Noted Irish poet Macdara Woods dies at age 76

Work of almost five decades adds up to a life-long unitary project of great coherence

Poet Macdara Woods, who has died, photographed in November 1999. File photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Poet Macdara Woods, who has died, photographed in November 1999. File photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

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The poet Macdara Woods, who died on Friday at the age of 76, was regarded as one of the senior figures in Irish poetry. Dublin-born Woods was married to the current Ireland Professor of Poetry, Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin with whom he was also a co-founder and editor of the literary journal Cyphers, a title also given to one of his earliest poem sequences.

He began publishing in the 1960s and his first collection, Decimal D Sec. Drinks in a Bar in Marrakesh, appeared from New Writers’ Press in 1970, followed by Early Morning Matins from Gallery Press. He subsequently published eleven collections with Dedalus Press including a Collected Poems in 2012 and his last book, Music from the Big Tent in 2016.

When the poet was once asked the question “Why do you write poems?” he replied that “I get restless if I don’t”. That note of restlessness gave character and shape to his poetry. In a review of his work in The Irish Times, Bernard O’Donoghue noted “the tendency of his poems to push the boundaries of Irish poetry” – that was one of Woods’s singular and striking hallmarks and achievements. He was among the young poets of his generation who looked to Patrick Kavanagh and took his advice on finding a renewed order and new individuality in poetry.

Born on Dublin’s Leeson Street, he was very much wedded to place and identifiably so in his Dublin poems, specifically those located on home ground in Ranelagh – to which he returned again and again with inventive poetic success.  

Reviewing his last book, Music from the Big Tent, I stated that I regarded Woods as among the maverick poets of the last half century. It was a characteristic that gave his work its distinction and authority, work of almost five decades that adds up to a lifelong unitary project of great coherence.

He recorded his poems for Harvard, the British Council and UCD Poetry Archive and was an eloquent and melodious public reader of his work – always attentive to the musical cadence of the language in his poetry which has been set to music by a number of composers and performed by Anuna. In Music from the Big Tent he adopted the ballad-form for several poems, presenting new lyrics for several old airs and melodies. He had what was once described as “a natural affinity with the ballad, the song, the lyrical”.

Much of his poetry was autobiographical in content, focusing on the immediacy of the moment. Some of the most compelling poems in Music from the Big Tent address – with directness and honesty – the frailties of age, the poet becoming aware that

We last from day to day
Not more than that. That’s it. Enough
For now

His friend, the poet and broadcaster Vincent Woods recalled the “breadth, freshness, fire and originality of his work; his proud belief in the true value of the poem” and poet Eva Bouke described him as “the master of the unexpected, the surreal, the arresting turn of phrase, of contradictory moods and uncommon poetic settings or registers that are uniquely his – nothing is predictable or stale, everything is new and fresh”.

Last April he was joint winner, with Mary O’Malley, of the Eigse Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize and in defiance of his illness made his way to Newscastlewest in County Limerick to receive the award. For many years he conducted writing workshops in prisons. His work was translated into several languages, including Italian; a passion for Umbria took him there on an annual basis until his recent illness. Macdara Woods was elected to Aosdána in 1986. 

Poets Dermot Healy, Macdara Woods, John Montague, Paul Durcan and Tom MacIntyre in the green room at the Gate Theatre before going on stage to read from The Great Hunger and other poems by Patrick Kavanagh at centenary celebrations marking the birth of the late Monaghan poet in 2004 in Dublin. File photograph: Moya Nolan/The Irish Times
Poets Dermot Healy, Macdara Woods, John Montague, Paul Durcan and Tom MacIntyre in the green room at the Gate Theatre before going on stage to read from The Great Hunger and other poems by Patrick Kavanagh at centenary celebrations marking the birth of the late Monaghan poet in 2004 in Dublin. File photograph: Moya Nolan/The Irish Times
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