Christina Hunt Mahony on “Going Home to Mayo by Winter 1949” by Paul Durcan, in Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies [Special Irish Poetry Issue, guest ed. Peter Denman] (Sept. 2009).

[ Source: The Free Library - online; accessed 07.07.2011.]

Dubliners are like denizens of other capitals in relation to the rest of their countrymen. They think the world drops off somewhere at an iconic portal at its far suburban reaches. If there were a map of Dublin similar to the famous New Yorker cover which showed an atrophied view of the US with a dimly designated ‘Chicago’ and the expanses beyond simply labelled ‘Vegas’ or ‘Texas’, the Irish map from the Dubliner’s eye view would be marked ‘The Naas Road’ (that was), ‘Cork’, ‘The West’ - with arrows pointed vaguely in the direction of Connemara - and ‘The North’. This cartoonish rift might provoke a knowing chuckle, but the reality is that many Dubliners in the century past were not allowed to be Dubliners. Among the writers thus affected one could start with James Joyce and his autobiographical rendering in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man of Stephen Dedalus’s ghastly trip ‘home’ to Cork with his father as the latter sells off Stephen’s patrimony. A variation on this fictional theme continued to be recorded in prose by Edna O’Brien and John McGahern whose portraits of country people turned Dublin flat-dwellers told of their returning home to pick up their lives there at irregular intervals. Those of us of a certain age knew them or saw them racing to Busaras on Friday evenings - going home - often a long journey on bad roads. They went home to Tralee, Thurles, and Athenry, to the dances, to help in the family shop, or to save the hay on as many weekends as they could afford - the generation with one foot in each place.

For still others, memory of a home place prevailed in a Dublin house which was their home place, but not that of their parents. These young people lived under earlier-ordained protocols which ranked city far below country. The city, they were told, could only offer an ersatz life, even if it were a comfortable life in Dublin 4 or 6. It all came down to land, topography, regional accent, and lineage. ‘Lineage’, a recurring notion in Yeats’s work for which he was castigated and deemed to have delusions of grandeur, was implicit in the ethos of these homes too. Dubliners may have been Liffey-centric but there was an equal degree of blinkered vision in the opposite direction.

Dermot Bolger was one of these conflicted young Dubliners of culchie stock, and like the novelists of earlier decades, he creates tortured characters who (to use Joyce’s metaphor in a different context) viewed who they were through the cracked mirror reflective of their parents’ sensibilities superimposed upon their own reality. This, then, is the displacement of those not allowed or encouraged to feel like who they were, and pestered with a sense of betrayal if they asserted Dublin-ness within the family circle. Paul Durcan is another, but with a difference. “Going Home to Mayo, Winter, 1949” matters because it is a rare enough example in verse of a set of emotional responses which have much more often only been explored artistically in prose or occasionally on the stage. [1] The Dubliner caught between two worlds provides a thematic touch point for issues of long-standing Irish angst, many of which have ceased to impinge on the national psyche, but which were part of the youthful formation of so many.

Paul Durcan, a master at capturing the Irish zeitgeist, has in this poem distilled the prevailing ethos of the post-war decade, as he has continued to do with each decade and into this century. In “Going Home to Mayo” he illustrates the first tranche of Irish consciousness he would have been sentient enough to intuit, and the reader apprehends its state of complete absorption. The still-infant sensibility has taken to itself the father’s hierarchy. Country is good, city is bad. Going out to Mayo and being there is joyous, coming back (not home) to Dublin is tragic, and, for the child-persona, is metaphorically conveyed as a dual fatality for father and son.

The quest in this poem, as in all of Durcan’s work, is for authenticity - an ongoing attempt to define a modern Irish reality as it slides forward belatedly at first, and then careens recklessly into the present. He records a nation lulled into the torpor of repression and convention, saddled with the double whammy of northern European reticence and Catholic stricture and devotionalism. Durcan’s work maps, at times, a country which opted out of the main political event of the century, missed the prosperity that inevitably follows war, and was geographically isolated to boot. He writes of efforts to shake off the drowsiness and the awkward transitions of the 1960s and 1970s, and the setbacks of the 1980s. More recent work puts the loony excesses of the Celtic Tiger into bold relief. He questions alterations in the fundamental Irish character, or the public perception of that character, beginning the process with this memory from 1949 when all such rocketing changes were still very much in the future. Here Durcan locates the two major pressure points of that era - the debate between rural and urban and the struggle for identity between fathers and sons in a nation which is still very new. That this duel is conducted in verse makes for a nearly unique contribution to the genre in Irish writing.

