Padraic Fiacc obituary: Poet who captured the darkness of the Troubles
Award winning Belfast poet remembered by friends and President Michael D Higgins
Padraic Fiacc: was never afraid to reflect dark, deeply emotive and disturbing elements in his verse.
Born: April 15th, 1924
Died: January 21st, 2019
The Belfast-born poet Padraic Fiacc has died in a care home in south Belfast, 10 days after a private visit from President Michael D Higgins. A member of Aosdána since 1981 – the year he also received the Poetry Ireland Award – Fiacc was a prolific writer of poetry throughout his long and troubled life spent between New York and Belfast.
His stark poems based on his direct experiences in Northern Ireland were initially vilified and later praised for their intense depiction of urban violence and sectarianism. He also wrote graphically about growing up in poverty in the notorious Hell’s Kitchen district of New York.
“Having experienced tragedy and loss, Padraic Fiacc was never afraid to reflect dark, deeply emotive and disturbing elements in his verse. His empathy for the frightened and maimed individuals on either side of the divide shone through his work,” said President Michael D Higgins.
Belfast poet and emeritus professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, Gerald Dawe, who co-edited Padraic Fiacc: Ruined Pages with Aodan Mac Poilin (Blackstaff Press, 1994, and Lagan Press, 2012), said that Fiacc’s work can be read as a history of what it felt like to be at the cutting edge of the Troubles. “The books he published tell this story in a shocking way, offending many with their often barbarous and fragmented utterance but lit throughout with black irony and gallows humour,” said Dawe. He described Fiacc’s poetry as “Beckettian in its bleak physicality and intensity, tragic-comic, anti-heroic, counter-lyrical – even anti-poetic – and unlike anything else produced by an Irish poet during the last half-century.”
Deciding against life in the priesthood, he left and – in order to avoid military service in the United States – returned to Belfast
Mac Poilin, the late teacher, editor and Irish-language translator, said that Fiacc was a poet who worked in fragments, and he could wait for a decade or more before fragments would gel into a poem. He, like Yeats, constantly remade poems, sometimes radically. Consequentially, putting a chronological order on Fiacc’s poems was a difficult task for editors.
Born Patrick Joseph O’Connor, he adopted the pseudonym Padraic Fiacc (Patrick the Raven) in honour of the Irish literary revival poet Padraic Colum (which translates as Patrick the Dove), who became his mentor when the O’Connor family lived in New York.
Known as Joe to friends and family, Fiacc first moved to New York in 1929 at the age of five with his mother and younger brothers to be with their father, who had emigrated. His father, Bernard O’Connor, originally from Co Cavan, worked as a barman, then a successful grocer and later a subway clerk. His heavy drinking in the latter part of his life left its mark on the Irish immigrant family. A bright and academic student inspired by the gritty multicultural backdrop of Manhattan, Fiacc first started writing plays and poetry at school.
After his education in Commerce High School and Haaren High School, he enrolled first in a Franciscan seminary in upstate New York and later spent five years in an Irish Capuchin Order seminary in Delaware. Deciding against life in the priesthood, he left the seminary and – in order to avoid military service in the United States – returned to Belfast in 1946.
Working as a night porter in the Union Hotel in Belfast, the then 22-year-old began to establish a reputation as a poet with work appearing in New Irish Poets (Devin-Adair, 1948), the Irish Bookman literary journal, Poetry Ireland and The Irish Times.
However, following the death of his mother, he returned to the United States to look after his younger sister, Mary. The Detroit-based painter Nancy Wayne began corresponding with Fiacc having read his poetry. The couple returned to Belfast together and married in 1956, settling in the north Belfast suburb of Glengormley.
In 1957, Fiacc won the AE Memorial Award for his anthology Woe to the Boy and the couple’s home became a port of call for emerging poets and writers. Their daughter, Brigid O’Connor, was born in 1962. Fiacc’s first full collection of poetry, By the Black Stream (Dolmen Press), was published in 1969.
His poetry really is a vivid documentary of his extraordinary life lived between Belfast and New York
During the 1970s, Fiacc’s mental health broke down, firstly due to the collapse of his marriage and then due to the sectarian murder of his 20-year-old friend Gerry McLaughlin in 1975. Subsequent poetry collections – Odour of Blood (Kildare, Goldsmith Press, 1973), The Wearing of the Black (Blackstaff Press, 1974), Nights in the Bad Place (Blackstaff Press, 1977), The Selected Padraic Fiacc (Blackstaff Press, 1979) and Missa Terriblis ( Blackstaff Press, 1986) – reflected the impact of these personal losses and the wider violence in Northern Ireland. During these years, Fiacc lived a lonely life on the edge of society in various rented rooms, giving only occasional public readings.
From the 1990s onwards, Fiacc’s work began to regain audiences with the publications of Red Earth (1996) and Semper Vacare (1999). In his 70s his move to a nursing home stabilised his existence. The multimedia artist Michael McKernon, who befriended the poet in 2001, reignited his joy of poetry with the publication of Sea: Sixty Years of Poetry, edited and illustrated by Michael McKernon (MH Press 2006). McKernon said, “I found Fiacc to be an intriguing individual and a tremendous artist. His poetry really is a vivid documentary of his extraordinary life lived between Belfast and New York. I believe he is a legendary modern poet of the 20th century, whose stature will continue to grow.”
Fiacc’s closest friends remember him as a complex, witty, dark, difficult, charming man who alienated himself from the literary establishment yet was resentful and hurt if not celebrated by it. In July 2012, a plaque dedicated to Fiacc was unveiled in the John Hewitt Bar and Restaurant in Belfast. In June 2018, Fiacc Faces, an exhibition of original poems, photographs and paintings, was held at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.
Padraic Fiacc is survived by his daughter, Dr Brigid O’Connor, and his sister, Mary Galliani . His brothers, Brian, Rory and Jimmy, predeceased him.