Live Encounters tribute to Philip Casey, celebrated Irish Poet and Novelist

Profile Philip Casey Live Encounters Poetry & Writing March 2018

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Live Encounters tribute to Philip Casey, celebrated Irish Poet, Novelist and Member of Aosdána,  who left for another world on Sunday 4th February 2018 in Dublin.

Live Encounters is ever grateful to Philip Casey for granting us an interview and sharing his poems with the readers of the magazine in 2012 and 2016. This issue features a tribute by Irish Poet, Writer and Playwright Terry McDonagh; an interview with Philip Casey (LE June 2012); and his poems (LE February 2016).

On the Passing of Philip Casey, Poet and Novelist – Terry McDonagh

I first got to know Philip Casey in 1987 when Patrick Duffy introduced me to him and Ulrike Boskamp, in Hamburg. Philip had been visiting Ulrike in Berlin and they were returning to Dublin via Hamburg. That first meeting grew into a deep friendship that lasted until Philip’s death at the age of sixty-seven, on Sunday the 4th of February.

Philip was special in his own unique way. He had his rituals: he’d cross the river Liffey to the market on Saturdays to stock up on organic fruit and vegetables for the week– he loved the market and the market loved him. His cosy red-brick terrace house was a meeting place and source of wisdom for multitudes. The Irish writing fraternity is indebted to him for setting up an archive of Irish writers. Dignity is a word that always springs to mind. Apart from his talent as a novelist and poet, Philip was a fiercely loyal critic. I owe him a lot.

Philip returned to us in Hamburg a number of times. He read and facilitated workshops at The International School; we staged his one act play, Cardinal, with Guelma Lea and Barry Stevenson in the main parts in 1994; he read to rapt audiences in Hamburg – in particular, in the Shamrock – the first Irish pub in Hamburg which was run by the very unusual and creative proprietor, Mike Gillen.

Just last year when visiting the International School, I was going through a display of old year-books when Philip’s poem, A Page Falls Open, caught my eye on the cover of one of the books. I forget which year it was but that’s not important.

 ‘A page falls open
and the reader’s name
is there.
It always has been
and will be always.’

As well as his play, Cardinal, he published four collections of poetry; a story for children, The Coupla and the now famous Bann River Trilogy of novels: The Fabulists, The Water Star and The Fisher Child.  Jean Longster, Joanna’s mother said, The Water Star was the best novel she had ever read…and she was an avid reader.

His passing was a dignified occasion. The media and his large circle of friends and admirers turned up in style and numbers for his cremation and even the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, sent his sympathy and condolence to Karina, John and Peter, his sister and brothers.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam…may his soul be seated at God’s right hand.

This interview was published in Live Encounters Magazine, June 2012.

Philip Casey in an exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas

Well known Irish Poet, Writer, Editor and member of Aosdána, which honours artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the Arts in Ireland, talks candidly on his life, work.

“There are people who think writers are elitist loafers and leeches and never do a day’s work, and while the Catholic Church was at its most powerful and obscurantist in the 1940s and 1950s, books were banned and writers were hounded from their jobs, a notable case being the novelist and short-story writer John McGahern. Most writers of note had to leave the country.

Today is a different matter, and I think there is a general respect for writing as a profession. I know that writing friends from abroad have commented on the fact that if you declare yourself to be a writer in Ireland, nobody thinks it’s strange!”

– Philip Casey

Could you share with the readers a glimpse of your life and work?

I was born in London in 1950 to Irish parents, grew up in Co Wexford (South-East Ireland) on my parents’ farm, spent a long time in hospital in my teens, and moved to Dublin in 1971. I emigrated to Barcelona in 1974, just as the Franco era was ending, and was at a champagne party the night the Generalissimo died. I returned to Dublin just after the first free elections in Spain in 1974, and after a few years of trying to be respectable, decided I was a round peg in a square hole, and that all I wanted to do was write. I gave up my job, and survived on very little. I was 29, and the following year I published my first book of verse. I’ve since published four collections in all, and three novels. I’ve also written a children’s novel which I hope will be published over the next year or so, and am presently writing non-fiction.

Why do you write?

As a child I told stories to my brothers (my sister was a late arrival) and as a teenager I wrote songs. One night on Irish radio I heard a poetry programme. ‘I can do that,’ I told myself. To put that in context I was living in the countryside with little access to books, TV wasn’t common, and needless to say there was no such thing as the internet. Moreover, I was a late starter in secondary school because of long periods in hospital, and was only vaguely aware of literature until I did. So I’ve always had the impulse to create. Actually while I was in hospital for the third time in my teens I won my first literary prize – for an essay on Keats.

I always try to avoid writing, especially novels or non-fiction. It’s only when I’ve nowhere else to turn that I give in and write. Perhaps it’s a delay tactic to wait until I’m ready to write! On the other hand if I don’t write or am prevented from writing by one circumstance or another, I get ill. I’d like to get back to writing poems, but I’ve written only a handful since my last collection, and there’s a novel I want to write after I’ve finished the present non-fiction work.

