'Seán Dunne was one of the most loved people I ever knew'

Thomas McCarthy pays tribute to his late friend — poet and journalist Seán Dunne

'Seán Dunne was one of the most loved people I ever knew'

By Thomas McCarthy

Thomas McCarthy pays tribute to his late friend — poet and journalist Seán Dunne

I kept thinking of the late poet Seán Dunne as I wandered through the vibrant Book Centre in Waterford city recently. This place was one of his haunts and he was proud of it as a beacon of culture in the sunny south east.

Dunne’s Waterford was a dazzling, sunlit city of busy glass-factory workers and of secure, sun-bathing St John’s Park mothers. It was also a place of serious writers, his close friends and first supporters whose work he admired enormously, Jim Nolan, John Ennis and Liam Murphy.

Everywhere I walked with him in Waterford there seemed to be sunlight and music. Gifted with a resonant voice, he had an instinctive feel for music, both classical and popular — he loved the Vanbrugh Quartet as much as he admitted the efforts of Brendan Boyer and Val Doonican.

The sunlight and sounds of 1960s and 1970s Waterford is everywhere in his poems and memoirs. He relished the sounds made by crowds at a match in Walsh Park or the sound of children playing on bone-dry urban footpaths, the sound of the waves at Dunmore East or by the Iron Man in Tramore. All of these sounds caressed his ears and impinged upon the rhythm and style of his verse-craft.

His warmth and joyousness, his flawless memory of song lyrics, his mimicry and laughter when very young; all of these things in his nature seduced and delighted people. He was one of the most loved people I ever knew. And there was a lot to love, that gregarious instinct and, of course, a poet’s depth and darkness that revealed itself inexorably in the published poems.

There was his ability to sing Kavanagh’s ‘Raglan Road’ with all the skill of Luke Kelly, and with the same ballad-singer’s tilt of the head; there was his standing on a table in a lecture room of UCC’s old West Wing to recite more clearly, to declaim passionately, the poems of Rimbaud. There were his constant rages against injustice in Central America and his passionate support of trade unions, their purpose and history.

Like the same Luke Kelly or poet Patrick Galvin he had an instinct for the underdog and the barricades. Then, much later in what was too brief a life, there was his discovery of Mount Melleray Abbey, Thomas Merton, meditation and Dzogchen Beara; and the many different roads to silence.

When we first met at UCC he was highly suspicious of me, though I too had come from a family in a council terrace. We were both working-class imposters in a bourgeois University campus, poor kids who’d over-achieved through Donogh O’Malley’s 1967 Free Secondary Education. But he saw me as a Cappoquin culchie from a Fianna Fáil milieu and, intellectually, that was unforgivable.

But when I took him home to meet my mother who read his tea-leaves he was intrigued. My mother blessed herself when he came into the house because he looked like the Christ as revealed on the Turin Shroud; and he was as emaciated-looking as a martyr. It was a look he cultivated to great effect.

My mother loved him even more because of his surname ‘Dunne,’ a name she associated with two glamorous sisters from her own childhood in Dungarvan. My mother was no different from the bustling women who climbed into the Mobile Library van in Bishopstown, Cork, who stared at him in awe, wondering whether they should pray or flirt with him.

The city librarian, Seán Bohan, used to refer to our Mobile Service as ‘Wanderly Wagon,’ as it was staffed by myself, Seán Dunne, the actor Eamon Maguire and the great Clare musician Noel Shine. Management were never quite sure if our doors would open. Each day at work was a rollicking adventure, yet we managed on some afternoons to lend over a thousand books.

The book-cards may not have been kept in strict alphabetical order but every borrower went home roaring with laughter. That’s how it was with Seán Dunne, the day lit up in his company. After he entered journalism, and his new life at the heart of the Examiner, his work-rate became astonishing: wonderful ‘Weekend’ newspaper editing, collections of sublime poetry, irreplaceable anthologies and heart-rending memoirs and self-scrutiny.

If you haven’t looked at his work for some time go back again: read his Collected from Gallery, read The Road to Silence and dive into his immortal Cork Anthology.

Seán Dunne died in 1995 at the age of 39. Thomas McCarthy will lead a tribute to Sean at the Booze Blaas n’ Banter event on Saturday, Oct 26, at 9am at Jordan’s American Bar on Waterford’s Quayside, as part of the Imagine Arts Festival

Thomas McCarthy’s latest collection of poems, Prophecy, was published by Carcanet Press in April

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