring it back to Ireland for you. A line from that poem that always struck me was: “It took me awhile to see humour/where previously I’d recognized only suffering.”
Most of all I remembered how much we laughed, and gossiped and raged against the world’s unflinching cruelty. Last summer on my final day in Ireland I went to your house and you sat on the chair in front of me, shockingly gaunt but still full of mischief. You offered me tea but I told you I had just come from a meeting with my agent and was full. You were relieved. I could see you were too sick to get up and make it but you were being gracious as always. When I told you that my new book was to be published after a long struggle with it, you began to cry you were so happy. You told me that was the best news you had gotten in a long time. We talked about your work, your book on slavery, your poetry, and your publishing company emaker editions.
We gossiped, we fell into a long conversation about the 16th century, we just made it up to the 18th century and I could see you were tired. Your pallor was stricken and yellow, you casually told me that your liver wasn’t working anymore, and neither was your bladder, and that you had an infection that halted the chemotherapy. You glanced at the computer open on the cluttered table and said, “I have to finish my book before…” And your voice trailed off and we sat in silence, my mind racing for the right thing to say. But all I said was, “Yes, you have to finish it.” I wonder now was it ever finished before you were.
As I left, you stood at the door of the small terraced house on East Arran Street and I kept turning back as I walked through the newly emerging sun that was lighting up the wet August streets, every time I turned you waved. And I waved back. When I got to the Liffey river I couldn’t look back because I knew that the last time I saw you it would be the last time I ever saw you.
Marion told me when she sat with you this week as you slipped away that she asked you where you were going and you said “I don’t know”. None of us know where you are now, but all of us who loved you and learned from you and laughed with you know that the unremitting pain you were in for so much of your life is over, but for us left here in this imperfect but glorious world, we are only bereft as you are irreplaceable. We have your work and today I reread one of my favourites, Hamburg Woman’s Song. “I was born in a time and place/to a woman I look like now/ but fear grew like mould on bread/ in my mother’s love for her slow girl.”
Emer Martin’s novels include Baby Zero and More Bread or I’ll Appear
I was first introduced to Philip Casey by his fellow Wexford poet James Liddy in the early 1970s. Both poets were then associated with the Gorey Arts Centre which published his first small pamphlet collection, The Stars and Planets Become Friends. Those poems displayed a very impressive first stage of poetic development for one so young, as well as an individual lyric voice, or as the astute Michael Hartnett put it when later reviewing The Year of the Knife, his were poems of “precision, compassion and images that surpass the common run of language”. It was an early flowering but the blooms kept renewing.
And Philip was abundantly compassionate, an aspect of his character that no doubt grew out of his own life experience of having to deal with ongoing hospitalisation and health problems since youth when he spent “nights in a hospital cot” ( as he tells us in his poem “White Horse” ), hearing the sound of “the pitiful cries / in the dim ward” as well as the “Torn sonata of distress….” (“Symbol” ).
Those formative experiences, his occasions of encounter with the “torn sonata”, made him live more deeply and intensely and drove him toward a more profound understanding of compassion and humanity. His fortitude and emotional strength as well as an affirmative approach to his art were evident in both his work and his personality. Wonder and gratitude were part of the mystery of his poems – an extraordinary output that, along with his powerful novels, was achieved almost against the odds.
Rereading his poems in the sad aftermath of Philip’s death, I am reminded of the Catalan poet Joan Margarit’s comment that “poetry serves to introduce within us some change that will bring order to life’s disorder”. His gentleness and that tender, philosophical smile will be much missed on Dublin’s Liffeyside, in Wexford and far beyond.
Gerard Smyth is Irish Times Poery Editor, whose collaboration with artist Sean McSweeney, The Yellow River, was published last year
On Sunday, February 5th, one of my dearest and oldest friends passed away in Dublin. Philip (Casey) was a marvellous man, kind, gentle, sensitive, perceptive, intelligent, funny, sharp, wise, and that’s why he was not only a wonderful man and friend, but also an astonishing poet and novelist.
I met him 35 years ago in The Winding Stair when he came to read from a new book of poems, and we remained close friends ever since. Indeed, one of the highlights of each and every trip back to Ireland over the past 12-plus years since I moved to America, was meeting Philip (‘Philo’ in the Dublin vernacular) and Anthony ‘Anto’ Glavin in the snug at Hughes’ pub behind the Four Courts or under the Last Supper mural in the ‘Latin Quarter’ or in one of the restaurants along that lane. Wherever we met we would laugh and chat and generally make nuisances of ourselves. That is a lot of meetings when I estimate that I have made the trip about 50 times during that period.
Philip’s poetry is breath-takingly pellucid and articulate, and, to steal a word from one of his own poems, utterly beautiful. To hear Philip read his poetry was a pure joy with the slow enunciation of each precious syllable in that soft, mellifluous voice. He was also a novelist and wrote both adult and children’s fiction. He set much of his novel The Fabulists in The Winding Stair, a great honour to me, and a tribute to the way we, and Dublin, were then.
But Philip was way ahead of his time in other ways and he set up the Irish Writers Online website long before websites were the ‘done thing’ and before the importance and relevance of a digital register of Irish writers was realised.
Philip suffered a lot physically during his life, losing a leg at a young age. He spent a lot of time in hospitals and indeed, one of his books of poetry, The Year of the Knife, reflects those times with penetrating, visceral observation. Yet I never heard him complain once about the undoubted pain he experienced on a daily basis. He just got on with things. He was loved dearly by many and I have no doubt whatsoever that his funeral will be attended by at least 51 beautiful, mysterious women who will cast single white roses onto his grave. Such was the magic and the appeal of the man.
Returning now as I am to Ireland, I will miss him. He was a part of my need to return home. Anto and I will keep the tradition alive in his honour, though we might not be so rowdy nor energetic. However, Philip will be with us, and I’m sure with anyone whose lives he graced during his all-too-short stay among us.
Rest in Peace, old stock, Pal of the saddle!
Kevin Connolly was founder/owner of The Winding Stair Bookshop on Ormond Quay from 1982-2005
I can see you as utterly you.
Your laugh is unlike the music
of angels, or the first young thrush
of the day – it’s simply your laugh,
fresh to the earth, and beautifully
free of simile. Look at me now.
Your eyes are not pools of light,
but guileless, flesh and blood eyes
that can break my heart with delight.
I’ve never seen twin silver streams
glisten on your pale alabaster cheeks –
only ever salt tears, like those
I remember crying before my heart
grew calm and learned to listen.
By Philip Casey
To encounter Philip Casey at a literary event was immediately to feel an exalted radiance about the place. His lively, warm and invigorating presence never waned and it is hard to believe that we will not experience it again. His novel The Fabulists is indeed fabulous and his facility with technology brought us a welcome re-introduction to his collections of poems. He was supremely generous to his fellow writers, enveloping them with praise and encouragement. An enthusiastic adapter to Twitter, just a few weeks back Philip welcomed a New Year poem from Sara Berkeley (fittingly Sara is also a hospice nurse). With characteristic bravery in the face of his grave illness, he saluted her lines:
And the dreams kick into high gear
and the hopes are all reset….
and the year’s heart is beating strongly now.
Sometimes Philip attached words of wisdom from others to the feet of his e-mails. In recent years he used a line from Ian McLaren:
‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’.
His glorious, generous life never wavered from this command.
Maureen Kennelly is director of Poetry Ireland
The first time I met Philip Casey, I embarrassed him so much that I think he did his best to avoid me for the following few days. Thereafter we became good friends.
It was late 1985 (or maybe early ’86), and I’d just moved in to a bedsit in a house on Longwood Avenue, off Dublin’s South Circular Road. That I had come to live in that particular house after routinely answering an advert in the Classifieds section of the Irish Press seems unlikely now, but that’s how it was. No plan, just the strings of fate drawing me along. Little did I know the day I moved in that on the floor above me was the painter Sean Fingleton and, below me in the basement, the poet Philip Casey, neither of whom I had met before, though, as it happens, I knew something about the work of each.
Though I was living in Dublin only a couple of years at the time, I’d already fallen in with a small group of artists and writers and, as I got to know my way around the Dublin scene, I paid particular attention any time I heard positive references to a practitioner working outside of the group (not always a daily occurance!) Many people I met enthused about the energy and committment of the painter Fingleton, (about his powerful, troubled landscapes that seemed to have been wrestled onto the canvas), but they seemed to have a special reverence for Philip Casey which made me keen to meet him.
Coming and going with my bags of vegetables from the stalls on Camden Street, or a collection of wooden scraps gathered for my open fire from the skips along the canal in Portobello (gentrification was already in full swing), in that first week or so I’d take my time on the steps up to the front door of Longwood Avenue, hoping for a glimpse of the basement poet I was too shy to disturb.
