Pádraic Fiacc (1924 – 2019)
Belfast poet, renowned for his writing on the Troubles, dies, aged 94.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland has learned with sadness of the death of the Belfast poet, Pádraic Fiacc, who died last night at the age of 94.
The young father is able himself to carry
The immaculate white coffin but
Stains it with a dirty-faced boy's
then suddenly cries
Out like a man being tortured by water.
Pádraic Fiacc, Tears/A Lacrimosa, 1986 (excerpt), recalling an incident in 1972 in which a child is killed by a ricocheting bullet.
Born Patrick Joseph O’Connor in Belfast in 1924, Pádraic Fiacc adopted his pseudonym in honour of his friend and mentor, poet Padraic Colum. (Loosely translated from the Irish, Padraic Colum means Padraic the Dove while Padraic Fiacc means Padraic the Raven.)
Pádraic Fiacc’s family emigrated to New York in the late 1920s. Raised in the notorious Hell’s Kitchen district of the city, he was educated at Commerce High School and Haaren High School. It was at this point that the young writer became acquainted with Colum and he produced four plays and a volume of poetry – since lost. He enrolled at St Joseph’s Seminary and studied for five years under the Irish Capuchin Order. Unhappy at the life of a prospective priest, he left the seminary and left for Belfast in 1946. In Belfast he immediately began forging a reputation as a poet, appearing in New Irish Poets (1948). His work also appeared in Irish Bookman, Poetry Ireland and the Irish Times.
In 1956 he settled in Glengormley with his new wife, the American artist Nancy Wayne. In 1957 he won the AE Memorial Award for his anthology Woe to Boy (Never published in its original form). During the 1960s he was a presence in the local literary scene but he was never truly established until his first full collection, By the Black Stream, was published by Dolmen Press in 1969.
Other volumes quickly followed: Odour of Blood (1973); Nights in the Bad Place (1977); The Selected Padraic Fiacc (1979); Missa Terriblis (1986); Ruined Pages (1994); Red Earth (1996) and Semper Vacare (1999). A miscellany of his critical and autobiographical work, My Twentieth-Century Night-Life appeared in 2009, which included two biographical pieces for radio: Hell’s Kitchen and Atlantic Crossing. Recent collections include Sea: sixty years of poetry by Pádraic Fiacc (edited and illustrated by Michael McKernon, 2006) and In My Own Hand: poems written in the poet’s own hand (2012).
At the centre of his work are two overriding concerns: the correct poetic response to the moral, political and civil disintegration of Belfast in the face of violence and the re-imagination of a Celtic Twilight in a modernistic, self-expressive aesthetic.
In addition to Northern Ireland’s civic strife, the sectarian murder of his friend Gerry McLaughlin in April 1975 was a turning point in Fiacc’s response to the Troubles and this event deepened the poet’s concern with the impact of civil and personal violence for the rest of his artistic career. His ground-breaking anthology, The Wearing of the Black (Blackstaff 1974), remains a touchstone publication, presenting a vigorous and challenging gathering of diverse voices vexed by themes of grief, hurt and outrage. His own poems from this period are the bedrock of the enduring regard for his work among subsequent generations of readers and writers and the affection with which he is held among a public otherwise disengaged from poetry.
Fiacc was recognised for his contribution to Irish literature when he was elected a member of the Aosdana in 1981. He was honoured by Belfast City Council in 2012 with a special reception at City Hall.
Tributes have been paid by fellow poets and colleagues.
President Michael D Higgins, said:
“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. I had the privilege of visiting him last week and reading one of his poems to him, a poem dedicated to his friend Gerald Dawe. Padraic Fiacc leaves a legacy of particular intensity.”
Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, said:
“Throughout his long career, Pádraic 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 critic Gerald Dawe, who co-edited with the late Aodán Mac Póilin, Fiacc’s Selected Poems, recalls:
“One very distinct image remains in my memory of Padraic Fiacc – Joe as he was known back then. It’s 1974 and we are in the front room by the bay window of his house in Glengormley. Joe is playing ever so lightly on the piano Seosamh MacCathmhaoil’s (Joseph Campbell) ‘The Blue Hills of Antrim’. It has such a delicate easeful quality, almost effortless, the air carries the tune. His sense of home, nestled high up above Belfast which he knew like the back of his hand, would eventually succumb to a pitiless violence but Joe – as Padraic Fiacc – withstood miraculously the downward spirals to reach a stoical calm; his poetry becoming testament to both the light and the dark of his city’s history.”
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.”
Tara McEvoy, a PhD student at Queen's University Belfast and co-editor of The Tangerine magazine, one of the best contemporary journals of new writing, based in Belfast, said:
“Pádraic Fiacc's passing marks the loss of an inimitable and vital voice in Irish poetry. His work stands as testament to a lifetime committed to capturing the ‘moment on the/ Margin’, to his empathy and compassion. He will be sorely missed.”
Poet Moyra Donaldson, said:
'I was first introduced to Pádraig Fiacc by the late Mairtin Crawford in the sanctuary that was Bookfinders cafe, a place where outsiders and anarchists were always welcome. I came to realise that Fiacc’s ‘Troubles’ poetry, though unwelcome to many, was a passionate and compassionate cry against the encircling darkness that was Belfast at that time.'
Michael McKernon, Fiacc’s most recent publisher, added:
“Poet Pádraic fiacc’s mesmerizing work both celebrated and challenged an imperfect world.”
Patrick Ramsey, Fiacc’s publisher for many years at Lagan Press, said:
“Pádraic 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.”
A selection of poems by Pádraic Fiacc can be viewed at: www.troublesarchive.com