Reception for Harry Clifton, Ireland Professor of Poetry

Provost's House
Trinity College Dublin
22 February 2012

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Good evening and welcome to the Saloon in the Provost's House for this very special occasion. We're shortly to have the great pleasure of hearing Harry Clifton deliver his public lecture in the Swift Theatre, as the current holder of the Ireland Chair of Poetry.

We take this opportunity to formally welcome Harry Clifton to Trinity College. Let me say what a great honour it is to have you among us, and how much we're looking forward to you being part of the College this term, contributing to our intellectual and creative life.

The Ireland Chair of Poetry was among the most inspiring inter-institutional initiatives of the last century. Established in 1998, it's a means both of recognising an individual poet and also of acknowledging the importance of poetry to our culture as a whole.

The partners involved are three Irish universities: Queen's University Belfast, University College Dublin, and Trinity, and both Arts Councils. I am delighted that we have here this evening Pat Moylan, Chair of the Arts Council of Ireland, and Bob Collins, Chair of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. 

You are all most welcome here tonight.

Over the three year term of the Chair, the poet spends one term each year in residence in each of the universities. Last year Harry Clifton was in Queen's, next year he will be in UCD, and this term is Trinity's turn. Residency allows the Ireland Chair of Poetry to do some teaching as well as give poetry readings.

I'm sure our students are excited at the prospect of attending your poetry workshops and creative writing classes. Well, I guess they're excited but also nervous - or they should be if they've read your lines on:

'..the bar-room sophistry
Of student poets, their theories
Clouded by cigarettes and beer
Reducing you to tears
And laughter'.

I'm sure our students are up for having their theories unclouded, and the sophistry laughed out of them. I look forward to the results, which will no doubt appear in Icarus, or another one of the College's literary magazines.

The centrepiece of the residency is tonight's public lecture. This is an opportunity for members of the College, staff and students, and also for the much wider community of those who care about literature, to hear a master practitioner explore the craft of poetry. 

In Trinity we're very proud of our great tradition of literary alumni from Swift to Sebastian Barry, and including our most recent graduates nowsetting out on writing careers. Over the past decade or so we've taken our support of literature and the arts to a new level by embarking on a series of initiatives directly aimed at fostering creativity.

This sponsorship of the Ireland Chair of Poetry is just one such initiative. I would also mention the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing, also established in 1998 as a base for Ireland's first full-time Masters in creative writing. (The centre is in Westland Row and, as the actual birthplace of Wilde, it figured in Al Pacino's new film Wilde Salome which premiered at the Film Festival in the Savoy Cinema two nights ago). 

And over the past few months, I've had the pleasure of opening both the Lir - the National Academy for Dramatic Art - and the Centre for Music Composition. All these recent initiatives show Trinity's commitment to the Arts, and that the Arts are central to any strategy for the social and economic renewal of this country. We need in Trinity as elsewhere to become more innovative, or better, more creative, or better again, more radical, and 'the act of poetry (as we all know) is a rebel act', so we need more of it.

Harry Clifton is the fifth holder of the Ireland Chair of Poetry. The previous holders are John Montague, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Paul Durcan, and Michael Longley. That's quite a line-up! In the first fourteen years of its existence, the Chair has only ever been occupied by great names. Long may this continue.

Harry Clifton is an Irish poet with an exceptionally international dimension. He has spent decades outside Ireland, living in Africa, East Asia, the United States, and all round Europe. The only book of his poems I own is The Desert Route (I will buy more now I promise) and in these poems, as I assume in others, he moves from Eccles Street, to Brooklyn Heights, to Old Calcutta. He has titled his lecture tonight, The Unforged Conscience: Europe in Irish Poetry.

I'm glad he has because maybe it's time to take the discourse of Europe away from the politicians, from the economists, and from the bureaucrats; recently they have been making a bit of a hash of it.

We need a poet to remind us that the taps of our Euopean culture are not exhausted, that they flow on all day and all night regardless.  

This lecture by the Ireland Professor of Poetry is now established as a seminal event in our calendar, and it's Trinity's great privilege to host it.

It's now my pleasure to hand over to Pat Moylan, Chair of the Ireland Chair of Poetry Trust, who will say a few words on behalf of the Trustees.


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