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Still embracing the ghost

Story by Damian McCarney

Tuesday, 12th February, 2013 5:35pm

Still embracing the ghost

Ahead of the launch of his latest collection of poetry, former county footballer and acclaimed author, poet and playwright, TOM MACINTYRE discusses his 'roaring soul journey' with the Celt's DAMIAN MCCARNEY.

"Why do I believe in ghosts? I was embraced once by a ghost," Tom MacIntyre says, his piercing pale blue eyes confirming the seriousness of his intent.

That the award winning poet asks his own questions before supplying eloquent answers in an hour-long interview at Celt HQ is definitely a good thing. He's here, ostensibly to discuss his new book of poetry - Poppy's Leavetaking - but his rogueish mind is buzzing. Eager to speak of the sacrifices of the artist, the Cavan note in his writing, and the effect of colonialism on the Irish's use of English, he gives only a passing mention to his new collection. It's not so much an interview as a fascinating monologue. The questions he asks himself are infinitely more engaging than those the Celt loosely prepared, but, to perpetuate the myth that it is an interview, he'll punctuate his monologues with: 'Next question' or 'Now where where we?'

We were with Tom in a ghost's embrace.

"That's a damn good reason for believing," he assures us. "I should tell you the story."

It transpires the ghost in question belonged to a Dublin publican and "artist manqué" who supported Tom when he was penniless. Visiting the deceased's home on the Sunday after the funeral, as was custom in Dublin, Tom was greeted by the widow and others, and he entered the living room.

"There is his armchair looking at me, it was empty," he recalls, his face empties as he taps a desk in front of him, as if seeking admission to the scene. "Will I sit in his armchair? Yes, I will. I sit in his armchair and there's talk, and there are people around, the widow for example, a child of his.

"Not there very long, and suddenly I feel an embrace crushing the life out of me - an embrace the like of which I've never experienced before or since."

In the Celt office he echoes the ghost's movements as he wraps his own arms around himself, lost in the moment.

"It leaves me breathless," he whispers. "That was clearly - I've no doubt - a visit from his ghost."

"What was it conveying to me? I spent a long time examining that question - what is he saying? But eventually I came up with a very simple direct answer of, saying thank you. I minded him a great deal when he was dying. He was a ghost who'd come to say goodbye."

That he believes in ghosts isn't just a quirky aside for Tom, it goes to the core of his writing. In Tom's view it's what sets the literary greats and a select few apart from the vast bulk of contemporary writers.

"The divide in contemporary Irish poetry is between the 10-20% who believe in, for want of a better word, the transcendental, the poetry as a conversation with the other side [the dead], and the rest... That's the world we live in. But you have the mighty beacons of Willie Yeats and Paddy Kavanagh - they're dominating the horizon and they're singing the song of the transcendental."

In stressing the essential nature of writing from the soul, Tom riffs:

"It's a way of breathing, it's a way of being, it's a way of praying. It's a journey, an interior journey of no trivial proportions. It's probably true to say...for me it's a soul journey."

He insists this is a minority view amongst current writers, but shared by his heroes.

"Kavanagh - roaring soul journey. Yeats - roaring soul journey. Go up and down the standing army of 10,000 Irish poets at the moment and you'll search a while before you get the soul journey merchants! Because we live in a secular world...

"If it isn't the soul journey I'm gone out of there. I'm not interested. It has to have that stake - your life has to be at stake and that's not kidding.

"That's scary as all hell at the start, but when it becomes your way of breathing, then it's your health and it's your connection with the other side."

The octogenarian claims he was preparing to embark on his soul journey from the age of seven, when he was "using words and a strut that indicated" his destiny as a writer.

Equating the decision of whether to pursue his dreams with "a crossroads with thunder and lightning playing around it," he postponed the "terrifying" choice until he was 40.

"I realised at that point that if I didn't meet the gamble, the challenge, the journey of it, I would fall down and die. So I'd no choice. So okay, here it goes."

A major inspiration for Tom was the view from his bedroom from which he could see Bailieborough Lake, the "massive" ruins of the workhouse, and the drumlins beyond.

"A writer couldn't have asked for more, he couldn't. Utterly haunted; utterly haunted. The workhouse against the evening sky and the lake beside it - you grow up with that, how could you not be a poet?"

Tom's time playing football in the blue of Cavan, he says, was a hindrance to choosing a path at the crossroads.

"Playing football in Cavan was what they call in our business 'taking refuge in the collective'. Everybody loves you, you're with the crowd, you're on the populated side of the street, where the demand for the writer, the artist, is to be on the deserted side of the street. Clear of the collective. You've a far better view of what's going on. You're not marching with the multitude. Is it lonesome? It's lonesome at the start, but there are attendant joys. You are doing what you are supposed to be doing."

Another key inspiration is his Cavan neighbours' use of language when he was growing up, a lyrical rural brew which he preserves in his play The Gallant John Joe.

"The magnificently rich mixture of English and Irish that was available in my childhood - that's gone," he laments.

Bringing the conversation around to his latest collection of poems, 'Poppy's Leavetaking', the Celt suggests that the language used is not identifiably from Cavan. It doesn't jump off the page in the same manner as the Breffni-drenched dialogue in his play 'The Gallant John Joe'.

"Anything I write is pure Cavan," he explains and refers to a study of Ireland called the 'Festival of Lughnasa' by Máire MacNeill, daughter of early 20th century politician Eoin MacNeill ("the man who sent the telegram that almost stopped the Rising").

