Remarkable life of Belfast poet Padraic Fiacc who cast unflinching and fair eye on the Troubles
Padraic Fiacc, who has died aged 94, was born in Belfast and moved to New York where Restoration: the clock tower he studied to be a priest before returning to his native city where he became a chronicler of the brutal sectarian conflict. Ivan Little talks to the writer’s friends about his legacy
The celebrated and unflinchingly forthright Belfast poet Padraic Fiacc has died at the age of 94, just 10 days after the Irish President Michael D Higgins paid a private and emotional visit to see him and thank him for his life's work.
The acclaimed writer, who spent part of his early life in New York and who was at times rebuked by critics for his observations on the Troubles, passed away peacefully in a south Belfast care facility, minutes after the artist Michael McKernon read him one of his poems, A Want in Me, one of his favourite works.
President Higgins said in a statement last night that he had learnt with great sadness of the death of Fiacc, whom he described as an "acclaimed poet with a unique perspective and courageous realism".
He added: "Having experienced tragedy and loss, Padraic Fiacc was never afraid to reflect dark, deeply emotive and disturbing elements in his verse.
"He courageously raised crucial questions about the relationship between violence, poetry and language. His portrayal of the Troubles was stark and revealed an honesty like no other. It was a unique contribution at critical cost. His empathy for the frightened and maimed individuals on either side of the divide shone through his work."
The President described his visit to Fiacc and his reading of a poem to him last week as a privilege. "He leaves a legacy of particular intensity," he said, adding that he and his wife Sabina wanted to express their deepest sympathy to Fiacc's family, friends and colleagues.
"He will be fondly missed by all of us who had the privilege of knowing him."
For Michael McKernon, Fiacc's death marks the end of an 18-year friendship with the poet whom he hailed as a genius. "He illuminated our lives and many of us were touched by his work," he said.
But he added that Fiacc's life was deeply affected on a personal level by the Troubles, particularly the murder of a young poet whom he had been mentoring, 20-year-old Gerard McLaughlin, who was shot dead by the UVF in a sectarian slaying in Newtownabbey in April 1975.
Michael said the killing devastated Fiacc who saw in McLaughlin a lot of himself from his earlier years.
Fiacc's home at Glengormley had been a hub for a host of aspiring writers like McLaughlin and established poets like Seamus Heaney.
Michael admitted that he'd never heard of Fiacc when he was first approached to paint his portrait.
Fiacc was in "a bad place", according to Michael, who said his alcoholism had been a blight on his life.
Michael said: "Padraic asked me to read some of his poems to him and I became captivated by his work. I continued with the portrait and I would take him out in the car for a run every Saturday to somewhere like the Mournes. He loved getting out and we would discuss poetry and everything else.
"But the alcoholism bugged me. I feared he was drinking himself to death. I decided to chance my arm and asked him if he would work on a book of poetry which I would illustrate. It was the start of a journey for him and me. Right away his eyes lit up and he changed almost immediately and the drinking stopped.
"The end result 18 months later was a book called Sea which was launched at Belfast's Linenhall Library where officials had to close the doors because there were so many people coming into the building that it was deemed a safety risk."
The recognition was a boost that Fiacc had been craving and several similar high profile tributes were to follow in his home city down the years.
But friends said there were times that the attacks on his poetry caused him heartache.
The acclaimed Belfast poet Gerald Dawe addressed the issue in an article for the Irish Times about his friend almost exactly 14 years ago.
He wrote how Fiacc's reputation took "a critical pummelling" in the Seventies for his Troubles work, Odour of Blood, and a controversial anthology, The Wearing of the Black, published by Blackstaff Press, which he edited around the same time, a collection of poems by 82 writers.
Dawe said Fiacc's "unforgettable" poetry sometimes shocked and offended people with their "often barbarous utterances" which were lit through with black irony and gallows humour. But Dawe called for a reconsideration of his work and welcomed the fact that a number of radio and TV programmes had been made about him, that he had received awards from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and that he had been elected to Aosdana, the affiliation of Irish artists, in 1981.
He also recalled how a documentary about Fiacc's life had been produced for German television.
Michael McKernon said that Fiacc didn't deserve the criticism that his Troubles poems brought in their wake.
He added: "There was a lot of critical vulgarity and he was ostracised. What he wrote about the Troubles set him apart and there were enemies. But what they didn't realise was that his empathy extended to everyone caught up in the whole mess of the Troubles.
"He wrote of how people who weren't physically injured suffered too. He laid it bare, but some people misread it. But I think he was a very courageous man who was writing about things that few other people were addressing. He went out on the streets, he listened to people and he was fearless. The bombing campaign was at its height but he still walked around in the midst of it all."
After the contentious anthology, The Wearing of the Black, was published, a critic in a national newspaper lambasted it, saying it should have been more balanced with contributions from writers from both sides.