“Going Home to Mayo, Winter, 1949” does not bear one of Durcan’s zany trademark titles. It contains no delicious departures from reality like birds emerging from eyebrows (“Dun Chaoin”). It is not relieved by the comedy of naked security guards dancing through Bewleys. Although Durcan has disdained the term “surreal” as applied to these departures from realism because it does not define his intentions or process, the point at which the real and the highly imagined collide is a successful and idiosyncratic feature of many of his poems. (Derek Mahon’s suggestion in a review of The Berlin Wall Cafe that cubism is closer to the mark refines the artistic parallel in useful terms). [2]

“Going Home to Mayo” shares none of this tendency, except in the way it visualizes a class of a children’s book illustration and text - the anthropomorphized moon peering into the car, the warm glow issuing from the house upon arrival in Mayo, the childish recitation of names playing connect-the-dots across the country - Kilcock, Kinnegad, Strokestown, Elphin Tarmonbarry, Tulsk, Ballaghaderreen, Ballavary.

These are the “magic passwords into eternity”. We turn the pages of the picture book as the cosy family drama unfolds, and are sobered by the ending of the poem which belies the storybook frame of the narrative. In such specification of place, a continuing and essential feature of his writing, lies in the authenticity that the writer seeks. As Fintan O’Toole has observed, His insistent naming of places that would otherwise have remained unnamed in poetry and therefore have been denied a recognition of their preciousness is one of the most important aspects of Durcan’s care for Irish reality. He is the poet who, more than any other, has invented work capacious enough to articulate within its syntax the flotsam and jetsam of an Irish reality that had no place within the rural and romantic traditions of the Irish Revival. [3]

Durcan’s most famous poems to or about his father appeared in 1988, after his father’s death and more than a decade after the publication of “Going Home to Mayo”. His volume, Daddy, Daddy, was the memorial tribute to Justice John Durcan; but this overwhelming authority figure of his childhood and young manhood was alive at the time “Going Home to Mayo” was published. How this very important biographical fact affected the composition and the content of the work is difficult to assess. The text, with its child persona, is in a way the start of a sad trajectory of poems specifically addressing his father’s dying and death and one which “weds his deceptively nonchalant, transparent speech with material of such psychological complexity that the apparent insouciance on the surface of the poems stands in arresting tension with their sinister depths.” [4]

There is no dialogue or speech in this poem except the single line at the beginning in which the child urges ‘“Daddy, Daddy, ... Pass out the moon”’. There are no gnomic words of welcome uttered as they arrive to the welcome provided - ‘all oil lamps and women’. On their walk in the country the father offers no talismanic advice. We do not hear what they say, but it is crucial that we are told that father and son talk in Mayo. It is equally clear that in Dublin they do not - ‘an unheard-of thing in the city.’ In this the poem differs from many of the others about his father in which he does speak, offering advice or criticism, or imparting knowledge. His words are quite particular, and at times John Durcan is oddly territorial of this foreign Dublin and its landmarks. In “Hymn to My Father” from Going Home to Russia (1987), the father from Mayo, on a walk through Dublin ‘[...] had a history for every milestone, / A saga for every place name The Bovril sign, the Ballast Office Clock, the Broadstone / And so, at your knee, at your elbow, I became you.’ [5]

Similarly in “Birthday Present”, a memory of the poet’s twenty-third birthday, and published in Daddy, Daddy, father and son walk along the Grand Canal: ‘The great lock gates idle as cattle, / The plane trees along the towpath / They were your deities. / You paused on the crest / Of the canal bridge / To take in the view / Of Charlemont Bridge / To the west / And Baggot Street Bridge to the east ....’ [6]

The continuing detailed observation and apparent affection for Dublin’s landmarks and by-ways in the son’s poetry may well have been learned at his father’s knee or on walks or drives through that city, despite the elder’s predilection for Mayo and his distant demeanour.

In the early “Going Home to Mayo”, though, there are only the rural sounds breaking the silence of the morning, and the return to Dublin is cast in contrasting utter silence: ‘Thousands of crosses of loneliness planted / In the narrowing grave of the life of the father; / In the wide, wide cemetery of the boy’s childhood.’

This is the return voyage to the young child’s home, the house in which he is being reared. It should be every child’s primary haven, but Durcan’s young persona knew that ‘home was not home’. Instead he views the experience at this age as being part of ‘the daylight nightmare of Dublin city’, approached by the same series of canal locks along the road he would note his father had admired in years to come. Here each signals ‘mutual doom’.

The poem is composed in two parts. The first stanza, longer, includes both the journey to Turlough, his father’s village, and the arrival at and duration of their stay there. The stanzaic break takes place when the return journey to Dublin begins, and significantly, the poem stops short of their reaching the Dublin house. Instead it remains suspended in the child’s state of trepidation and projected defeat as they near their destination. The ending of the poem thus bookends its beginning, which does not open with the pair’s departure from the Dublin house, but begins as father and son are already in transit.

