Editor and writer who dedicated his life to promoting Irish literature
DAVID MARCUS:THE LITERARY editor and writer David Marcus, who has died aged 84, was at the heart of Irish literature for more than 60 years. As editor of New Irish Writing in the now defunct Irish Pressnewspaper, he helped to launch the careers of many leading writers including Dermot Bolger, Kate Cruise O’Brien and Pat McCabe.
His wife Ita Daly was another. “David discovered many more illustrious writers than I, but I was the one who caught him,” she said.
With Terence Smith he was co-founder in 1946 of the quarterly journal Irish Writing, which he edited until 1954. He also established the Poetry Irelandjournal in 1948. An early coup was getting Samuel Beckett to contribute a piece to Irish Writing, but he had less luck with Dylan Thomas, who promised a poem. When none was forthcoming he sent a cheque for £5 to Thomas. Several years passed before a letter of apology arrived, explaining, “A poet can’t write to order”, and enclosing the original cheque.
The first of Marcus’s work to be published appeared in The Irish Times. This was a translation of An Bunán Buí, and in 1952 the Dolmen Press published his translation of Cúirt an Mheán Oíche, while poems and short stories were accepted by Irish, British and US magazines.
His first novel, To Next Year in Jerusalem, published in 1954, addressed the question of what it means to be both Irish and Jewish. Years later he described it as “bloody awful”, but the royalties enabled him to clear the debts incurred by Irish Writing.
For many years his secret ambition was to be a great concert pianist. Explaining his preference for music over writing, he said in 1986: “Love is too weak a word to describe my feelings for the piano and piano music.”
Descended from Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, he was born in Cork in 1924, one of five children of Solomon Marcus and his wife Frances Rebecca (née Goldberg). He was educated by the Presentation Brothers, at University College Cork, and at the King’s Inns, Dublin.
Marcus practised law for a year but, disliking “the overdignified ritual of the courts of law”, decided on a change of career. He moved to London, where he worked in insurance. He became a fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute and rose to become a claims manager.
Following his return to Ireland in 1967, he came up with the idea for New Irish Writing, which he intended to put to The Irish Times. But a chance encounter with Seán McCann of the Irish Pressled to the weekly feature appearing in that newspaper.
Tim Pat Coogan, former editor of the Irish Press, this week described the feature as a novel idea that “bridged the gap between the small literary magazines and the emerging prosperous Ireland”, making a “valuable contribution to Irish letters”.
Marcus’s work entailed reading an average of 60 short stories and 300 poems a month. Individualism and originality were the qualities he looked for. What was important about a short story, in his view, was not what it was about, but how it was written. And the point of a story was more important than the ending.
Poetry was a different matter. While it was possible to show someone with talent how to rewrite a short story, rewriting a poem by another writer was out of the question. On top of that, most of the poetry submitted was “utter rubbish”. People, he joked, should not be allowed to write poetry without a government licence.
He was tactful in dealing with writers. Conscious of the hurt criticism could cause, he said: “No matter how many times an artist says, ‘Oh please, give me your true opinion’, never trust that.”
Where writers were insistent, his advice was to keep writing if they enjoyed expressing themselves.
In 1970 Marcus made a rare excursion into politics. Obliging his old friend Jack Lynch, he drafted the then taoiseach’s address to the Fianna Fáil ardfheis, advocating a Northern Ireland policy centred on peace. It was a timely and wise intervention.
In 1976 he and Philip McDermott founded Poolbeg Press, which published work by established writers, as well as writers whose stories first appeared in New Irish Writing.
The writer Anne Enright 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.”
Marcus’s second novel, A Land Not Theirs, was published 32 years after his first. Described by one critic as “a whale of a book”, it was set in Cork’s Jewish community at the height of the Black and Tan horror. A Land in Flames, set in Kerry during the War of Independence, followed in 1988. Both were well-crafted popular successes.
His collection of short stories, Who Ever Heard of an Irish Jew? was also published in 1988.
Marcus edited more than 30 short-story anthologies, including State of the Art(1992) and Alternative Loves: Irish Gay and Lesbian Stories(1994). Two volumes of autobiography, Oughtobiography(2001) and Buried Memories(2004), were followed by Lost & Found: Collected Poems(2007).
Irish literary adviser to the international agency, Curtis Brown, he represented Claire Keegan and Jamie O’Neill among others. He was awarded the Rooney Prize in 2001 for services to Irish literature, and received an honorary degree from UCC in 2005.
He is survived by his wife Ita and their daughter Sarah.