Bringing poetry to the people with Ulick's Words Alone

Among the large, gothic-style Victorian houses that line a small park tucked away amid the red-brick streets between Rathmines and Rathgar, stands the house Ulick O’Connor has lived in all his life.

On a sunny, mild winter day, he answers the door carrying a two-bar heater and an apology for the slight delay. His secretary has had to take the day off, he says. We pass through a hallway that brooks little modernity to a drawing room filled with books, art and the memorabilia of a life in theatre, sport, literature and law.

There is no sign of central heating — you feel O’Connor’s parents would still easily recognise their home — but the heater, a convenient solution for a bachelor, it must be said, is soon warming the high-ceilinged space, its bay windows overlooking the park, where my bicycle is against the railings. “Ah, you cycle,” he says, “good man, good man. I walk everywhere. Two hours every day. It keeps you young. It gives you more good years.”

It is an athlete’s approval. While best known as a man of letters and raconteur, O’Connor was also a fine sportsman. It’s a self-perception that remains for him; how strange it must be to be an 85-year-old former athlete.

On the mantelpiece stands a boxing trophy. Soon he is telling me of his pole-vaulting and rugby exploits too. For O’Connor, these segue seamlessly into his literary reminiscence. Samuel Beckett is remembered as a keen cricketer and a “scratch golfer”. While Patrick Kavanagh, as a sometime hack reporter, would follow O’Connor’s progress in the pole vault, for which, he tells me, he had the Irish record.

Kavanagh and Joyce are among the writers featured on O’Connor’s new collection of talks and recitals, Words Alone, a CD box set based on material originally recorded for Newstalk’s literary show The Snug. Other names include men familiar to O’Connor, such as Oliver St John Gogarty, Christy Brown and Brendan Behan, as well as those from the previous generation, such as WB Yeats, JM Synge and Oscar Wilde.

The aim of the recordings, says O’Connor, is to discuss works “in such a way that the ordinary person will take them up and develop a love of poetry which they might think is too advanced for them”. The poems, he says “are not read in a hostile fashion. I think the discovery of the beauty of poetry, something lots of people think is above them, is a wonderful thing. It’s like finding a rose opening its petals for you”.

When O’Connor recites, it is often from memory, in a high, almost Edwardian style. That orality is important to him. Poems are not merely words on a page. “I committed hundreds of poems to memory simply because I liked them and I wanted to be able to say them to myself,” he says. “People say, ‘Aren’t you marvellous’, but I’m not marvellous. Anyone can do it and once it gets into your head it’s there and you can pull it out any time. I would say to all young people, whether they want to be poets or not, but if they want to love some form of beautiful thing, learn poems and recite them to each other. You must say it out loud.”

As we talk, it is noticeable that O’Connor has outlived many that he mentions, and his age seems to have passed. But it was nonetheless a vibrant one artistically. “An interesting time to come up,” he says. “Places like Davy Byrnes were furnaces of talk. And all the poets were around.

“I knew Kavanagh and Christy as pals, as friends,” he says. “I dropped into them all the time and we liked each other. Behan I knew slightly less well, but well enough. I had a fight with him once in Davey Byrnes. Anyway, I put him down. He thought I was an 18-year-old fragile creature from Rathmines.”

Like many talented men who have stayed in Ireland, O’Connor feels there might have been an alternative life for him in the UK or the US. But his pride in Ireland and its achievements is notable, perhaps that is what kept him here. “Of the three or four renaissances in Europe, it’s one of them,” he says, referring to the turn-of-the-20th-century literary revival. “It produced enough big people, like Shaw and Yeats and Joyce. Enough to dominate literature all over the world. Just like the Italian renaissance, and the Elizabethan, and the French. They all had their times, and just when the habit was beginning to die out, we had a kick here. There’s no doubt about it, it was a renaissance. It’s amazing the number of people who won world prizes. Not just the big ones, but the small ones. People like Padraig Colum, Frank O’Connor, Kate O’Brien, they’re all over the place.”

