‘And O she was the Sunday/in every week”. Who now remembers the poet who wrote those lines used in a long-running Bord na Móna TV ad campaign? The 125th anniversary of the birth of their author, poet Austin Clarke – for many years a literary critic for this newspaper – is a timely reminder of a writer who deserves to be remembered for much else, not least taking on Church and State in his work at a time when few confronted the might of the crozier.
Clarke was born on Dublin's Manor Street on May 9th, 1896, but in old age became the poet of Templeogue where for almost 40 years he lived in Bridge House, now the location of a bridge on the Dodder named after the poet. In a number of his poems he celebrates that local river and records the changes in the area from rural to suburban in the 1950s and 1960s. In his long lifetime, Clarke saw Ireland move from being a part of the British Empire to the independent but flawed state that came in for close scrutiny in so much of his work.
In his memoir Twice Round the Black Church, he tells us he was held aloft to see Queen Victoria on her visit to Dublin. He later witnessed the Easter Rising at close range while still a student at UCD where his tutor was Douglas Hyde. After another of his tutors, Thomas MacDonagh, was executed, Clarke stepped into his lecturing role in the college but lost that job after authorities there discovered his first marriage took place in the Dublin registry office and without a religious service. He was rather cruelly lampooned in Beckett's novel, Murphy, in which he is portrayed in the form of the character Austin Ticklepenny. A meeting with Joyce in Paris was equally unpleasant when his fellow Dubliner confessed he could not read Clarke's early Celtic Twilight poems. In the memoir Clarke recalls the meeting but also lets us know he was no fan of Joyce's Chamber Music verses. What the two writers did agree on was their mutual fondness for the Capel Street area of the city.
When the American poet Robert Frost asked him what kind of verse he wrote, Clarke answered that he loaded himself with chains and tried to get out of them, to which the American replied that he couldn't have many readers.
However, Clarke certainly rattled the chains in which the Ireland of his time was tightly bound. No other writer cried out in a voice of such humanitarian rage against the prevailing injustices and hypocrisies. Long before the revelations of recent years, his poems and satires dealt with the cruelties in schools and orphanages, abuses of clerical authority, the moral issues of Catholic conscience, the plight of unmarried mothers, priestly celibacy, the bigotries of the devout, and the censorship laws. He was outspoken too about the breeding of horses for slaughter on the continent.
Apart from their poetic value, many of Clarke's later poems – when he emerged from the shadow of Yeats – are also important social documents. No wonder his poems have been described as indictments of greed, cruelty and hypocrisy in Church and State. The poet Michael Hartnett recalled his landlady saying he must be "in league with the devil" because of his attitude towards both institutions. Before the topic was the stuff of journalistic comment, his poem "Cypress Grove" lashed out at what he regarded as the new class of builder-speculator and property developer tearing through his city. In one of his most famous poems – Burial of an Irish President – he again took on the role of poet as public voice, condemning the rule that forbade Catholics from attending Protestant worship and more particularly the State's compliance. As the poem informs us, Clarke along with the French ambassador were the only Catholics to enter St Patrick's Cathedral for the funeral of Ireland's first president, Douglas Hyde.
The death by fire of 35 children in a Cavan orphanage run by the Poor Clares in the 1940s prompted one of his angriest poems, the poet hitting out at a local bishop’s response which showed more concern for the nuns than the victims: “Those children charred in Cavan/passed straight through hell to heaven”, wrote Clarke.
Poet and former UCD professor Maurice Harmon rightly called Clarke "the conscience of his time". He had many sides to him: literary rebel, documentary poet, witness to history but he was probably never better than in the imaginative scope and emotional directness of his long poem Mnemosyne Lay in Dust, a key poem of 20th-century Ireland. Written when Clarke was in his seventies, it looks back 50 years and through its narrator, Maurice Devane, reveals the trauma of Clarke's experiences in St Patrick's hospital after a mental breakdown. In his insightful study of the poem Harmon tells us that the reasons for Devane's breakdown are "sexual frustration, spiritual despair, and guilt". All of which were familiar to Clarke.
The 50th anniversary of his death is in 2024 and one idea in circulation is to create a park in his name close to the waters of the Dodder and to where he and his wife Nora lived in Templeogue. Such a gesture, an open space of light-filled air and greenery, seems a fitting memorial to a poet who devoted so much of his writing to illuminating the dark corners and dark deeds of the shackled Ireland of his time.