May 12, 2022

“What a slanderous puppy I was”

Having recently published his diaries covering the years 1974-2014, Waterford-born poet Thomas McCarthy admits that some of the diary entries are now boring to him.

“For example, what a scurrilous pup I was to think I should have been given UCC tutorship when I had only turned in one out of four essays in poor Sr Una Nelly’s class. That kind of juvenile vanity and self-esteem still annoys me. . From where I am now, I feel like I was a vain, self-obsessed youngster,” the poet says.

McCarthy is hard on himself. There is wisdom in most of his early journals which he started writing at the age of 19 while studying English at UCC. He was acutely aware of the dangerous times unfolding in Ireland in the early 1970s, culminating in the Arms Trial.

“I have to go out while I’m still young,” he wrote. But he remained in Cork, working as a librarian for the city council, from which he is now retired.

However, this postman’s son, raised in poverty, had the opportunity to pursue a university career in America. Visiting there at the age of 24, he thinks he could have stayed in the United States, embarking on a doctorate at the prestigious University of Iowa. “I would have had a college career, but that career, I think, would have been full of nostalgia and unresolved issues,” he recalls.

He adds that it was “actually more interesting to stay in Ireland at this stage, to see Ireland become an incredibly vibrant country”. McCarthy says America would have given him more of a life as a poet. “I certainly would have felt like a campus poet. But I have no regrets.” If McCarthy had stayed in the United States, he says he would not have met his soul mate, his wife Catherine Coakley, with whom he has two children.

This former member of Fianna Fáil (he was signed up to the party when he was eight years old by a neighbor of Fianna Fáil) loved working in the library. This fitted well with his literary career. He wrote the first lines of poems on disused catalog cards during tea breaks at work. He has published ten collections of poetry as well as two novels.

Uninterested in sports, McCarthy says going to Cumann meetings to try to get people appointed to various committees was almost a kind of sport. His late father, who succumbed to illness, depression and cynicism, was a strong supporter of Fianna Fáil. McCarthy now describes himself as a former party member.

Poetry, memory and celebration by Thomas McCarthy

Besides poetry and politics, McCarthy’s other great passion is gardening. As a student of John Montague and Sean Lucy at UCC, his weekends were spent in the Victorian garden of Glenshelane House in West Waterford which he replanted for its owner, Brigadier Denis FitzGerald. In fact, he started working in this garden when he was eleven years old. This exposed him to the Anglo-Irish world. He has become a good friend of Brigadier, as he refers to FitzGerald.

“I became very close to people like Molly Keane and Patricia Cockburn [writer and wife of journalist Claud Cockburn]. Patricia was an incredible and very meticulous gardener and a very deep soul.”

Keane, who wrote the Big House novels and also used the pen name, MJ Farrell, championed McCarthy early in his career. McCarthy writes that he is sympathetic to the Protestant point of view, a position that could make him an unlikely bedfellow with the soldiers of fate. “I started the diary to try to make sense of knowing these different worlds and different people. The only way to understand this was to write it down.”

McCarthy’s new book has had libelous material edited out of it. But that doesn’t mean it’s a boring read. For example, is hugely entertaining about Montague’s jealousy of Seamus Heaney. Is there a poet he considers his competitor?

“We grew up with a great generation of Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and to some extent Brendan Kennelly. They were all titans who roamed the jungle of Irish poetry. We were like their damaged children.; myself, Gerry Murphy, Theo Dorgan, Sean Dunne, Greg Delanty. Sure, we tore each other off at festivals and readings. But we get along a lot better than the older generation.

  • Poetry, Memory and The Party by Thomas McCarthy is published by Gallery Press at €17.50