When the local feels universal for poet Bernard O'Donoghue

Cork poet Bernard O’Donoghue is on the shortlist for next week’s TS Eliot prize. He tells Colette Sheridan why, though he moved to the UK many years ago, his home area still has such a presence in his poetry.

ALTHOUGH Co Cork-born poet and retired academic Bernard O’Donoghue has lived most of his life in England, his elegiac poetry is rooted in his native Cullen in North Cork. Short-listed for the second time for the TS Eliot Award, to be announced on January 16, the quietly spoken O’Donoghue (who doesn’t think he’ll win the award) says, quite simply: “My heart is here.”

Over coffee in a Cork city hotel, O’Donoghue says he has always felt like a bit of an exile in the UK. “Not an unwelcome exile, but that has all been shaken up by Brexit. It has changed how people feel about the world and how outsiders feel about England.”

He admits that while lecturing at Magdalene College at Oxford in medieval English, he was protected from racist jibes, thanks to the civilising forces of places of learning.

However, he remembers the tension in the air around the time of the Birmingham bombings and the subsequent injustices.

O’Donoghue, whose latest collection is titled The Seasons of Cullen Church, says that the common theme running through all his poetry is his former life in rural Co Cork.

“I don’t plan it like that. That’s how it comes out.”

This is despite the fact that O’Donoghue left for Manchester in his teens and has lived in Oxford since 1965. He and his academic wife Heather (they have three grown-up children) stay in Cullen for the Easter and summer holidays, having bought an old farmhouse.

MATCH TRAGEDY

When aged 16, O’Donoghue was at a Cork-Kerry football match with his father, who dropped dead.

“A crowd gathered. People were very kind. It made a complete change in my life. At that point, I was living in Cullen, going to Pres [Presentation Brothers College in Cork city].”

O’Donoghue’s mother was English (a McNulty of Irish descent). A teacher of history, she got a job in a school in Manchester, where she had been brought up. O’Donoghue and his two older sisters settled into life there.

He says he had a happy childhood. A disadvantage for a writer, surely? “They say that, don’t they? It was a childhood marked by nature, a country upbringing. It was happy and interesting. It becomes different from a later perspective.”

A poem, ‘Sawdust’, from his new collection, is about the big top coming to O’Donoghue’s locale, but his childhood memory is tempered by a cloud descending on the circus performers. “I was brought up on a farm, but my father hated farming. My mother did all the farming and my father drove around Kerry selling insurance.”

TIMES ARE A CHANGIN’

Cullen has changed since O’Donoghue was a boy. The population of a couple of hundred in the parish and about 50 in the village is now much more comfortable. “Affluent is way too strong a word, but people are better off. There isn’t the poverty there like there was in the 1950s. We were not poor by the standards of the time. We had a car and a phone, because of my father’s work. In the ’50s, ours was the only house in the townland that had a bathroom.

“It’s completely different now, but the people are the same. There used to be ‘characters’. Sometimes, the eccentricity was a by-product of poverty, with people living in strange houses having to make do. There was an old woman, for example, who used to go around asking people for flour bags to sew together to make sheets.”

It’s all grist to the mill for a poet that has the outsider status of an observer. In ‘As if the Hare’, O’Donoghue uses the sudden appearance of a hare in the fields as a metaphor for a writer. The hare “scuffed the ground/ half-turned sideways, affecting indifference/as if what people thought meant nothing to him/as if absorbed in writing his own message/in the dust”.

O’Donoghue, though, is far from an ivory-tower dwelling self- obsessed poet. He is engaging company, keen to convey his left-wing and green politics, and is definitely not a literary snob.

Awarding Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature is something that he’s delighted about. “It’s good for poetry. All this stuff saying he’s not a real poet is so much the worse for poetry. I think he’s a terrific poet, a terrific creator. Poetry could do with him rather than the other way around”.

Asked if he likes the work of contemporary performance poets, such as Kate Tempest, O’Donoghue says: “I think she’s probably a good thing. It’s not the kind of world I’ve got to know, really. I tend to be more familiar with writing on the page. As with Dylan, it’s a good thing if poetry has that outside impact, but I’m not completely sure that that kind of poetry has as much popular implication as people claim for it. For instance, I don’t think Kate Tempest has more outreach than Philip Larkin, but it’s good that people are thinking outside the conventional boundaries in that way.”

INSPIRATIONAL TEACHER

O’Donoghue likes mathematics and the initial career plan was for him to study engineering. “But in Pres, I fell under the influence of [teacher and actor] Dan Donovan. He was a wonderful teacher and a marvellous actor. I saw him doing Macbeth in my fifth year in Pres. That got me onto books and reading.”

It wasn’t until his 30s that O’Donoghue started writing poetry. When he started working at Oxford, he says the only outside life you could have outside of teaching was joining a society. “I joined the college poetry society — and you couldn’t go to it unless you wrote a poem. I wrote mainly about North Cork and I got away with it.”

O’Donoghue has carved out a successful niche as a poet by writing lyrically about the local and making it universal. In his poem, ‘Stigma’, he writes of a farm hand that drank his earnings. In the poem, the poet interrogates himself. “Why not stay with the poverties of our present time: beggars on bridges for us to trip on/or asylum seekers loping through/ the infra-red at detention centres/on the coast of France, or drowning/in their hundreds in the Med?”

But O’Donoghue’s work, while often rooted in a particular place, has resonance far beyond Cullen.

The Seasons of Cullen Church by Bernard O’Donoghue is published by Faber & Faber. The winner of the TS Eliot prize will be announced on Monday

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