Fiacc hit back, saying that of the 82 writers the majority were actually from the Protestant community.
President Higgins' meeting with Fiacc last week came the night before he attended the funeral of former Belfast Lord Mayor Ian Adamson, who also knew the poet.
The President spent 20 minutes with Fiacc and Michael McKernon said the visit meant a lot to his friend who'd been confined to bed for several years.
He added: "It re-affirmed in his mind a recognition of his contribution to the Irish literary canon. The President presented a copy of his own poem, The Prophets are Weeping, to Padraic after reading it to him."
The poem, the first published by the President since becoming the head of state in 2011, was inspired by the plight of refugees from Syria and elsewhere and also touched on the rise of religious extremism.
"It resonated with Padraic," said Michael. "It struck a chord because his own work embraced downtrodden people affected by conflict from wherever they came. He was very impressed with the President."
The poet was born Patrick Joseph O'Connor in Belfast's Elizabeth Street in 1924. His mother's family had been burnt out of their home in Lisburn.
He was the eldest son of a Belfast barman and IRA man Bernard O'Connor and he joined his father in exile in New York in 1929.
But after the successful family business collapsed they moved from a plush upmarket apartment to live in the notorious working class Hell's Kitchen area.
From an early age at school, Padraic showed an aptitude for writing poetry and plays that teachers said was mature beyond his years.
In his teens, however, he trained to be a priest - some said to avoid being drafted into the American Army - but he didn't complete his studies in the seminary in upstate New York and dropped out after five years to concentrate on his artistic interests which included playing the piano.
He returned to Belfast in 1946 and quickly began to publish his poetry. He adopted the pseudonym Padraic Fiacc - Irish for raven - at the behest of another poet Padraic Colum.
Fiacc's collection Woe to the Boy won the prestigious George 'AE' Russell memorial award for poetry in 1957.
By then Fiacc's star was very much in the ascendancy in Northern Ireland but his work became influenced by the onset of the Troubles.
The re-awakening of interest in his literary career through the decades brought him a new sense of satisfaction.
Two years ago Fiacc turned over the vast majority of his papers to Michael McKernon who has made a number of films in tribute to the poet including one called Stormbird - the title coming from one of the poet's works - which was premiered at the MAC in Belfast, with London-based actor Jonjo O'Neill portraying Fiacc in intervals during breaks in the production.
Michael said: "It's amazing that I am still finding hidden depths about Padraic and his work and his personality. It's been an incredible life."
The poet has asked Michael to write his life story and he said he planned to honour his wishes. He said he regarded it as an honour to ensure that people here knew more about Fiacc.
"If you ask people in Belfast do they know who he is, most people will say no. A lot of his life has been underplayed. But to me he was nothing less than a genius. I have been blessed to know him. "
The head of literature and drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Damian Smyth, paid tribute to Fiacc, saying his legacy was for ever assured.
He added: "Fiacc lived long enough to see that the risks he took in writing poems about the Troubles happening literally on his own doorstep produced work which reached outside the small world of the art form to the general public, as well as challenging and refreshing established writers.
"He did after all find a way to write about horror that was frank, humane, fair, generous, without vindictiveness, and with considerable and enviable artistic skill."
Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, said: "Throughout his long career, Padraic Fiacc established himself as one of the most distinctive voices of his generation. In our long and rich tradition of poetry, he ranks amongst the best, and his place in Northern Irish literary history is assured. Because his honesty and drive to bear witness to his times is so direct, unflinching and uncompromising - no matter how hard these things are for us to hear - as a chronicler of the Troubles, he is unsurpassed."
Poet and writer Maria McManus, said: "It is the work of a pure poet such as Fiacc, to speak the truth. He did so tenderly, sometimes brutally, and his truth is as a grain of sand in an oyster shell, uncomfortable, something gritty, and necessary in the transformation of suffering to beauty.
We are the poorer for his passing, and all the more enriched for the legacy of his poetry."
Patrick Ramsey, Fiacc's publisher for many years at Lagan Press, said: "Padraic Fiacc reminded us of the moral duties of the artist to witness, to record faithful to that witness and to endure. That he did so was in itself astonishing but to have also done so with such aesthetic and poetic brilliance is nothing less than a miracle of defiance and hope. His poems will last."
(left over from the autumn)
Dead leaves, near a culvert
I come on a British Army Soldier
with a rifle and a radio
He has red hair.
He is young enough to be my weenie-bopper daughter's boyfriend.
He is like a lonely little winter robin.
We are that close to each other, I
can nearly hear his heart beating.
I say something bland to make him grin,
But his glass eyes look past my side
- whiskers down the Shore Road Street.
I am an Irishman and he is afraid
That I have come to kill him