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.
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.
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