In a nutshell I write because I have to and I don’t really want to do anything else.

Is there such a thing as a full time poet or writer?

I certainly think of myself as a full-time writer. Of course, like most writers I can spend a long time staring through windows, friends often call unannounced, I’m asked to read a lot of manuscripts, or books, and there are a million excuses not to write. So it’s not like a proper job, 9-5. On the other hand, a writer is always on call, so to speak. And reading and dreaming is a significant part of being a writer – maybe even more so for a poet. The peculiar thing about poetry is that a lifetime’s experience can be distilled into a few lines, though I think any poet is lucky if he or she leaves behind one durable poem. To leave more than half a dozen durable poems is to be a great poet.

What is the responsibility of a poet or writer to society?

I think a lot about society, both in Ireland and abroad. I’m very interested in history and politics, and having lived through the dying days of Fascism in Spain, I’m worried about its resurgence in Europe and how so-called austerity is facilitating its success. I’m passionate about creating a world without fossil fuels. I’m optimistic about how technology can help create a better world if it is matched with a generous society. Yet I think it would be a mistake for me to enter politics per se. I hope I can best contribute to society through what I think I do best – my literary work. My current non-fiction is on an aspect of Irish history both in Ireland itself and amongst the Irish diaspora, which I hope will make readers think about how ‘the other’ is treated in society. How one treats ‘the other’ is a fundamental measure of any society.

When did you start Irish Writers Online?

I’m not sure exactly when I started Irish Writers Online. The Internet Archive has a record of 20th Century Irish Writers, which is what it was called then, from 1999, but I think I started it a few years earlier. I had learned some basic html, and had made a little website for myself called The Fabulists, after my first novel, and I thought as I was promoting my own work, why not promote that of my writer friends too?

Naturally I had to call it something else once the 20th century ended, and so Irish Writers Online was born, with its own dedicated website. It is now accessed by lovers of literature, students, academics, writers and media from all over the world, and presently lists concise bio-bibliographies of more than 600 Irish writers. I’ve lately been adding images and videos where they are available. Irish Culture Guide is its sister site, and that has over 1,000 descriptive links to websites featuring aspects of Irish Culture. It’s not quite as well-known as Irish Writers Online but has been gaining slowly in popularity.

Does the Irish Literary community get funding from either the State or Private donors?

There are various private sponsors such as Hennessey Brandy, which co-sponsors with state bodies the New Irish Writing series, long established in various Irish newspapers, and most recently in The Irish Independent. The Irish Times, for example, has also sponsored prizes for both fiction and poetry, as well as the annual theatre awards. There are also prizes The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award which is the richest of its kind in the world, though of course that is open to international writers also. However Irish writer Edna O’Brien won it in 2011. Then there is The Michael Harnett Award for poetry, commemorating perhaps the finest Irish poet in both languages. The main funding for literature, however, is from the State in the form of bursaries and support for publication of books and magazines.

It also funds a unique institution known as Aosdána. The word comes from an ancient Irish term for people of the arts, aes dána. It honours those artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland, and encourages and assists members in devoting their energies fully to their art. Those whose income is solely from writing and/or is below a certain threshold, receive a stipend known as the cnuas. I’m privileged to be a member of Aosdána and can vouch that its monetary support changed my life.

Has the internet helped promote the Irish literary community monetarily? And has the growing popularity of the Kindle affected the sale of printed books?

I don’t know if I can answer this question directly. Of course it has helped writers in all sorts of ways, from cutting postage costs (most agents and publishers accept email submissions now), facilitating newsletters, to readers buying their books on Amazon or Irish web shops or indeed directly from their publishers – you can see a list of both Irish bookshops on the web and Irish publishers at the bottom of the page on Irish Writers Online. Many, not most, Irish writers have their own website, and some, not many, are on Facebook and Twitter. In other words, Irish writers are like writers in most countries in this regard. As for ebooks, I see some writers publishing direct to Kindle, but as yet not many. I don’t own a Kindle and probably won’t, as I believe in open formats and I distrust the Kindle’s proprietary format. I do however sometimes read ebooks, mostly free classics, on my old smart phone and I think as the technology evolves and open formats become better appreciated then writers will be more comfortable with e-publishing.

We are all caught up in the great wild web and this has given rise to copyright infringement and plagiarism. How has it affected the Irish literary community?

There was some concern and puzzlement about the Google Books Agreement a year or two ago, but otherwise I’m not aware of significant copyright infringement or plagiarism. Which is not to say that it doesn’t exist. Several Irish writers including myself have made some of our work freely available under a Creative Commons Licence, which allows a reader to download the work and distribute it but (in our case) not change it or profit from it. Have a look at Irish Literary Revival and my own website and the Creative Commons website for more detail.

Do you think Media (Print and Electronic) in Ireland has helped promote writers and poets? And can they do more for the struggling community?

