The title of his latest collection of poems, Farmers Cross, is a metaphorical anecdote for that turning point in his life, he says, where things could have been so different.
The country that O’Donoghue refers to in latest collection is dead and gone: a land of gated fields, country lanes, and subsistence agriculture. He wouldn’t be the first to write about such a place. The Ireland — or the vision of Ireland at least — that Yeats, Heaney, or Joyce construct, so often, is half way between a place that’s real and the wanderings of the imagination.
Making that pilgrimage back in memory is the important part of the discovery says O’Donoghue.
“Well, the place I write about, it’s fictional and real, and I tend to be locating things in memory. But it’s also very real at the same time. You write about the places and things you know best really, and maybe they kind of come to sharpen your relief when you are at a distance from them.
“There is a very idyllic history to this time, but there also was great poverty in the 1950s that I grew up in, with the economic war and so on. You could say it was almost like a world without money.”
Being branded the writer in exile is inevitable for O’Donoghue, who says he is fine with that, simultaneously distancing himself slightly from the sentimentality agenda that might come with this sense of a nostalgic national identity crises.
“The world I grew up in is now changed and gone. In that way I suppose it’s kind of sentimental in its attachment to it. I don’t know if it is particularly producing me.
“I don’t feel a direct first person connection with it in that way. I think it’s just something I observe and that I’m really outside of the poems.”
Placing himself at the centre of his poetry is not an idiosyncratic trait in O’Donoghue’s style of verse. More often than not, the subject matter of his poems are in a third person narrative, where characters from his past make appearances.
Sometimes that comes in the form of local characters, such as: Jimmy the clerk, Jer Mac, or Jack Sweeney, all of whom have a tale to tell that survives from the old agrarian world of Cullen, where O’Donoghue grew up.
In Farmers Cross and Father Christmas, O’Donoghue gives us a little snapshot of his personal and family life, being very careful not to diverge into what he calls “confessional poetry”, for which he says he has little time.
“I think this collection is probably a little bit more self-centred than the previous books I’ve brought out, but I’m very cautious about confessional poetry. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but I feel a little bit uneasy about people who are writing poems in the public realm, sort of making their own life experience the centre of importance.
“Public events are so much more important than individual lives. So when people say they write for themselves, I’m very much resistant to that idea.
“Some of the greatest poems ever written are about people’s private lives, but at the same time they have to be about important things — it’s like Kavanagh said — we have lived in important places, and he is saying it half humorously. But I think you have to make a grand claim for your subject as a poet. If it’s just your own life and your family you’re writing about, I don’t think that’s enough, it has to have something to support it.”
As well as writing about a bygone era of his childhood, O’Donoghue also uses the medieval era of literature as an influence on his poetry. The poem The Wanderer is a loose translation of an old English poem that is more than a thousand years old, while in the poems Amicitia and Casella, the ghost of Dante is present in the verse.
The influence of Dante has its roots in a religious sensibility, as well as a literary one, says O’Donoghue, who admits to being deeply sympathetic to the cause of Catholicism.
“Of course Dante is the greatest of the medieval writers in the European tradition, but also it’s the fact that he is the greatest writer of the Catholic tradition as well, so this was a familiar world I knew growing up in Catholic Ireland, Dante was kind of familiar subject and material really.”
With religious belief in literature, often too comes a sense of morality, and O’Donoghue is not shy to confess that his poems do elevate to the moral high ground at times, and are often intent on shaping some sort of moral authority.
“I think my poetry is kind of moral stuff. Using these figures of the past as examples I try to talk about the contemporary world. The weakness, however, that the poems are liable to, is in the moralising that they undertake. They’re inclined to wag the finger a bit. I wouldn’t say moralising exactly, but that notion of the orderly and well behaved view of the world.”
Having just retired from his teaching post — as a lecturer in Medieval English at Oxford — O’Donoghue says he doesn’t think he will now dedicate his time to writing full time. He admits to writing very little, in fact. Outside of writing he is heavily involved as an activist for the English Labour party, and believes Tony Blair did some great things socially for the people in Britain, despite “the disaster that was the Iraq war”.
Before we part, I ask him does it bother him that there are very few people that actually celebrate the cause of poetry, or that few follow it in such high numbers, as say the novel. If poetry had a bigger following, you sense O’Donoghue might not be as interested in it.
“When you’re writing poems, you’re almost talking to yourself. You don’t have a strong sense of readership, so it’s always very pleasing if you have found someone who has read something you have written.”