BACK in the 1980s when poet Thomas McCarthy was living with his wife, Cathy, in the top flat at 6, Sydney Place in Cork, their morning ritual involved drinking coffee and looking at the chimney smoke from Thompson’s Bakery on MacCurtain Street.
But one morning, Cathy looked out the window and reported that there was no smoke.
“We both looked at the empty chimney and started crying,” says McCarthy. “It was the most devastating thing that such an old business, part of Cork’s fabric, would collapse.”
It was a casualty of the recession that blighted the country a few decades ago. And it was the most recent recession ignited in 2008 that inspired McCarthy’s latest collection, Pandemonium. The title of the book is taken from the name of the capital of hell in John Milton’s epic poem, ‘Paradise Lost’.
“Pandemonium was this place for all the fallen angels who would meet there and conspire against heaven. My feeling about the recent recession is that there was a sense that somebody had conspired against the nation to bring it down. But then again, perhaps 50% of those people are also the people who’ve led the nation back from the brink.”
McCarthy, who exudes wisdom and a low-key cheerfulness, says he can now see the green shoots again. “You can almost feel the vibration of life coming back into the country. It’s a lovely thing. I hope it will sustain.”
The 62-year-old Waterford-born poet, who took early retirement from the Cork city library service to concentrate on his writing, has always been politically engaged. He comes from a strong Fianna Fáil family on his mother’s side. He has been described by poet Eavan Boland as the first poet born into the Republic to write about it critically.
Remarkably, McCarthy joined Ógra Fianna Fáil at the age of just nine. “My neighbour next door in Cappoquin, John Fraher and his old friend, Ned Lonergan, the tailor, both persuaded me that it would be a patriotic thing to be in Fianna Fáil. I loved elections.”
As a young boy, he says he was very idealistic. “But by the age of 15 or 16, I was changing and had started writing poetry. (He had been obsessed with physics and science and could have been an engineer until a teacher encouraged him to write.) I think I was more a serious kind of socialist in my view of history and everything. When you join organisations in a small town, you remain with them because of personal friendships and obligations to your mother. My mother was very republican. My father (a postman) was more of an intellectual, always reading books, constantly studying but never finishing anything. Something in his idle self-absorption has definitely come to me.”
McCarthy left Fianna Fáil when he was 20. How does he feel about the party inviting former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, back into the fold in his old constituency of Dublin Central?
“Basically, why would the gobshites of the past come back? Why would they be allowed to come back? I think it would be a signal failure of Micheál Martin if he allowed that. There’s a whole generation of young people out there. There are solutions that can only come from the young. The young have to take power. They care deeply about society and the environment and social justice.”
In writing about matters political and societal, McCarthy says his poetry takes a step back from what he terms “the direct comment”.
“I think I really approach it through gardening and flowers. There’s a great old Chinese saying that to make a garden is to truly dissent from government. You make a little world through gardening. And so, a lot of my images are flowers and plants and water and the elements.”
McCarthy is appreciative of the natural world and seems to practise gratitude. He underwent a radical prostatectomy in June and is pleased to say that the latest tests look clear. Even in such grim situations, this poet can find inspiration.
“I won’t say that undergoing major surgery was a cheerful thing but I’ll always remember lying on the table in the Mercy Hospital and having such a sense of faith (in the doctors). I felt that every person around the table had done honours maths. I was almost restored to my scientific faith rather than a religious one.”
McCarthy says that in recent years, he feels he’s in danger of becoming a lapsed atheist. “I think the rages and anger I felt as a teenager and in my twenties and thirties abated. You then see the bigger perspective. There’s a sort of natural justice in the earth which is perpetual. Great religions adhere to that sense of natural justice.
“From the age of eight up to eleven, those frantic years in a boy’s life, I was a complete and absolute atheist. I only believed in physics and would read books about Einstein and Niels Bohr, the great physicist. I was fascinated with the engineering behind the world rather than its philosophical meaning. Later, because of the activity of poetry, I think life has a structure that’s really philosophical rather than anything else.”
McCarthy was saddened to hear of the death of John Montague. “He meant so much. When we were students at UCC, you felt he was always going to be there, that he was immortal. He’s one of the greatest since Yeats. He would be up there in a group with Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley.”
And where does McCarthy see himself in the hierarchy of poets? Despite writer Dennis O’Driscoll saying that McCarthy, along with Paul Muldoon, is the most important poet of his generation, the modest McCarthy says he has a “small” contribution to make. “I’m a realist. I work away in an ordinary manner, making poems and giving workshops. I left the library because I wanted to pay attention to the making of poems, to take the whole activity more seriously.”
He says his poetry has improved as a result. McCarthy has time now for all the writing — and gardening — in the world.