Ode to an honest editor

Essay: Veteran Cork-born editor David Marcus was saluted by Irish writers at the annual Irish PEN dinner in Dublin last week…

Essay:Veteran Cork-born editor David Marcus was saluted by Irish writers at the annual Irish PEN dinner in Dublin last week, during which poet, novelist and short-story writer William Wallpaid the following tribute.

On April 23rd, Cork city will honour David Marcus with a civic reception in association with the City Library World Book Fest. Last weekend the membership of PEN, writers from all over Ireland, paid tribute to him with a special award for his contribution to Irish literature. Among writers he is a figure of enormous standing and influence, an object of respect and affection, yet many readers may never have heard of him.

His name first appeared as an editor in 1946 in a periodical called Irish Writing. As a complete unknown he had already tried and failed to persuade the great writer and editor Sean O'Faoláin, then retired from The Bell, to co-edit the new publication with him. He began by writing to a select group of the most important Irish writers of the time, and, oddly, all but one agreed to submit, perhaps because they didn't actually know that he had no experience whatsoever. He still likes to quote the postcard that ended his discussion with the one who got away: It read simply: "No. G Bernard Shaw."

THE FIRST ISSUES of Irish Writing gave notice of young Marcus's future. The contents pages listed Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faoláin, James Stephens, Somerville and Ross, Mary Lavin, Liam O'Flaherty, Sean O'Casey, Myles na gCopaleen and Patrick Kavanagh. It was Edith Somerville's last contribution to a periodical, and, of course, her partner Martin Ross played her part from the spirit world.


The title, Irish Writing, was in itself a claim and a statement of intent that Marcus would make good in a long and influential editing career. Subsequently there would be other publishing ventures: Poetry Ireland, for example, and then New Irish Writing in The Irish Press, and many anthologies with the great names of Irish and English publishing: Poolbeg, Bodley Head, Quartet, Dolmen, Sceptre, Paul Elek, Phoenix, and Faber.

And along the way he graduated in law and was called to the Irish bar. He spent 13 years in London, imprisoned, as his friend Con Houlihan suggested, in the insurance business. He co-founded the Poolbeg Press. But even the first issue of Irish Writing could stand on its own as a tribute to his taste, his instinct for the zeitgeist - remarkable in a young man from the provincial city of Cork - his guts, his determination and, ultimately, his brass neck.

A list of people whose early work he published would contain most of the great names of Irish prose and poetry, but Marcus has never given service to what Italo Calvino called the fetishism of the publishing industry: rather, he looked for what was well-made in any form, what was well expressed and powerfully human and moving.

An aspect of his career that is seldom noticed is the number of women he published. At a time when, to use Hélène Cixous's term, Irish publishing was phallogocentric, Marcus was prepared to publish anything that reached his exacting standard without reference to the gender of the writer. In her thesis Mapping the Irish Female Canon, the American academic Eileen Murphy Blasius argued that Marcus's New Irish Writing page had (pardon the pun) a seminal importance in the development of women's writing in Ireland. And, indeed, Shirley Kelly, writing in Books Ireland in 2001, carried the gender angle to its ultimate conclusion when she entitled an interview with Marcus: "Midwife to a Generation of Writers."

HE HAS ALWAYS been a meticulously careful editor. In his introduction to the New Hebrew Bible, George Steiner mentions the myth that a single erroneous consonant in the transcription of the Torah opened the rift in the universe through which all suffering and injustice has made its way into the world. It is absolutely certain that if David Marcus had been the scribe, that consonant would never have got away.

Not only an editor, Marcus has chronicled the Jewish experience in Ireland in three fine novels - To Next Year in Jerusalem, A Land Not Theirs, and A Land In Flames; a collection of stories - Who Ever Heard of An Irish Jew?; and two bestselling volumes of memoir: Oughtobiography - Leaves from the Diary of a Hyphenated Jew, and Buried Memories. He is also a poet, translator and playwright.

