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After a brush with death, Paul has reasons to be grateful

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Paul Durcan. Photo: David Conachy.

Paul Durcan. Photo: David Conachy.

David Conachy

VERSES AND HONOURS: Paul Durcan greeted by Mary Robinson while getting an honorary degree at Trinity College in 2009. Photo: David Conachy, Damien Eagers

VERSES AND HONOURS: Paul Durcan greeted by Mary Robinson while getting an honorary degree at Trinity College in 2009. Photo: David Conachy, Damien Eagers

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Paul Durcan. Photo: David Conachy.

On a grey Monday morning, the poet Paul Durcan parks his car on Sandymount Road, leaving ample space between his bonnet and the car in front. To the surrounding strollers, this may seem like a mundane activity but in truth, it is nothing short of a miracle. He is lucky to be alive. Last year, as he was driving along a motorway, on his way to a poetry reading, part of his car exploded.

"The wretched thing blew up on me on the road, "he says.

Lucky for him, a woman and two gardai were passing by. They all showed great kindness to him.

"I remember the guard screaming at me, 'Take what you need and get out. Keep back because it might explode at any second.'"

As he talks of this, he becomes ashen faced. It doesn't seem healthy to dwell on it, so instead I congratulate him on returning to driving after the ordeal.

"It was very, very traumatic," he says "It took me months to get over it and it still preys on my mind. Afterwards, the car-maker told me that I had burnt out the clutch."

Even though I listen with great concern, in the back of my mind I am thinking that I hope he has written a poem about it. It's like his poem about trying to overtake a funeral cortege on a country road and ending up stuck between the hearse and the mourning coach for miles. It is awful and yet there is something very funny about the awkward situation and his discomfort. His next book is out in March, but he is far too superstitious to talk about it.

We meet days before he turns 70. He is grateful that he is still alive, especially when so many of his dear friends have died. But he laughs at his changing perspective on age, in particular when he remembers his brilliant English teacher, a Jesuit called Joe Veale. As a young boy, Paul thought that he was as old as Methuselah.

"He would get rid of the exams by handing out the answers and then he would take out The Manchester Guardian and open it and read out a headline: Hurricane hits Galveston, Texas. The report was written by Alistair Cooke. Then he would say, 'This is what literature is all about, boys.' He would refer all the time to George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger. They were part of our mental landscape.

"I remember sitting in the classroom looking up at him in amazement. We had just heard that he was 40 and I remember thinking, how could anybody be 40? Anyone who is 50 has no conception of what it's like to be 60, and when you're 60, you've no conception of what it's like to be 70."

Paul Durcan has suffered from depression in the past, and he battles loneliness, but on the day that I am with him, he is in good form. Our official reason for meeting is that on November 26 he will receive the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award.

"It's an honour. How could you not feel a bit better on that particular day when I got the message? Then, when it sank in that it was from the Irish Booksellers Association, it really means something to me because of what booksellers mean to me."

He talks about Woulfe's bookshop in Listowel, where Brenda Woulfe is so passionate about books that she'll insist on giving him a book by someone else and won't take any payment. There is Seamus Duffy in his shop in Westport who has put his heart and soul into selling poetry for the past 20 years. And The Clifden Bookshop is another gem, he says, run by two book-loving women, Nicole and Maire.

Then he brings me to look in the window of Books on the Green in Sandymount and wonders why Colm Tobin's latest novel Nora Webster is not on display in a prime slot. He has just finished reading it. He talks about wonderful passages in it, then stops himself as he doesn't want to spoil it for me.

This is the Paul Durcan you want to meet, the one who is upbeat and full of passion. He talks about Brendan O'Connor's article in the Sunday Independent the day before which was about Enda Kenny's poetic speech at the Irish Association of Suicidology and says that it was spot-on about our leader.

"I have bumped into Enda Kenny in a few times in my life. Of course there is the fact that he is from Mayo and my family is from Mayo. But from the things he said to me, I can tell you that here is a man for whom poetry is a serious thing. I don't know how or where he gets the time to read it, but you don't meet that many people for whom it's down here," he says, punching his heart.

If you want to know about Paul Durcan's life, it is all there in his poetry. We learn of his mother, Sheila MacBride, whom he adored. He writes about her in her pearl earrings and matching necklace and how her lips glistened with lipstick. She brought him to his first film Treasure Island but even the bus-trip into town with her was bliss. As he says himself, she was his first childhood sweetheart.

"Her family name was a huge part of my childhood because her father's younger brother was John MacBride who was executed in 1916. So, as a little boy I wanted to hear as much about him as I could. Then her first cousin was Sean MacBride, he was the son of John MacBride and Maud Gonne, the only child of that unhappy marriage. He was my godfather and like a third parent to me. He never forgot a birthday and the present was almost always books. And when I was in trouble later on in life, he would somehow get in touch with me."

Paul's father, John Durcan, was a Mayo man. At first, he was a secondary school teacher, specialising in history and he subsequently became a barrister and then a judge. Theirs was a complicated relationship which was chronicled in the collection of poems entitled Daddy, Daddy. He writes of their trips in the Ford Anglia, where the young Paul would ask his father to pass out the moon. His father would also quiz him on whether his bowels had moved or not.

"I wrote what I wrote," says Paul, "but I realise that some people have formed too black an impression of him. People nearly flinch when they hear the word judge. He took his job unbelievably seriously and it definitely made him more melancholic. It took its toll on him because he was away all week in Galway, spending the evenings brooding over his cases and then he'd come home on a Friday night, shattered. It was a very hard life for my mother."

"But he was a terrific storyteller and he was forever telling me about the French Revolution. It fascinated him and so, Robespierre and Danton were real to me. Driving from Dublin to Mayo, he would almost have to stop at every bend on the road to tell me a story about it."

Paul's father didn't approve of his poetry but he says that as the years went on, he mellowed. When Paul got married to Nessa O' Neill and they had their two daughters, Sarah and Siabhra, his father would come to visit them. Paul says that he is estranged from his wife for the past 20 years but he is still grateful for her support. He is close to his daughters and rejoices in being a grandfather. Both daughters have four children and Paul believes that they saved his life with their playfulness and joy.

"I've been very lucky with family and friends but when all is said and done, my greatest supporter, especially in rough times, but all through her life, was my mother. Even though she was extremely disappointed that I had become a poet, every time I'd publish a book or give a talk on the radio, she'd always drop a note."

"And when I was in serious trouble over in London with depression, she had no money but she flew over. At that time I was in a grim hospital 40 miles outside London and she stayed in one of those cheap hotels near Piccadilly Circus. We went to a film together in Leicester Square. I wrote about it in my book The Laughter of Mothers."

"The more your parents are gone, you realise, too late of course, how much they gave you," he says. "You nearly think of it everyday one way or the other."

The one thing that keeps recurring is gratitude. Not only is Paul Durcan grateful to his family and his friends but he is also thankful that he is able to carry on writing poetry. He credits Aosdana and the Arts Council with giving him some sort of financial stability which keeps the anxiety at bay. Without that, he could not have been as prolific as he is. Almost every two years, he produces a book. There are always some gems in there, full of passion and rage and then some are simply very funny.

Even after the car catastrophe, Paul Durcan summoned up the strength and carried on.

Paul Durcan will be presented with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award 2014 at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards in Dublin's Doubletree Hilton Hotel on November 26

Sunday Independent