O’Connor does have his favourites among more contemporary writers. He names Michael Hartnett and Joseph Woods as admired poets. But he is less than impressed by the understated, reticent nature of much modern verse. “They are afraid of rhythm and afraid of images,” he declares. “They don’t know what poetry’s about. They think that if they get a pain in their foot that that is a subject for poetry. And it could be if it was done right. But it’s not done right. They just say, ‘I have a pain in my foot, hey-ho’, and that’s poetry.”

O’Connor is clear on his own definition of what he calls “the crown prince” of the arts. “Poetry to me is the bringing of human feeling to life in words in such a way as a person hearing it will be able to absorb that insight. But you’ve got to have two things first of all: insight into the human condition and, secondly, the melody to contain it.”

Before I leave, we make a little tour of the house. There are more stories, more personal artefacts in the book-packed rooms. Living alone, O’Connor has few regrets, he says. “There was no trouble getting women, so I didn’t see why I should get married, the worry of it, and children and all that.” And when he says, “I could have done better,” he is quick to balance it with, “but then I got a lot of luck”. It was luck he says he might have done more with. “But there is an inherent laziness there. If I wasn’t asked I wouldn’t do it. If I was asked, I would. Strange that,” he reflects.

Typically of this personally private, public man, O’Connor selects the Abbey Theatre as his greatest disappointment. The theatre is steering close to becoming something of a running joke among Dublin’s chattering classes, but O’Connor was early out of the traps in his criticism.

He was a vocal critic of reforms the theatre underwent during its financial crisis and before. “I watched it go down and down and down,” he says. “The original company is gone. The shareholders are gone. I was a shareholder and a director. It was the greatest crime in modern Ireland. They destroyed a great creative activity, a great institution. I devoted 20 years of my life fighting for that.”

It’s a mannered tirade, but one that does hint at sincere passion. He does care about theatre, art, sport and poetry — and believes they should be celebrated. It’s a passion that has fuelled a long and creative life — and fuels it still.

* Words Alone is published by RTÉ. See shop.rte.ie

The biographer’s art

FOR Ulick O’Connor, it is impossible to tell the dancer from the dance. When he thinks of a poem, he recalls the poet. Sometimes from first-hand experience, sometimes from his magpie-minded store of anecdotes. He is, despite being also a poet and a playwright, a biographer at heart, fascinated with the personalities of writers as much as their work. He has written books on Oliver St John Gogarty and Brendan Behan, and a biography-led account of the Irish literary renaissance, The Celtic Dawn.

He explains in his book Biographers and the Art of Biography that it is the “chief art-form of the 20th century”. His theory, he says, is that the age of making things up is gone. “You can’t invent a plot nowadays. Too many extraordinary things happen, we know too much these days. Where it lies is boring into the truth, bringing out the truth and creating literature from that. And that is biography.”

The details matter for O’Connor. It matters, the way a fellow spoke or looked, or whether he was rich or poor. And, admittedly, such things do matter to the artists in question. Patrick Kavanagh could not have been the poet Kavanagh if he was as well-off as Oliver St John Gogarty. Nor could Gogarty have been the poet he was if he had Kavanagh’s outsider’s existence.

O’Connor’s Words Alone collection is true to the esteem he places on biography, and he weaves his verbal portraits of the writers involved with detailed anecdotes, sometimes putting himself into the action. His discussion of Christy Brown, for instance, begins in an unlikely place — the Trinity Ball. There, O’Connor describes how, as he was “talking to this young girl on the cobbles of that legendary square”, he was blindsided by a Trinity boxer with a punch in the jaw.

Landed in hospital the next day with a broken jaw — he says he walked home on the night — O’Connor receives a registered letter containing an ode written for the occasion, written on the spur of the news by Brown.

It’s a Johnsonian flourish, and O’Connor recites an extract with relish. It all makes for human, comfortable listening. And, if it’s not exactly fashionable, O’Connor’s bar-room raconteuring, it is certainly diverting — a path to poetry as direct in its way as critical analysis and annotated editions, and more easily traversed.

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