Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Susan Schreibman on Thomas MacGreevy

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Susan Schreibman and Máire Mhac an tSaoi

Original Source: Poetry Ireland. Summer 1991. pp. 73-83.

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Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Susan Schreibman on Thomas MacGreevy

Máire Mhac an tSaoi: The annotated edition has been a sort of causeway that has lead you deeper and deeper into Irish life and Irish history. You came predisposed, obviously, to like Ireland, and then through MacGreevy it became an informed affection.

Susan Schreibman: Yes. I am very lucky because the people that I have met while engaged in this research have been, and continue to be very receptive to the work I am doing. And it is gratifying to see MacGreevy being put back on the Irish poetic map.

He is, I think, a very significant poet; and the people who like him feel that it is possible to be distinctively Irish without being insular and to be European without becoming homogenized in a sort of ad-mass.

That is certainly true, and I think Ireland, more so now, especially, is moving in a direction that MacGreevy himself travelled in the 1920s and 1930s. His vision of Ireland is becoming a reality: part of Europe rather than an appendage of England.

Talk to me a little bit about his appeal as a poet. As a young poet yourself, was there immediate contact?

There was. I am stuck into Modernism. And I found his work —even though I didn't understand the technicalities of what he was speaking about—accessible and very musical. And because his imagery, is mythological, even though it might belong to a Christian mythology, and I belong to a Post-Christian culture, it was understandable to me in a wider symbolic context.

You came with absolutely no cultural preconceptions of what MacGreevy's background was? [p.74]

When I arrived in Ireland in October 1984 I had no idea that a person with the name of Thomas MacGreevy ever existed. I was introduced to his work by someone outside academe, and after I had bought his book of poetry in the National Gallery in December of that year, I began looking for criticism and found practically none. There was an article by Anthony Cronin which was reprinted three times, there were several poems by him and an article in The Lace Curtain, and then the odd mention in literary histories or biographies, but not much more than that.

What did Anthony Cronin say about MacGreevy?

He wrote that MacGreevy was the first "specifically and consciously modern Irish poet" and that perhaps Ireland, through her neglect, had to share in some of the blame for MacGreevy's long silence. When MacGreevy's poetry was published in 1934 it was not well received here. In fact he got much more positive reviews in England and in the United States.

It was barely, in fact, received at all, if I remember. It almost sank without trace. I know there was one loutish review by Aodh de Blacam in The Irish Press.

Austin Clarke interviewed him, very ungenerously, for The Observer. He quoted MacGreevy's long poem ' Crón Tráth na Deithe' and quipped that "the Modernist revolt as at last reached the Irish Free State".

Austin Clarke was, of course, a very embittered man.

This would have been quite early, in 1934.

Having been mauled himself by the Irish thing he didn't want anyone else to go unscathed.

Yes. And there was a great antipathy between Clarke and MacGreevy—between poets who stayed in Ireland, such as AE, and and those younger poets who had gone to Paris, such as [p.75] Beckett and later Devlin and Coffey. There is an article that Beckett wrote for The Bookman in 1934 entitled ' Recent Irish Poetry' which lays out the battleground. These Irish poets in Paris did see themselves as writing in a different way, with goals that were different, from the poets at home. They very much saw themselves as belonging to and participating in a larger European context.

You went down recently to Tarbert where Tom MacGreevy spent his boyhood. What were your impressions? Had you been there before?

I have been there briefly in 1985. It wasn't what I had expected. I had expected a quaint Irish village...

It's a dreary little village, only known for its ferry. In the Munster folk deposit Tarbert goes with "pride, pianos and poverty".

What is interesting about Tarbert is that, dreary as it may be now, in the 1890s, when MacGreevy was growing up, it was, as far as a village in the south-west of Ireland could be, cosmopolitan. It was a garrison town, a busy port, and from all accounts, quite lively. The town itself was somewhat bigger then than now. The ambience of that period is something akin to that portrayed by Joyce in Dubliners: Catholic middle-class, bourgeois. They provided their own entertainment—someone would play the piano and there would be sing-alongs, there would be dances at one another's homes—much as in the Epiphany party in 'The Dead'. Literature and music were very important. MacGreevy was the second youngest child, and only son, in a family of seven children. All his sisters trained to be either nurses or teachers. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father had run away from home at 17 and joined the Royal Irish Constabulary. But after two years he quit, finding the work he was asked to do less than amenable. He was stationed at Tarbert, where he met MacGreevy's mother. After he left the force he farmed with the maternal family and she taught in the local school. [p.76]

Do you feel now as if you knew the family? You are of course writing a biography.

