Keeper of the literary flame


David Marcus (1924- 2009 ) dedicated his life to championing the work of emerging Irish writers. Now, on news of his death, he is saluted by a roll-call of Ireland's literary talent, writes CAROLINE WALSH, Literary Editor

DAVID MARCUS, the editor of the immeasurably influential “New Irish Writing” pages in the Irish Pressnewspaper for decades, who died on Saturday aged 85 after a long illness, was the great mentor to an entire generation of Irish writers.

Mary Cloake, director of the Arts Council, put it perfectly when she said: “Marcus held a unique and unparalleled role in Irish literary life.”

Yesterday, when news of his death spread through the literary community, a roll-call of writers saluted him. “David Marcus was an eminence in the lives of writers of my generation and after,” said Man Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville.

“In the late 1960s he brought to Dublin a whiff of the wider world of London and late Bloomsbury, which was something Dublin badly needed in those days. He had a peculiarly serene confidence that good writing would out, and a determination to help in that process. He seemed to have been there always, a perennially youthful champion of good writing; how hard it is to accept that his presence is no more.”

Anne Enright, also a winner of the Man Booker Prize, said: “He was the keeper of the flame: David Marcus singlehandedly kept the Irish short story tradition alive, by supporting writers at home and advocating them abroad. He had, as an editor and a man, endless grace and good manners. In a town that loves to be partisan, he was always impartial and miraculously benign.”

Colm Tóibín hailed Marcus’s tireless work on behalf of the short story genre as well: “He created excitement around it, not only in the Irish Pressbut before that in the magazine Irish Writing.”

Marcus edited more than 30 anthologies of Irish short stories and poetry, most recently The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Storiesseries. “You’d get a call from David with a lovely tone in his Cork accent asking had you anything new and if you didn’t then he’d ask had you anything started. And he had this total excitement about getting the thing,” remembered Tóibín.

Marcus was born into the Jewish community in Cork in 1924. He was a novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright and translator, but such was his generosity of spirit that fostering fledging talent in other writers often came before his own work.

“He was a great enabler because he saw the encouragement and support of emerging writers as as important as the act of his own writing. He was a huge encourager of writers,” said Joe Woods, director of Poetry Ireland, adding that Marcus’s great connection with the Poetry Ireland organisation was that he was the founder of the journal Poetry Irelandin 1948. “For a lot of poets in this country it began with the affirmation of a poem being published in ‘New Irish Writing’,” said Woods.

Poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin remembered Marcus as a lively figure in the Cork of her childhood. “As an editor of the original Irish Writingand the original Poetry Irelandin the 1940s and ’50s, then of ‘New Irish Writing’ for 30 years from 1968, he published the work, especially the early work, of it seems almost every poet now publishing in Ireland,” she said.

As a poet himself, Marcus was writing from the 1940s and a collection of his is among early publications by the Dolmen Press, with his Lost Found: Collected Poemspublished in 2007.

“He also translated poetry from Irish,” said Ní Chuilleanáin.

“His translations of Seán Ó Ríordáin brought comfort to the poet when things seemed bleak indeed; his version of The Midnight Court, a poem already banned in translation, appeared first in 1953 and has been republished several times. He was a man of strong preferences, not always coinciding with mine (or anyone else’s), not interested in safe choices either, but personally always gracious, interested especially in promoting the unknown, sometimes the unformed, writers of the future. His courage, patriotism, his glad quest for the unorthodox and unexpected, his dedication, set a standard for the literary life.”

John McGahern, Claire Keegan, Bernard MacLaverty and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne were among the many other writers whose early work Marcus published, as well as that of Ita Daly, novelist and member of Aosdána, who became his wife and who, with their daughter Sarah, survives him.

Novelist Hugo Hamilton said yesterday he still had the letter from Marcus, typed out neatly with his old typewriter on the small-format, half-sized Irish Press letterhead, informing him that he would be delighted to publish Hamilton’s first short story, The Irish Worker. “What a feeling that gives me now to remember that. What a feeling that still produces in so many writers like me who found their initial foothold in his ‘New Irish Writing’ page,” he said.

“He had time for people like me who were searching for a way to tell their story.”

Marcus’s rejection slips were often much longer than his acceptance letters, because he believed you could come back with something better, said Hamilton. “How many books would never have come to life or seen the light of day without David Marcus giving that first fatherly lift up on to the bicycle? It’s quite possible that I would never have opened my mouth and never have come to reveal my own complicated and unspeakable memories to the world if it had not been David Marcus bringing my silence into print for the first time on a Saturday morning. His support of Irish writing remains unforgettable,” said Hamilton.

So often, the eulogies only flow after a person has died, but thankfully Marcus heard how much he was valued at a tribute to him at the annual Irish Pen dinner in Dún Laoghaire last year. The tribute was given by writer William Wall, who praised Marcus’s “instinct for the zeitgeist” and had his audience spellbound when he spoke of how fortunate Ireland was to have Marcus, the grandson of Lithuanian emigrants who came to Ireland fleeing conscription and pogrom. “What riches this country would have lost if, instead of showing them benign indifference, or even the welcome that Cormac Ó Grada suggests in his book Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, the powers in the land had taken the Marcus family into what we call ‘the asylum process’, relocated them under the sinisterly named ‘dispersal scheme’, and finally repatriated them to a burned out shtetl in what we would designate their ‘home country’,” said Wall.

Marcus wrote about the Irish-Jewish community in much of his own work, including his memoir, Oughtobiography: Leaves from the Diary of a Hyphenated Jew;the novels To Next Year in Jerusalem, A Land Not Theirs and A Land in Flames; and the collection of short stories Who Ever Heard of an Irish Jew?.

He is also survived by three brothers, Abraham, Elkan and Louis, and a sister, Nella.

Critic and editor Niall MacMonagle spoke of how Marcus never took centre stage himself but made it possible for countless writers to glow in the spotlight. “Last September at his daughter’s wedding, though already ill and genially lost to Alzheimer’s, he read with astounding clarity, intelligence and love his poem, The House of Love, for Sarah and Tom. It was a beautiful and moving moment.”

Author Joseph O’Connor said Marcus would be remembered with affection and love by everyone in Ireland who cared about the written word. “He was a modest man and I can imagine him gently but firmly dismissing any claim that Ireland’s writers feel we have lost one of our own with his passing. But it is true. He was a beautiful man.”

Colum McCann remembered how Marcus shepherded his own writing in the early 1980s. “He stepped into new territory. He heard the younger voices. He built our bookshelves in so many ways. All the time he maintained the humility and decency necessary for the shaping of good art . . . I’m really not sure where we’d be without him.”

Dermot Bolger said that, in a land of great writers, Marcus was a far rarer miracle: a truly great editor and champion of literature. The “New Irish Writing” page was not only a launch pad for writers as diverse as Neil Jordan, Patrick McCabe, Desmond Hogan, Kate Cruise O’Brien and Ita Daly but also provided a regular platform here for Irish writers in exile like William Trevor and Edna O’Brien, said Bolger.

John Boyne said that, as a young aspiring novelist, he grew up with an awareness of how important Marcus was in fostering not just the talents of Irish writers but also a collegiality among them. “We have a tradition of great editors in Ireland, men and women who pursue and promote new voices in Irish literature; David Marcus epitomised that tradition.”

Marcus also co-founded Poolbeg Presswith Philip McDermott and was awarded the special Rooney Prize for services to Irish literature in 2001.

In her tribute, Mary Cloake said Marcus’s commitment to the artform was profound and would resonate for decades.

His funeral, a humanist service, takes place tomorrow, in Mount Jerome Crematorium, Harold’s Cross, Dublin.