PERFECTION OF THE LIFE, PERFECTION OF THE ART by Val Nolan
(Poetry Ireland News, January/February 2009)
Michael O’Loughlin’s declaration that ‘Gogarty wasn’t a very good poet, really’ was an interesting way to begin the second Oliver St John Gogarty Literary Festival. While the uncomfortable silence of the assembled Gogarty Society spoke for itself, O’Loughlin is in many ways correct. Gogarty – despite the notorious protestations of WB Yeats – was a better prose writer than a poet, and even then his depiction of life in the capital is overshadowed by that of Joyce, who famously modelled the character of Buck Mulligan on Gogarty; After all, why look for Dublin in As I was Walking Down Sackville Street when you can find it readily in Ulysses?
The question of Gogarty’s worth was one which dominated this substantial three-day event in the poet’s former home, the Renvyle House Hotel in Connemara, a weekend which threw into contrast the inclusivity of the Irish literary festival vis-à-vis its closeted cousin, the academic conference.
Aside from Nicola Gordon Bowe’s outstanding slide-show on Harry Clarke – windows from whose studio Gogarty donated to the local church in Tully Cross– the most engaging presentations came from those outside the academy, proving again that the affectations of scholarship are superfluous to the informative and enjoyable delivery of knowledge. Preserving this celebratory, festival atmosphere was the approach favoured by a majority of participants during a roundtable discussion of the festival’s future.
John O’Donnell’s hilarious yet generous recollection of Gogarty’s son Noll was a case in point. O’Donnell brought Noll, a barrister and a character in his own right, to life in a manner which surpassed the merely biographical, both through O’Donnell’s easy access to Law Library legend and his own deft talent, as a poet, for impersonation. O’Loughlin too departed from the scholarly with an introduction to Gogarty’s limericks, bawdy squibs hardly meritorious of ‘serious’ academic work but which nonetheless contribute markedly to our understanding of Gogarty as a writer and a wit. One of the less prurient, echoing the ‘Nighttown’ episode in Ulysses, is:
There was a young fellow called Joyce
Who possesseth a sweet tenor voice.
He goes to the Kips
With a psalm on his lips
And biddeth the harlots rejoice.
Like any poet – indeed, like most of the speakers – Gogarty was faced with the Yeatsian dichotomy of either perfection of the life or perfection of the art, a phrase invoked repeatedly over the weekend. A surgeon, a senator and a champion athlete, Gogarty clearly chose the former, styling himself as a facilitator of poets and poetic discussion, and, continuing this tradition of facilitation, the Renvyle festival succeeded admirably in bringing both past and present literary figures together in Connemara.
Journalist Jim Carney’s meticulous dissection of Louis MacNeice’s relationship to nearby Omey Island – off which the poet’s Protestant grandfather had been run in 1879 – was complemented by a field trip to the island itself, once also home to Richard Murphy. Prevented by ill-health from attending, Murphy provided a recorded address from his home in Sri Lanka, filling the room with sonorous tones as he recalled tea with Gogarty in 1951. (Editor’s Note: the text of this talk is available in Poetry Ireland Review 96). Thus disembodied, the 81-year-old was everywhere at once, transforming a public lecture into a private conversation with each member of the audience, and one where the participants – like Murphy in Gogarty’s house – had only to ‘listen and smile’.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Gerald Dawe also looked to the past, with Ní Dhomhnaill remembering how she first encountered Gogarty through an Irish translation of his poem ‘The Ship’ – only to later realise that it had originally been written in English – and Dawe considering the 1937 libel case surrounding Sackville Street which cemented the disillusionment of both Gogarty and Samuel Beckett – called as a witness – and led to both writers departing Irish shores for good.
Ultimately though, it is not for discord but for good grace and amity that Gogarty is remembered. His poetry, minor though it may be, rolled from all tongues in the course of the weekend, just as his portraits gazed down upon those wandering the hallways. ‘It is as if he is still here with us,’ it was remarked, and surely Gogarty would have found his ease in the sumptuous meals, late-night sing-alongs and erudite-if-unpretentious company of this busy, welcoming festival, a celebration which felt more like a family gathering than a literary event.
Such camaraderie was never more apparent than when, en-route between Omey and Renvyle, the festival’s small convoy pulled-in off the road and a wellwrapped group of writers and readers gathered in a windy Connemara graveyard to read the epitaph on Gogarty’s headstone, one short stanza which confirms – at least in part – Yeats’s measure of its author as ‘one of the great lyric poets of the age’:
Our friends go with us as we go
Down the long path where Beauty wends,
Where all we love forgathers, so
Why should we fear to join our friends?
Val Nolan is this year’s recipient of the Oliver St John Gogarty Scholarship from NUI Galway.