Thomas McCarthy was born in Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, in 1954 and educated locally and at University College Cork where he was auditor of the English Literature Society.
He has published many collections of poetry, including The Lost Province, Merchant Prince and The Last Geraldine Officer. His book, Pandemonium, was short-listed for the Irish Times/Poetry Now Award.
He has won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize and the O’Shaughnessy Prize for Poetry.
He is a member of Aosdána.
Q: John McGahern once wrote that in “a world governed by the desire for total control, the writer must be the caretaker of the possible.” I wonder what you make of this literary credo? Was McGahern an important influence for you as a writer (and were there others)?
A: McGahern’s words were always carefully chosen, he distributed opinions sparingly. I admire that Heaneyesque phrase “the caretaker of the possible.” He is absolutely right, the “possible” meaning the available possibilities in any situation in life, in every crossroads of politics. The whole point of imagination is to refuse to shut down avenues, to keep options and opinions open. All kinds of tyrannies occur when we insist upon a single angle, a single possibility. Embracing uncertainty is a lifelong task of every writer – ever since I was very young I’ve avoided writers who embrace certainty. I’ve avoided such people like the plague.
When I was a teenager McGahern was a god, a beacon of light, a candle flaming in the darkness. He was a much more private person than I’d imagined; I thought of him as a great campaigning hero: he was anything but. He was difficult precisely because he was private, but I didn’t know that then. The intense reality of his The Dark and The Barracks had a profound effect on my own thinking, as an adolescent in the countryside I recognized the territory at once. It took years before that reality came into my poems, though, as I was hopelessly romantic and imaginatively spoiled when I was young.
There were so many different phases in my life when I was young: at first, Yeats and AE were important, then Dervla Murphy and Molly Keane when I got to know them as a teenager in Co. Waterford; then Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney and Richard Murphy and Seán O Ríordáin; then, when I was 21 or 22, George Seferis and Theodore Roethke. Through reading Roethke I finally understood how a poem got made.
Q: It occurs to me, reading your more personal work, that poetry doesn’t so much keep the past intact (all the intimate stuff of our lives) as record and acknowledge its slow erasure. Is this the case, in your experience (it may not be!)? I’m partly thinking of a piece like ‘A Navy Skirt’: “The shore / is littered with your former selves”, we read, and later, “Whole futures surge in to your tidied space.” The poem travels between what once seemed possible and its memory now, in a way that an actual person cannot. As a writer you seem remarkably cognizant of that space and disjunction, as well as the truth (to quote another of your poems) that “memory offers different iterations”.
A: My view of the past was fiercely influenced by the sheer number of old people I hung around with when I was very young. At first it was the Fianna Fáil elderly of the Cappoquin and Lismore Dáil Ceanntar, then it was the elderly who assembled regularly at Brigadier Denis FitzGerald’s house and garden near Cappoquin where I worked as a part-time gardener all through my College years. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once wrote in his brilliant essay on Seán O Faoláin in Maria Cross, there is a twilight zone of time which never quite belongs to the rest of history; our elders talk their memories into our memories until we become implicated somehow in what they’ve done. We become reconciled to history by actually reliving it, we are reminded of other possibilities, of how uncertain the future seemed once. Through poetry I feel certain that we can change the past in a moral way.
Q: You’ve described yourself in the past as “the penniless son of a country postman”. Can you give us a sense of how you fell into poetry (and found your voice) as a child or teenager? Were there readers or writers in your immediate circle of friends/relations? In 1977, you were awarded the Patrick Kavanagh Award (adjudicated, I believe, by Seamus Heaney that year).
A: It would be more accurate to have said “the son of a penniless country postman”. Because my father was always penniless and I was the one who was always working. From the age of nine I worked at odd jobs, lighting the school fires early in the morning, delivering milk around Cappoquin, distributing newspapers before school, then gardening from about the age of 15. I was so busy I don’t think I had time for a childhood. I could see school-friends having a childhood, playing sport, going on holidays to Tramore or Clonea – but none of that was for me. I was too busy working, making money for my mother because my father was spending his Disability Pension from the Post Office, the only family income, on endless Correspondence courses, Accountancy, Engineering, Maths, History, etc. You must understand, my father was the child in my family and we all ceaselessly worked around him and ahead of him.