And then one morning, without warning, as I came down to head out on some errand or other, there was a noise from below and behind, and I turned around to see the basement door open and a small (to me) man leaning on a crutch emerging. It was Philip Casey.
I was in the grip of an enthusiastic apprenticeship to poetry, and reading everything I could get my hands on, including After Thunder, his poetry collection that had come out only months before. I told him so. Philip smiled warily. I really liked it. He thanked me politely. Neither of us moved. In an effort to put him at his ease, and to relieve my own growing sense of discomfort, I mentioned a few people we had in common – the poets Leland Bardwell and Pearse Hutchinson, Tommy Smith, the owner and heart of Grogan’s Castle Lounge, then effectively my home from home.
And then I did the unthinkable. I named one of the poems from Philip’s book. Machine Buried, for some reason, had made a particular impression on me when I first read it not long before, so much so that in a period where I had more free time than now (and a significantly better memory), standing there in the shadow of the house I began to recite the entire thing to him from memory: ‘The early shift poured into the works, / some hungover, faces drawn and eyes / sleep-caked, sleep-heavy, their mood morose, / unready for its troubling presence …” And Philip just stood there and looked at me, in shock, in wonder, radiating his typical kindness and concern.
Sensing I was trying too hard, I stopped halfway through, and we exchanged a few pleasantries and promised to get together for a chat one day. And then we scurried off, each in his own direction, wisely choosing the neutral territory of a bar or coffee shop for our next encounter, before which I had already begun to understand something important about poets. The true ones are always surprised when anyone reads, let alone memorises their work. They give all they have in its making, but then step away from it and leave it to find its own way in the world. They hope their poems will live beyond them, but fear deep down no such thing will ever happen.
Philip endured more suffering than almost anyone I’ve known, and not just once but again and again. Yet he never complained, and he never gave up making new things, poems and novels, and helping and encouraging others to make their own as well.
There are plenty of poems by Philip that move me more than does Machine Buried; there are things about this fable of men at work that I still don’t entirely understand or can’t apply to the man I got to know over the many years since. And, in truth, it wasn’t a poem Philip himself made any great claim for or returned to often. Perhaps he remained puzzled about it, as poets often are about their work.
But something in it made great sense, haunted and inspired the young writer I was back then trying to become. And that’s why I turn to it again today, as we say goodbye to Philip and have only the poems and the novels in his place (with all the pressure that puts on them now). I turn to it again because there are mysteries in poems, and in poem-making, that cannot be explained away, that always seem to have something more to tell us, something more to reveal. We lose our loves and our friends, but something we write as in a dream, or stumble upon by accident in a public library on a rainy afternoon, becomes our farewell message to the world, and someone's lifelong companion.
The early shift poured into the works,
some hungover, faces drawn and eyes
sleep-caked, sleep-heavy, their mood morose,
unready for its troubling presence.
It had taken root in the concrete,
a steel Zeus from a mouthful of dust.
Wary, they searched it for a device
that might breathe some life into its steel,
but it was inert and they withdrew,
disconcerted, and deep in their hearts,
afraid. As with the precursors of plagues,
it had come among them unannounced.
In heaven, alias the office,
all ranks were blissfully certain
that no such god existed, demi-
or other, there being no record.
The men returned to work
but in every mind lurked the machine,
which they had christened Colonel Blink.
Then came the solution from on high:
a hole was dug and as the bulldozer
toppled it over the brink, they stared,
feigning laughter; but true to his instinct
a mechanic sprinkled oil on its
complex extremities and they cheered.
The clay was expertly cemented
over, but each year it subsides just
a little and each time a man walks
across it he has a strange feeling,
like an old night-fear from childhood.
from After Thunder (Colin Smythe/Raven Arts Press, 1985)
Pat Boran’s poetry collections include A Man is Only As Good: A Pocket Selected Poems (2017)
I never knew Philip when he was poor. I was told by him and others that he once was, but I never experienced a sense of financial foreboding with him. For someone steeped in the knowledge of the legacy of Dark Ireland – both historically and culturally, Philip often carried loads of money, and always loads of change! I thought it was the funniest thing ever that at any one time he’d have the guts of €20 in coins weighing in his pockets. Though he held a riveting knowledge of chronic poverty and famine in Ireland, he always brought to my and every other table I know, the best wine, the best cheese, the best chocolate and the best of any/everything thing else you might hint at. I don’t know how many nights I clapped (my marigolds) seeing all the luxury leavings from a dinner, a supper or whatever it was we gathered around. Love always triumphed over fear with Philip, and he was simply the most generous man I know. There was nothing scary, empty or creepy about his largesse because his giving and his loving kindness came from a deep integrity which kept him safe in the world despite him knowing its horrors.