Of course there’s always a clamour for more to be done, but I think Ireland is relatively fortunate in that the media, particularly The Irish Times, give good coverage of books, and usually publishes a poem every week, and now that the Irish Independent has recently taken on New Irish Writing, it has made up for its previous scant coverage of Irish literary work. The main Irish TV station, RTÉ, no longer has a dedicated books program, alas, but its main arts presenter John Kelly is a novelist himself and is sympathetic to literature and covers it when he can, I think. Of course if a writer wins a significant prize, then that’s big news.

In your opinion how do people view writers and poets today? Do they view them as catalysts for change?

There are people who think writers are elitist loafers and leeches and never do a day’s work, and while the Catholic Church was at its most powerful and obscurantist in the 1940s and 1950s, books were banned and writers were hounded from their jobs, a notable case being the novelist and short-story writer John Macgahern. Most writers of note had to leave the country. Today is a different matter, and I think there is a general respect for writing as a profession. I know that writing friends from abroad have commented on the fact that if you declare yourself to be a writer in Ireland, nobody thinks it’s strange!

These poems by Philip Casey were published in Live Encounters Magazine, February 2016.

Hamburg Woman’s Song

Time has gone slowly by the hour,
by the year it has gone like a day
and you and I are of a sudden old.
But behind my bright eyes, papa,

I will always be a girl of ten,
and you, a grown man of twenty
when you cheated the dreaded police
who wanted to take me away.

I was born in a time and place
to a woman I look like now,
but fear grew like mould on bread
in my mother’s love for her slow girl.

I remember the sirens and cobbles,
then waking at dawn by a stream
where you left me with a countrywoman
and time went slowly by the hour.

She who was my mother
died in the Hamburg fire,
and he who was my father
never came back from the east.

My hands hardened and my bones grew long.
I trusted what I could not understand
until one morning you came up the road
and happiness changed my face.

I am a woman of Hamburg
who walked to the hungry city
side by side with my new father.
I have lived here to this day.

You within Me

– for Ulrike

I read page after page and see nothing
but your face, word after nulled word.
I have the absurd urge to vacate my skin
and pour your molten essence into its mould,
so that never again would I know estrangement.
I love the lawless present, give space
its due and needless, restore self to myself.
But in these intense days, on obsolete maps,
I search crude alleys and mountain paths,
knowing I will only find you within me.
So many scattered parts of us are as one,
as five thousand days or one make a life,
and you race free with a tiger’s grace,
unafraid of the weight of continents.
Your hands are adept at shaping clay,
and they shape the cast of my story:
it is a woman crouched at the root of a tree
it is the beseeching ghost of a childhood pain
it is rain hurtling earthward, regardless of need.

Making Space

– for Heather

Sometimes, when looking at the stars
on a clear night in summer,
I wonder about light
and the energy that keeps me upright.
What does the Principle
of the Conservation of Energy
say, and does it apply to me,
and when I die
will I be transformed into a thought
travelling at the speed of light?

Perhaps, you will turn me on at the flick
of a switch, to bathe your smile
while you nod off over a book.
My light and how lovely you look
will describe a time and place
as you reach out, making space
in your calm sleep
for your lost black sheep
whose molecules keep your bedroom lit.
I will burn for you all night.

Toledo, Encore

O Toledo, I am parched
beneath your Moorish arches.
My love bit my lip in anger
and stormed off to see her lover
when I looked after
everyone but her.
I could not free
myself to be with her.

O Toledo, I am parched.
My sense of sensual self
ebbs to a vacant point.
There was a time I could feel
in gracefully spoken sentences.
Toledo, you have done for me,
it’s too cold a morning
to wake abruptly from a dream.

I should not ask of another
what she cannot give,
when all I have to give
is my fullness of her.
No wonder if she turns away
in anger when I wake,
cold all over.

O Toledo, l am cold
in your Moorish station,
waiting for the outward train
that will never come.
All I want is happiness
for my belovéd. I’m too old,
and can give her nothing.
My love for her has emptied
all I knew and owned.

Sunlight of Love

– for Christine

The fan
slowly turns on its axis
to Mahler’s Loneliness
in Autumn,
keeping time
with the music’s
planetary rhythm.

The graceful blades
cool a man
who lies comatose
and alone,
a degree
from his mortal end.

A hawk alights
on the windowsill,
a portent
from myth,
the shape-shifting
waiting for the hero
who has fought too well,
his wounds
his nightmares.

pass through him
in procession.
In their thousands,
to the shifting sands
of violins,
as the contralto

they come from
as far
as his third eye sees,
a spiral path,
full of light
and joy.

The hawk
flies away.

The sick man wakes.
The fan bows to him
like a sainted nun.

Sunlight fills the room
with love.
The contralto
my heart into
quivering strips
of understanding.

Hope is born
of hope that had died,
of childhood fears,
holding new breath
in a blasted landscape.

Wild mountain flowers
the teeming
a stream
that will form
the first river
in all creation
flowing into
the first ocean.
Rough tea leaves
from a painted tin
make the first drink
that is not poison.

Bread made
with full grain
by a woman’s hands
quells hunger
at last,
and forever more.

The hawk
is back,
in the setting sun.
The fan
is gone.
The man it cooled
is gone.

Poems © Philip Casey