Wednesday 26 July 2017

Goodbye Tony, there won't be any more good conversations now

He was all this: poet, biographer, novelist, commentator, intellectual, mentor - but here Dermot Bolger remembers his friend

HOLDING COURT: Tony Cronin, Dermot Bolger and Mick O’Loughlin celebrate New Year’s Eve 2015
HOLDING COURT: Tony Cronin, Dermot Bolger and Mick O’Loughlin celebrate New Year’s Eve 2015

Dermot Bolger

If we live long enough, and get lucky, then perhaps once or twice in a lifetime we encounter someone with the unique blend of fearsome intelligence, intellectual inquisitiveness, and deeply humane, clear-headed insight into the human condition which Anthony Cronin possessed.

Yeats might have coined the phrase "myriad-minded man" to describe this poet of enormous depth and learning; an unflinching, unsentimental and yet compassionate memoirist; a superb biographer of writers like Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien; a sharp novelist whose debut was hailed as "a comic triumph" by The New York Times; a passionate public intellectual engaged with concrete ideas in a society which preferred to deal in cliched shibboleths; a cultural commentator passionately concerned for the role of the arts and the artist in society; a deliberately disquieting newspaper columnist whose role was to challenge any comfortable consensus - not as an attention-seeking controversialist - but by using the rigor of logic he would have brought to court cases if Anthony Cronin had bothered to practice law after qualifying as a barrister in 1948.

Thankfully Tony Cronin never practiced law, because with his acumen, he would have become a star in the Law Library, acquiring trappings of status which other people might see as baubles to aim for, but for him would have become obstacles to his chosen career.

Many contemporaries at Blackrock College and UCD might not have regarded what he chose as being a proper career. But - though he claimed that his life's primary impetus was to drift into things - Tony knew always that his true calling (as intellectually liberating as it was financially perilous) was to be a gentleman of letters.

This sounds an old-fashioned phrase. Yet it fitted Tony perfectly because while acutely engaged in the present and fascinated by the future, he possessed an appreciation of the past and of the tradition of brilliant essayists and social commentators stretching back to William Hazlitt in the 1800s.

I was a 15-year-old poet when we first met. He treated my juvenilia with seriousness, kindness and rigour. He called it "extraordinary": then qualified this by detailing the one or two aspects that were extraordinarily good and the multitudinous aspects that were cliched, overtly poetic and extraordinarily bad. Every young poet should have the benediction of such a conversation.

Today, 42 years on, I recall him explaining how nothing within the ambit of human experience was outside the writer's range; hammering home his message that no themes were inherently poetic or non-poetic. There was just the raw material of life and our duty was not to dilute, sentimentalise or exaggerate it, but search always for words to make it devoid of falsehood.

John Butler Yeats once gave his sons, Willie and Jack, advice no career guidance teacher would utter: "a steady job is the ruination of many a good man." Tony's advice was more circumspect: he merely noted that there was a lot to be said for burning your bridges before you reached them.

He advised also that it didn't matter if you were writing a novel or poem or a newspaper article, commissioned at short notice - if your name was attached to any piece of writing, every word needed to be weighed with equal seriousness.

Another mantra was that professional authors should never, if possible, write to the letters page of a newspaper, because letter writers don't get paid and one should be cognisant of Doctor Johnson's truism that: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

This observation came more from pride in his profession rather than any interest in money, because by abandoning a legal career in 1948, Tony embraced all the possibilities - and financial penury - of a bohemian lifestyle in Dublin and London, during the hardest decades for writers to financially survive.

With his death we've lost our last link to the hedonist bohemia of early 1950s Dublin, where Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Brian O'Nolan held court in small fiefdoms in pubs. They found themselves at closing time crammed into cars that sped into the Dublin Mountains where tiny pubs with "bona fide licenses" could serve late- night drink to wayfarers.

Such nights ended with drunken journeys down the mountains to converge in Georgian basements in Fitzwilliam Square, called the Catacombs. Here everyone was welcome, provided they left their empty bottles behind. The English eccentric, who leased these cellars, supplemented his income by collecting the refundable deposit available on empty bottles each morning.

As he recounts in his brilliant memoir, Dead as Doornails, Tony briefly possessed one office job, "bluffing my way through a large field of candidates with the aid of the barristership and some borrowed clothes, the only use the former had ever been to me." But he quickly burnt this bridge into what was deemed "respectable society".

Home became wherever he could lay his head - a cellar in the Catacombs or the shed where he woke to hear a young Brendan Behan announce his brilliant plan for them to hitch-hike to Rome. If they pretended to be Marian Year pilgrims, Behan felt convinced that they could live off the hospitality of pious French Catholics happy to feed seeming devout wayfarers.

