New book looks at Cork’s golden generation of poets

New book looks at Cork’s golden generation of poets
Clíona Ní Ríordáin, of the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, says Cork has a unique lack of division between ‘town and gown’.

A new book looks at the wealth of poetry talent that emerged from UCC in the 1970s. But what was special about that era, Colette Sheridan asks the author

GARDENING In The Rain was the working title of Cork-born academic, Clíona Ní Ríordáin’s new book, English Language Poets in University College Cork 1970-1980. Ní Ríordáin, professor of English at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, says that poet Thomas McCarthy used the phrase to describe the absence of attention that he and his fellow poets at UCC laboured under while taking their writing very seriously.

Now, Ní Ríordáin is focusing on the cohort of poets that attended UCC in the 1970s and are often referred to as ‘the Cork poets.’ (They’re not all actually from Cork. McCarthy is from Waterford and the late Sean Dunne also hailed from that city.) The other poets that Ní Ríordáin is writing about are Theo Dorgan, Gerry Murphy, Greg Delanty, Maurice Riordan the late Gregory O’Donoghue.

Apart from being established poets, Ní Ríordáin says she chose to write about them “because they all came to UCC thinking that they wanted to be poets”.”

All were students of John Montague and Sean Lucey at the university. These two lauded poets were hugely influential on the then budding poets who were of that generation that had grown up in the 1960s, when major events included the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. “The role of poets in the Rising and the centrality of them was brought very much to the fore. It was all happening with the Ulster poets, such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and John Montague.

“When Montague came to Cork, the whole scene was energised. The poets that emerged were under the radar for a long time. Three of them were published by Dolmen to begin with. Dolmen had great status at that stage. The poets’ collections got critical attention in the newspapers even if they didn’t get it from scholars.”

Ní Ríordáin regrets there are no women poets among the group. “If you look at the university scene in the 1970s, it was still very much a male-dominated scene. Of the women I interviewed, a lot of them were living at home or in digs as students. I think their lives were more curtailed and more focused on exams. You have someone like Catherine Phil McCarthy who was in UCC at that time. It was later on when she became a poet.

“There were a number of women who were published in journals but they didn’t emerge onto the scene. Very often, they didn’t get beyond one collection.”

While Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill was an emerging poet at the time, she was writing in Irish.

Would the band of ‘Cork poets’ have surfaced without the presence of Montague and Lucey as mentors? “I’m sure they would have emerged in their own time and space but I think Montague and Lucey brought an energy to the place. And they were important because of the example they gave. They were saying that poetry is important and that there was an apprenticeship to be carried out. The young poets learned about placing their poems in journals. Nowadays, there’s a plethora of creative writing groups and creative writing taught in Irish universities.”

The Cork poets were beneficiaries of Donogh O’Malley’s progressive approach to education. The Fianna Fáil minister for education introduced free education up to Inter Cert level and means-tested grants for university in the 1960s. The Cork poets’ concerns included a commitment to social justice. They were politically engaged and wanted to give a voice to the working class.

“There was the idea of being interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake and a desire to take full advantage of the facilities such as the library, and going to readings where ideas were exchanged with others.”

Ní Ríordáin says Cork is unique in Ireland in that there isn’t a division between ‘town and gown’ with artistic and literary activity flourishing both within UCC and in the city at large. She writes about Robert O’Donoghue (father of Gregory) who edited a literary page for the then Cork Examiner, giving coverage to the poets. Ger Fitzgibbon from the English department edited the publication of a monthly poem in the paper. And William Wall, primarily a prose writer, was involved in publishing pamphlets, that included poetry, while a student at UCC in the 1970s.

The recent generation of poets writing in the city and the Munster are writing in a more supportive environment, says Ní Ríordáin. They look set to keep up a proud tradition.

  • English Language Poets in University College Cork 1970-1980 is published by Palgrave Macmillan
  • Tomorrow, April 30, is Poetry Day Ireland

Chapter and Verse:

Gerry Murphy, born in Cork city, dropped out of UCC in the early 1970s and spent time working in London and lived in an Israeli Kibbutz. The popular poet made his living as a lifeguard and swimming pool manager in his native city before retiring some years ago to focus on his poetry.

Thomas McCarthy was born inCappoquin, Co Waterford, and worked in Cork city libraries until his retirement. The main themes of his poetry are Irish politics, love and memory. He has also written two novels.

Greg Delanty, born in Cork, is the poet-in-residence at St Michael’sCollege in Vermont. While at UCC, he edited The Quarryman and published his first poems in the Cork Examiner. Irish-born novelist, Colum McCann, also based in the US, described Delanty as the poet laureate of the contemporary Irish-in-America.

Theo Dorgan, educated at the North Monastery School in Cork and UCC, is a former director of Poetry Ireland. Based in Dublin, he was one of the editors of The Great Book of Ireland.

Maurice Riordan, born inLisgoold, Co Cork, went to Canada to pursue post-graduate studies. Now based in London, he is emeritus professor of poetry at Sheffield University, having taught at Goldsmith College and Imperial College.

Sean Dunne, from Waterford, died in 1995. As well as publishing three collections of poems, he has edited several anthologies, including The Poets of Munster (1985). He wrote a memorable account of his childhood, In My Father’s House. After working in Cork city library, he joined the Cork Examiner.

Gregory O’Donoghue, who died in 2005, published his first book, Kicking, in 1975 when he was twenty-four. He became the youngest poet to be included in the Faber Book of Irish Verse. He dropped out of post-graduate studies in Canada and moved to the UK where he worked for British Rail. He returned to Cork in the early 1990s and became poetry editor of the journal Southword.

Gerry Murphy, born in Cork city, dropped out of UCC in the early 1970s and spent time working in London and lived in an Israeli Kibbutz. The popular poet made his living as a lifeguard and swimming pool manager in his native city before retiring some years ago to focus on his poetry.


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