Conor O’Callaghan, pictured in Chinatown, Manchester. Photograph: Eve O’Callaghan.
DUNDALK poet Conor O’Callaghan is pacing the corridors of a Drogheda hotel. There are only a couple of hours to go until the launch of his latest collection of poems and the 45-year-old is in a reflective mood as he teases out why it has taken him nearly a decade to produce The Sun King, his fourth collection of poems and his first in eight years.
“Once you publish a poem- once it enters the public domain- it becomes public ownership; it stops being your own thing. There are some poets who feel that they have to assert ownership of their own poems. Derek Mahon, for example, revises previously published poems in later books and, by doing so, is basically saying, ‘These are my poems and I’ll do what I want with them.’ And in a way I kind of respect him for that. Having said that, I don’t understand the impulse. I don’t even understand the impulse to want to revise poems. I’m far more interested in moving forward and creating new work.
“I do think that writing poems is to do with energy. Michael Hofmann once said ‘The hardest thing about being a poet is continuing to be one’. There are loads and loads of reasons for that: reputation, lack of encouragement, lack of money…the older you get, the more your energy gets used on other things. There‘s no way you can get up every morning and do it. Poets can’t write programmatically like novelists and dramatists. The energy comes and goes.”
It’s clear that that energy and inspiration are in abundance for the Dundalk man, who is now based in Manchester. If O’Callaghan doesn’t seem short of ideas for poems, it’s perhaps because his work is steeped in the materials of the modern world.
He is also, it seems, energised by the work of his contemporaries and is more than aware of his generation’s lineage. “I definitely think that the generation of Irish poets that I belong to tried to bring in influences from outside Ireland. We all read voraciously- American poets, Australian poets- and we tried to bring in those influences to freshen up the Irish lyric.
“And in British poetry, too, there are loads of people that I really admire: Simon Armitage, Sean O’Brien…poets who were massively important to me. I really admired how they got things from our world- the late 20th century / early 21st century- into poems, without compromising too much in terms of style or grace; that you could still write beautiful lyrics yet still have photocopying machines, greyhound tracks and Chinese takeaways in the poems.”
I feel it’s my duty as a poet to examine something as closely as possible, to absorb its vocabulary and to try and make something real and something beautiful from it all.
O’Callaghan’s passion for the 21st century lyric- for poems by Irish poets that move on from the Heaney– esque descriptions of the landscape- lead me to ask him if the commonly held perception of an Irish poet is somehow misjudged? He’s in no doubt about this.
“When I lived in Ireland in my 20’s, I used to be involved in Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools program, teaching writing to primary school children. One of the first things I would always do in the classroom is ask the children ‘When your teacher told you that there was a poet coming here today, what did you imagine that I would like?’ Based on their suggestions, I would draw an identikit. That identikit would always resemble Patrick Kavanagh: patchy jacket, bottle of whiskey, craggy- looking…it was always a disheveled, bearded old man. There was a definite sense that, as an Irish poet, you were expected to fit a particular profile.
“Similarly, poverty was a given with poetry. I remember being interviewed on an arts radio program on RTÉ and the interviewer- who shall remain nameless- asked me ‘how do you make ends meet’ in a very sympathetic tone. Now it was the high years of the Celtic Tiger! We were doing o.k! And I couldn’t resist saying to him ‘You know what? I’m fine, thanks! I’m making loads of money!’ And I tackled him about it: I said ‘Do you expect me to be broke?’
“I’m not going to pretend to be poor just because there’s this expectation that I should be poor. Patrick Kavanagh, someone who I revere very much, clearly went through this long period of poverty. But the poems weren’t the result of poverty; the poems happened in spite of the poverty. It’s a bullshit idea that poets should be broke.”
What I find annoying is that are loads of Irish poets out there writing about the downturn and the end of the Celtic Tiger, who never wrote about the Celtic Tiger…They are elegising something that never existed in their poems.
This brings us neatly to the Celtic Tiger. ‘Tiger Redux’, a poem from The Sun King, which was written as an elegy for the excesses of the Celtic Tiger years, is one of the book’s more memorable poems.
In a telling stanza, O’Callaghan challenges the reader to re- consider the virtues of Ireland’s unprecedented boom years: “Truth? Though you were mighty strange- / so laissez faire, so keep the change- / spare us from the dope who (bore) / digs the hole we were before.”
“One of the things that really annoyed me about the Celtic Tiger was this hangdog attitude”, O’Callaghan says. “We spent most of the 15 years of the Celtic Tiger waiting for the bubble to burst. It seemed to me that from 1994 onwards that everybody was saying ‘Any day now…’ There was also this attitude that, all of a sudden, Ireland had lost its soul. You would get this, particularly, outside of Ireland. I remember being at a party in America and an Irish ex- pat saying “Ireland is very wealthy now, but it’s lost its soul. And I said to him ‘Fuck off!’