Marcus was born in Cork in 1924, and would always regard himself as a Corkman. He lived on the Mardyke, opposite the cricket club. He attended Presentation College, where O'Faoláin, later to become a close friend, had also been a pupil. He was a handy cricketer and soccer player and a national table tennis champion. He began to learn the piano at the age of 16 and for decades played his beloved Mozart every day.

HE WAS THE grandson of Lithuanian emigrants, who came to Ireland fleeing conscription and pogrom. Louis Marcus the film-maker is his brother. His uncle was the distinguished attorney and patron of the arts Gerald Goldberg. What riches this country would have lost if, instead of showing them benign indifference or even the welcome that Cormac Ó Gráda suggests in his book Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, the powers in the land had taken the Marcus family into what we call "the asylum process", relocated them under the sinisterly named "dispersal scheme" and finally repatriated them to a burned out shtetl in what we would designate their "home country"?

The character Jonathan in To Next Year In Jerusalem says, at one point: "I feel as though my soul is perpetually in Exile. I feel as if I have no roots, no home, nothing to rely on." Gerald Goldberg speculated in the Cork Review in 1993 that Jonathan was, in some respects, David Marcus himself. And the biblical Jonathan was the son of Saul and friend of David. And both David and Jonathan smote the camp of the Philistines - something you don't see enough of any more. But Marcus the editor, Marcus the writer, friend of O'Faoláin, friend and speech writer to his old college classmate Jack Lynch - not only is it impossible to think of Irish literature without Marcus, but it might well be said that as publisher, editor and writer he has helped shape how Ireland thinks of itself.

A SCRUPULOUSLY POLITE and naturally reserved man, one of the happiest things in his life was the arrival in his postbox at the Irish Press of a story by a new young writer. As he tells it, he saw some merit in the story, but wanted to make a few suggestions. The writer agreed to meet him, and very soon they were seeing each other on a regular basis and going places together and getting on well, and one day the young writer said that they should get married and he thought it a reasonable suggestion. That young writer was Ita Daly, who would go on to publish nine books, and, incidentally, marry her editor and bring their beautiful daughter Sarah into the world.

For writers, one of the most valuable aspects of his character was his willingness to say exactly what he means about their work. I first encountered Marcus when I was about 15. At that time I was writing stories and poems, and, like every other would-be writer of the time, I was a reader of New Irish Writing. I sent him some poems and a covering letter in which I must have asked him if he could judge from the contents whether I was a poet or not, one of those pleas for affirmation to which lonely young poets are prone. The reply came back shortly afterwards. "I can't tell whether you're a poet or not, but you are certainly a romantic introspective fifteen year old."

Matthew Sweeney tells how his first note from Marcus read: "I have no time to waste on someone who has absolutely no talent whatsoever." I don't know whether it was Marcus who relented or Sweeney who mended his ways, but Marcus went on to publish many of Sweeney's poems and Sweeney, most recently, was nominated for the TS Eliot Prize for his wonderful Black Moon. Claire Keegan tells how, having won fourth prize in the Francis McManus Short Story Competition, David Marcus came looking for her with his usual question: "Have you got any more?" Claire had more.

Marcus's health has not been the best recently, and he speaks quite frankly about it in Pat Collins's fine documentary, which premiered at last year's Cork Film Festival, and which will be seen again in April in conjunction with the World Book Fest. He speaks too of his lifelong atheism, his conviction that there couldn't be a God who would allow the world to be as it is, a position not unlike Theodor Adorno's remark that after Auschwitz there can be no more poetry.

Marcus was 14 when, in 1938, he read about Kristallnacht in the Cork Examiner. "We knew what was happening," he said, meaning the Jews of Ireland. He knew his Irish history and he knew that historically Ireland had been seen as a backdoor to invading England. The Jews of Ireland, he tells us, were "quietly terrified". But David Marcus turned that uncertain status into something that is the best defence against all kinds of fascism: a creative spirit. He tells us so in a poem written at the time, called Night in a Neutral Country:

"Night falls at last

In stuttered silences,

Shadows are folded upon sleeping grass,

I peer

To catch this solemn, tender Is

And pin it to the memory that was."

This is a slightly shortened version of the tribute William Wall made to David Marcus at last week's Irish PEN event