Thursday 27 July 2017

Anthony Cronin 1928-2016: Bohemian lost soul who grew into grand old man of Irish letters

Author and poet Anthony Cronin passed away on December 28 at 88. Photo: Tony Gavin
Author and poet Anthony Cronin passed away on December 28 at 88. Photo: Tony Gavin

John Boland

In the last decades of his long life, Anthony Cronin modestly wore the mantle of grand old man of Irish letters, a sage-like presence of unassuming authority and wisdom. Yet before old age conferred on him such gravitas, he had also been a controversial figure, largely because of his close ties to Charles J Haughey, who deferred to him on almost all cultural matters.

Indeed, it was through Cronin's advisory influence that Mr Haughey acquired his early reputation as an enlightened supporter of the arts - firstly through the tax-free scheme for artists and writers and then through the elite arts organisation Aosdána, neither of which would have happened without Cronin's tireless behind-the-scenes advocacy.

Anthony Cronin with Paddy Kavanagh in 1954. Photo courtesy National Library of Ireland
Anthony Cronin with Paddy Kavanagh in 1954. Photo courtesy National Library of Ireland

Both projects enhanced the image of a politician who was as greedy for cultural status as for money and power, and they were doubtless of benefit, too, to the adviser who had dreamed them up, though the generous criteria initially applied to the tax-free scheme was subsequently more stringently reassessed in a colder political climate, while Aosdána has never managed to persuade sceptical observers that it isn't just about perks enjoyed by a self-chosen few.

However, Cronin's own literary achievements never required any special pleading, though it's likely that time will show that they perhaps reside less in his poetry, striking though much of it is, than in his 1964 novel 'The Life of Riley', his 1976 memoir 'Dead as Doornails', and his 1996 biography 'Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist'.

The latter suffered commercially from its appearance in bookshops at the same time as James Knowlson's 'Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett', which had received Beckett's official imprimatur and thereby got most of the publicity. Yet though Knowlson's book is undoubtedly a work of impressive scholarship, Cronin's is much more congenial to read and with a particular understanding of its subject's essential Irishness and of the various Irish figures who featured, whether prominently or incidentally, in Beckett's life both here and abroad.

Read more: 'Unfailingly courteous and generous' - Poet and critic Anthony Cronin dies aged 88

The poet with Neil Jordan, centre, and Seamus Heaney after receiving the RHA Gold Medal in 2007. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
The poet with Neil Jordan, centre, and Seamus Heaney after receiving the RHA Gold Medal in 2007. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

His feeling for Irish literary lives is even more vividly expressed in 'Dead as Doornails', no doubt because the 1950s bohemian literary milieu it evokes features the author himself as one of the lost souls, alongside Flann O'Brien, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and others.

This is one of the great Dublin memoirs, both exuberantly comic and truly poignant in its portrait of an urban demi-monde that had no exact counterpart in any other city, not even in Soho or Paris, where prodigious amounts of drinking had also proved to be fatal enemies of promise for many aspiring writers.

Yet while the author's gaze is unflinching, he also manages to encompass a fondness and fellow-feeling towards his doomed companions - most of them fated to be dead within a few years.

Cronin himself survived and, having given up alcohol, reinvented him in the 1970s, both as a cultural mover and shaker for Mr Haughey and as a weekly columnist with the 'Irish Times', for whom we wrote, sometimes acerbically, on a wide variety of matters, whether social, political or cultural.

Among his lesser-known passions was horse-racing and he wrote informed previews of major racing events for 'Hibernia' magazine in the late 1970s, while among his later and enduring literary achievements was a 1989 biography of Flann O'Brien, 'No Laughing Matter'.

In the last couple of decades, and invariably accompanied by his writer wife Anne Haverty, he was a courteously encouraging presence at many prestigious literary events.

 

An extract from Anthony Cronin’s ‘The End Of The Modern World’, published by New Island. He wrote: “Like all elegies, it is both a celebration and a lament. The modern world, which saw war, including two world wars, and much else, was often fun to live in. What will succeed it we do not know. But it will almost certainly be grimmer and duller.”

Let the city open tonight, an enfolding flower

Not yet full blown, glass petals tipped with promise,

Let it greet its lovers with wide embracing tracks,

Narrowing nearer to the nervous centre.

Let the neon signs throw roses on shining pavements

As the dusk of summer softens each separate vista.

Let the tigerish hide of the quarter proclaim a fierce

Energy in this decadence, this danger.

Let all be famous, but everyone too be anonymous,

Let all find their old friends, but stalk expectant

Through swathes of faces, seeking the lovely stranger.

Let the wicked streets be happy, the happy ones wicked,

Let us tremble, so great the depravity, lurid the darkness,

But come to the leafy gardens, finding the loved one.

Irish Independent

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