2003 Winner: Thomas McCarthy of Cork


On March 13, 2003, Thomas McCarthy received the seventh annual poetry award of the Center for Irish Studies. The following citation was read on that occasion:

This March evening we take time together, away from the anxieties raised by the bellicose temper of our day and the duress of a snowy season, to honor the artistic accomplishments of the poet Thomas McCarthy and the generous ethos of his writing life. In accepting the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award, McCarthy joins Eavan Boland, John F Deane, Peter Sirr, Louis de Paor, Moya Cannon, and Frank Ormsby.  Like these  past winners of the award, McCarthy has come to hold a place central in Ireland’s flourishing literary culture. In honoring Thomas McCarthy, we recognize as well the long tradition of writing that has come from Cork City and environs, and from the South of Ireland. Removed from the scarring angers of Ulster, and standing apart both from the panting cosmopolitanism of Dublin and the ideology-haunted West, the South is another Ireland. And although the South has for decades animated and balanced Irish letters in both Irish and English, it remains an Ireland almost “hidden” from cultural view.  As surely as Seamus Heaney is the poet of the North, so Thomas McCarthy is a poet of the South.

Tonight, we commend in particular McCarthy’s sixth collection, his 1999 gathering of new and selected poems titled Mr. Dineen’s Careful Parade. By displaying McCarthy’s thoughtful treatment of those  themes that have always preoccupied poets, this retrospective collection also views telling moments in the inner life of Ireland’s South. In these poems, McCarthy evokes his Waterfoird childhood, his love for his wife and children, and the enduring presence of such larger-than-life figures as his Irish-speaking grandmother, Frank O’Connor, and even André Gide.

Woven through Mr. Dineen’s Careful Parade, however, are poems that clearly show what McCarthy’s contribution to Irish letters has been:  McCarthy has held the lens of poetry over Ireland’s real political life. From the unpromising stiff of local party plots and parish policies, Thomas McCarthy has made poems distinct in form, voice, humor—and in moral vision. The First Convention, McCarthy’s first collection of 1977, poses political themes that later culminate in The Non-Aligned Storyteller of 1984. In that book’s title poem, a provincial photographer looks back over decades of photographs and negatives only to discover that he has almost unwittingly pictured the human problem of Irish politics—the failure of moral conviction. But he makes that connection only when he remembers his wife’s words:

‘If they only had strength,’ she used to say, when
They were building anew, shedding bloody days.

McCarthy has made himself master of an unfashionable melancholy—a long sadness, one sometimes Victorian in its regrets. And that is why McCarthy’s second book The Sorrow Garden caught the mod of so many readers in 1980, the anguished year of the Hunger Strikes. An extended elegy to the lives of his mother and father, The Sorrow Garden shows forth the unseen poetry of Irish lives in the South, as in “The Poet of the Mountains,” where he writes of an elderly, Gaelic-speaking countrywoman that

            She would lie awake
and listen to the mountains for her own sake.
She would listen to the linen wind at night
As it flapped the wet clothes.

In each of his collections, McCarthy remains ever mindful of the national metonymy of local life—the parish, the village, the associations that reflect the larger story of Ireland in the twentieth century. His 1989 collection Seven Winters in Paris centers on five sad poems about trains, beginning with “The Emigration Trains, 1945,” which presents a young Irishman drawn into the working world of Britain at war: “I thought I would spend two years away / But in the end, the two became twenty.”  The last poem, “San Clemente Station, 1978,” completes McCarthy’s historical humor by recalling his own first trip through the United States, one that ends suddenly with an epiphany of adulthood.

A similarly expansive historical humor appears again in the nine parts of McCarthy’s audacious poem, “Cataloguing Twelve Fenian Novels.” Each part carries an old-fashioned Dewey Decimal number. Each part captures a moment on McCarthy’s other life as a full-time librarian in Cork City Public Library. Standing in the dusty stacks, renumbering well-worn but now disused tilters, the poet meditates on Ireland’s nineteenth-century story with sorrow, puzzlement and outrage:

Binding threads hang from this damaged book
As corpses hung, featherlike
From the unpainted gibbet in the nineteenth century.

Seven Winter in Paris caringly extends McCarthy’s range beyond the parishes of Cappoquin, where he was raised, and the heights of Montenotte, where he now lives. In the poems on this book, the mental traveler is emigré, artist, and loving tourist. Like Ireland itself, McCarthy’s allusiveness becomes European, as in “Thinking of my Father in the Musée Picasso”:

It breaks my heart to think of your failures
for you were not a bad man, just hopeless.
the lost Party, those  lethal social forces
that broke your will broke others less poor 

and as  in its companion poem, “Picasso’s “Composition au Papillon’” and the wit of its last rhyme:

In Paris, at fifty-one, you could play God
with cloth, string, a thumb-tack. Truth is 
we are all born to an artless, provincial stench.
If we are lucky, Picasso, we die French.

In McCarthy’s adventurous 1996 collection The Lost Province, the span of his poetry’s forms and techniques opens yet again, as in the sequence “Declan, Scientist,” which experiments with parody, science fiction, and a time-warp back to the Ireland of St. Patrick. In itself, this is another sterling mark of the poet. McCarthy remains vitally restless with his craft band, at the same time, confident of his themes. These  poems often come to rest on photographs and movies and allude to nation,  family, children, love—particularly so in the powerful, broadly moving lines of “November,” addressed to the poet’s wife:

The night was seed-filled,
and hot as any night in adolescence.
The deep tannin of love still holds.
Only poetry itself is ever autumnal,
wanting to drag in and store too much.

To the rewarding accomplishments of his poetry must be added McCarthy’s recently completed trilogy of novels about the Glenville family—Without PowerAsya and Christine, and the forthcoming volume Without Memory. In them, romance, melodrama, and the constant comedy of political manners all attest to McCarthy’s sometimes loving and often bitter engagement with the intimate political world of the South and de Valera’s Fianna Fáil Party.

Likewise,  the guiding memoirs and revealing essays of Gardens of Remembrance of 1998 show forth McCarthy’s old-fashioned humanist virtues—virtues everywhere under siege. His essays on other poets—like the late Seán Dunne, Eavan Boland, abed Austin Clarke—persuade us of McCarthy’s deeply held critical affections. McCarthy’s grand cause is not the South, but the cause of literature in the South. As librarian in the central library of the city of Cork, as a founder of the Triskel Arts Center there, and as editors by turns of the Cork Review and Poetry Ireland, he has served that cause well for twenty-five years. And it is no surprise that he now serves a central administrator of Cork’s preparations to become the European Community’s “Capital of Culture” in 2005.

It is in celebration of the real and reassuring presences of his poems—their sympathetic sense of history, their love of humor, their thoughtful evocations of human virtues and human frailties—that the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas now makes Thomas McCarthy the recipient of the seventh Lawrence M. O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry.