Dennis O’Driscoll’s abrupt and untimely death on December 24th 2012 was a huge shock to the poetry world. He was an acclaimed poet (considered one of the best European poets of his time) and critic who was selfless in his generosity towards his fellow poets. His remarkable series of interviews with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones : Interviews with Seamus Heaney, was published in 2008 – a book-length portrait of the famous poet. And, perhaps, it was Heaney who when speaking of his friend, Dennis, put it best:
“Not only was he constant in his dedication to his own work, he also acted as mentor and sounding board to beginners and established figures alike. Modest to a fault, he would have shrugged off the hero word. Yet there was heroic virtue in the man, in the way he answered the demands of his day job as a civil servant and then devoted what ought to have been free time for his own work to responding to the work of others. He was like Yeats‘s “man of a passionate serving kind”, never self-promoting or seeking the limelight but constantly being sought.”
On this, the third anniversary of his death, I am tremendously grateful to his sister Marie for sharing her memories of Dennis, her personal photographs and her vibrant artwork.
Though Dennis will be remembered by many through the treasured words he left behind, I will always be filled with the memories of growing up together, our childhood days.
I filled the garden with skipping rhymes, Dennis sat and read. He was the one who introduced me to the joy of reading, the first of many books.
He was a great instigator of much of the mischief which occurred in the household of six siblings.
He took me on my first trip without our parents, on the train to Dublin, where he quickly reached the top of the large queue in the train’s restaurant, with the use of my “magic slate” to announce to all that he was deaf and dumb. But he soon found his voice… when we were sympathetically ushered to the counter much to the annoyance of our fellow passengers!!
He created “pop up” art exhibitions of his ‘Abstract artwork” on the front wall of our home (which were worth a fortune!!). My parents were only alerted to the event by the sound of the odd car slowing down to take a peek as they traveled along the road.
Our annual holidays by the sea, embracing his anonymity, he could be a French tourist with little ability to communicate in English, seeking directions from exasperated, though helpful, locals. Convince people they were being interviewed live on the radio on topics of great interest, these interviews which we would listen back to on his tape recorder later in the day.
Our family’s Christmas will be forever tinged with sadness now,
his books and the many cards and letters he sent me
lie huddled together on my shelves,
where with the flick of a page,
I can feel his heart pouring out,
read his thoughts,
see visions through his words
Though it’s no easy task.
Dennis back in our childhood days.
Christmas Eve 2012
My heart sunk as I caught a glimpse of the postal van, on its last round, as it headed for home on that cold Christmas eve 2012. The parcel from my brother Dennis wrapped with care, filled with thoughtful treasures, was now lost I feared. My present had always arrived well before the Christmas celebrations began and was often the first gift to be placed unopened beneath my Christmas tree.
Little did I know what lay ahead or that Christmas day would be spent in a cloud of unbelievable sorrow as we booked unexpected flights home. Or that I would find myself sitting by Dennis’s fireplace with my family a few days later where his painful absence was truly felt after that dreadful phone call late on the night of Christmas eve.
On my return to Holland with my heart filled with sorrow following the painful task of bidding him farewell…
…on the eve of his birthday, beneath a winter sky, in the midst of twinkling lights of Christmas.
It was then… that I discovered that the precious package had in fact arrived… and awaited me in my neighbor’s house.
There it was in all its glory with the so familiar handwriting looking as fresh as though the ink was barely dry.
I held it close to me as though it contained life…
With trembling hands, I peered inside,
then I carefully
placed it beneath
my darkened Christmas tree…
as gently as a coffin lowered
Place of rest…
Dennis & Marie
While Dennis used words to create images, I use paints and brushes… So one Christmas I decided to combine our work and send him a painting as a gift from me, a welcome break from the endless ties, I hoped. I wondered which poem I should choose, and as I read through “A Christmas Night”, it created visions for me. And so with great ease, his words emerged upon my canvas with each brush stroke.
After he passed away, Evie our niece, then aged ten, would bravely stand up at a number of his tributes to do a reading of one of her Uncle Dennis’s favorite poems.
Portrait of Evie aged four
Misunderstanding And Muzak
You are in the Super Value supermarket
expecting to meet me at 6.15.
I am in the Extra Value supermarket
expecting to meet you at 6.15.
Danny boy is calling you down special-offer aisles.
Johann Strauss is waltzing me down special-offer aisles.
I weigh mushrooms and broccoli and beans.
You weigh beans and mushrooms and broccoli.
It is 6.45 sign of you.
It is 6.45 no sign of me.
You may have had a puncture.
I may have been held up at work.
It is 6.55. You may have been murdered.
It is 6.55. I may have been flattened by a truck.
Danny Boy starts crooning all over you again.
Johann Strauss starts dancing all over me again.
Everything that’s needed for our Sunday lunch
is heaped up in my trolley, your trolley
We hope to meet, somewhere to eat it.
Since we lost Dennis, I continue to paint, and there are times when some of my work seems to be reflected in his words as in his poems Home and Time Sharing.
when all is said and done
what counts is having someone
you can phone home at five
to ask for the immersion heater
to be switched to “bath”
and the pizza taken from the deepfreeze.
In our time together
we are travelling in the heated car,
a violin concerto playing on the radio
hills streaming with winter cold,
year – end fields worn down to seams,
a blazing quiff of distant dogwood,
burned meringue of snow on mountain tops.
We blurt past farms and cottages;
those whose era we share
are staring from net curtains
at a morning chill for milking
or are setting off to factories in the town,
their segments of road deserted.
It is like a childhood journey
of sleep and open-eyed surprise,
of hermetically sealed life
in the eternal present
before the final destination is reached
We hold hands on the gear stick
and, at this moment,
fear for nothing except the future.
Though it is not intentional, my sister Eithne once remarked to me that she can see a bit of us all in some of my paintings…on reflection, I had to agree. I can indeed see something of our very stylish Mother in this vintage style painting.
And yet we managed fine.
We missed your baking for a time.
And yet we were not better off
without cream-hearted sponges cakes,
flaky, rhubarb-oozing pies.
Linoleum-tiled rooms could no longer
presume on your thoroughgoing scrub;
and yet me made up for our neglect,
laid hardwood timber floors.
Windows shimmered less often.
And yet we got around to
elbow-greasing them eventually.
Your daily sheet-and-blanket
rituals of bed making were more
than we could hope to emulate
And yet the duvets we bought
brought us gradually to sleep,
Declan and Eithne (eleven
and nine respectively at the time)
had to survive without your packed
banana sandwiches, wooden spoon
deterrent, hugs, multivitamins.
And yet they both grew strong;
you have unmet grandchildren
in-laws you never knew.
Yes, we managed fine, made
breakfasts and made love,
took on jobs and mortgages,
set ourselves up for life.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
—Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll; Text & Paintings by Marie O’Driscoll
We are grateful to Anvil Press and Carcanet Press for permission to reprint the poems “Christmas Night,” “Misunderstanding And Muzak,” “Home,” “Time Sharing,” and “Years After.”
Dennis O’Driscoll (1954–2012) was born in Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Apart from nine collections of poetry, books published during his lifetime included a selection of essays and reviews, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams(2001), two collections of literary quotations and Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney(2008). Among his awards were a Lannan Literary Award in 1999, the 2005 E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the 2006 O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the Center for Irish Studies (Minnesota). A member of Aosdána, the Irish academy of artists, he worked for almost forty years in Ireland’s Revenue and Customs service. He died on Christmas Eve, 2012.
A second collection of his essays, The Outnumbered Poet, was published by Gallery Press in 2013. His selection from the works of Michael Hamburger, A Michael Hamburger Reader, will be published by Anvil in December 2015. dennisodriscoll.com
Marie O’Driscoll was born in Thurles, Co.Tipperary in 1957, one of a family of six siblings. She was educated in the Ursuline Convent Thurles, and it was there that she had the only art classes, that she would ever attend. Both Art and English were her greatest passion throughout her school life. In her final year at school, the family were struck with tragedy following the death of their mother, Kitty, and five years later their father Jimmy also died. The shock of the term “orphan” became a reality in their young lives.
She spent a number of years living in Dublin, where she attended a secretarial college, followed by a move to the west of Ireland where she met her husband to be. A number of years later they emigrated to Holland with their two daughters. She began teaching English to adults and children, and eventually created a method of combining her two favorite passions together by setting up classes for children using art as a medium to teach English to them. Although she been painting for as long as she can remember, it took her many years to reveal her work to others. Since then her art has found its way to many corners of the world. www.marieodriscoll.com