F. R. Higgins

1896-1941 [Frederick Robert Higgins; fam. “Fred”]; b. 24 April, nr. Foxford, Co. Mayo, son of Protestant railway engineer and strict Unionist; spent much of his childhood at Ballivor, Co. Meath, with relatives of his father; became office-boy (or clerk) in Brooks Thomas, contractor, Dublin; fnd. Irish Clerical Workers’ Union, 1913, and instantly dismissed from employment; ed. trade-union journals and Ireland’s first women’s magazine, lasting a year only [q.d.];
befriended by Yeats, who enjoyed his Rabelesian conversation; contrib. reviews to Irish Statesman from 1927; contrib. poetry to The Dial, Spectator, Atlantic Monthly and Dublin Mazagine; spoke up for Jim Gralton, the Roscommon socialist deported to America by the Fianna Fáil govt., in Rotunda Meeting, 1932; co-opted as Abbey Director 1935, later business manager; proved unable to account for Yeats’s meaning in Purgatory during press meeting at Gresham Hotel, 1938; appointed Managing Director, 1935, and ousted Frank O’Connor from the Abbey;
assisted Yeats with Cuala Press Broadsides, 1935, singing those with accompaniments; founding mbr. and secretary of Irish Academy of Letters; friendship with Austin Clarke affirmed interest in Gaelic tradition; wrote an elegy, ‘Padraic Ó Conaire, Gaelic Storyteller’ for his close friend; later employed at BBC, London; he is eulogised as Reilly in MacNeice’s “Autumn Sequel” and anathemised as the ‘essence of insincerity’ by Patrick Kavanagh (‘The Gallivanting Poet’; Irish Writing, Dec. 1947);
Higgins is a character in the London BBC in Anthony Cronin’s Life of Riley (1964); called ‘Falstaffian’ by Frank O’Connor. d. 8 Jan. Dublin, and bur. Laracor; papers held in National Library of Ireland; there is a protrait by Sean O’Sullivan in the National Gallery of Ireland. DIB DIW DIH DIL HAM OCIL FDA

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  • Island Blood (London: John Lane 1925);
  • The Dark Breed: A Book of Poems (London: Macmillan 1927), viii, 69pp.;
  • Arable Holdings (Dublin: Cuala Press 1933);
  • The Gap of Brightness (London: Macmillan 1940) [45 poems].
  • A Deuce of Jacks (Abbey 1935).
  • Foreword to Maeve Cavanagh, Soul and Clay (1917);
  • ‘An Irish Poet’, in The Arrow (Summer 1939) [memoir and appreciation of W. B. Yeats];
  • ‘Yeats and Poetic Drama in Ireland’, in The Irish Theatre: Lectures Delivered during the Abbey Theatre Festival Held in Dublin in August 1938, ed. Lennox Robinson (London: Macmillan 1939), pp.65-88;
  • Introduction to C. Breathnach, trans. Padraic Ó Conaire, Fair and Field: Travels with a Donkey (Talbot Press 1929).
  • Works of F. R. Higgins have been reissued by R. Dardis Clarke (a son of Austin Clarke) of Bridge House Press, Dublin (1991).

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  • M. J. MacManus, ‘A Bibliography of F. R. Higgins, in Dublin Magazine [n.s.], 12 (1937), pp.61-67;
  • Patrick Kavanagh, ‘The Gallivanting Poet’, in Irish Writing, 3 (Nov. 1947), pp.63-70;
  • Robert Farren, The Course of Irish Verse (London. 1948), pp.128-50;
  • Richard J, Loftus, ‘F. R. Higgins: The Gold and Honey Land’, in Nationalism in Modern Anglo-Irish Poetry (Wisconsin UP 1964) [chap.];
  • Austin Clarke, ‘Early Memories of F. R. Higgins’, in Dublin Magazine (Summer 1967), pp.68-73;
  • R. F. Garratt, Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney (Berkeley: Cal. UP 1986), pp.66-70.
See also remarks on Higgins in Samuel Beckett, ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, in Bookman 77 (Aug 1934).

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Monk Gibbon, Yeats As I Knew Him (1959), ‘Higgins, fidus Achates of Austin Clarke ... plenty of sly humour and a fair measure of adaptability..the friendship with Yeats was cemented because Yeats was able to imagine that he was managing Higgins, and Higgins was able to feel that he had retained his independence ..&c.’ ( p.169.)

