Dennis O’Driscoll (1954-2012)

b. 1 Jan. 1954, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, son of salesman and horticulturist, with siblings Declan and Eithne; ed. Christian Brothers, Thurles (‘you’ll have to work for a living’); suffered the deaths of both parents from cancer - his mother at 50 and his father at 57 - becoming guardian of their younger children; entered Revenue Commission, a civil service dept., in 1970 [aetat. 16] - initially calculating death duties, and later on stamp duties; suffered death of parents, aetat. 20, and assumed responsibility for siblings; grad. in Law at UCD; managed Stamp Duties office and later appt. Assistant Principal Officer of the Dublin Customs Office, Castle House S. in [Dublin Castle]; later engaged in the task-force dealing with drugs and contraband during Ireland’s EU presidency; published first poem in Poetry Australia (ed. Les Murray), 1977; reviewed poetry for Hibernia and served as Poetry Editor from 1977; also in The Crane Bag in the 1970s & 1980s, with particular alertness to contemporary European writing - admiring the poets Miroslav Holub and the Pole Wislawa Szymborska for their unpretentious clarity; edited Poetry Ireland, where he was also chief reviewer, 1986-87 [Iss. 20 & 21];
poetry collections incl. The Bottom Line (1994), a long poem with various persona, written in 55 stanzas on the subject of business and bureaucracy; poetry reviews in The Irish Times and international journals incl. Hibernia (ed. Mulcahy), The Irish Times, Harvard Review, and the London Review of Books, et al.; issued Weather Permitting (1999); winner of Lannan Prize, 1999, thereafter retiring to Naas, Co. Kildare, with his wife Julie O’Callaghan (m.1985 - having first met at a Heaney reading in 1974); quotations on poetry in his ‘Pickings & Choosings’ column during his custodianship of Poetry Ireland Review were collected in Tony Curtis, ed., As the Poet Said ... (1999); issued Exemplary Damages (Oct. 2002); Anvil Press Poetry issued New and Selected Poems (2004); winner of E. M. Forster Award, April 2005;
winner of O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award (Univ. of St Thomas, Minnesota), 2006; member of Aosdána; issued an authorised series of interviews with Seamus Heaney as Stepping Stones (2008); with Endy Cope, chief guest at Dublin Writers Festival, 2012; issued Dear Life (Nov. 2012), posthumously winner of the DLR Irish Times Poetry Prize presented to his widow; died suddenly, after long illness, in Naas (Co. Kildare), 24 Dec. 2012; funeral eulogy given by Seamus Heaney acknowledging his debt for the ‘biography’ (Stepping Stones, 2008 [interviews]) - and later made the subject of Heaney’s contribution to the “My Hero” column of the Guardian (3 Jan. 2013); testimonials published by Gerard Smyth and others O’Driscoll was renownedly a tea-totaller; a second collection of his critical prose published as The Outnumbered Poet (2013) earned a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation; received Catholic funeral and described himself as a "non non-believer". OCIL

See ...
Official Dennis O’Driscoll website - online [accessed 10 Sept. 2013; available 26.06.2023];
Entry on Dennis O’Driscoll in Dictionary of Irish Biography - online [accessed 26.-06.2023]
  See also ...
  • Peter Cotter, notice on O’Driscoll at Poetry International Web - online.
  • “Remembering Dennis — Marie O’Driscoll with Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll”, ed. Gerard Beirne, in Numéro Cinq (Dec. 2015) - online [accessed 06.12.2016].

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Photo: Bloodaxe Books

Online obituaries ...
John Greening, in The Guardian (4 Jan. 2013)  

‘[...] O’Driscoll had always known he wanted to be a poet, even before he heard a school recitation of Shakespeare’s “When icicles hang by the wall” and nearly fainted. He was born in Thurles, Co Tipperary, where he was educated by the Christian Brothers. Both of his parents had died by the time he was 20 and he was left in charge of his five siblings. Unsurprisingly, mortality and work would become two of his preoccupations. He regularly drew on the jargon of business and bureaucracy, even in the titles of his slim volumes. [...] If he can sometimes seem to out-grump Philip Larkin, in person O’Driscoll was charm itself – quiet but immensely sociable – and his generosity to fellow writers was legendary. [...]’ (Available online [with photo-port.].)