What I am planning to do with his biography is write it as a social biography. I am using MacGreevy as a centerpiece, and writing about him in the contexts in which he lived and wrote. The journey begins in Tarbert, takes him through Dublin and London, as a soldier in the First World War, and a student at Trinity College, Dublin during the Civil War, to being a friend and supporter of some of the most important figures in modernism on two continents and in three languages—and not only in literature, but in painting, sculpture, opera and contemporary music.

A transition from a tiny community, almost immediately to the world of international letters.

The transition was not all that rapid, but no less extraordinary. It is amazing that it ever took place at all. When he finished national school at the age of 16 there wasn't enough money to send him to university...

Though all his sisters had been educated before him.

At that time Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom and there were various schemes to encourage people, particularly women, to become nurses or teachers. I don't know why MacGreevy did not opt for a career as a teacher. I do know that it was decided that he would pursue a career in the civil service. He trained for that, passed the exam and was posted in Dublin. In 1912 or 1913 he was then transferred to the Department of the Admiralty in London.

He was very young at this time I take it.

Yes. Around 18 or 19. He became a civil servant by competitive examination. It was highly competitive and candidates were chosen from all over the British Isles. They sat for five or six subjects—something akin to taking A levels for university today. And I feel that if it were not for the war, he might have remained a civil servant. According to his [p.77] memoirs, he was not unhappy during this time. He did his job, and at night he read, went to theatre, opera, classical music concerts. This was, if you like, his period of apprenticeship for his later career as writer and critic.

At that time having an independent income must have seemed to a boy from Tarbert as an 'open sesame'.

Perhaps. Then in 1917 he joined the army. One of the reasons he joined was to help liberate small nations, like Belgium, another Catholic country.

The freedom of small nations —someone like MacGreevy must have taken that very seriously.

Absolutely. He spent 22 months in the army. And when he was demobilized he applied for a scholarship on a scheme for ex-officers — he was a second lieutenant. It was, in fact, because of the war that he could afford to attend university. He chose Trinity instead of UCD because TCD was more amenable to officers returning to the British Army.

It sounds like an unworthy thing to say, but by coming back an officer and a gentleman and then by attending Trinity, his class status was then copper-fashioned. It would have come automatically even though he was impecunious. He would have become upper middle class. It's an interesting transition.

Yes. Although I don't know if he ever moved out of the ranks of genteel poverty until late in life. It did, however, give him the opportunity, not only to study, but to meet other artists. It was during this time that he met and formed life-long friendships with W.B. Lennox Robinson, and others. He and Robinson worked together throughout the Civil War for the Carnegie United Kingdom Libraries—the predecessor of the public library system.

That period is reflected in some of Lennox's plays —and of course is the material for high comedy. [p.78]

Not always. MacGreevy writes home to his parents at this time about Dublin in ruins and the libraries being regularly bombed. It seems they were a favourite target.

MacGreevy, subsequently, was very markedly Republican, very markedly anti-administration, in his politics. At the time of the civil war was he a Republican sympathizer?

From what I can gather, he became more Republican as time went on. But he does write at a very early point that after his experience in the First World War he became a pacifist. Even though he very much wanted to see Ireland freed from British rule, he would not join the Republican cause in, what might be best called, an active way.

There are two kinds of philistinism —he must have preferred the Republican romantic one to what you might call the Free State material kind. It is extraordinary that he never seems to have felt that he couldn't live in Ireland. So many poets found by experience that they couldn't, but he always had this animus revertenti — he always wanted to come back — and wanted, in fact, to use his talents and his knowledge for Ireland, to open windows to the outside world for Ireland. He remained extraordinarily simply and straightforwardly patriotic until the end of his days. It was quite extraordinary in a person of his considerable sophistication. One would have expected that, like so many others, he would move away, that he would have settled in Paris or London.

