In memory of MacNeice

 

Louis MacNeice - poet, classicist, broadcaster and lover of women - had a complicated relationship with his native country, writes Mary Russell, in advance of the centenary of his birth

Right outside the railway station, the dilapidated Queen Victoria pub has long since been boarded up. Walk on down Victoria Road, across Albert Road, past a house with a Union flag flying from it, the red hand of Ulster at its centre. Continue past the Masonic Centre, though no need to pause at St Nicholas Church of Ireland, home eternal to the Chichester family: its doors are locked.

At the harbour, seagulls swoop from the sky, the grey castle looms over the waters of Belfast Lough, and the bakery sells fruit pastries gleaming with a glutinous covering of yellow syrup. This is Carrickfergus, once described as the most Protestant town in Ireland.

It was to here that Louis MacNeice - poet, classicist, broadcaster and lover of women - often turned when seeking to understand the country of his birth.

BORN IN BELFAST on September 12th, 1907, MacNeice was brought to Carrickfergus a few months later by his mother, Lily, and his clergyman father, John, when the latter was appointed rector there. The appointment was opposed by many in Carrickfergus, peopled as it was by staunch unionists, some of whom ran the local Temperance Society tea rooms for those tempted to stray from the path of sobriety. For MacNeice and his sister and brother, however, it was home.

The little boats beneath the Norman

castle,

The pier shining with lumps of crystal

salt;

The Scotch Quarter was a line of

residential houses

But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the

blind and halt. ( Carrickfergus)

MacNeice's childhood was marked by the usual signposts. Some denoted happiness:

In my childhood trees were green

And there was plenty to be seen.

Others indicated sadness:

My mother wore a yellow dress;

Gentle, gently, gentleness. ( Autobiography)

Lily's death, when MacNeice was six, followed an illness that was both physical and mental, and threw a shroud of darkness over his soul, which his poetry repeatedly brought into focus:

When I was five the black dreams came;

Nothing after was quite the same.

Twenty-seven years on, he wrote of the last time he saw his mother - on the day on which she was taken away to a nursing home, never to return. He had watched her "walking down the bottom path of the garden, the path under the hedge that was always in shadow, talking [to his sister] and weeping".

Four years later, he was sent away to boarding school, to Sherborne, in Dorset. By then, his father was remarried to Bea Greer, scion of a local, prosperous family. When John MacNeice was finally appointed Bishop of Down, Dromore and Connor, the family had already left Carrickfergus, but on the bishop's death, his wife returned to settle there and it was with her, of whom he had become fond, that MacNeice usually stayed.

But Carrickfergus was not Louis MacNeice's soul home. That lay in a mystical place far west of a Belfast dominated by polarised politics and the shipbuilding industry. One of 10 children, John MacNeice had been born on Omey Island, across the sands from Clifden, where his father ran the Irish Church Mission School, in which children of both traditions were taught but that had as its aim the conversion of Catholic children. However, this was Ireland, and when eventually a row developed between the Mission School teacher and the local priest, insults were exchanged, the constabulary called, and the MacNeice family driven from the island.

OMEY IS INDEED a special place, cherished by those who know it, and to Louis MacNeice it represented his spiritual haven, his fatherland, the place from which he lived all his life in exile, existing always in the shadow of an inherited religion:

I was the rector's son, born to the

Anglican order,

Banned for ever from the candles of the

Irish poor. ( Carrickfergus)

After Sherborne came Marlborough College and then Merton College, Oxford. A photo taken at the time shows him leaning against a pillar, long scarf worn carelessly, hands in trousers pockets, face in profile doing Oxford languid to the manner born. His close friend was WH Auden, and time was spent pleasantly enough, boating on the Cherwell, attending readings of Shelley's poetry by candlelight and falling in love. The object of his attentions was Mary Ezra. MacNeice snr was appalled for a number of reasons, one of which was that she was Jewish. When the pair finally married - in the registry office attached to Oxford Town Hall - neither set of parents attended.

Still, life was good. Merton awarded him a double first in Classics. He found a lecturing job at the University of Birmingham, published a book of poetry and fathered a son, Daniel. Yet, while Dan was still a baby, Mary left both father and son to run off to London with another man, who she subsequently married.

MacNeice found a nurse to look after Daniel and, soon recovering, went doing the things he liked and did best - falling in love and writing poetry. Much of his writing focused on examining his complex relationship with Ireland:

Torn before birth from where my fathers

dwelt,

Schooled from the age of ten to a foreign

voice . ( Autumn Journal)

A SON OF Ulster, his father an Anglican clergyman who supported Home Rule, MacNeice found it hard to sit down at an Irish table, for which no place seemed to have been laid for him. He was coldly critical of the intransigence of the unionists and scornful of what he saw as the outdated dreams of the nationalists:

The bombs in the turnip sack, the sniper

from the roof,

Griffith, Connolly, Collins, where have

they brought us?

Ourselves alone! Let the round tower

stand aloof

In a world of bursting mortar!

Let the school-children fumble their

sums

In a half-dead language . . . ( Autumn Sequel)

And above all, he denounced Ireland's policy of neutrality in the second World War:

Look into your heart, you will find a

county Sligo.

A Knocknarea with for a navel a cairn of

stones,

You will find the shadow and sheen of a

moleskin mountain

And a litter of chronicles and bones.

But then look eastward from your heart.

There bulks

A continent, close, dark, as an archetypal

sin,

While to the west off your own shores

the mackerel

Are fat - on the flesh of your kin. ( Neutrality)

Although Trinity College Dublin rejected him as a candidate for the Chair of English and the Abbey Theatre accepted his play Blacklegs and then failed to put it on, he felt comfortable in Dublin, perhaps because, as Edna Longley points out in her book on MacNeice, the city represented some of the contradictions he himself felt: "She is not an Irish town / And she is not English".

His marriage to singer Hedli Anderson lasted 17 years, but ended in 1959 when he formed a last and lasting relationship with acclaimed radio actor Mary Wimbush.

In 1941, he had joined the BBC features department, which was then in its heyday - it was while working on Persons from Porlock, which involved going underground to make a recording, that he caught a chill. The chill turned to pneumonia and five days later he died, aged 55. To those who loved radio and poetry, his death was a loss immeasurable. Asked once where he lived, he replied: "I have a foot in both graves."