[Q.auth.,] in Telegraph (14 Jan. 2013) -
‘ [...]He said of his childhood home: “We were inland people with accents as flat as the landscape.” After his early start at the Office of Revenue Commissioners, he took a degree in Law at University College, Dublin. His poetry earned early encouragement from Les Murray, and his first collection, Kist, appeared in 1982. In it he wrote with the clarity of eastern European poets – he admired the Czech Miroslav Holub and the Pole Wislawa Szymborska for their lack of pretension. Personal responses to loss are interleaved with more universal ones; in his later, more spontaneous writing he was able to combine the two with breathtaking confidence. Still, from the beginning to the end of his career, he was able to reject faith while eloquently expressing a need for it. [...]’ (Available online [with photo-port.].)
See also ...
See Seamus Heaney, ‘My hero: Dennis O’Driscoll’, in The Guardian (13 Jan. 2013) [available online]; and see also under Heaney, in Notes - supra.

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Poetry Collections
  • Kist (Mountrath: Dolmen Press 1982), 61pp. [cover ill. as front. in hb edition].
  • Hidden Extras (Dublin: Dedalus Press; London: Anvill Press Poetry 1987), [81]pp.
  • Long Story Short (London: Anvil Press 1993), 83pp.
  • The Bottom Line (Dublin: Dedalus Press 1994), 31pp.
  • Quality Time (Dublin: Anvil Press Poetry 1997), 71pp.
  • Weather Permitting (Dublin: Anvil Press Poetry1999), 88pp. [ends with childhood sequence].
  • Exemplary Damages (Dublin: Anvil Press Poetry 2002), 86pp. [incls. "Missing God"].
  • New and Selected Poems (Dublin: Anvil Press Poetry 2004), 269pp., with index of titles [ded. ‘For Patrick Lannan and Thomas Lynch / who raise the spirits’].
  • 50 O’Clock [New Garland Ser., No. 8] (Dublin: The Happy Dragons Press 2005), 18pp., ill. , woodcuts by Rigby Graham [ltd. edn. 100; prose poems].
  • Reality Check (Dublin: Anvil Press Poetry 2007), 79pp., and Do. (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press [2008), 75pp.
    [incorp. “Skywriting”, a longer poem].
  • Dear Life (Dublin: Anvil Press Poetry 2012; USA: Copper Canyon 2013), 109pp. [ninth and last; incls. "The Long Corridor" - on the Maynooth Seminary].

See also All the Living (Minnesota: Traffic Street Press 2008).

  • As the Poet Said ..., ed. Tony Curtis, selection of quotations from Dennis O’Driscoll’s “Pickings and choosings” column in Poetry Ireland Review (Dublin: Poetry Ireland/Eigse Eireann 1997), 113pp. [cover ill. by Tom Mathews].
  • Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams: Selected Prose Writings (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 2001), 320pp. [incls. account of Thomas Kinsella].
  • The Outnumbered Poet (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 2013), 472pp.
Anthologies & editions
  • ed., The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations: Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books 2006), 251pp., and Do. as Quote Poet Unquote (Copper Canyon Press 2006).
  • Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber 2008), xxxii [Intro.], 524pp. [see under Heaney for contents].
  • ed., A Michael Hamburger Reader (London: Anvil Press [forthcoming] 2013).
  • with Peter Fallon, The First Ten Years: Dublin Arts Festival Poetry (Dublin: Dublin Arts Festival 1979), 62pp., ill. [4 pls.; ports.; printed by E. & T. O’Brien Ltd, Dublin].
  • Interview with John Montague, in Irish University Review, 19, 1 (Spring 1989), c.p.60.
  • ‘Circling the Square’, prose memoir of Thurles, in Graph 2. 1 (1995).
  • two contribs. [epigrams], to Krino, ed. Gerald Dawe & Jonathan Williams [“The State of Poetry” special issue] (Winter 1993), pp.1-5, 54-55.
  • ‘Troubled Thoughts: Poetry and Politics in Contemporary Ireland’ , in The Southern Review [Baton rouge] (Summer 1995), c.p.639.
  • Dennis O’Driscoll talks with Seamus Heaney [interview], “Lannan Readings & Conversations” (Wed. 1 October 2003) [see extract].
  • review of By[r]on Rogers, The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R. S. Thomas, in The Irish Times (26 Aug. 2006), Weekend, p.13.
  • Intro. to Pat Boran, New and Selected Poems (Dublin: Dedalus Press 2007) xv, 228pp.
  • ed., A Michael Hamburger Reader (Anvil Press [2013])
Incl. in Five Irish poets, ed. David Lampe & Dennis Maloney, with an introduction by Lampe and a preface by Thomas Kinsella (Dublin: Dedalus; Fredonia NY: White Pine Press 1990), 136p. [with Padraig J. Daly, John F. Deane, Richard Kell, & Macdara Woods] - in which he was the youngest contributor by 10 years.
... et al.