I think he might have if circumstances had were different. If it were economically viable. Yet, he never, as you rightly pointed out, had the need to leave Ireland as so many Irish intellectuals did. And although he lived abroad for many years, he always looked forward quite simply to his holidays in Dublin and Tarbert every September. He never had this great angst that so many writers seem to have.

Has all his correspondence survived?

Not all of it, but perhaps, 80% of it. He saved almost everything. Unfortunately there were several trunks lost [p.79] during the Second World War in Paris.They were trunks which contained a good deal of material dating from his years in Paris. This time, between 1928 and 1933, was probably the most interesting part of his life—there would have been correspondence between him and people like Dali, the Spanish poet, Rafael Alberti, Joyce...

In what capacity did he work with Joyce?

In the capacity that every young Irishman who came to Paris did. He looked up etymologies, took dictation and since MacGreevy rarely drank, he was one of the few people that Nora felt comfortable leaving Joyce with. He was, perhaps more than most of the other young men who worked on Work in Progress, a friend of the family, as far as the Joyce family had friends. He was a witness at Georgio's wedding, and he and Nora got on very well. She felt particularly comfortable with him because he was from the same part of the world as she.

He was very gallant of course, he liked the company of ladies. I remember that he took an almost Victorian enjoyment in the company of women.

It is interesting because his relationship with the Yeats family is similar. He had a professional relationship with the men, and a very warm relationship with the women.

He had a great capacity for friendship. He could be extraordinarily generous and considerate and serviable. But let me take take you back again to the literary side of the work. You mentioned that your field is modernism. How do you see MacGreevy in the context of other modernist poets?

What is fascinating about MacGreevy's work, as was pointed out by Anthony Cronin in his article, is that he made no false starts. He began writing poetry around 1923, a year after The Waste Land was published in Criterion. Cronin's supposition—without the benefit of having seen MacGreevy's manuscripts—was correct: that he was one of the few poets in the 1920's who was able to write free verse deriving from but not necessarily imitative of Eliot. He was a conscious [p.80] manipulator of sound and phrase and was never seduced by the iambic. I think he has written several very fine poems, as fine as any other poet of his generation. And I think it is unfair to relegate him so soon after his death to the status of a minor poet as so many people here in Ireland have done. Eliot wrote in his essay 'What is Minor Poetry' of our almost obsessive need to categorize poets, and I think that Eliot's words should be heeded: "And with our contemporaries, we oughtn't be so busy enquiring whether they are great or not; we ought to stick to the question: 'Are they genuine?' and leave the question whether they are great to the only tribunal which can decide: time." I think there can be no doubt as to MacGreevy's genuineness. And I think that relegating him to the status of a quirk in the procession of Irish poets since Yeats is doing both Irish poetry and that poetry's place in the scheme of poetry in the English language a disservice.

One of the striking things about MacGreevy's verse, and this is very much part of the modernist context, is that poetry is not merely a confession of one's personal experience, but brings in the a greater society, and that society's preoccupations. And particularly in MacGreevy's case, after serving in the Great War and living through the Civil War, the question of how one reconciles faith in God with trench warfare and half a city destroyed is a major preoccupation of the verse. His poem ' Gloria de Carlos V ' which he writes after seeing Titian's painting La Gloria in the Prado in Madrid, is basically a portrait of the painting in verse, but the line 'Those without gas masks were lost' is slipped into this poem celebrating the glory of God in such a way that a less than careful reader would skip over it. What intrudes into MacGreevy's consciousness while viewing the painting is the horror of war.

It is a terrible line. For some reason the horror is intrusive.