"She [Máire] comes to Cavan and she comes to the triangle of Cavan - you draw a line from Var-gineh, as the old people say, to Cootehill, to Bailieborough and back to Var-gineh, that was known of old as Sliabh Bó Guaiare na Gailenga - the mountains of the generous cow of the Gailenga. The Gailenga were the Celtic tribe that came in, racing pell-mell from Caesar's legions.

"She comes to Sliabh Bó Guaiare na Gailenga and says that's one of the three most haunted spots in the island of Ireland. The other two - I'm inclined to say - needless to say, are in Kerry. We all know Kerry's haunted. I'm not so sure it's as widely known that Cavan is haunted, but she knew.

"The Cavan note is a haunted note. [Michael] Harding is full of it, you've got colours of it in [Dermot] Healy."

This idea was confirmed to him by a pupil at a Cavan national school, when Tom asked a class why there should be so many writers produced from this area?

"Hands straight up," he says, while re-enacting the scene. "'Yes?' 'Please sir; please sir - all the lakes is haunted.'

"He's right - the child's right - he knew! All the lakes are haunted. Right? That's the Cavan note in my writing, it's the Cavan note in Harding's writing, it's the Cavan note in Healy's writing. It's haunted territory and that's recognised - so next question."

Resigned to the thought that regardless of the next question we're going to end up talking about ghosts again, the Celt tries to broach his 'Poppy's Leavetaking'.

"The key poem is a love poem," he enthuses of the verse with the wordy title, 'Brosna means kindling, red brosna 'a kind of verse''.

Brosna takes him back to when he was "a gasun a hundred years ago or so" and his mother collecting kindling under the trees at his mini-big house where he was reared in Bailieborough.

"I examined the word brosna in Dineen's dictionary and he says Brosna means kindling, red brosna a kind of verse. Fantastic!" Tom cries with obvious delight. "That's just what the poet needs - a jumping point. And I recalled living out in Ballyhaise, Redhills for seven or eight years with a beautiful woman with whom I was in love - that most difficult thing. And the brosna, it probably became part of our love story."

Tom takes pride in being a love poet. He sneers at his bete noir - contemporary poets - for the derth of love poets amongst them.

"Is there much love poetry in contemporary Irish poetry?" he asks himself. "Damn all! For why?" he persists. "Because being in love and writing about it, with authority, is no easy deal. You have to commit yourself to a love relationship for a start.

"You examine Irish peasent poetry, as Gaeilge obviously, roaring love poetry - everywhere you look there's another love poem. Examine contemporary Irish poetry - where's the love poetry? It can hardly be seen. So what's going on there? Threat! Terror! I think we do well to be scared, putting your money on a love relationship. Assuming it's authentic, you're giving everything away; there's no other way to make it work."

Although he loves Yeats and Kavanagh, with the exception of Raglan Road ("which is the real McCoy") he regards neither as a love poet.

"He doesn't know what to do with women," he scoffs of Kavanagh. "Fair enough - he knew what to do about lots of important things - namely the connection with the walk of the poet as a spirit journey through the word, the connection with the otherside."

One person who had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with women was Daniel O'Connell, who is the subject of Tom's latest play titled The Liberator. He brands O'Connell - "a notorious womaniser."

"That's the theme of the play: what do you do with your insane cock? If the cock is that insane nobody would know what to do with it. He didn't. It dominated his life.

"He still found time to bring the raggedy Irish up out of the muck and become a political force and alter Ireland decisively. He was an immense figure but by definition there's a great story in the dark side of an immense figure. That's the kind of story I love."

The play follows "the baul' Dan's" infatuation with a young "Belfast beauty" when O'Connell, by then in his 70s and a waning political force, was under house arrest in Dublin.

"He's totally out of his mind to get hold of her. And she's available. This is where I sit up and take notice as a storyteller. His family are in horror around him, watching what's happening: 'For Jee-ee-sus, what is he a-at?' The papers got a hold of it: Jailbird O'Connell finds lovebird.

"Over a period of a couple of months he's bedding her merrily and then for a complex of reasons she refuses him. He asks her to marry him; she refuses and they're released from jail, it's a new scenario, it's over and he goes off to die."

The conversation turns to language, obviously a fundamental concern for the Irish writer. Tom views it as a tool of resistance agianst a colonial oppressor, from the 18th century on.

"For us it's a battle - we've got to show them. The English recognise that - take Behan, may he rest easy - his use of language in those plays.

"And in the plays, mix and gather them as they are, he's really taking on the Brits in terms of his use of language all the time. That applies to a lot of Irish writing, it certainly applies to mine. And where it's not consciously present, it's often unconsciously present - we'll show the f**kers what you can do with the English language."

Considering how critical he is of contemporary poets, could it be that the hang over of colonialism doesn't weigh as heavily on them as it did on Tom's generation?

"No doubt. The connection with an teanga dhúchais - that's gone too for most of them. That was the oxygen around us when I was growing up. An invaluable oxygen because the Irish love a fight for one thing - the hoors took our language from us, we'll show them.

"There's a musical beat in - I'd like to think - the English I write, be it poetry or prose; and in lots of the Irish writers in my generation that comes directly from the musical richness of the Irish language.

"Why is the Irish language so musically rich? Quite simply, the muisical qualities of the language are contingent on the richness or absence of vowel music - the only European language with the vowel richness of Irish is Italian - notoriously musical, therefore the operas. So that's a great inheritance, huge inheritance. You'd be lost without it."

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