SOME people have an irrational fear of lifts. In my teens, I had an irrational fear of stairs. Not stairs in general. Just one particular flight of stairs; the ones that led to several upper storeys in the old Irish Press Building on the Liffey.
At the time, I was working as a colour writer for woman’s editor Mary Kenny, whose office was pretty far up. Despite an aversion to any form of speedy physical activity I always took those steps at a run, out of fear of meeting one of two people on them.
The first was Tim Pat Coogan, who because he didn’t know me from a hole in the ground, was unlikely to accost me with malice aforethought, and who, the only times we encountered in transit, was totally courteous. However, he was the editor and a man of vigorously expressed convictions, so you felt you didn’t want to draw him on you.
The other man to be avoided was the paper’s literary editor, David Marcus. Marcus, also, didn’t know me, but I was always fearful he would find me out as a literary impersonator. Because I was self-conscious about writing fiction, the short stories I submitted for his prestigious New Irish Writing pages were sent under a false name, using my sister’s address.
The first time he accepted one of them, being assumed into heaven was minor to the happiness I experienced. The small personal note he sent, describing precisely why he loved one of the two stories offered, was even more precious than seeing the story in print, even if it carried casual dismissal of the other story. “I do not much care for it,” he said.
The next time I sent him a couple of stories, the same thing happened, with a complication. The note that accompanied the rejected story — those being the days of stamped, self-addressed envelopes - indicated that the literary editor would like to sit down and discuss short story writing with me. It was, in effect, an invitation to a tutorial from the ultimate expert, and it terrified me.
Common decency obviated the possibility of meeting him pretending to be Mary Geraghty, my pseudonym. Commonsense warned that he might have glancing-blow knowledge of Mary Kenny’s “girls” and would identify me for who I was. I wrote back thanking him and indicating I would come back to him to arrange a suitable date.
Then I went to ground, until my book editor, Kate Cruise O’Brien, one day announced that she suspected I wrote short stories and asked if any of them had been published. I provided her with cuttings of the published stories, together with a few published elsewhere, also under a pseudonym. She promptly opted to publish them. Under my own name. Furthermore, since the pre-eminent editor of New Irish Writing in the Irish Press, David Marcus, had published some of them, he should be approached by me to see if he’d give a line that could run on the cover of the book.
My heart sank. This meant that I would have to go to Marcus and confess my crime. I asked for an audience with him, explaining that I worked in a different part of the paper. Of course, he said, as if we were old friends. We should have coffee. We should? Oh, of course we should. So we had coffee and I blurted that I had effectively lied to him. He laughed and moved on to talk about the stories. It didn’t strike him to ask why I would have been afraid of him. He simply wasn’t that self-regarding.
He was a man with a mission and the mission was the short story — the Irish short story.
Conversation with him was strange, not just for me, but I suspect for all the short story writers he published and set out to meet. On the one side you had an aspiring writer, usually young, overawed by the fact of meeting the doyen of the Irish short story. On the other side, you had a man who was warm and courteous, but at the same time slightly distant. It was as if he was interested in the writers he met as if each might be the conduit to some truth he was always seeking about the genre.
When another young writer, Ita Daly, was summoned to such a meeting, the woman who was to become significant as a writer of short stories and novels was so intimidated by his reputation that when he asked her what she’d have to drink, assuming it would be a cup of coffee, she opted instead for a double Jameson. He didn’t flinch.
“He was a man of few needs and little ego,” she remembers. “He was indifferent to, or, more accurately unaware of public opinion. He had come back from London to live in Dublin, a bachelor in his mid-forties and set in his ways, knowing nobody except his brother. I think he might have remained thus, contented and solitary, if I hadn’t wandered into his life that spring morning.”
It was a strange life with which to be contented. Daly says that every evening after his official work day, he would arrive home lugging a briefcase laden with manuscripts. He would eat an evening meal as unexciting as a tin of salmon while reading the stories and poems in the briefcase and then, before bedtime, listen to music. The point about all of this monkish austerity it that it was chosen, not out of a desire to mortify the self by depriving it of indulgences, but because he didn’t need much.
What he did need or want, he went after with relentless determination. He wanted to marry Ita Daly and, despite her being almost 20 years his junior, he persuaded her to be his wife. A lapsed Cork Jew and a lapsed Leitrim Catholic married each other in a Catholic Church, although, to try not to rub his family’s nose in his “marrying out” they didn’t do the deed locally.
They went to the Vatican instead.
“This was not as strange as if might seem,” Daly points out. “Since those ays it had become commonplace for Irish couples to get married in the Vatican State were a religious ceremony suffices as a valid marriage and there are no residency requirements.”
It was a long, good marriage, chronicled in I’ll Drop you a Line, Daly’s new slim volume. But as well as evoking a relationship, the book serves as a reminder of a man who was immeasurably contributory to Irish literature, creating the first possibilities for writers who are now internationally acclaimed. A man who, as Column McCann puts it, “is the fulcrum around which so much of Irish literature has spun and, in fact, continues to spin”.
I’ll Drop You a Line by Ita Daly is published by Londubh