And it is not just the First World War that intrudes on his work, but the Tan War and the Civil War. Had he been English he would have returned to the peace of England, but instead he returned to an Ireland at war. One of the poems he writes about his ambiguous position during this time is [p.81] ' Homage to Hieronymus Bosch '. It is so obscure that I doubt anyone outside Ireland could have imagined it centered on the hanging of Kevin Barry. Yet, once you have the key the poem is not allusive and becomes a statement, in both form and content, of the particular problems facing Irish artists writing in the early post-colonial period. It is the type of poetry, again, which is part of the modernist context, which celebrated inclusion rather than exclusion. Just because a reader might not be familiar with Titian's La Gloria,, was not reason enough not to use it as a poetic metaphor. It is the reader's obligation, if the reader so chooses, to explore the context.

You spoke about his poetry not being merely confessional. You might say that the I in his poetry is very reticent — indeed it is barely confessional at all. It is kind of distilled confessionalism —it is Everyman's human experience.

Very much like T.S. Eliot's I. And what is curious about Eliot's I is that he went to great lengths to demonstrate that the I did not exist in his poetry, yet, when you know his biography it is very much there. And the same could be said about MacGreevy. His poems were all very personal poems...

They do tell you a great deal about human beings, but little about Thomas MacGreevy?

They do tell you about Thomas MacGreevy, but not in a way that we are accustomed to in contemporary poetry. They tell you in ways that I've mentioned, such as in the poem ' Gloria de Carlos V '.

But even that, that is any young officer after the trenches. He was an extraordinarily private person, although extremely sociable and amenable, but very private.

Yes, and because of this I think that he has been left open to much misinterpretation. Earlier you asked me about his Republicanism. What is interesting about the biographical research that I'm doing is having to reconcile certain, what would seem on first examination, dichotomies, such as his [p.82] extreme republicanism and his pacifism. The common misconception about MacGreevy is that he vehemently hated the British. Yet what he hated was English imperialism—the same imperialism that many of his English friends would also have hated.

MacGreevy would have been regarded by my father —himself a member of Mr. De Valera's government — as being dangerously Republican. He combined a political Republicanism —although he was never actively political —and an anti-Free State, anti-Finna Gael political stance, although he was never actively politically —it was more of a dinner-table politics... He combined it was a cosmopolitan outlook. Whereas many of the people who were peddling the peasant outlook would have been very conservative in their politics, pro-Treaty. Tom MacGreevy would have been on the Republican wing of the Fianna Fail party.

Which would be very much in character with the rest of his avant garde outlook.

It is kind of you to say so —he would have regarded materialism as more dangerous than terrorism, although perhaps that's imputing to him ideas that he never had any occasion to consider in their practical application.

You've rightly pointed out that he manages to be contradictory in some very obvious ways, yet when one steps back to examine him in some larger picture, the elements come together, although frequently they come together in ways one does not expect.

I would also feel in some way that what one might call his anti-Britishness is more like an anti-English-establishment stance —Scotch poets and Welsh poets would have the same reaction —anti-metropolitan centre of power —it wasn't anti-language or literature.

Certainly not. [p.]

The episode of Kevin Barry seems to have animated all the Irish ex-officers in Trinity.

Yes indeed. When MacGreevy describes Ireland at that time as "powerless and shabby"—he was also describing how he and the other ex-officers must have felt.

And of course there was this peculiarity that he and his close friend, my uncle Paddy (Pádraig de Brún) both shared —the insistence on cutting Shakespeare down to size.

I noticed that—but why?

Although both of them knew reams of Shakespeare by heart, and they loved quoting Shakespeare, they felt that he should be seen in the context of European theatre, as a world figure, if you like with Dante, with Racine. And both of them disliked the English compulsion to call people great. MacGreevy also hated Gilbert and Sullivan,whom he saw as typically English, because, among other things, of their unchivalrous attitude, as he said, towards 'advancing years and female chastity' —in other words, towards old maids. Especially he disliked The Mikado. He felt that to revile an unmarried elderly lady was insufferable.

He was a chivalrous idealist always, and his work was intended to serve the greater good of God and Ireland. It was an attempt to dispel this notion of Ireland as 'powerless and shabby', so that she might after 1921 take her rightful place as a nation of Europe, in a role that is not dissimilar to the one she occupied in the middle ages as a centre of learning and of art. And much of MacGreevy's work, as a critic in Dublin after 1941, and later as Director of the Gallery, was to further this goal.

Howth—23rd of February 1991