Austin Clarke, ‘Early Memories of F. R. Higgins’, in Dublin Magazine (Summer 1967), pp.68-73, attributing to Higgins account of the ‘disestablished church’ and its version of the early Celtic rites his own interest in Celtic Romanesque.

Patrick Kavanagh, ‘The Gallivanting Poet’, Irish Writing, 3 (Nov. 1947): ‘Writing about F. R. Higgins is a problem - the problem of exploring a labyrinth that leads nowhere. There is also the problem of keeping oneself from accepting the fraudulent premises and invalid symbols established by the subject. / The work of F. R. Higgins is based on an illusion - on a myth in which he pretended to believe. / The myth and illusion was “Ireland”. / One must try and get some things straight about the man: / He was a Protestant. / He most desperately wanted to be what mystically, or poetically, does not exist, an “Irishman” […] all this was essence of insincerity, for sincerely means giving all oneself to one’s work, being absolutely real. For all his pleasant verse Higgins was a dabbler. It is not an easy thing being sincere; it takes courage, intelligence, and integrity. It is difficult to take seriously a man who could so consistently deceive himself.’ (Irish Writing, 3, p.62; rep. in Selected Prose of Patrick Kavanagh, ed. Antoinette Quinn, Dublin: Lilliput Press 2003, pp.193-201; quoted [in part] in Neil Corcoran, ‘Keeping the Colours New: Louis MacNeice in the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland’, in Kathleen Devine & Alan Peacock, eds., Louis MacNeice and His Influence, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1997, pp.114-32; p.122.) Note, Neil Corcoran quotes Patrick Kavanagh: ‘almost everything about Higgins needs to be put in inverted commas.’ Further, ‘If he were a really true poet he would not be always “making out and the door shut”, as the saying goes; he would have written about a Protestant church and a Protestant service [instead of a Catholic one as in “Flock Mass”] - and while it might not be as droll, it would have the merit of being sincere.' (Rep. in in Patrick Kavanagh, A Poet's Country Selected Prose, ed. Antoinette Quinn, Dublin: Lilliput Press 2003, p.193-201; p.194.)

Louis MacNeice: ‘I know [one] other poet who made his choice / To sing and die, a meticulous maker too, / To know whom too made all his friends rejoice / / In a hailfellow idyll, a ragout / Of lyricism, and gossip; Reilly came / From Connaught, and brown bogwater and blue / / Hills followed him through Dublin with the same / aura of knowing innocence, of earth / That is alchemised by light.’ (Autumn Sequel, 1954; quoted in Terence Brown, Northern Voices, 1975, p.103.)

David Cairns & Shaun Richards, Writing Ireland, colonialism, nationalism and culture (Manchester 1988), the poetry of such as Padraic Colum and FR Higgins served to consolidate the idealisation and exclusivity already established in Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland with what, in Higgins, became the often explicit expression of the racism [implicit in] all such theories of racial superiority. In his notes to his collection The Dark Breed (1927) Higgins argued that ‘The racial strength of a Gaelic aristocratic mind - with its vigorous colouring and hard emotion - is easily recognised in Irish poetry ... Like our Gaelic stock, its poetry is sun-bred ... with fire in the mind, the eyes of Gaelic poetry reflect a richness of life and the intensity of a dark people, still part of our landscape.’ These sun-bred Catholic Gaels stand against the ‘savage factions’ who beat ‘their orange drums ... in drunken fealty to the crown’. (Quoted from Richard Loftus, Nationalism in Modern Anglo-Irish Poetry, 1964.)

Benedict Kiely, Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991), in his account of a Christian-Brother called Rice [not however Edmund Rice] in the Omagh classroom: ‘Somewhere in the South of Ireland, or the Free State, a thundering and puritanical professor had made an attack on the morals of a poet, as evidenced in a new collection of the poet’s poems. The poet was F. R. Higgins. Was the collection The Dark Breed or The Gap of Brightness? I can’t recall. The professor roundly condemned passages which he considered lascivious. Lascivious, to us, sounded fine. A definite improvement on sines and cosines. Out of a book Rice read three poems. We listened hopefully but ended up little the wiser. Any evening going home from school through Fountain Lane you could hear better from some of the girls who went with the soldiers. Then in Irish and English he read out more-or-less parallel passages from Douglas Hyde’s The Love Songs of Connacht. Surely to God nobody could accuse the great scholar Douglas Hyde, who was to become the first president of the Irish Republic, of lasciviousness. So the professor was a fool, Years afterwards I met the man, not in the halls of academia but in connection with a weekly newpaper, and I realised that Rice had been right. / That day, from the defence of Fred Higgins he sailed on to his defence of Joyce, giving us his life and times and literary merit in a splendid speech: as good an introduction to the man as anything I have encountered since. It was the best trigonometry lesson I ever sat through.’ (p.74.)