In fact this sense of his safety spread to me too. I could go up and down Arran Street at any time of the day or night and not feel afraid. If someone had put a knife at my throat, I’d have been outraged, ‘Are you out of your mind?? Do you not know that Philip lives here?’
A light has gone out now in Arran Street and I lose my breath when I think of this.
Thanks to his truly magnificent family I saw on Sunday afternoon how this sense of safety brought him to his last breath. On Friday morning, I had gone to say goodbye to Philip and to tell him of the huge moon I looked at for him the previous night. He roused himself from a deep slumber and opening his arms embraced me as I wept. Then slowly and silently he sank back into the mattress. Like many others I left his room in the hospice and fled like a wounded animal wanting to clear all human life and howl.
But, I refuse to believe he’s no longer a huge source and conduit of love in my life. No. I’ll simply learn the language of the stars, the moon and the heavens and I’ll continue my friendship with him. No bother. As a friend of mine and Philip’s said at the weekend, ‘we have to make friends with death’. Philip didn’t have an organised faith, but he never once ended a phone conversation without saying ‘bless you’. Like many of his friends, I took that blessing to heart, and I’ll keep it there for whenever I need to channel his integrity and travel through the shadows of the world with his sense of safety.
Christine Clear is a writer
Philip Casey was/is a secular saint, and I only wish he were still on this side so as to hear his amused, ironic, playful, satirical riposte to such allegation, accurate as it is. A role model of how to live your life without complaint was our Philip, no matter what life serves you up en route. One of the most generous souls I’ve ever known, with that wide, wonderful smile and eyes that literally twinkled. I received word on Sunday in Co Clare of his passing over, just minutes after having made a wish for him upon the first star of the evening, but the tears did not come till yesterday on the Luas as it passed his Arran St, and Hughes Pub, our sometimes local with his dear friend Kevin Connolly, and so many mighty, storied evenings.
I first met Philip 23 years ago, upon receiving a lovely card from him after I’d reviewed his The Fabulists for The Sunday Tribune, “vast, amazing, excellent, a love story of Dublin, a singular triumph”. And I remember as if yesterday crying tears at the heartbreak within his mighty The Water Star, which I devoured in a Donegal seaside chalet in the summer of 2000.
And I’ll remember forever the outstretched arms of one of his mighty nurses in the Mater this past year who, calling in to say goodbye ahead of his discharge later that day, stood at the end of his bed, arms outstretched as she exclaimed, “Oh, Philip, what am I going to do about my husband?!?” And it’s impossible to think that anybody who knew Philip wouldn’t have so fallen for him too.
Anthony Glavin's latest novel is Colours Other Than Blue
He was a dear friend to all of us poets and my husband Peter Sirr and I are greatly saddened that he has died.
I first met him back in 1990 at The Winding Stair Bookshop when Raven Arts Press published Philip and I and other poets in 12 Bar Blues, an anthology of contemporary poets.Ever since then, I met him at readings and book launches over the years. He was intelligent, courageous and funny, a fine writer and will be greatly missed.
Enda Wyley has published five collections of poetry, most recently Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems, Dedalus Press. She is a member of Aosdana
My friendship with Philip taught me much. First and foremost he valued writing, the power of expression - his email signature quote acknowledged Thomas Mann who saw “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”. As a doctor, I was constantly impressed by his stoicism in the face of daunting suffering and disability. He shrugged off the consequences of illness with humour and a philosophical acceptance that there were many worse than he. Recounting to me once, with customary tolerance, the results of one of the many investigations he had to undergo, he wrote: “I had the CT scan on Tuesday. It went fine but the trace fluid irritated my bladder and had me urinating all night. When I mentioned trace fluid on the phone to my mother, who was a nurse in London during the war, she misheard me. 'Did you say you say you had to drink Jeyes Fluid?!’”
He helped me in many ways, not least in setting up my website, as he did unselfishly for so many others: “I've just finished designing a website for disabled people - designing websites is my hobby,and I love it, but I think of it as akin to reading comics.” He joined me in a campaign to ban landmines, and no one understood better the awful pain of losing a limb: “Mao Sopheap was orphaned by a landmine. Then, when she was 16, she stepped on one herself -- her left leg was blown apart and had to be amputated. During an interview she cried: 'That mine has given me a future of tears until the end of my life.’” But he never complained and often made light of his disability; one evening after a few glasses of wine in a pub in town, he headed off for his quay-side abode, as he put it “legless with mirth”.