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  • Peter Sirr, review of Long Short Story (Dedalus 1992), in Irish Literary Supplement (Spring 1994), p.10 [‘unillusioned honesty’].
  • Bernard O’Donoghue, review of Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams: Selected Prose Writings, in The Irish Times [Weekend] (12 Jan. 2002), p.8 [see extract].
  • Catherine Foley, ‘The Smuggled Compilation’ [interview-article], in The Irish Times (27 Nov. 2004).
  • George Szirtes, ‘The business of being’, review of New and Selected Poems, in The Guardian (7 May 2005) [see extract].
  • Bernard O’Donoghue, ‘The Guardian of poetry’, review of New and Selected Poems, in The Irish Times (8 Jan. 2005), p.13 [see extract].
  • Colin Graham, ‘Antidote to an allergy to poetry’, review Dennis O’Driscoll, Exemplary Values (Anvil), in The Irish Times (8 Jan. 2003) [see extract; with another by Justin Quinn.]
  • Honor O’Connor, ‘“While Stocks Last’: The Poetry of Dennis O’Driscoll & Contemporary Ireland’, in Global Ireland: Irish Literatures for the New Millenium, ed. Ondrej Pilny & Clare Wallace [IASIL Conference 2004] (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia 2005), pp.98-106 [see extract].
  • Eugene O’Connell, interview with Denis O’Driscoll, in Cork Literary Review (2009), q.pp.
  • Fran Brearton, review of Dear Life, in The Guardian (29 June 2012), q.pp. [see extract].
  • [...]

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See ‘Dennis O’Driscoll’ by Patrick Maume - in Dictionary of Irish Biography - online [accessed 26.-06.2023]

David Wheatley, “Unpacking a Library” - i.m. D. O’D.

Posted on Facebook by the writer on the anniversary of his hearing the news of the death of Denis O’Driscoll

Someone today will
not be writing soon-to-be
cancelled cheques, eating
a last sandwich, or circling
posthumous calendar dates -

time unfillably
idling instead in your wake
in a rented house
and not one book of yours to
hand, not a borrowed word in

explanation of
death catching your eye. Today
for the living will
not mean a last look at the
world or weather forecasts for

their own funerals
but survival’s non-event,
mute spirit haunting
an empty cage, unspoken
for in so much voicelessness;

until, dark-garbed, two
removers come to the door
bearing load after
load of - steady there - M, N,
O’Callaghan, Conor, O’

Callaghan, Julie,
O’Driscoll, Ciaran and - ah,
so there you are then -
O’Driscoll, Dennis, lifted
carefully free of the box.

