In earlier days, the winter solstice was viewed as the turning of the year, with the noticeable lengthening of the day in early January signalling rebirth – a sign that the world was continuing to live and thrive, rather than descending into perpetual darkness. It is also, fittingly perhaps, a time of year when many elderly people give up the ghost – to use an old-fashioned expression. This winter, the extended Liberties Press family has lost three members, each of them someone who has made a mark on the country, and the world – and each of them, in their different ways, a fine writer to boot.
John Montague was the finest poet Ireland produced in the twentieth century. He was a mentor to Seamus Heaney: as is the way of things, the pupil received all the praise and attention, while the teacher was somewhat neglected. He saw the country with an exceptionally clear eye – as only someone who left it can – and wrote perceptively and movingly of it. He never wrote a pompous line, and we will be reading his work in a hundred years’ time, when many of his contemporaries have been largely forgotten.
I had a drink with him in Dublin a couple of days before his death. Although he had recently had a minor medical procedure, he was hale and hearty, and in his usual acerbic frame of mind. He was about to receive a lifetime-achievement award. I asked him if he had a few words prepared. Four-letter ones, he replied. He refrained from this course of action, but on accepting the beautiful glass award, he complained that it didn’t look possible to drink out of it.
Several years ago, I was driving John and Elizabeth to a reading. He commented on the boscy road down which we were traveling, and noted that this was a fine word, which one seldom had opportunity to use. Whenever I see it, I think of him. John had not been in great health, and went on to remark that it would be no harm if he died while travelling the country, reading from his work. He would be happy to go out with his boots on, as he put it. We forget that the poet is a campaigner too.
On another occasion, we were having lunch, when a faraway look came over him. He had been pondering the fact that the skills that one generation prized most highly – ploughing a straight furrow, in his case – were not only quickly forgotten by the next, but often became obsolete in short order. His memoir The Pear Is Ripe is one of the most entertaining literary memoirs you will read. Let’s be honest, many of them are pretentious, self-aggrandising nonsense. There’s nothing worse. He was astute – and kind – enough to dedicate his selected short stories, A Ball of Fire, to ‘Tim O’Keeffe, an exemplar to all gallant publishers’. (Tim – no relation – was the publisher of, among others, the great Dylan Thomas – a posting which kept him on his toes, by all accounts. I am reminded of a film director who made a short with Peter O’Toole – playing Queen Elizabeth, wielding a blunderbuss. O’Toole arrived on the train for the day’s filming drunk as a lord. The director was caught in the horns of a dilemma: if the great man got any drunker, he would, like any lover, be unable to perform; on the other hand, if he sobered up, the day would become a misery for everyone involved. The solution was to keep O’Toole ‘topped up’ with just enough alcohol to retain his merry state – without pushing him over the edge. The approach clearly worked: the resulting film was a fine, bewildering romp. O’Toole looked great in his enormous, flouncy dress.)
John once read with the very finest modern poet of them all, William Carlos Williams, in an American university. Williams, who was elderly, had had a stroke, and was difficult to understand. He threw his arm around John, and exclaimed, in a garbled but heartfelt way: 'Poet! Poet!'
Leland Bardwell was another member of the literary community who will be sorely missed. She recounted how, at school, there was a dull grumbling whenever the latest prize-winner in English was announced: Leland again. She certainly suffered for her art: a Dutch-Irish woman (she rejected the tag ‘Anglo-Irish’) from a prosperous background, she lived for years in what we would now describe as social housing. Leland was a heavy smoker throughout her life; indeed, smoking featured in many of her books, as a release, and an act of rebellion. It does not seem to have shortened her life. (My father-in-law, still going strong well into his eighties, and a heavy smoker, went for a checkup to his GP recently. When he asked whether he should give up smoking, the doctor told him he was in excellent health and should probably just keep doing whatever he was doing: he was clearly on the right track.)
Like The Pear Is Ripe, with which it has a few things in common, her memoir, A Restless Life, with its photograph of a shy but confident little girl, resplendent in a fine hat, on the front, is a superb piece of work. Leland wrote in a clear, unflinching manner, but took great pains, during the editorial process, to excise any material that might have caused offence or upset to those about whom she was writing. The lead-up to the launch was fairly torrid – Leland was not the easiest of people to work with – and I remember the friend of hers who launched the book exclaiming loudly, from the pulpit as it were, that publishers were only interested in sex. Nonetheless, the evening was a triumph, and Leland seemed to enjoy herself greatly. I am honoured to have published her autobiographical novel, Girl on a Bicycle, a small masterpiece, as well. I received a call just a few weeks ago from a man looking to acquire the rights to turn that book into a film: all those years on, hopes of the grand triumph spring eternal!
Last but not least, as they say, is Professor Risteárd Mulcahy. Risteárd was advocating robust personal health well before it was fashionable to do so. He clearly revered the memory of his father, General Richard Mulcahy, the head of the Free State forces. Years after the turmoil of the civil war, Mulcahy was Minister for Education. During a visit to Scandinavia, he was being shown around a school, including the school psychologist’s office. On being asked how many educational psychologists there were in Ireland, Mulcahy replied: ‘Do you know, I don’t think we have any.’ Richard Mulcahy helped build Ireland as an independent nation, and Risteárd certainly inherited this public-service ethos. We had long conversations about what he regarded as the corruption of the commercial world – the business of publishing and bookselling, in my case – and about the direction in which the country was traveling – a direction of which he did not entirely approve. After a visit to the Beacon Hospital, he remarked that if this was the future of health care, we may as well give up doing anything else, as there would be no money left!
I published a string of his books: Improving with Age, My Father the General, Memoirs of a Medical Maverick, Is the Health Service for Healing? and his last book, a provocative pamphlet-style publication entitled On the Survival of Humanity. Above all, he was an independent thinker who would not be cowed. He had a fine library, and kept a reading diary, with notes on every book he read. I admired his decision not to receive treatment for the cancer with which he was diagnosed – on the basis, presumably, that at that stage the cure would inevitably be worse than the disease itself. His funeral demonstrated the great love with which he was surrounded throughout his life, by his large extended family and many friends – among whose number I am honoured to count myself.
Death is a strange animal. One day you’re having a chat with a good friend; the next, he’s gone, never to return. While I am sorry that I will never see any of these three people again, and I realise that those closest to them are heartbroken, I find it difficult to mourn their passing. For one, each of them had had a good run of life (‘a good innings’, as my English grandmother used to say), and could not really complain on that score. For another, their lives, and the conversations we shared, are completely fresh in my memory. It’s just that, the next time I think to contact them, to discuss a new project, perhaps, they won’t be there to take the call.