Immortalised in poetry but not by the poets

By Liam Murphy

F ew of us associate Glengormley with poetry. Seamus Heaney used one word to describe the place: bleak. Padraic Fiacc lived in Glengormley for some time but I don’t think he wrote about it. Derek Mahon lived there too and wrote a poem entitled Glengormley

‘Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man’ Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge, And grasped the principle of the watering can.’

These opening lines tell us what he thought of the residents. Derek Mahon is not well known in his home territory but an interview with Dublin poet, Paul Durcan, in the 1980s reveals the soul of the poet.

Derek Mahon was born in November 1941. His father worked in the engineering department of the shipyard. His grandfather was a boilermaker whose five daughters married five ships engineers. The Mahon family lived in a semi-detached red-brick terraced house in Salisbury Avenue in North Belfast.  In the back garden there was a coal-shed in which Mahon kept his bicycle: a coal-shed destined to enter Mahon’s poetry. The little boy felt pity for the coal in the coal shed and each time he closed the coal-shed door he felt regret, if not guilt. Why should all that glittering coal be shut away and live an imprisoned anti-social life of its own?

The front parlour was reserved for visitors. A cold, clean room: china on the sideboard; upright piano, rarely played, with sheet music in the stool and on the rack a Chopin Prelude; newspaper in the grate with a sprinkling of soot, a brass poker and tongs with claws.

When he was 17 his family moved to a bungalow in a new estate in  Glengormley near where his grandparents lived in a farmhouse and where as a boy he had played among the hens. His parents, together with his cousin Connacht’s parents, began an annual visitation to Portrush, staying in guest houses: the Portrush coastline that was to become a primary a contour in Mahon’s poetry. Having attended Skegoniel primary school he passed the 11+ and entered  the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst). Founded in 1794, its first batch of masters belonged to Wolfe Tone’s Belfast Chapter of United Irishmen, Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken.

“It was a very rough, yet intellectual sort of school with some remarkable teachers: Charlie Fay, a Quaker, was Head of Classics and taught me Latin; John Boyle, a Dubliner, taught me English, French and History.”

Mahon recalls Boyle with affection: “It was he who gave us the Irish dimension. It was he who gave us the feeling that we were Irishmen first of all. Although C of I he was a member of the old Irish Republican Labour Party headed by Harry Diamond. In the 1930s he had a flat off the Malone Road and the RUC raided it and took away a copy of The Republic – Plato’s. He talked a lot about James Connolly and the 1913 Lock-out.”

He was a choir-boy in St Peter’s on the Antrim Road and attended church on Wednesdays and twice on Saturdays. Unlike Catholic children, to whom the Bible is as unfamiliar as the Koran, Mahon was steeped in the Bible, particularly the New Testament and the Hymn-Book. As a boy of eleven, Mahon didn’t know what a Catholic was. When his playmate Sheila said she had to go someplace, he asked “Can I come too?” Sheila replied: “No, it’s only for Catholics.” The little boy wondered what class of a creature a Catholic might be. When in Cushendun he asked another girl the name of her school and she replied: “Crosssand-Passion,” he agonized as to what kind of erotic academy she attended.

Glengormley was devoid of what Mahon calls Barraka – an Arabic word meaning the holiness that household utensils acquire through age.

“The culture I grew up in was devoid of barraka. I was brought up deprived of a sense of the holiness of things. Protestantism is a rejection of barraka. The historical sources of Protestantism are rooted in a fear of disease, syphillis and plague. Cleanliness is next to Godliness or, rather, Cleanliness is Godliness.”

Catholic and Protestant children played together but, as they grew older, parents and educators separated them. At eleven all contact ceased. When Derek would say “I think I’ll go call for Sean,” a grown-up would say, “No, go and see Cecil.”

Priests were men who kidnapped little boys: stout, ruddy-faced, with hair growing out of their ears. Protestant clergymen were more like aged angel faces.

The boy’s image of the Free State was “of a pastoral land without shipyards”. Dublin was a foreign city: a hive of German spies.

He was 14 when he discovered poetry. “Yeats’s The Stolen Child – that was the first poem that really turned me on. Then Thomas’s Fern Hill, and A Hunchback in the Park.” At 17 in Fifth Form he was awarded the Forrest Reid Prize for poetry.

By 1960 when he entered TCD on a scholarship, “I had rumbled Belfast for the bigoted corrupt dump that it was and I was delighted to get out of it.” He read French and English: “I had the benefit of knowing and being taught by Con Leventhal, Owen Sheehy Skeffington and Alec Reid.”

One day in the Post Office in Suffolk Street in Dublin the old white-haired lady behind the counter said: “D’ye know you’ve the face of a saint but the pity of it is you’re probably a Protestant.” Only Catholics could be saints. It was during his TCD years that he “kicked the habit” of automatically segregating people, on sight, into Prods and Taigs. After university he travelled. He taught for a year in Belfast High School but wearied of the trappings of this part of the world. In the third verse of Glengormley he refers to loyalist decorations: “Only words hurt us now. No saint or hero, Landing at night from the conspiring seas, Brings dangerous tokens to the new era — Their sad names linger in the histories.

The unreconciled, in their metaphysical pain, Dangle from lampposts in the dawn rain.”

“When growing up, my bunch of friends would have thought of ourselves as anti-unionist because we were anti-establishment. We would have been vaguely all-Ireland republican socialists. But then, when theory turned into practice, we had to decide where we stood and I never did resolve it for myself. Marching for civil rights was terrific, but bombs and killing people? I never put a name to my own position and I still can’t, which suits me fine. From time to time you get a kick from some critic for not being sufficiently political, or for being a closet unionist or a closet republican.

“There was a time when people – much more English people than Irish – would ask, ‘Why don’t these Ulster poets come out more explicitly and say what they are for?’ But there is all this ambiguity. That is poetry. It is the other thing that is the other thing.”

Derek Mahon lived and worked in London since the late 1960s and has recently retired to Kinsale in Co Cork. It’s no surprise he didn’t return to Glengormley! Every time I see Gerry Mann expertly water his roses I think of him.

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