—David Wheatley on Facebook, 26.12.2007

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Katie Donovan, ‘Revelations of a Dogged Isolationist’, interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, recipient of Lannan Award, in The Irish Times (22 Jan. 2000), Weekend, p.11. Holds post as assistant principal in International Customs, S. Gt. George’s St.; has chosen not to go for promotion since early 1980s; on The Bottom Line (1994): ‘When I was writing it I was specialising in company reorganisation and amalgamation and had lots of delaings with financial controllers and corporate lawyers. We spoke a creative language, with new words being invented and abandoned all the time. In the folds of that language were hurts and vulnerabilities, just as in the office there are dramas of ambition, disappointment, romance and infidelity’ ; his ideal to arrive at ‘a detached, impersonal perception. Revelatoin is ultimately objectification. I detest the word “I” and it galls me that the only two capitalised words in the language are “I” and “God”; read Beckett after seeing performance of Waiting for Godot at Muintir na Tire aged 15; assumed that Beckett was little known because the play was poorly attended and wrote a letter of encouragement, the year before Beckett received the Nobel Prize; recurrent theme of the absurd injustice of physical pain and death has grown out of witnessing premature deaths of his parents in their fifties; ‘I’m a dogged isolationish, secretive and furtive about my poetry. When I went to UCD I studied law and chose not to study English as an extra subject. I did not enter for the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award nor have I been to Annaghmakerrig or attended a creative writing workshop. My style is unorthodox and I don’t want to be discouraged from that.’ His first poetry reviews published in Hibernia at 23; met his wife at a Heaney poetry reading; interviewed numerous poets for Poetry Ireland and believes that there is only a short period in a small literary community that you can review poetry with the detachment it requires’; Irish poetry suffers because publications employ Irish poets to review Irish poetry; believes that the status of Northern poets is partly due to critical spokespersons’ (Edna Longley, Michael Allen, Claire Wills, Tim Kendall) and that there is no equivalent the South: ‘We have fine critics such as Terence Brown and Declan Kiberd, but they don’t write about poetry’; reviews for international publications Times Literary Supplement (London), Harvard Review, London Magazine, preferring to review non-Irish poets: ‘Good poets have more in common with one another, irrespective of their nationality.’

Bernard O’Donoghue, reviewing Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams: Selected Prose Writings (Gallery Press), in The Irish Times [Weekend] (12 Jan. 2002), notes that O’Driscoll kept the day-job; ‘the impact on poetry of the need to write accurate, unelaborated report language is beneficial, both directly and by focusing on the question of appropriate style’; speaks of O’Driscoll’s earning his right to pass strictures on ‘partial reviews’ by friends though his own ‘critical incorruptibility’; remarks that many of O’Driscoll’s seniors first learned to read Milocz [sic] and Holub through his reviews in Crane Bag and Hibernia when in his twenties; the present collection ded. to Nuala Farrell, lit. ed. of Hibernia in halcyon days; essays on Mahon, Berryman and Yeats, Simon Armitage, Michael Hoffman et al. O’Donoghue celebrated the first essay, on growing up in Thurles, as laying down ‘a blue-print for the understanding of any life’ and the last chapter, entitled ‘Losers, Weepers’, and departing from Christian Boltanski’s installation “Lost Property”, which O’Donoghue places in company with Barthes and Hubert Butler; in final judgement he calls it ‘a book for the year 2001’. ( p.8.)

Kevin Kiely, review of Exemplary Damages (Anvil), in Books Ireland (March 2003), writes facetiously: ‘God is dead, life is dead and O’Driscoll sounds as if he is not feeling very well himself either - “Our one true God has died [and we] are rewarded with chainstore loyalty points”’, and notes a homage to William Carlos Williams in the lines: ‘Come back. Granma Moses, lead us / from the desert of downtown / to the promised land of the red barn’ and detects a biblical voice without any irony its the treatment of sex and shopping, which he compares adversely with Naomi Klein’s No Logo.

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George Szirtes, review of New and Selected Poems, in The Guardian (7 May 2005): ‘To live in a world where “Drygulleted drains gulp down neat ram” where ageing love poets curl fingers “around the long flowing tresses of sentences”while hearing “the excited shriek of her zip”, where “not a speck of moth’s / dust is mislaid” and yet where death is continually moving into “newly-constructed suburbs” and a rainbow unfolds “its colour chart” precisely at the same time as “someone is dressing up for death” - to live in such a world is to inhabit a place built on infinite care and irony. / Though these quotations are mostly from different poems, the location remains the same. It is O’Driscoll land. It is a place that at first sight appears to be bordering on Larkin country, though it is not entirely contiguous with it, for while the Irish poet is avowedly an admirer of Philip Larkin, he is a more tender, more playfill and distinctly less xenophobic writer. [/.../] Driscoll is European modernist in other ways too: in his use of the prose poem for example, of the formal experiment as in “Towards a Cesare Pavese Title”, in the littering of gnomisms and downbeat epigrams, in the accumulations of the paraphernalia of modern life (“Elevator pings. Linen Trolleys”; “The steely assurance / of the self-cleaning hob”, the bedroom “where the en suite tiles / leave much to be desired”); in the deployment of management and ledger talk. / But above all, there is the sheer humaneness of a poetry that does extraordinary things while shrugging its shoulders and proceeding, as though such things were normal. Nowhere in this review have I referred to the specifics of contemporary Irish poetry, for while traces of Kavanagh and Mahon are detectable, it is as a poet of European temperament, and stature, that O’Driscoll demand to be judged. His terrain is, in effect, without borders: mordant, open, sharp, generous and sad like the father he describes in “Family Album”: ‘He smiles at some remark a mine. / Tonight, he will repeat it to my mother / as she fills the ringing tea pot / with hot water; and, dinner eaten, will / record it proudly in his diary like a sale.’ A more sentimental poet would have put a comma after “diary”. A properly tragic, one leaves it out.’ (See full text in RICORSO Library, “Reviews”, infra.)