This disastrous expedition - with Tony reduced to shuffling in oversized shoes excavated from a dump [after his shoes are stolen while they slept on a park bench] is the most hilarious chapter in Dead as Doornails. But the book does not try to be funny or nostalgic. Instead it chronicles the lives of seven writers and artists, friends and kindred spirits who recognised Tony as their artistic peer, whose lives and talents were destroyed by alcohol.

Tony would deserve to be remembered as a great writer for this memoir alone and his comic novel, The Life of Riley, which chronicled this period. But he was the survivor who came through the mayhem with his intellect, talent and integrity intact. He kept creating great art in superb long poems, from his famous RMS Titanic in 1960, up to his masterpiece sonnet sequence, The End of the Modern World.

As his poetry publisher over the past 36 years, I remember writing the blurb of the first instalment of this sonnet sequence in 1981 and saying that, when completed, it would "amount to an overview on the development of western civilisation by a major poet at the height of his power".

His power as a poet never dimmed and his intelligence and intellectual curiosity never diminished during the next 35 years, when he toiled on this sonnet sequence, only finally feeling satisfied to release a definitive text, for the first time as a standalone volume, six months ago.

Tony's formidable mastery of the sonnet form (the silver bullet of poetry) brought us on a journey from medieval times to the inverse slavery of chivalry, and from Auschwitz's horrors to the seeming impregnable power of New York's Twin Towers, where his sequence ended long before they were destroyed.

I dwell on his poems because he was first and foremost a poet. Despite him quoting Dr Johnston to me at 15, poetry earns absolutely nothing. Indeed his deliberate refusal to take on local tribal colours and his careful placing of himself always at a distance from the mainstream, meant that his poetry never received due recognition in Ireland.

His biography of Beckett is superb and his searingly honest biography of his friend, Flann O'Brien, is the perfect corrective for those who see O'Brien as merely a funny writer.

It became my bedtime reading after a bereavement until I found it so sad that I could no longer read it.

His poetry column for this newspaper was a task he rejoiced in, presenting poems by forgotten figures with vivid commentaries that opened up their secrets to any reader. The Sunday Independent's support for his column - initiated by Aengus Fanning and continued to this day - was a great democratic opening up of a treasury of poetry from across the centuries. [On page 15 of today's Living Section you can read his final contribution.]

Tony wasn't content to just bring poems into being - he had the foresight and courage to create institutions too. The famous names in Dead as Doornails lived in terrible poverty. Indeed many fine poets I met in the 1970s lived from hand to mouth, celebrated in death but impoverished in life. At the funeral of one elderly poet, Padraic Colum, in 1972, Tony first suggested to Charles Haughey - then in the political wilderness - that Ireland should do something more than just acclaim dead writers.

It took another nine years for Tony to bring about the establishment of Aosdana. Roughly half of Aosdana's members - whose certified income falls below a certain threshold - receive a stipend. Writers like myself, whose income is above this threshold, receive nothing but we possess the security of knowing that, if leaner years or illness comes, financial support is there.

Aosdana came into being because Tony became artistic adviser to Charles Haughey. This connection was something used to attack him by people who pontificated about the arts but never grapple with the actualities of getting things done. Under Tony's watch other important institutions like the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Irish Writers' Centre came into being. Working as artistic adviser also to Garret FitzGerald, Tony ensured that Joyce was properly honoured in his centenary year of 1982, bringing together writers as diverse as the elderly Jorge Luis Borges and Anthony Burgess to celebrate Joyce in his native city.

Tony brought great literature into being and helped create a critical discourse to expand the boundaries of Irish literature. He knew private tragedies which he bore with silent fortitude and knew great love too. He died in the same house in Ranelagh which another poet - Thomas MacDonagh - had left at Easter 1916, losing his life trying to bring a new Ireland into being.

For six decades Tony was a vital component of the artistic conscience of that Ireland. When I last visited him in hospital he was still discussing poems he had yet to write - being a working writer to his last breath. As I left the ward, a patient beckoned me.

"That man is a great man," she said. "It gladdens my heart to hear the people who visit him. I've never heard such conversation."

Patrick Kavanagh would have agreed. In 1966 he met Tony for the last time, with Tony due to travel to America.Not a man for compliments, Kavanagh felt moved to pay one: "There won't be any conversation now till you come back."

But there will always be great conversation for as long as Tony is being remembered by his beloved wife, the writer Anne Haverty; by his daughter from his first marriage, Sarah; and by anyone privileged to call this great writer their friend.

Sunday Independent

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