29 April 2021

Poetry Day Ireland and
a poem that brings me
from Cappoquin to Athens

Melina Mercouri – ‘a singer of genius, a genius of phrases, beautiful and nonchalant’ (Thomas McCarthy) … the statue of Melina Mercouri near the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Poetry Day Ireland 2021 (29 April), and – as with last year – all events are online. This year’s theme is ‘New Directions: Maps and Journeys’.

Individuals, organisations and schools are being invited to join in and celebrate online and virtually for Poetry Day Ireland. This may include organising an online event, reading a poetry book at home, writing a poem or sharing some poetic lines, and people are invited to share details and photos, using the hashtag #PoetryDayIRL .

For my choice of poem today to mark Poetry Day Ireland, I have chose ‘Athens 2005’ by the Cappoquin-born poet Thomas McCarthy, which brings together in one poem memories of my childhood and hopes for the future, and highlights this year’s theme, ‘New Directions: Maps and Journeys’.

During my ‘Road Trip’ last summer, I recalled how some of the happiest days in my childhood were spent in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, and on my grandparents’ former home and farm near Mount Melleray.

I grew up thinking of Cappoquin as a town of writers, poets and journalists, and believing it was the literary centre of West Waterford, if not of the Province of Munster. This was the home of Molly Keane, the poet Michael Cavanagh, and the birthplace of the travel writer Dervla Murphy, and the Victorian clergy in the parish included the future Bishop John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), father of poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963).

We grew up hearing of the exploits of Sir Richard Keane (1909-2010), Diplomatic Correspondent of The Irish Times, who also fought at El Alamein, captured one of Rommel’s senior generals, and helped organise allied support for the resistance and partisans in war-time Yugoslavia.

Early writers associated with Cappoquin include the Irish scholar and poet Padraig Denn (1756-1828), commemorated in a plaque on the Main Street, the poet Michael Cavanagh (1822-1900), whose statue stands in the Square opposite the Market House. Cavanagh wrote:

God guard the hearts that those grey roofs cover,
Whose fervent pulses respond to mine,
When in raptured visions I fondly hover
Leath Sli idir Eochaill is Ceapach Choinn.

No 6 Mill Street is the ancestral home of the Browne family, including Monsignor Pádraig de Brún (1899-1960), poet, classical scholar and president of UCG; and Monsignor Maurice Browne (1892-1979), for whom the family story provided the basis of The Big Sycamore (1958), under the pen name Joseph Brady. They were uncles of the poet Máire Mac an tSaoi, who married Conor Cruise O’Brien.

Belleville House was the early home of poet John Walsh and the early childhood home of the director from the era of silent movies, William Desmond Taylor. Belleville Park was the home of Molly Keane (1904-1996), author of Good Behaviour. She was married to Bobby Keane from Cappoquin House, and it is said she took her pseudonym, MJ Farrell, from the name above a shop near the Square in Cappoquin.

The poet Thomas McCarthy was born in Cappoquin in 1954. The Cappoquin he recalls in his poetry is the small town I remember from the 1950s and 1960s: the Glenshelane woodland walk; the boathouse – used for dances and plays as well as rowing; summer cricket; the railway station that closed in 1967; and the Desmond Cinema, which closed in 2005.

His novel Asya and Christine (1992), set in the Cappoquin of 1943, includes an account of a boat race on a bracing March day, involving the local rowing club and Irish Army officers who were stationed in the town.

Dennis O’Driscoll regards Thomas McCarthy and Paul Muldoon as the most important Irish poets of this generation. Eavan Boland says he is the first poet born in the Republic of Ireland to write about it critically. Politics, family, love, history and memory are the main themes of his poetry.

For Poetry Day Ireland today, I have a chosen Thomas McCarthy’s poem ‘Athens 2005.’ This poem resonates, in oh so many ways, with my wistful thoughts of being able to return to Greece later this year, following today’s decision on easing on easing some of the pandemic lockdown restrictions.

‘Melina Mercouri’s dream, her idealised place / Where a child might grow tall with European-ness’ … the Odeon or Theatre of Herodes Atticus on the southern slopes of the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

ATHENS, 2005
(for Joe Gavin)

Emblems of the Hellenic world of trade, Ionian, Olympic, a Byronic BA,
Cruise past the waiting windows; touch down, gate or disengage.

Each European driven to Ithaca, each creaking console turning to complain
Of its burden of suitcases, each with a Mediterranean assignment;

Each bag falls like an exhausted marathon runner at the gate of Athens:
The flight attendants in smart uniforms tell us to be alert and wait.

This is the Europe our fathers could never have imagined as they fled
Westward, across the ocean, leaving Queenstown and Geneva tear-stained.

Behind them as they fled entire civilisations were waking from a sleep,
An exhausted sleep of wars, a long nightmare of occupations. Europe was

Never as alert as this, not in our lifetimes nor in the lives of our fathers,
Alert with untaken journeys of pleasure, as full of its own trade

As the quaysides of Boston or the blue furnaces of Philadelphia.
I think of those journeys out of something. A flight out of Europe:

The spars creak and the sea folds and unfolds to remonstrate with time,
To show its wrists to the wind; to show its broken chains to the sky

As now the young Europeans show their passports and IDs with such
Nonchalance, and lack of interest. The whole of Europe’s on the move

Again, but this time into itself: the idle moves to the working part,
The cold North seeks the hot islands as if Greece could hold enough light

To satisfy our darkness. I’ve just said farewell to the companionship
Of the great, to Dora Bakoyannis in Athens Town Hall,

To a beloved Spyros Mercouris speaking at the Pnyx, making a promise
To support the work of poets, Spyros who brought Greek sunlight

To the Big Screen, who watched Melina become a singer of genius,
A genius of phrases, beautiful and nonchalant as a Greek cigarette –

So that we wonder what it is we are looking for
And we wonder what the fuss was about, and the budgets that wounded cities,

And wonder too as we sink into the grace and ease of an Hellenic life
Where it was our plane journeys began, what politics and foul weather

Made us board our plane of exile, this sun charter called Capital of Culture,
And I think of the Hellenic canvas of James Barry, and how it all began;

Not to mention, in passing, the Hellenic ideal of Europe in our scholars,
WB Stanford's book, the songs of Father Prout, etc., etc.,

Or whether our plane took flight much later than that; in our father’s time:
The Berlin Airlift, the harrowing films of the Holocaust and the vileness

Europe is capable of; or Melina Mercouri’s dream, her idealised place
Where a child might grow tall with European-ness, at home and in love

From the Shannon river to the Danube Volga, or Vistula; consoled
By culture for all the horrors of war and exile … Until quite suddenly

I see, clear as a glass of water from the Nagle Mountains, a ragged
Child, a little gypsy boy or a child coming home from a Talmudic lesson,

I see that child grab his one precious suitcase, a cardboard case marked ‘Europe’,
And all my hopes go with him, all the cut-stones and the sunken treasure.

The Cappoquin Thomas McCarthy recalls in his poetry is the town I remember from the 1950s and 1960s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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