Bernard O’Donoghue: ’The Guardian of Poetry’, review of Dennis O’Driscoll, New and Selected Poems, in The Irish Times (8 Jan. 2005), p.13. ‘[...] But from the first his poems managed to express this elegiac view of things in a life-enhancing spirit. They are not depressing because they are so faithful to the events they describe, and O’Driscoll is mostly praised for his keenly observant fidelity to the everyday. However this is not a matter of photographic reproduction of normality. He has developed a poetic language which combines subtlety with clarity, and through it he exposes the extraordinary within the ordinary. This language draws with brilliant wit on his work as a civil servant since he was 16 (he is now 50, improbably enough). Never has the day job served the poetic cause better: the titles of his volumes draw on the official vocabulary of the various departments he has worked in. Death duties and customs and excise are a wonderful resource. To recite those volume-titles is a poem in itself: Hidden Extras, Weather Permitting, Long Story Short, The Bottom Line, Quality Time, Exemplary Damages, and Foreseeable Futures (the last the title for the new poems here which are added to selections from the previous volumes). O’Driscoll shares with Beckett the capacity to present the deathly through humour. These poems are life-enhancing not only because they are true but also because they are funny. This quality is most evident in the sequence which is reproduced in full here, The Bottom Line (1994): 50 11-line poems, all woven out of the language of business and bureaucracy. And, even if it is not his most substantial subject, the sequence is his most original and sharpest achievement: to write, like Pope, about dullness without being dull. Writers of the first significance always contribute something to literary language which it did not possess before, and no-one but O’Driscoll could have written this: “It is the wider picture I rake over in my mind: / how gearing can improve; whether to draw / the blind on loss-making subsidiaries / and let the liquidator worry about debts.” / But, if the dazzling wit of The Bottom Line was what enhanced O’Driscoll’s popularity, the poems of the following volume, Quality Time (1997), strengthen an aspiration towards more challenging depths.’ (See full text in RICORSO Library, “Reviews”, infra.)

Colin Graham, ‘Antidote to an allergy to poetry’, review of Exemplary Values (Anvil), in The Irish Times (8 Jan. 2003), Weekend [with another by Justin Quinn]: ‘[...] Dennis O’Driscoll’s Exemplary Damages picks up where his last collection, Weather Permitting , left off. O’Driscoll’s poetry, is stylistically restless, adopting a sometimes unsatisfying variety of voices and forms, as the occasion demands. His extended metaphors often have an understated humour about them. The grimmest of clichés have the last juices of meaning wrung out of them. [...] It’s a disconcerting switch then to a poem such as “Missing God”, which has a rare honesty about the need for religious belief in a secular society. However, the everyday details which pepper the poem never quite capture the alternative access to the God, which the poem is looking for. / O’Driscoll can be observant, jokey or serious, and is sometimes all three in one poem. At times he quietly watches the world, at others he is grumpily or comically irritable. Exemplary Damages has moments of joy, and poems which are both pleasurable and witty. But, as a whole, the collection disorientates because of its shifts of tone, and the tendency of some poems to adopt forms which are frustratingly unsuited to their theme. By the end of Exemplary Damages, the reader can not quite trust the poet’s voice to “put an accurate price-tag on life”, as O’Driscoll himself once described it.’ [End] (See full text in RICORSO Library, “Reviews”, infra.)