Which leads me to his sense of humour and mischief. The Funks of the Screw, which he founded with Marion Kelly and Ronan Sheehan, were “dedicated to the remembering of the brilliant and the bold of Ireland’s past, luminaries often misunderstood or forgotten. With an emphasis on conversation, commentary and friendship, the Funks will seek to emulate the conviviality of their 18th century exemplars The Monks of the Screw, who mingled mirth with wisdom, and gave to political philosophy the charm of eloquence.”
I helped Philip as best I could with his independent publishing ventures. He had become fascinated by one of Nevill Johnson’s paintings, Dark Head, which he found haunting and eventually it graced the cover of his novel The Fisher Child. I proof-read The Book of Rights: The Story of Irish Slavery & Servitude, as it was first called, and urged him to submit it to publishers from whom he received mixed reaction. “The tiny feedback I'm getting from agents suggests that yes, they like the writing very much, but think it isn't commercial. I think they're wrong, but then I'm not an agent, and wouldn't dream of telling them they were wrong!” It behoves all of us who knew him to make sure that this massive work sees the light of day.
At our last meeting in his home on Arran Street on December 30th, I was put in mind of the sentiments expressed by Christopher Hitchens in Mortality, the hopeless paradox when intelligent minds have to grapple with the inevitability of death - their death, and their hopeless reliance on orthodox medicine and its practitioners (of which on this occasion I was sadly seen as one), mixed with frustration, amounting to anger at our impotence to offer explanation, comfort and even unorthodox therapies in the face of the impending inevitability. I left Philip saddened by my inability as a doctor to be able only to utter useless platitudes. And then a poem epitomising Philip’s generosity of spirit eased my sense of hopelessness:
I drag myself on decrepit crutches along
the lightless quays and almost fall over
a supine man. ‘Help me,’ he croaks,
and despite the frost in my bones,
yet again I drag him to his feet. ‘Thank you,’
he says for the thousandth time, ‘you’ll prosper for it.’
‘I wonder,’ I say, as he makes his way without me.
‘No, I’m certain that I doubt it.’"
He admired my climbing skills but in truth the wall was mere feet high and I had the incentive of finally getting back home - but Philip was being typically generous in his praise. And yet I stayed up there a while, perched on the wall, talking to Philip, who was standing on his patio surrounded by pots of plants. He told me how a far-off land – I don’t remember which – had refused to translate one of his novels because it was too raunchy. He laughed – he had a full-face, delighted laugh which set you off too - at the effect his words had had on a conservative culture.
I told him how he’d been an apparition, walking up the street towards me just after my front door had been slammed shut by a rogue breeze, and now I had come through his house and over the wall to mine, and he embraced the fun in that.
If I encountered him on a Saturday morning after he’d been to the market in Meeting House Square and bought 99% - or was it even 100% - chocolate, he would offer the wafer-thin but large slabs across our party wall and we’d chat over the bitter-sweet taste. He was excited that a similar market was mooted closer to home. This area was changing – as new eateries opened around Capel Street – but he’d been here well ahead of the pack. I was a newbie and, having chosen the street at random, had no idea what to expect. Two neighbours canvassing for the marriage equality referendum – realising I’d just arrived - introduced me to him. “You’re very, very welcome,” he said – we talked about our childhoods in and around Holloway in London; and about writing - and I went into my new home feeling everything would be alright.
The next time I saw him he said: “I love the music you play.” I wondered if that was code for: it’s too loud. But when you got to know Philip you knew he wouldn’t do that: he was incredibly kind, non-judgmental, a flexible thinker, open and non-conventional. He said he loved my wall of books – something that had worried various other visitors who saw them as cluttery “stuff”. But, of course, when I went to his house it was full of books too.
And when a friend stayed in my house and also locked herself out, Philip paid upfront for the locksmith without ever having met Geraldine before (she naturally paid him back once inside).
When I left the house last summer, packing up my life into a car, he came out of his home. “I’ll miss you,” I said. “I’ll miss you too.” We agreed it had felt lovely having each other next door (indeed that whole section of Arran Street East had a good vibe). He went into his house and brought a copy of his novel The Water Star – about the area we’d both lived in as children. He wrote me a message in it and of course I’ll never let that book go. He occasionally ended phrases with: “If I live that long.” I was in denial but he was right – incredibly sadly.
Emma Cullinan is a journalist