In my first weeks, I was overtaken on the walk from the college gates by Seán Ó Ríordáin. I was thrilled to see a poet. I still think that, poetry-wise, Ó Ríordáin must be the biggest fish in a Munster jersey.
But the college was a dispiriting place. Lecture halls were overflowing, we queued endlessly in ‘The Rest’ cafeteria, and the old library was a useless place to study. I was soon disillusioned.
Luckily, there was an alternative education in the cafeterias and the city pubs. We had a lively undergraduate scene. Seán Dunne, Theo Dorgan and Thomas McCarthy were all students then.
Paul Durcan was studying archeology. And there was a brilliant generation of Irish-language poets, headed by Nuala Ní Dhomnaill and Michael Davitt.
I remember a fierce encounter, in Irish, between Davitt and Jack Lynch, one night in the dairy science theatre.
I was too timid to engage with those Irish poets myself. But I had a gregarious accomplice, Patrick Crotty, an old friend from St Colman’s. He did most of the talking, while I eavesdropped. I also got to know Gregory O’Donoghue, who, owlishly oracular, had a perch most nights in the Long Valley. We became great friends.
John Montague arrived during my second year, and brought with him news of poets elsewhere. There followed some famous poetry readings in UCC. I remember chauffeuring the elderly Hugh MacDiarmid, and his wife, Valda, around in my mother’s blue Mini. We were in a doomed search for Midleton — the whiskey, I mean, which the Scots poet said was his favourite tipple.
Robert Graves came to mesmerise a packed dairy science theatre one May evening. And we went to hear, and often share a pint, with a steady stream of lesser lights, the likes of Séamus Heaney, Michael Hartnett, Derek Mahon, and the 21-year-old Paul Muldoon.
It was a heady time, all in all. The 1960s had arrived in Cork, together with an economic spring tide. Youngsters, such as myself, had the new higher-education grant, topped up with summer jobs. Students were off all over the place, long-haired, protesting, guitar-strumming, the intrepid ones sharing sleeping bags. I made the famous trip to London in 1972, then went onto Paris. In 1976, I took flight for Canada. Somehow, I picked up a PhD there, then wound my way back, via Spain, to teach, at the invitation of Seán Lucy, for a short stint at UCC.
By then, it was the early ’80s and times had changed. A government minister, John Kelly, famously urged the educated young people of Ireland to emigrate. These were the years of the controversial referenda, and it was a sour time politically.
I lived in the Mardyke and wrote reviews for David Marcus, at the Irish Press. I think I had the favour of that wonderful editor because of his own nostalgia for the city. I also worked in a language school and saved a few quid. Then, one rain-lashed October evening in 1983, with my Canadian girlfriend and a letter from Séamus Heaney, I boarded the Slattery’s bus, in Silver Springs carpark, and threw myself at the mercy of literary London, which showed no mercy at all. There was a sign up outside the offices of Faber and Faber: ‘No More Irish Poets Wanted’. Only joking — though, in fact, the last thing anyone wanted in England, those days, was another Irish male from a rural background writing about his childhood.
I thought my career might require a sex change.
But my poems began to prosper, in the context of a workshop run first by Robert Greacen, and then by Matthew Sweeney. We met in Matthew’s flat, in Holborn, and later upstairs in the Lamb pub nearby. We had a great bunch of gifted people around the table — Jo Shapcott, the late Mike Donaghy, Ruth Padel, Don Paterson, among them. In due course, the poetry editor at Faber, Christopher Reid, invited me in for lunch — where, after some teasing small talk, to my great surprise and relief, he plucked a contract for my first book from his briefcase.