Honor O’Connor, ‘“While Stocks Last’: The Poetry of Dennis O’Driscoll & Contemporary Ireland’, in Global Ireland: Irish Literatures for the New Millenium, ed. Ondrej Pilny & Clare Wallace [IASIL Conference 2004] (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia 2005), pp.98-106: ‘[...] A central theme running through O’Driscoll’s poetry, especially that written in the 1990s, is how the transition of Ireland from near-bankruptcy in the early 1980s to Celtic Tiger growth-rates of 8-10 percent in the mid-1990s impinges on people’s lives. Workers have had to adjust to national and international competitiveness and new managerial practices; and “productivity,” the new buzzword, has caused stress at both managerial and shopfloor levels. Irish people generally feel that social values and the conditions of their lives have changed, with congested roads and the inflated cost of housing just two instances of what many have to contend with every day. In his scrutiny of contemporary life in Ireland O’Driscoll, as a full-time civil servant, writes from within the world of work. He is [98] by turn compassionate or satirical, rather than polemical. He certainly mocks the pretensions of the new managerial elite and the conspicuous consumerism that follows new money; but he is sympathetic towards individuals. [...] Over the past twenty-five years O’Driscoll has been keeping Ireland attuned to the outside world through his reviews and critical essays, all of which reveal his wide knowledge of poetry written in English, as well as poetry in translation, particularly from the languages of Eastern Europe. [Cites critical collection Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams (2002).]’ (pp.98-100.)

Fran Brearton, ‘Dennis O’Driscoll has never been, as he himself says, “party to income tax work”; but his long career in the office of Ireland’s Revenue Commissioners , moving from death duties to stamp duty, puts him, like Stevens or Larkin, in the tradition of “office poets” whose writing lives may be practically circumscribed by their civil (or other) service the “toad work” as Larkin had it but whose vocabularies and perspectives on “life” are unusually and productively enriched thereby. [...] In the title sequence of poems, O’Driscoll evaluates “the total / cost of living”, forcing us to rethink an everyday phrase. “Demand for human life,” he tells us, “is soaring. / Projections for the coming decades / forecast unprecedented growth.”’ (Cont.)

Further: ‘[...] the poems also brilliantly rework cliché and platitude. He risks overplaying his hand, but at his best, O’Driscoll gives the apparently throwaway remark a new lease of life. [...] He is sometimes described as the “Irish Larkin”, but the phrase does O’Driscoll both more and less than justice. If his inner aesthete and technique are less developed than Larkin’s, the critical generosity that characterises his writing life is something his predecessor lacked. He eschews the Larkinesque seduction technique (that seamless move from “I think” to “we all think”); often, a third-person voice works to curiously distancing effect, and where one senses an extraordinary intelligence at work, “personality” is kept at bay. The self-effacement is also characteristic of a poet who, unusually, says he is “more interested in other people’s poems than my own”. / O’Driscoll, as an office poet, has been pulled between two different lives, yet it is not their separation that is his strength, but their dialogue. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Christ-figure he is drawn to in the poems, as in “Best Practice”, is the one who balances “two books”, who “wanted things / both ways at once”, and who is “never more / lovably human / than in that / dithering spirit”.’ [End; available online.]

Enda Wyley on Dennis O’Driscoll ‘a wedding and a funeral’, in The Irish Times (22 Dec. 2022)

One August afternoon in 2001 I met the poet Dennis O’Driscoll on George’s Street in Dublin.

It’s not surprising at all that I met him there, as he worked close by in Revenue and Customs service and did so for nearly 40 years. I can see him now before me, his raincoat flapping, his thin frame resolute on the pavement, cloth bag filled with papers and books in his hand.

I couldn’t hide my excitement. I’m getting married, I blurted out. Won’t you come to our wedding? I’m so sorry, but I can’t, he replied. But why? I wasn’t going to give up.

I knew Dennis from poetry readings and events in Dublin in the 1990s, used to meet him on the Dart as I made my way into the inner-city school I worked in as a young teacher, was always up for poetry conversations with him as we were jostled by early morning commuters. What was I reading? What had he been reading? It didn’t take long for me to discover on those early morning train journeys the truth in poet David Wheatley’s remark that asking Dennis had he read any poetry was like asking Matt Talbot had he said his prayers.

And then there were Dennis’s postcards with their distinctive writing ­- dark ink curls, that poets in Ireland were always chuffed to receive. As though a new poetry collection of yours wasn’t fully validated without the O’Driscoll stamp of approval. The flap of a card falling onto a hall floor. Words of praise to goad you on to new poems, better ways of writing. Dennis, after all, was well skilled in writing postcards. Hadn’t he written to Enid Blyton when he was a child? And she had replied and praised his handwriting! But he also wrote to Auden and Beckett, Stevie Smith, Brian Patten and received responses from them, as well. No wonder then, that he wrote to us Irish poets too.

