Anthony Cronin: poet, novelist, biographer and cultural commentator

Obituary: He believed in giving voice to modern, more complex, often urban Irish life

 

The poet, novelist, biographer and critic, Anthony Cronin, who has died aged 88, was among the foremost cultural commentators in Ireland in the late 20th and early 21st century.

In this newspaper, in November 2004, Fintan O’Toole singled out his long poems in particular, RMS Titanic (1961), Letter to an Englishman (1975) and the sonnet sequence, The End of the Modern World (1989), as a “distinctive achievement” but argued that if they tended to be forgotten or neglected, “it is partly because Cronin himself has generated so much interference. His public profile as a combative literary journalist who also wrote about horse racing, as the biographer of Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien and as the cultural politician who helped to create, through his relationship with [Charles] Haughey, Aosdána, the Heritage Council and the Irish Museum of Modern Art has been at odds with the common view of the contemplative poet.”

Reviewing his Collected Poems in this newspaper in December 2004, George Szirtes described Cronin’s engagement as with “the ordinary man in the city street”. He went on to acknowledge that he had written “beautiful love poems and some imperious political verse” but that he was most of all “Ireland’s modern Dryden, a master of the public word in the public place”.

In an RTÉ TV interview in January 1999, Cronin himself said that his obsessions had been, in Hamlet’s phrase, “the very form and pressure of the time” and that the function of poetry could be like that of journalism, providing insight into the times in which it is written.

Anthony Cronin was born in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford on December 23rd, 1928. His father was a reporter on the Enniscorthy Echo and his mother was a homemaker. His parents also ran a small shop, which his mother managed. He attended Blackrock College in Dublin, where he wrote his first poems. As a student in UCD, he was very active in the Literary and Historical Society (L&H).

In that same television interview in January 1999, he recalled a contribution he made to a debate at the L&H during the second World War in which he said the Italian people had “redeemed their honour” by overthrowing and executing Mussolini, a remark for which he was “nearly lynched”. The reason for the hostile reaction was that many of those present reflected the less than sympathetic attitude to the Allies that existed in parts of Ireland at the time.

It was an early indication that he was not afraid to be provocative, a characteristic that was to last all his life.

After UCD, he attended the King’s Inns and qualified as a barrister but his interests were literary rather than legal. He was also politically active and was a member of the Dublin South East branch of the Labour Party. The important literary magazine, The Bell, which had been founded in 1940, was edited after the war by the socialist, Peadar O’Donnell, and Cronin became assistant editor in 1952, then editor towards the end of the magazine’s existence in 1954.

In the Dublin literary milieu of the 1950s, he mixed with playwright Brendan Behan, poet Patrick Kavanagh and novelist Brian O’Nolan, the foremost Irish creative writers of the time. They organised the first Dublin Bloomsday in 1954 (to mark the 50th anniversary of the year in which Joyce’s Ulysses is set), largely the idea of O’Nolan, according to Cronin. He later remarked that their gesture was partly an assertion of Joyce’s importance “as well as a rebellion against dullness, hypocrisy and ignorance, but it was also a celebration”.

The prospects of pursuing a literary career in the conservative moral climate of mid-century Ireland were limited, especially as the draconian censorship laws were aimed particularly at creative literature. London offered far greater opportunities and Cronin moved there in the mid-1950s. From 1956 to 1958, he was literary editor of the magazine, Time and Tide. He published his first collection, Poems, in London in 1957, with New Poems following three years later.

In the poem After Thomas Moore, from the collection, Body and Soul (2014), Cronin looked back wryly at the battle he fought to rid Irish poetry of the “Celtic Twilight” influence”: “Dear harp of my country, in Celtness I found thee, / The Chain of Antiqueness had hung o’er thee long, / When proudly, my own island harp, I unbound thee / And gave all thy chords to the street and its song.”