“I speak as someone who spent the 1980’s signing on in Barrack Street in Dundalk. I saw the rough end of penury and straitened times in Ireland that preceded the Celtic Tiger. Are you honestly asking me to say that I didn’t enjoy the affluence of the Celtic Tiger? I did. Clearly, it was massively corrupt, poorly managed; clearly there are a huge of refugees of the recession, some of whom are members of my own family, some of whom are people who I love very much and who have suffered; I don’t take any of that lightly. But the one thing nobody says about the Celtic Tiger is that it was brilliant. It was great fun; like a collective coke habit- you don’t want it back; you’re glad that it’s gone; I’m glad that we kicked the habit. But are you honestly telling me that you didn’t enjoy the rush of the time? We did. Everybody did. It was a time in Ireland where you walked out your front door and you were knee- deep in cash. Everybody had money and we’re expected to feel guilty about it all.”
The Celtic Tiger years is clearly something that O’Callaghan has thought about as a father, a son, a brother and an Irish citizen. What is it about those years, though, that interests him as a poet?
“I’m interested in the way that the Celtic Tiger has impacted upon the Irish poem. The landscape has changed dramatically in Irish poetry, which has to with the Celtic Tiger in ways that are largely unacknowledged.
“What I find annoying is that are loads of Irish poets out there writing about the downturn and the end of the Celtic Tiger, who never wrote about the Celtic Tiger. So the landscape and their version of Ireland in their work has gone from pre- Celtic Tiger to post- Celtic Tiger and nothing in between. So in actual fact, they are bemoaning something that didn’t exist in their poems. They are elegising something that never existed in their poems.
“‘Tiger Redux’ is partly tongue- in- cheek, but only partly. Part of me is actually nostalgic for that affluence. The simple response would be to whinge about the Tiger and say how terrible it was or to try and do as some of the great realist novelists in America of the late 60’s / early 70’s did and try and look at it as closely as possible and find the poetry in it; there had to be something of poetry in it. Robert Graves famously said ‘There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.’ The first part is certainly true. Is there no poetry in money? I think there is poetry in money, actually.
“But money is one of those things that isn’t considered a fit subject matter for poetry. Robert Frost once said ‘Poems should take as its subject matter those things that are commonly experienced but uncommon in books.’ We think about money all the time, we spend a chunk of lives worrying about it and yet there is almost no poetry about money. It hasn’t entered the mainstream of poetry. So I think that there are things that I and the poets of my generation have tried to bring into the Irish lyric: common experiences that are uncommon in books. With The Sun King, I’ve tried to write about sex, money and the Internet; to locate the poetry in the Internet. I feel it’s my duty as a poet to examine something as closely as possible, to absorb its vocabulary and to try and make something real and something beautiful from it all.”
Acknowledging that every poet has one poem that will be etched on their gravestone, O’Callaghan admits that ‘East’, his signature poem from 1999’s Seatown, is one of his finest accomplishments. Deliberately intended as a personal manifesto, the poem explores O’Callaghan’s relationship with Dundalk and, in a broader sense, Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the world. Emigration is featured heavily in ‘East’, which, of course, is a theme that is becoming more relevant than ever in the present climate.
The Irish football team taught us great lessons about emigration and the healthy relationship that we have with our emigrant community.
“My earliest memory of emigration was when I was about 10 years old, watching the opening match of the 1978 World Cup between West Germany and Poland. I was in my Grandmother’s house, which was right next door to where we lived. I was sat down at the television with my four brothers, excited as anything. The doorbell rings. There is a couple on the doorstep. Who was it only my cousins from Chicago who had found us: we didn’t even know that they existed. It was my Grandfather’s first cousins. It was such a serious thing that the opening game of the World Cup was switched off. ‘They’ve come all the way from America’, my Granny said. I had no option but to figure this out in my head. And that was the first time that I got a handle on emigration: that there was this whole other side to ourselves that is out there all the time. The people from Chicago that came into that room that day are, in truth, as Irish as ourselves.”
Self- described sports fanatic O’Callaghan, who wrote Red Mist: Roy Keane and the Football Civil War, a memoir set during Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy’s bust up in Saipan, can’t resist explaining his interest in emigration without mentioning the Irish soccer team.
“I think the Irish football team taught us great lessons about emigration and the healthy relationship that we have with our emigrant community. I always think of the Irish football team of the 1980’s, which was cynically defined by the Granny Rule. Tony Cascarino said in his autobiography that he never felt anything other than Irish and that north of Ireland players were never treated as second- class citizens- they were treated like everyone else. And I was grateful to him for saying that because I think that it’s true.
“You can be Irish and yet not be born there; you can have two identities at once, which are very important and profound lessons for people. For example, take London- born Alan Kelly, the former goalkeeper for the Irish team: it was him who taught his team mates Amhrán na bhFiann. This is a guy who feels as Irish as he is English. The Irish team were ribbed about the mixed extraction of the players in the English media in a way that seriously pissed me off.”
As we part, I ask O’Callaghan if he believes there’s a link between his love of sport and his practice as a poet: if the idea of working within closed systems, common to both sport and poetry, is part of his make- up. Again, he goes back to sport.
“I play crown green bowls. There’s some nights you play like Jesus and there’s other nights you play like Judas. Writing poetry has its good days and its bad days.”
And with that, O’Callaghan makes his way to a darkened stage at Drogheda Arts Centre to read from The Sun King, knowing that he is one of the few Irish writers alive today who can skilfully shine an unflinching light on how we live and how we relate to the rest of the world.
The Sun King is out now from The Gallery Press.