But I digress, I am still standing on George’s Street, not giving up. Do come to our wedding, I insisted again. I can’t. I only do deaths and funerals, Dennis said. And there it was, on a rainy afternoon in Dublin, the ironic wit and deadpan humour so evident in his poetry being spoken by the man himself. A humour that to this day, I still love to encounter in his work and that continues to energise me as a reader and poet.

He did come to our wedding with his wife, the poet Julie O’Callaghan, and it was a huge privilege to have them both there. But thinking back now on his initial response to my invitation, I am reminded of his poem, No, Thanks, which energetically pokes fun at humans and their often painful urge to be social. But it’s a poem which also pokes fun at Dennis himself - who was an utterly charming man but a determinedly private one too.

‘No, I don’t want to drop over for a meal
on my way home from work....
No, I haven’t the slightest curiosity about seeing
how your attic conversion finally turned out...'

It’s a poem which, when he was alive, drew much laughter from audiences, for Dennis was a memorably dry and witty performer of his work. I purposefully use the word performer, as sitting in the audience hearing Dennis read his work was an experience, not easily forgotten. He was an exemplary poet with a unique voice. A voice once heard you never forgot, both in person and on the page.

‘What is Mass like?’ our daughter once asked when she was little. Then quickly added, ‘Is it as boring as a poetry reading?’ Dennis would have got a great kick out of Freya’s comical wondering - she is actually not baptised - especially as her comment very much taps into his own mischievous teasing of the world and its rituals. There was a devilment there, a healthy cynicism of life and work. He wrote of subjects that as Heaney said, quoting Robert Frost, ‘were common in experience but uncommon in books’ - the dull commute to work, office parties, departure lounges. And, at the end of the day, ordinary questions like, what’s for dinner? Who will turn on the immersion?

When all is said and done
what counts is having someone
you can phone at five to ask
for the immersion heater
to be switched to ‘bath’
and the pizza taken from the deepfreeze.
            Home, from Quality Time, 1997.

This year marks a decade since Dennis O’Driscoll’s death but as long as we continue to read his poetry, he will live on, inspiring us in the multitude of witty, wry poems of his that buzz with a humour all of their own.

The Irish Times (22 Dec. 2022 - available online; accessed 27.12.2022.

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Irish trad?: ‘It’s a complete delusion that because we’re Irish there’s only the Irish tradition available to us.’ (Interview in Cobweb, No. 1, Autumn 1994 [lit. organ of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth]).

The Bottom Line”: ‘How did I get this far, become / this-worldy wise, letting off steam / to suppliers, sure of my own ground? / What did my dribbling, toddling stage / prepare me for? What was picked up / from cloth-paged books, stuffed bears, / all those cute gap-toothed years? / So embarrassing the idiocies of the past, / seen from the vantage of tooled-leather / and buffed teak, hands-on management / techniques, line logistics, voice mail.’ (Quoted by Barbara Brown, W. Virg. U.; IASIL 1999.)

Serving Time”: ‘[...] Look around this narrow retreat: / you cannot miss my two steel presses, / one seething with memos, the other hoarding forms; / and a cabinet with decked piles of correspondence / from banks, corporations, accountancy firms. I am undisputed Lord of the Files.’ (p.32; from Hidden Extras, 1987.)

You”: ‘Be yourself: show your flyblown eyes / to the world, give no cause for concern, / wash the paunchy body whose means you live within, / suffer the illnesses that are your prerogative alone // the prognosis relates to nobody but you; / you it is who gets up every morning in your skin, / you who chews your dinner with your mercury-filled teeth, / gaining garlic breath or weigh, you dreading, // you hoping, you regretting, you interloping. / The earth has squeezed you in, found you space; / any loss of face you feel is solely yours - / you with the same old daily moods, debts, / intuitions, food fads, pet hates, Achilles’ heels. // You carry on as best you can the task of being, / whole-time, you; you in wake and you in dream, / at all hours, weekly, monthly, yearly, life, / full of yourself as a tallow candle is of fat, // wallowing in self-denial, self-esteem.’ (p.117; from Quality Time, 1997.)

