Rediscovering the voice of poet Ethna MacCarthy

Portrait of MacCarthy by Séan O’Sullivan RHA used as the cover of her published poetry.

Ethna MacCarthy’s name is well-known in Irish literary circles but mostly in that way which infuriates those of us energised by the #WTF revolution – as a ‘friend’ and muse of a Great Man.

MacCarthy (1903-1959) was an undergraduate in Trinity in the  twenties; one of her circle was future Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett who promptly fell in love with her. He was to immortalise her as Alba in Dream of Fair to Middling Women and it was MacCarthy’s association with Beckett, along with her beauty and the recorded comments of men such as playwright Denis Johnston, which seemed destined to be all that survived of her biography.

MacCarthy was among the brightest of her undergraduate cohort; she won Scholarship, was a First Class Moderator, and went on to lecture in modern languages. She was a feminist before the word was invented, ‘prodigiously’ witty in French as well as English, outspoken, intellectually fearless and independent. Not content with her academic career she retrained as a medical doctor, as had her father, and became a pediatrician. And all the while she wrote poetry; a small number of her works appeared in literary journals and newspapers.

Ireland professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin at the launch.

After the death in 1979 of her husband, theatre critic Con Leventhal, his private papers came into the hands of his friend Eoin O’Brien. Among them was discovered the single notebook which represents all that remains of MacCarthy’s poetry. Professor O’Brien began the work of preparing them for publication and, when he showed them to poet Gerald Dawe, this plan grew wings.

The result is a beautiful production by Lilliput Press of MacCarthy’s first and only collection which was launched in the Long Room by Ireland Professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin. The event, which was attended by members of Con Leventhal’s family, was enhanced by readings from the poetry by actress Cathy Belton.

‘Barcelona’ by Ethna MacCarthy (From MS 11602)

Gerald Dawe, who with Eoin O’Brien is an editor of the new collection, outlines in his introduction the many influences on MacCarthy which are revealed in her poetry; her literary and scientific professional experiences, the city of Dublin itself (which inspired some of her best work) and, as Dawe perceptively points out, the tension between the ‘performative’ and conventional elements of her life.

He goes on: ‘It was in the mid- to late 1940s that MacCarthy hit her stride as a poet with several very moving and self-confident poems. The decade sees the writing of ‘Lullaby’, a truly remarkable poem, which foreshadows the exposed lunar and death-haunted landscapes of Sylvia Plath’s poetry by well over a decade:

Each night the dragnets of the tide

take the shattered moon

beyond the harbour bar

but she reluctant suicide

nibbles her freedom and returns

to climb beside the nearest star.

One clear night endures her pain

to plunge to baptism again.’

Given what is known of MacCarthy’s personality, it cannot be doubted that, had she lived she herself would have ensured that her poetic voice was heard. Her death in her mid-fifties threatened this voice with being silenced. The editors of this wonderful collection are greatly to be thanked for the act of genuine friendship which secures MacCarthy’s place in the history of modernism in Ireland.

 

Dr Jane Maxwell

 

 

A portrait of his love

It isn’t everyday that one finds oneself – as an archivist in an academic library – handling a piece of artwork by an internationally renowned painter. But that is what your humble author was doing recently.

Among our collections are the papers of Canon James Owen Hannay (1865-1950), Church of Ireland clergyman and, under the pseudonym George A. Birmingham, also a novelist. Hannay tried in his work to reflect with honesty the complex social circumstances he experienced in Ireland. However as a Protestant clergyman criticising any aspect of Catholic life, his early works attracted criticism. He was the target of a boycott, and he felt he had to withdraw from the Gaelic League in the wake of protests about the tour of his successful play General John Regan. Later Hannay found his métier when he deployed his comic voice; he was a gifted farceur whose philosophy was that ‘if we didn’t extract food for laughter out of failure we should go under’. Recently his reputation as a shrewd observer of the Irish society of his day has revived (Dict.Ir.Biog).

Photograph by Bassano, 23 March 1927. (The National Portrait Gallery).

Photograph by Bassano, 23 March 1927. (The National Portrait Gallery).

In 1889 he married his third cousin Adelaide Susan ‘Ada’ Wynne (d. 1933), with whom he claimed literally to have fallen ‘in love at first sight’. They had a happy marriage and four children. Adelaide shared her husband’s scholarly pursuits; his devotion to patristic study led to his appointment as Donnellan lecturer for 1901 at Trinity. These lectures, instituted in 1794 by the bequest of musician and woman-about-town Anne Donnellan, were initially held under the auspices of the School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies. Hannay’s lectures  were subsequently published as The spirit and origin of Christian monasticism (1903).

As part of the Library’s continuing engagement with the College’s Decade of Commemoration activities, the Hannay papers were prioritised for conservation treatment; Hannay served as an army chaplain from 1915 to 1918 and his experiences are described in A padre in France (1918). While the papers were being prepared for transfer to the Department of Preservation and Conservation an illustrated letter was noticed, in a strangely familiar hand; familiar in the sense of being almost illegible and yet recognisably the hand of Jack B.Yeats. The item had been correctly described by the cataloguer in the ’60s, but hadn’t been indexed under the artist’s name. So a would-be researcher would only find it if, like the Isla de Muerta in the Pirates of the Caribbean*, she already knew where it was.

Letter from J.B.Yeats to Ada Hannay. (MS 3457/28)

Letter from J.B.Yeats to Ada Hannay.
(MS 3457/28)

This is a letter to Ada Hannay in which Yeats thanks her for her criticism – not of his art surely? – and hopes that her husband will soon visit to give Yeats ‘a good opportunity’ presumably to sketch him. The postscript reads: ‘I send you here with suggestions for hanging those sketches’. When the letter is turned upside down we can see Yeats’ sketch of the Hannay family struggling to examine poorly hung paintings. While most of the figures are hurriedly drawn, the picture includes an attractive portrait sketch of Mrs Hannay, observing her young daughters.

'A certain kind of portrait should be hung either very high up or very low down'.

‘A certain kind of portrait should be hung either very high up or very low down’.

Irish writers, possibly particularly Anglo-Irish writers, have long been the subject of enthusiastic research by Japanese scholars. James Hannay is no different. One such scholar is Masahito Yahaka , Director of the Department of Community Studies, Beppu University Junior College, who has visited Trinity on several occasions and whom we hope to welcome again next year as a Long Room HUB Fellow. He says he was attracted to Hannay ‘because he wrote about the conflict between Nationalists and Unionists with humour. He teaches how important humour is to solve human conflicts and to lead a meaningful life’. Masahito Yahaka maintains a website dedicated to Birmingham.

* Popular cultural reference (!).

Jane Maxwell