The idea had long persisted in Irish poetry that real Irishness lay in Celtic mythology, rural life and the Irish language. Cronin, on the other hand, believed in giving voice to modern, more complex, often urban Irish life, the life of real experience, of the man in the street, through a language based on good sense. He became very much a part of the London literary scene in the late 1950s, contributing to magazines such as X and Nimbus and mixing with poets such as David Wright and George Barker and painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

The long poem, RMS Titanic, was published in 1960 and resulted from Cronin’s fascination with the 1958 film, A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the ship. “The ill-fated leviathan gave Cronin a metaphor with which to explore the modern world, especially the nature of capitalism and class society,” wrote one critic.

In 1964, Cronin published the semi-autobiographical novel, Life of Reilly, which gives a humorous insight into the preoccupations of his literary peers in Dublin and London at the time. The section on London contains some of the sharpest and most entertaining critiques of literary pretensions. A host of contemporaries, such as HAL Craig, WR Rodgers and Louis MacNeice appear under various pseudonyms, while Prunshios McGonaghy, editor of The Trumpet, who is “wurred in” to “the diolectic”, is clearly Peadar O’Donnell.

A collection of critical essays, A Question of Modernity, appeared in 1966, which provided some insightful interpretation of Joyce’s Ulysses and of Samuel Beckett’s work. He was appointed visiting lecturer to the University of Montana, 1966-68 and poet in residence at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa from 1968 to 1970. His Collected Poems 1950-73 was published in 1973 and a play, The Shame of It, was performed at the Peacock theatre in 1974.

Brendan Behan, Brian O’Nolan and Patrick Kavanagh had all died within a few years of each other in the mid-1960s and Cronin commemorated them in Dead as Doornails (1976), which was to become a classic of the literary-memoir genre. One of its great merits, as one commentator remarked, was that “he was there, and he seems to have described what he saw and experienced, warts, vomit and all”. He did not offer judgments but let the details that he unfolded speak for themselves. A second novel, Identity Papers, followed in 1979.

From 1974 to 1980, he contributed a column called “Viewpoint” to this newspaper on social, political, cultural and literary topics. During Charles Haughey’s time as taoiseach in the early and late 1980s, Cronin was his cultural and artistic adviser. In an RTÉ radio interview in October 2010, he described Haughey as the first leader of independent Ireland who had an appreciation of the arts and believed that artists should be supported.

He was instrumental in the setting up of Aosdána in 1981 by the Arts Council, which he later referred to as “a major scheme for providing on-going support for major artists” and as a recognition of artistic achievement. In the radio interview earlier referred to, he talked of the desperate circumstances in which many Irish artists had to try to survive for so long and expressed the belief that Dead as Doornails affected public opinion and made the setting up of Aosdána more possible and acceptable.

A new work of literary criticism, Heritage Now: Irish Literature in the English Language and New and Selected Poems appeared in 1982, followed by Letters to an Englishman (1985) and the sonnet sequence, The End of the Modern World (1989), which one critic described as his “masterpiece, and one of the most singular achievements in Irish poetry of the last century”. A biography, No Laughing Matter: the Life and Times of Flann O’Brien, also appeared in 1989.

From the 1990s onwards, in a column each week in the Sunday Independent called “Anthony Cronin’s Personal Anthology”, he chose a favourite poem and offered a commentary on it.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, he continued on his creative way with five poetry collections published: Relationships (1992), The Minotaur and Other Poems (1999), Collected Poems (2004), The Fall (2010), Body and Soul (2014) – and a biography, Samuel Beckett: the Last Modernist (1996).

In Anthony Cronin: Man of Letters (2003), the critic Brian Fallon wrote: “Taken as a whole, Cronin’s verse is in a wide range of tone and modes, though often deliberately angular and unmelodic: sometimes ultra-personal and autobiographical, at other times consciously detached and ironic, at other times again narrative and objective, or with an epigrammatic dryness which looks back to the 18th century.”

Anthony Cronin was married to Thérèse Campbell, from whom he separated in the mid-1980s. She died in 1999. They had two daughters, Iseult and Sarah; Iseult was killed in a road accident in Spain. He is survived by his second wife, author Anne Haverty and by his daughter Sarah.