Journeying is an intrinsic part of this poem and of Durcan’s life and art - a peripatesis, conveying the negative features of rootlessness and loss and glossed with the uplifting air of a hopeful quest. After many such journeys home to the country the next destination for the poet was London, as it was for so many others, but then he went everywhere. No matter how many journeys, or the exoticism of the places he has visited and written about since - Russia and the old Soviet satellites, Brazil, Germany, and Western Canada - Durcan, our best and most authentic poetic witness of Dublin life and its changing parameters, still returns to Mayo, both in his poetry and in his life.

Rejection of the father or fathers, or the nation as defined by the father, is a recurring literary motif and one which never seems to become shopworn or to lose its relevance. In the latter case it seems that as long as there are nations this disassociation or rebellion will continue to compel. In Ireland the business of throwing out colonialist rubrics is replaced within a generation or two by the necessity to reject the paternalism of the newly-emergent nation. In Durcan’s case the rectitude of his father and the father’s world is a rich source of angst, treated with whimsical anomie, anger, humour, and often resulting in a crushing state of depression and a need for valid redefinition. In later poems, such as “The Mayo Accent” he truculently attempts at times to turn the tables to question the father’s authenticity: ‘Why then, Daddy, did you shed / The pricey antlers of your Mayo accent / For the tree-felling voice of a harsh judiciary ...?’ [7]

His volume Daddy, Daddy (in which “The Mayo Accent” appears) leaves us with no doubt of the centrality of this theme in his work; but the poems to and about his father are also part of a larger group in which familial and marital love and loss form a sub-corpus. His mother, the subject of a recent memorial volume, The Laughter of Mothers, was also born into a Mayo family with an established position in the national ethos. Her husband, John Durcan, barrister and later judge, the patriarch of a family with its authentic base in the Mayo heartland, was also an appointed representative of the state, entrusted with the interpretation and administration of its laws. Thus the poetic undertaking to interrogate and reject this father becomes a direct, rather than symbolic, questioning of the nation’s legitimacy in relation to a son’s developing self as a man and as an artist. The record of that undertaking is long and at times tortuous, and it begins with “Going Home to Mayo”, a very early and telling interaction between Mayo father and Dublin son.

As a coda to this essay allow me to offer a personal reminiscence. I first encountered Durcan’s poems in Parsons’s bookshop as a student. I arrived here knowing nothing of contemporary Irish writing, having scant knowledge of Yeats and Joyce and little else. This was not unusual at the time. Certainly no Irish writer after Yeats appeared on any Irish or American school or university curriculum, and books of poetry by younger Irish writers were not much available outside Ireland. I knew enough, even then, to realize that when I cracked open a new Durcan volume in Parsons’s I could laugh aloud. It was ok, the people who ran that shop and who browsed there knew. In Parsons reading Durcan I knew where I was too - in a new Ireland, or one that was new then. It was not the one I had expected but the one I was getting to know. Parsons is gone now, but Durcan is still writing about his home place or places, noting the merits and demerits of modern Ireland as it evolves and often more keenly than poets half his age. I am still here too. Sometimes I get a telephone call or letter from my father in the States updating me with news of the family in Mayo, where neither of us has ever lived.


“Going Home to Mayo, Winter 1949”, appears in the following collections by Paul Durcan: Sam’s Cross: Poems (Dublin: Profile Poetry, 1978); The Selected Paul Durcan, edited by Edna Longley (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1982); A Snail in My Prime: New and Selected Poems (London: Harvill with Blackstaff, 1993). It is included in the following anthologies: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, edited by Peter Fallon and Derek Mahon (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972); Contemporary Irish Poetry, new and revised edition, edited by Anthony Bradley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); The Ireland Anthology, edited by Sean Dunne (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1997).

1.“Going Home to Mayo, Winter 1949”, Sam’s Cross: Poems (Dublin: Profile Poetry, 1978), pp.9-10.
2. Derek Mahon, “Orpheus Ascending”, Journalism: Selected Prose, 1970-1995, edited by Terence Brown (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1996), pp.115-8 (p.116).
3. A Study of Paul Durcan, edited by Colin Toibin. (Dublin: New Island Press, 1996), pp.26-41 (p. 36).
4. Peggy O”Brien, “Your Daddy, My Daddy, in The Kilfenora Teaboy, pp.75-101, (pp.82-3).
5. “Hymn to My Father”, Going Home to Russia (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1987), pp.95-7.
6. “Birthday Present”, Daddy, Daddy (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1990), pp.128-30.
7. “The Mayo Accent”, Daddy, Daddy, p.139.

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