Brian Fallon, The Irish Times, ‘Reassessment’ ([q.d.] 1991): ‘F. R. Higgins, his memory humiliatingly linked with the verbal exchange with Louis McNeice in a radio debate of 193[2] (Dylan Thomas remarked, in a letter to a friend, ‘and both, if you ask me, were pissed’), when Higgins asked, ‘Do the poets of your school never sing?’, and MacNeice replied, ‘Do the poets of your school never think?’ In fact McNeice thought highly of Higgins and paid affection tribute to him in Autumn Sequel, describing the burial of Thomas (called ‘Gwilym’). Higgins is remembered there as ‘Reilly’, a Connaught poet who like Thomas as Rabelesian and beer-drinking, but a ‘meticulous maker’, ‘He too had a rolling eye and a fastidious ear / He too was proud of his landscape and his birth.’ Higgins was a more sophisticated man that his favorite literary Imago as the Broth of a Bard tapping out rhythms with a blackthorn or bawling ballads in a roadside pub. Farrell notices the impact of Hyde’s Love Songs of Connacht, and how the folk revival, enjoined by the Georgian poets, lasted longer in Ireland because of special conditions, counting Ledwidge, Campbell, and Colum among the Irish Georgians. Compared to the neo-Platonic and Neitschean leanings of Yeats, he was a narrowly unintellectual poet, his great gifts being as a verbal painter and a landscapist. Essentially a regionalist, his finest poems come out of ither the Mayo seaboard or Meath and the Boyne Valley, ‘Father and Son’; ‘Th Boyne Walk’, and his best lyric, ‘The Auction’ (which Farrell calls a big house poem), ‘Jobbers in land! And so you pass / The graces by, and only yawn; / Ah, what to you this genteel grass, / This willowed, bronzed, unbrellaed lawn / As calm as when Palm Sundday shone / Through aisles of em where Stella drove / With Doctor Swift to Evensong / / While crows in each black chapter strove. / / Going, going, gone.’ Early poems include ‘The Dark Breed’ (1927); the collections are Arable Holdings (1933), The Gap of Brightness (1940). He latterly worried about becoming merely a poet of ‘atmosphere’; directorship of the Abbey took a toll on his energies and possibly hastened his death at 44 in 1941. Richard Fallis notices in The Irish Renaissance (1977) that ‘Yeat taught Higgins something about disciplining his art, while Higgins helped Yeats to catch something of the authentic voice of folksong in his later poetry’. Their collaboration produced a seried of broadsheets. [BS Scrapbook.]

Victor Price, reviewing Seán MacMahon & Jo O’Donoghue, Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable, in Times Literary Supplement (25 Feb. 2005), p.27: ‘“Father and Son” [‘Only last week, walking the hushed fields ...’) has a small but permanent niche in the pantheon of Irish literature. But then Thomas Kinsella omitted it from the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986). Such are the vagaries of fashion.’

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Tendencies in Modern Poetry - a discussion between Higgins and Louis MacNiece, NI BBC, May 1939): Higgins: ‘I am afraid, Mr. MacNeice you as an Irishman, cannot escape from your blood, nor from your blood-music that brings the racial character to mind. Irish poetry remains a creation happily, fundamentally rooted in rural civilisation, yet aware and in touch with the elementals of the future. We have seen the drift of English poetry during the past few centuries - the retreat from the field to the park, from the pavement to the macadamed street, from the human zoological garden to the cinder heap where English verse pathetically droops today. You do not wish to repudiate us for that?’ Further, ‘Present-day Irish poets are believers - heretical believers, maybe - but they have the spiritual buoyancy of a belief in something. The sort of belief I see in Ireland is a belief emanating from life, from nature, from revealed religion, and from the nation. A sort of dream that produces a sense of magic; indeed there are few signs of the awful sense of respect for words which poetry demands.’ Further,: ‘Irish poetry remains a creation happily, fundamentally rooted in rural civilization, yet aware and in touch with the elementals of the future.’ (( The Listener, 27 July 1939); quoted in Paul Muldoon, Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Verse, 1986, Introduction, p.18; cited as above in Jon Stallworthy, ‘Fathers and Sons’ [on McNeice with Mahon, Longley, and Muldoon], in Bullán, 2, 1, Summer 1995, pp.8-9; also on “The Irish Poetry Page” ed. Dagmar Müller [link]. (See McNeice, infra.)