There were readers and writers everywhere in Cappoquin. The poet Pádraig O Fionnúsa was my neighbour and we had endless discussions about the other poets of Cappoquin like Pádraig Denn and Michael Cavanagh. We jealously protected our poets from outsiders who’d dare to claim these poets for their parish, though we conceded that Pádraig O Milleadha was indeed from Tooraneena, not Cappoquin. My great-aunt Máire Bean Uí Bhré was a poet who had been broadcast on radio and my mother’s cousin was Nioclás Tóibín, the sean-nós singer, who we always thought of as a poet. Once I published my first poems in the school magazine at Christmas, 1969, I felt I was on the road to being a Cappoquin poet. That was a thrilling prospect. Poems in the school magazine brought me into contact with Anglo-Irish neighbours like W.E.D. Allen (an ex-Unionist MP) and Molly Keane and Dervla Murphy. Dervla became a huge presence in my life for several years after that.
Indeed, Seamus Heaney was on the Patrick Kavanagh Award committee in 1977, along with John McGahern and John Ryan, the founder-editor of Envoy magazine. It is quite possible that the Award got huge publicity that year because of Heaney’s association with it. His name was magical, even then.
Q: Are you a political poet? Or does the reading or writing of poetry in some sense offer a refuge from the world of politics (political parties and their imperatives, as well as cultural insularity and prejudice)? I ask because your poems’ depiction of modern Ireland is often less-than-flattering, and at the same time, emotionally visceral. Even a relatively recent piece like ‘Slow Food’, for example, envisions how “All of the laziness of air / In our warm temperate climate, all the anxious hands / Of young barristers at this morning’s Farmers’ Market, / All of this complete snobbery of the gut, might bear down / Upon one dying child.”
A: I’m a political poet precisely because I’ve spent my entire adult life seeking a refuge from it.
Q: Relatedly, in The Last Geraldine Officer, you write: “When the great book of Ireland is published, God willing that it won’t be in Berlin, I tell you, sir, it will show a continuous theft of the public purse, pensions, confiscations, discoveries, repossessions and plantation, Sweepstakes agents, the well-connected of the Church, you name it, you name the theft.” The long title-poem in that collection seems a protean creature, formally and in every other way: it re-imagines a complex history at a moment of conflicting allegiances in Ireland (between the two world wars), while also blending verse and prose, documentary and fiction, in all kinds of ways. How do you feel about The Last Geraldine Officer now?
A: The above quote is only one of the many angles and attitudes in that book. The book is an anthology of possible openings, all masquerading as poems. I’ve always been interested in the living ambiguity of Anglo-Irish life; the very real fact that highly educated people can love two countries and two civilizations simultaneously. The problem for the sincere Anglo-Irish is that these two ways of life have differing political interests, that historic events can force us to choose which loyalty we prioritize. Ireland survives peacefully by living with ambiguities, by not testing them – look at the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. Both treaties will fail if one side pursues its interest too aggressively. The Last Geraldine Officer was meant to embody that ambiguity, but I tried to do this by placing affections and human relationships at the heart of it.
I do think it’s possible to love two countries, even in a time of war. My invented Colonel FitzGerald does love England socially and politically, but absolutely belongs to Ireland in his heart. I still feel happy that I published that book, and I was particularly pleased with the critical response to it at the time. Seamus Heaney wrote me a lovely letter about it, a long letter; the book, or its thesis, intrigued him as an Ulster Catholic. As an Ulster Catholic he realized that he could never have written it, yet he felt that the loyalties I’d created within the poems were convincing. And the reviews were astonishing, way beyond anything a poet could have hoped for – Thomas Dillon Redshaw in The Stinging Fly, Douglas Houston in Poetry Review, Bernard O’Donoghue in The Irish Times, John McAuliffe in PN Review, Michael Cronin’s brilliant, searching review in Poetry Ireland Review, Maurice Harmon’s wisdom in Southword and even Senator Maurice Hayes in The Irish Independent. It really was the most searchingly reviewed collection I’ve ever published. But the most insightful analysis of all was in Clíona Ní Ríordáin’s essay published in a Sorbonne journal. She had used the book in one of her post-graduate seminars at the Sorbonne and she told me that scholars of Algerian families were particularly moved by the thesis of that book. They understood duality and ambiguity and the price politics makes us pay for our historical and family twilights. If ever I was to republish that book I’d take away all of Part One except the two poems ‘Molly Keane Considers Brigadier FitzGerald’ and ‘An Anglo-Irish Luncheon Party.’