Derek Mahon 1941-2020: A tribute

Posted on: 02 October 2020

Derek Mahon, the gifted Belfast-born poet whose poem ‘Everything is Going to Be All Right’ struck a chord with many this year, has died aged 78. Nicholas Grene, Professor of English Literature, has written a personal tribute to a man whose loss is especially sharply felt at Trinity College Dublin.

All of us who love poetry in Ireland and around the world will be desolated to learn of the death of Derek Mahon, one of our great writers. It comes home particularly to us in Trinity where Mahon was a student in the 1960s and awarded an honorary degree in 1995.

I knew Derek from his student days, and have stayed in touch with him on and off ever since: just this week I had a card from him to give his blessing to an event we were planning here in College to celebrate what would have been his 80th birthday on 23 November 2021. Sadly, this will now have to be a memorial, but will certainly go ahead.

Mahon was formed by his childhood in North Belfast, schooling in Inst, and above all by his time in Trinity in the company of his lifelong friends Michael and Edna Longley to whom his first collection Night Crossing (1968) was dedicated. Already in that book his characteristic gifts were obvious: his wry wit, his ranging imagination and his dazzling sense of lyric form. All are apparent in that early signature poem ‘In Carrowdore Churchyard’, his tribute to Louis MacNeice.

Mahon lived for many years abroad, in the US and Canada, in London, Paris and Rome, with latterly highly productive visits to India. He is a major world poet not just because of the ways in which he absorbed all he saw and read, the pictures he so admired and appreciated, turning them into magnificent poems such as ‘Courtyards at Delft’ and ‘The Hunt by Night’. It is because of his capacity to go out to ‘everything that is the case imaginatively’ as he puts it in ‘Tractatus’. He is a wonderful poet of inanimate things, as in his amazing poem ‘Lives’ dedicated to Seamus Heaney, where he imagines a whole set of transmigrations from a ‘torc of gold’ to ‘a stone in Tibet’.

Mahon’s was in many ways a troubled life, vulnerable to depression, heartbreakingly caught in his four-line ‘Dejection Ode’. And that is what makes all the more moving his extraordinarily affirmative poem, ‘Everything is Going to Be All Right’, which has offered many of us consolation this year.

Derek Mahon (centre) with Hans Kung, left, and Rev Michael Hurley SJ received their honorary degrees at Trinity College in 1995.

In the 1990s Mahon produced a remarkable set of satiric verse epistles, including The Hudson Letter (1995) and The Yellow Book (1997). But in the new century he turned back to the lyric form with the fine volume Harbour Lights (2006). The animating force in his later work was a sense of anger and indignation at all we are doing to destroy the planet, voiced in Life ón Earth (2008). His most recent book Against the Clock (2018) continued to express this concern for the despoiled environment, but there was there also a new and touching sense of personal serenity and happiness. One more book, Washing Up, is due out shortly from his long-term publisher Gallery Press.

His great gifts as a writer were recognised in many awards. His poetry will be read and re-read for generations to come. For those who knew him, what we will miss is his presence and the sheer pleasure of his company.




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