Irish poetry: ‘[A] reflection of that ancient memory regarding the poet’s peculiar powers of dalliance with the mysterious […] a Gaelic virility where life is fury, magnificent and yet tender […] the terrors and mysteries of time.’ ‘Let us be sun bred not dreamers - but indeed drunkards with fire on the mind and in whose eyes shine the richness of life, the intensity of a dark people still part of the landscape moulding our song with sinew and bone. We indeed know that only minds begetting literature in our time have their being in the muscles of life.’ (NL MS 10, 864 [unpub. essay], quoted in Robert Garratt, Modern Irish Poetry, Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney, Gill & Macmillan 1986, p.50.)

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Seamus Deane
, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day Co. 1991), Vol. 2, selects The Dark Breed, “The Dark Breed” [775-76], “Heresy” [776], “The Fair of Maam” [776-77], “The Little Clan”, “Rain” [777], “A Sheiling of the Music” [777]; The Gap of Brightness, “Song for the Clatter-Bones”, Chinese Winter” , Father and Son” [778], “O You Among Women” [778-79]; also 722, 7223, 738; BIOG, 782 [see Life, supra].

Belfast Public Library holds Arable Holding, poems (1933); Island Blood (1925); Progress in Irish Printing (1936).

Peter Ellis Books (Cat. 2004) lists The Gap of Brightness (London: Macmillan 1940), 45 poems. 1st edn., copy presented by author to ‘My friends Dick & Hilda Hayes - with affection - From F. R. Higgins - 16:4:’40’.

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W. B. Yeats: ‘[I]n Dublin [Yeats] saw more of Higgins, whose Rabelasian conversation he enjoyed.’ (A. N. Jeffares, W B Yeats: A New Biography, 1988, p.323.) Further, ‘Yeats gave an account of Higgins opinions of the Church of Ireland, under the alias of “an Irish poet” who talks with him on a country walk, expressing his “preferences”, in the Preface to The King of the Great Clock Tower’ (A. N. Jeffares, A New Commentary to the Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1984, p.350.)

W. B. Yeats: ‘The great man had never consumed a pint of stout or even half a pint. And so he asked his friend and fellow poet, F. R. Higgins, to help him repair the flaw. Higgins toohim into Mulligan’s in Dublin’s Poolbeg Street about six o’clock on a Friday evening. / It was pay day and the dockers were building up a head of steam. “Higgins,” said Yeats, “please take me out.”’ (See Con Houlihan, ‘The Clashing of Ash’, in Magill, June 2003, p.44-45 [incidental narrative].)

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Irish Protest: Higgins joined in protest against O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars with a letter to the Irish Statesman: ‘[it is] quite evident that the main questions at issue are merely based upon a revival ofthat arrogance of the Gall, recently dormant towards the Gael.’ (Cited by Terence Brown, ‘After the Revival: The Problem of Adequacy and Genre’, in The Genres of Irish Literary Revival, ed. Ronald Schleifer, Oklahoma: Pilgrim; Dublin: Wolfhound 1980, pp.153-78, espec. p.155.)

Meeting commies?: Higgins was appointed to preside over a meeting at the Rathmines Town Hall organised by the Labour Anti-Fascist League with Peadar O'Donnell and others - and subsequently cancelled with Toller was refused entry to Ireland by De Valera's government at the behest of the German Embassy as a pro-Communist speaker (which he was not) - Higgins professing not to have known that the Irish organisers were themselves pro-Communist. (See further under A. J. Leventhal - as infra.)

Portrait: See Hilary Pyle, Estelle Solomons, Patriot Portraits (1966). See also details in A. N. Jeffares, W B Yeats, A New Biography (1988).

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