The write stuff – An Irishman’s Diary on Anthony Cronin

  Anthony Cronin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Anthony Cronin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


From an early age, writers had a special mystique for me. In the present era of social media it may be different, because everyone can be his or her own self-published author. But in our house we didn’t even have a television until I was 16 years old (for fear it might distract from homework) and “wireless” meant radio in those days. Books were there to be devoured and I used to take them out of the children’s section of Rathmines library and read them from cover to cover overnight.

The first time I ever encountered a writer outside the pages of a book was at the Spring Show in the RDS. Only about nine years old at the time, I was busy collecting leaflets from the various stands when I overheard a woman beside me being introduced by a friend of hers as “Kate O’Brien, the writer”. I was rooted to the spot: here was a real, living author standing before me. I had never heard of, much less read, Without My Cloak or any of her other novels, but it didn’t matter: this lady in black was a writer. Needless to say, I maintained a polite but awed silence: in those days, nine-year-olds knew their place.

Later, in my student days at UCD, I had the privilege of being taught by the great poet Seamus Heaney and the distinguished novelist and playwright Thomas Kilroy as well as celebrated literary critics such as Denis Donoghue and Seamus Deane, but the first writer with whom I became personally friendly was Anthony Cronin, who sadly passed away recently.

We were both natives of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, who had ended up living in Dublin and that was where we made our acquaintance. The year was 1976, it was the 60th anniversary of the Easter Rising, but the Government and the establishment were taking a muted approach to this seminal event. It’s hard to believe when you consider the epic range of commemorations for the centenary.

The Government’s position was understandable up to a point because all hell had broken loose in the North. At the same time, 1916 is part of what we are and you can’t erase history by ignoring it. A number of people, myself included, organised a seminar to commemorate the events of Easter Week and assess the legacy of Pearse and Connolly.

The seminar, entitled “The Relevance of 1916”, took place in Liberty Hall and a long list of distinguished contributors included David Thornley TD; the legendary Dr Noel Browne; Irish-language activist and author Pádraig Ó Snodaigh; historian D.R. O’Connor Lysaght; SDLP politician Paddy Devlin (who anticipated today’s Brexit debate by arguing for an independent Northern Ireland with separate membership of the European Economic Community); and Anthony Cronin himself, who gave a talk under the heading “Cultural Imperialism”.

A second seminar was held at the same location the following year and Tony was also one of the contributors, along with James Connolly’s daughter, Nora Connolly O’Brien, who said her father would have been very disappointed with the lack of social justice in modern Ireland and, interestingly, the decline of the Irish language.

Around that time also, I began working in The Irish Times and used to bump into Tony on a regular basis when he dropped off his weekly “Viewpoint” column for the Arts page, or maybe our paths would cross in the snug of Bowe’s pub across the street. He gave me a few tips on writing style and generally encouraged my journalistic ambitions.

Anthony Cronin was a man of the left and, although not identified with any particular ideological current, he was on the list of speakers at a meeting to mark the centenary of Leon Trotsky’s birth, organised by People’s Democracy at Trinity College Dublin in December 1979, along with Pierre Frank, one-time secretary to the Russian revolutionary leader; Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey; and Michael Farrell.

Shortly afterwards he took up a position as cultural and artistic adviser to incoming taoiseach Charles J Haughey. Tony referred once to Haughey’s “inchoate radicalism” but the Fianna Fáil leader had very little in common with Trotsky. Nevertheless, in cooperation with Haughey and his successor, Garret FitzGerald, Tony had a key role in the setting-up of Aosdána by the Arts Council in 1981, to provide financial support and recognition for writers and artists, as well as the establishment of the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Heritage Council.

In Ranelagh, close to where he spent his final years, you will find Anthony Cronin Lane. It was a nice gesture, but hopefully we can do more to honour a life well lived: a bridge or a major street.

I can picture him smiling merrily at the thought, but he deserves no less.