Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1983 – Bligeard Sráide, by Michael Davitt

The poet took Irish out of the classroom and into the pubs and clubs of youth culture

Michael Davitt: never lost his sense of surprise and wonder. Photograph: RTÉ

Michael Davitt: never lost his sense of surprise and wonder. Photograph: RTÉ

 

Michael Davitt (1950-2005) was a key figure in the literary movement associated with the poetry magazine Innti, which he established as a student broadsheet with his fellow students Gabriel Rosenstock and Con Ó Drisceoil at University College Cork in 1970. Important influences during his UCC years were the creative trio of Seán Ó Ríordáin (see the entry in this series for 1971), Seán Ó Tuama, poet and professor of Irish, and the composer Seán Ó Riada, all of whom were exploring and experimenting with inherited art forms.

Davitt, born and raised in Cork city, was himself a charismatic man, and he took the Irish language and Irish poetry out of classrooms and lecture halls and into the pubs and clubs of youth culture. For Davitt and many of his peers from urban English-speaking backgrounds, commitment to Irish was a conscious countercultural move, in tune with youth movements and civil-rights politics.

Davitt followed in the footsteps of Seán Ó Ríordáin in developing strong ties with the west Kerry Gaeltacht, but, as Ó Ríordáin himself remarked, the Innti poets approached the Gaeltacht with less deference than second-language learners of former times, seeking out the younger generation of Irish speakers and absorbing a wide range of linguistic styles and registers. For Davitt the Gaeltacht was less a repository of culture than a creative contact zone offering possibilities for linguistic and cultural enrichment. He was never in awe of language purists or cultural conservatives, often poking fun at their rituals and rhetoric.

With a keen ear and a wonderful capacity for irreverent mimicry, he was not afraid to experiment with colloquial speech, and he treated Gaeltacht Irish as a richly creative oral medium.

His mastery of the language gave him the authority to play with traditional structures and to mix registers and languages at will, infusing Irish with the energies of Bob Dylan and the Beats. As he puts it in the poem 52 Focal Comhairle don Ábhar File (52 Words of Advice for the Apprentice Poet) from the 2003 collection Fardoras: “Féach ar an gcaighdeán mar chárta creidmheasa / Féach ar an gcriól mar chash / Iompaigh gach ar múineadh riamh duit / Droim ar ais” (“Treat the standard as your credit card / Treat the creole as cash / Turn everything you were ever taught / Back to front”).

Davitt’s style and thematic range were well established with the publication of his second collection, Bligeard Sráide (1983), on the heels of his debut collection, Gleann ar Ghleann (1981), whose title echoed that of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album of 1966. The range of material in Bligeard Sráide illustrates Davitt’s remarkable command of linguistic register and his ability to adapt the resources of Irish to the requirements of particular occasions and emotional fields.

A beloved teacher’s storytelling skills are evoked in the poem Máistir scoile (School master), where the poet contemplates the impossibility of rekindling the wonder of the child-adult relationship in a summer encounter years later.

The poet’s elegy for his father An scáthán (The mirror), one of his best-loved and most widely anthologised poems, is a powerful evocation of a father-son relationship, focusing on the event that triggered the fatal heart attack (the removal of a heavy old Victorian mirror from a bedroom wall) and an acknowledgment of the poet’s continued sense of his father’s presence as he takes over the unfinished task. The emotions are typically understated, with the absent father most dramatically evoked in the line in English: “I’ll give you a hand, here.”

Davitt’s poetry continued to manifest this early sense of a shared endeavour, and of poetry as primarily a form of commentary on contemporary life. The tone of his work was to change in the 1990s, and a note of dismay and disillusion with the self, with personal relationships and with the failures of Irish cultural and political life can be discerned, especially in the collections Scuais (1998) and Fardoras. But Davitt never lost his sense of surprise and wonder, nor his ability to play and experiment with form and language.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie

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