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The Celtic Tiger”: ‘Ireland’s boom is in full swing. / Rows of numbers, set in a cloudless blue /computer background, prove the point. // Executives lop miles off journeys / since the ring-roads opened, / one hand free to dial a client on the mobile. // Outside new antique pubs, young consultants / - well-toned women, gel-slick men - / drain long-necked bottles of imported beer. // Lip-glossed cigarettes are poised / at coy angles, a black bra strap / slides strategically from a Rocha top. // Talk of tax-exempted town-house lettings / is muffled by rap music blasted / from a passing four-wheel drive. // The old live on, wait out their stay / of execution in small granny flats, / thrifty thin-lipped men, grim pious wives ... // Sudden as an impulse holiday, the wind / has changed direction, strewing a whiff / of barbecue fuel across summer lawns. // Tonight, the babe on short-term / contract from the German parent / will partner you at the sponsors’ concert. [145] Time now, however, for the lunch-break / orders to be faxed. Makes yours hummus / on black olive bread. An Evian.’ (p.145-46; from Weather Permitting, 1999.

Missing God”: ’[...] Miss Him during the civil wedding / when, at the blossomy altar / of the registrar’s desk, we wait in vain / to be fed a line containing words / like “everlasting” and “ divine”. // Miss Him when the TV scientist / explains the cosmos through equations, / leaving our planet to revolve on its axis / aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow. [...] Miss Him, as the lovers shrugging / shoulders outside the cheap hotel / ponder what their next move should be. // Even feel nostalgic, odd days, /for His Second Coming, / like standing in the brick / dome of a dovecote / after the birds have flown.’ (In The Guardian, 7 Dec. 2002; online edition.

No, Thanks” (from Exemplary Damages, 2002): ‘No, I don’t want to drop over for a meal / on my way home from work. / No, I’d much prefer you didn’t feel obliged / to honour me by crashing overnight. / No, I haven’t the slightest curiosity about seeing / how your attic conversion finally turned out. / No, I’m not the least bit interested to hear / the low-down on your Florida holiday. / No way am I going to blow a Friday night’s freedom / just to round out numbers at your dinner table. / No, I’m simply not able for the excitement / of your school-term coffee mornings. / No, strange though it may seem, your dream kitchen / holds no fascination whatsoever for me. / No, there’s nothing I’d like less than to get / together at your product launch reception. / No, I regret I can’t squeeze your brunch into my schedule / ­ you’ll be notified should an opening occur. / No, I don’t appear to have received an invitation / to your barbecue ­ it must have gone astray. / No, my cellphone was out of range, my e-mail caught a virus, / I had run out of notepads, parchment, discs, papyrus. / No, you can take No for an answer, without bothering / your head to pop the question. / No, even Yes means No in my tongue, under my breath: / No, absolutely not, not a snowball’s chance, not a hope.’ (Given at Anvil Poetry Press website [link]; accessed 24 Nov. 2006.)

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Years After  

And yet we managed fine.

We missed your baking for a time.
And yet we were not better off
without cream-hearted sponges cakes,
flaky, rhubarb-oozing pies.

Linoleum-tiled rooms could no longer
presume on your thoroughgoing scrub;
and yet me made up for our neglect,
laid hardwood timber floors.

Windows shimmered less often.
And yet we got around to
elbow-greasing them eventually.
Your daily sheet-and-blanket

rituals of bed making were more
than we could hope to emulate

And yet the duvets we bought
brought us gradually to sleep,

Declan and Eithne (eleven
and nine respectively at the time)
had to survive without your packed
banana sandwiches, wooden spoon

deterrent, hugs, multivitamins.
And yet they both grew strong;
you have unmet grandchildren
in-laws you never knew.

Yes, we managed fine, made
breakfasts and made love,
took on jobs and mortgages,
set ourselves up for life.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

In “Remembering Dennis — Marie O’Driscoll with Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll”, ed. Gerard Beirne, in Numéro Cinq (Dec. 2015) - online [accessed 06.12.2016].

Heat brought the day to its senses.
We are not used to such direct
expressions of feeling here
with our wishy-washy weather, 
our dry intervals and showers. ...

—Quoted by Peter Quinn on Facebook, 26.11.2-17.

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O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award: in 2005 O'Driscoll won the O'Shaugnessy Award of the University of St Thomas, Minnesota, worth $5,000.

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