Tuesday 22 January 2019

Obituary: Eileen Battersby

The acclaimed writer, critic and arts journalist was a free spirit who often divided opinion, writes Liam Collins

FORCE OF NATURE: Eileen Battersby, pictured with one of her dogs, Kingsley, in 2011 Photograph: Bryan O’Brienlater
FORCE OF NATURE: Eileen Battersby, pictured with one of her dogs, Kingsley, in 2011 Photograph: Bryan O’Brienlater

The writer and her former editor, John Banville, probably summarised Eileen Battersby best when he said: "Eileen was my dear friend - and the most delightfully difficult person I ever worked with".

On a number of occasions, notably when she wrote a highly entertaining piece about a chaotic attempt to interview the poet, Paul Durcan, and her review of Dermot Healy's novel, Long Time, No See, led to the journalist becoming the story. She has been described as "brilliant, but difficult to manage" by former colleagues.

Her non-interview with Paul Durcan, which started in Sherie's cafe in Dublin, led to her following the poet out into Abbey Street and after some testy exchanges, differing versions of what exactly had transpired between them emerged.

Her review of Healy's book in 2011, which drew the ire of the writer Pat McCabe, began: "Dermot Healy's new novel, his first since the gritty Sudden Times (2000), is difficult; it is slow moving and complacent, and at times dangerously relaxed, lacking the urgency of his life's achievement to date, A Goat's Song (1994)."

In reply, McCabe wrote: "Does Ms Battersby look at the photograph of Dermot Healy and say: This is an old man's effort, not fashionable like Neil Jordan so I'll disembowel him because that's how I feel today" before going on to attack her own literary efforts, saying of one of her pieces: "It was the worst piece of creative writing I have ever read in a long life of reading. Truly, stunningly bad."

But Ms Battersby could also be funny and self-deprecating, as when describing her first encounter with the poet, Anthony Cronin. "Within about two minutes of first meeting Anthony Cronin, he dismissed me as an idiot for not knowing the whereabouts of McDaid's public house. He said it displayed an 'unforgiveable' ignorance of Dublin's literary geography. When I said 'ouch', he laughed... and replied 'at least you have a sense of humour'."

On another occasion, she was asked to interview the singer Liam Clancy, but professed to not knowing who he was, before eventually doing a memorable interview with him.

The critic, journalist and author died last Sunday, December 23, at the age of 60, after an accident the previous day when the car in which she was travelling with her daughter Nadia, who was injured, crashed on the Oldbride to Donore Road, four kilometres outside Drogheda.

For such a public figure, Eileen Battersby was mysterious in many ways and her 'official' biography was brief to the point of non-existent.

Born Eileen Whiston in 1958 into an Irish family who had emigrated to California, possibly from Cork, she grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air before moving to Ireland. She attended the Loreto in Bray and then went to University College Dublin where she did a BA in history and English literature, and later an MA on the American writer, Thomas Wolfe.

She was briefly married and friends were later surprised that for someone with such liberal views, she retained her married surname for the rest of her life.

She began reviewing fiction for John Mulcahy in the Sunday Tribune in 1984 before moving to London where she worked for the publishing house Penguin.

On the recommendation of her good friend Caroline Walsh, a daughter of the writer Mary Lavin, she was recruited to the Irish Times by the then editor Conor Brady, joining the staff in 1990, as a feature writer and critic. As well as her passion for horses and dogs, she had a deep interest in sport and covered Wimbledon in 1989.

During her career, she worked under various Literary Editors, including Banville, before becoming Literary Correspondent of the paper. She frequently appeared on radio, particularly in relation to the Booker Prize lists, and she read all the books assiduously before commenting trenchantly on their merits or otherwise.

While her parting from the Irish Times last July was not publicly acrimonious, Ms Battersby felt badly treated at the time and told friends she was personally unhappy that at the age of 60, she had to resume her career as a freelance writer. In that capacity, she contributed to the literary pages of the Financial Times, the New York Times and as well as writing for this paper. She was also a regular contributor of scripts for the RTE radio programme Sunday Miscellany.

Although she mostly lived outside Dublin in later life, Ms Battersby was something of a legend in Dublin newspaper and literary circles because of her individualism and outspoken nature.

In a review of her novel, Teethmarks On My Tongue for the Huffington Post in 2017, the author Edmund White described their long friendship.

"When her daughter, Nadia, was a child, the unmarried mother, Eileen Battersby, had no family in Ireland and she dragged the little child along. The management of the hotel had us sit in the stairwell of the Shelbourne (hotel). Battersby seemed wonderfully intense, extremely affectionate and intelligent, slightly mad.

"She lived in the country and could never leave her horses for long. She was a sensitive and curious critic, known for reviewing foreign titles in English translation, something most journalists were encouraged to avoid. She is open to every sort of literature of quality, even the most obscure. I sat over dinner last night with a French and a Malaysian novelist and they both had been reviewed brilliantly by Eileen Battersby, felt grateful to her but had never met her."

Last week White was among those who paid tribute to her, as was the poet and journalist Katie Donovan who said: "Because of her habit of devouring books across all genres - including history, art, music and archaeology - Eileen was able to bring to her reviews an incredibly wide and erudite frame of reference."

She once turned up in New York to interview the writer Richard Ford with copies of every book he had written, for him to sign.

Paying tribute to her, he said: "I won't see Eileen be old now, and am the poorer for it. Eileen was intended more than most - to get old. This isn't to say she'd have grown old gracefully....She'd have grown old rambunctious, noisy, beguiling, enthusiastic, infuriating (of course) and beautiful. And most of all interesting."

Ms Battersby rarely wrote about her own personal life, although in one article she said she did her Leaving Certificate and won a history prize at school.

She lived in Pembroke Road in Dublin for a number of years before moving to a Georgian townhouse in the town of Rathangan, Co Kildare. In more recent years she lived at Kate's Field Farm at Beauparc, near Navan, Co Meath with her daughter Nadia. They kept horses and dogs, which inspired her second book Ordinary Dogs: A Story of Two Lives, which was published by Faber in 2011.

Previously she wrote Second Readings 52: From Beckett To Black Beauty (2009) and her most recent book, the novel Teethmarks on My Tongue, which is believed to be semi-autobiographical, was published by the Dalkey Archive Press in 2016. She was Arts Journalist of the Year on four occasions and was Critic of the Year in 2012.

Although she disagreed with the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to Bob Dylan, she had a keen appreciation of music - classical and popular. Her review of the last appearance of Paul Simon in Ireland earlier this year gives a flavour of her writing, which was stylish and often imbued with emotion. "When the opening chords of Paul Simon's beautiful elegy America soar out one last time this evening across the RDS arena in Dublin, emotion, memory and a very real feeling of gratitude to a near mythic troubadour will immediately unite a socially, possibly even, politically, diverse audience of all ages."

Perhaps it was Banville who, among all the tributes that have been paid to her since her tragic and untimely death, captured the free spirit of Eileen Battersby best: "She loved literature with a passion almost as intense as her love of animals and the natural world. And she had such a rich sense of humour, especially when the joke was on her. Oh dear, how we shall miss her."

Eileen Battersby, who is survived by her daughter Nadia, her mother Elizabeth Whiston, sister Elizabeth and brothers William and Breffini, will be cremated at Glasnevin crematorium following her funeral service in St Peter's Church of Ireland, Drogheda, Co Louth, at 11am tomorrow.

Sunday Independent

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