Derek Mahon, the Belfast-born poet who became an immense figure in Irish poetry with poems such as A Disused Shed in Co Wexford and Courtyards in Delft, has died at the age of 78 after a short illness.
Mahon, whose poetry career spanned a half-century, was most often compared to WH Auden, Louis MacNeice and Samuel Beckett, with the critic Brendan Kennelly calling him “a Belfast Keats with a Popean sting”. Several of his poems became staples of school curricula, and, as Ireland locked down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, RTÉ ended its evening news bulletin with Mahon reading his poem Everything Is Going to be All Right, which includes the lines: “There will be dying, there will be dying, / but there is no need to go into that.”
His final collection, Washing Up, is due to be published later this month.
Announcing his death on Friday, Mahon’s publisher Gallery Press called him a “master poet” and a “pure artist”.
Fellow Belfast-born poet Michael Longley said: “Derek Mahon was my oldest friend in poetry. We went to the same Belfast school, and we served our poetic apprenticeships together at Trinity College Dublin. Even then, I knew that he would be one of the great lyric poets of the past century. He was always entirely focused on writing poems, never distracted by the business of ‘the poetry world’. He was a supreme craftsman. There is much darkness in his poetry, but it is set against the beauty of the world, and the formal beauty of his work. I believe that Derek’s poetry will last as long as the English language lasts.”
Poet Paul Muldoon told the Guardian: “Derek Mahon was one of the great poets in English, one of the few whose technical brilliance was somehow adequate to the successive terrors of our age.”
Critic and poet David Wheatley, meanwhile, paid tribute to “his endlessly inventive, witty and humane poems.
“His work emerged just as Northern Ireland was collapsing into civil strife, and in his classic early books – Night-Crossing, Lives, The Snow Party – Mahon alternates thrillingly between dandyish detachment and a reckoning with visceral forces with the power to overwhelm all art. There are many Mahons – he is a latter-day metaphysical poet, a belated French symbolist, a poet-philosopher of the overlooked and undervalued carving a refuge from a hostile world in the green shade of his Kinsale home,” he said.
Born in 1941 and raised in the Protestant inner suburbs of Belfast, Mahon attended Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He then went to Trinity College Dublin, where he befriended Longley, who would later describe them inhaling with their “untipped Sweet Afton cigarettes MacNeice, Crane, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Larkin, Lawrence, Graves, Ted Hughes, Stevens, Cummings, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, as well as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Brecht, Rilke”. While tales of “The Group” – young Irish poets including Seamus Heaney, Mahon and Longley who gathered at the Belfast home of Queen’s University lecturer Philip Hobsbaum – would be repeated in stories about their professional ascent, Mahon disputed the period’s significance: “The way that story is told, we were terrified provincial ignoramuses who needed someone from Cambridge to get us going.”
Mahon published the book Twelve Poems in 1965, and gained critical acclaim three years later for Night-Crossing, published while he was working as an English teacher in a Belfast high school. Mahon later described the collection as his “horrible, scatterbrained first book”, though it contained many of the themes he would touch on for the rest of his career: alienation, outcasts and the nature of art. He frequently revised his own work, with one critic quipping that Mahon showed “scant respect for the artist as a young Mahon”.
“Mahon was fond of Heraclitus’s dictum that we can never step twice into the same river, and thanks to his endless self-revisions it often feels like we can never step twice into the same Mahon poem either,” Wheatley said. “A deeper explanation for this, however, is the abiding joyous freshness and surprise of his classic poems, which will endure and inspire.”
He followed Night-Crossing with Lives (1972), The Snow Party (1975), Courtyards in Delft (1981) and Antarctica (1985). The Snow Party features his most celebrated poem, A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford, which examines a cluster of mushrooms locked in an abandoned country hotel shed.
Mahon also worked as a journalist – for the BBC, New Statesman and even briefly for Vogue magazine – a translator and a screenwriter for television, adapting novels by Elizabeth Bowen and Jennifer Johnston.
A burst of productivity in the 2000s saw him publish four award-winning collections in five years: Harbour Lights, Somewhere the Wave, Life on Earth and An Autumn Wind; a body of work the Guardian called “one of the most significant developments in poetry this century”.
After living in France, England and New York, he settled in Kinsale, County Cork, where he lived for decades. He remained carefully neutral on Irish and Northern Irish politics, telling the Guardian in 2015: “I never put a name to my own position and I still can’t, which suits me fine.”
“When growing up, my bunch of friends would have thought of ourselves as anti-unionist because we were anti-establishment. We would have been vaguely all-Ireland republican socialists. But then, when theory turned into practice, we had to decide where we stood and I never did resolve it for myself … from time to time you get a kick from some critic for not being sufficiently political, or for being a closet unionist or a closet republican. There was a time when people – much more English people than Irish – would ask, ‘Why don’t these Ulster poets come out more explicitly and say what they are for?’ But there is all this ambiguity. That is poetry. It is the other thing that is the other thing.”