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Obituary: Derek Mahon

Belfast-born poet whose work would transcend the Troubles and win him a prestigious lifetime achievement award


Empathy with the dispossessed: Poet Derek Mahon

Empathy with the dispossessed: Poet Derek Mahon

Empathy with the dispossessed: Poet Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon, who has died aged 78, produced some of the most important poetry for his times; he is best known for his most anthologised poem, which has the eye-catchingly low-key title of A Disused Shed in Co Wexford.

While he conceded that it meant a lot to a lot of people, he began to resent its success, and wryly reflected that a later poem with a similar name, A Garage in Co Cork, earned a place in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner.

The poem about the shed is less about the shed and more about the mushrooms in it, growing for decades towards the light provided by a small keyhole, "the one star in their firmament". For Mahon, it was a poem that stemmed from the Troubles of his native Northern Ireland, even if quietly and indirectly.

He was a near contemporary of Seamus Heaney, and of Michael Longley, who was one of his closest friends. He chafed at the idea that these poets and others became known as "The Group".

It is true that many Northern Irish poets at the time were linked by their approach towards the sectarian conflict.

As Mahon aptly put it, "If you write about the Troubles you're being opportunistic. If you don't write about the Troubles, you're being escapist."

It is a hallmark of Mahon's work that he could empathise with the rootless or dispossessed, such as gypsies or the homeless of New York whom he encountered during his own wanderings.

Derek Mahon was born in Belfast on November 23, 1941. His father worked in the engineering department of the shipbuilders Harland and Wolff; his mother worked in the flax industry until Mahon was born. He was an only child in what he called "a quiet house", and enjoyed the solitude.

He was brought up a Protestant, and once quipped that whereas Catholics are devout, Protestants are staunch. The clean world of his childhood is captured in Courtyards in Delft.

He became a choirboy, and although he later identified himself as an atheist, he recalled that the "hymnology invaded the mind"; the rhythms and rhymes of his work, particularly his later poems, appear to echo this.

Although he was reticent about his own political leanings, he did think of himself as a Protestant who believed in a united Ireland, albeit one that needed to tolerate different denominations. He applauded the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s, but dreaded the sectarianism that was to follow.

In 1960, Mahon went to Trinity College Dublin as an exhibitioner, and appears to have done no work (the college's website entry on him makes this point half a dozen times).

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He read English and French, and sought out Michael Longley, who had been two years above him at school. He greeted Longley with the words, "You Longley? Can I borrow your typewriter?"

Longley was to be important to him, but so were typewriters: throughout his life, Mahon eschewed word processors, email and the internet, but could personify his typewriter calling it, or her, Olympia.

At Trinity he published poetry in the college magazine Icarus, which he came to edit. Longley observed later that Mahon's juvenilia was as good as the mature work of others, and it is remarkable that one of his most read poems, Glengormley, is also one of his earliest.

The poem reads as a celebration of the ordinary, and a knocking rejection of the more heroic Ireland invoked by, say, Yeats. It also affirms the place of his own people to live on the island: "By/Necessity, if not choice, I live here too."

However, Mahon quickly took up opportunities to live elsewhere. His studies of French at Trinity led to the Sorbonne for a year; and he travelled to Canada and America on the prize money from an Eric Gregory award (Philip Larkin chaired the awarding panel).

Jon Stallworthy recruited Mahon to the Oxford University Press list in 1968. .

By 1967, he was back in Belfast, and in the early 1970s found work teaching English as a foreign language. In 1975 his most highly regarded collection appeared. The Snow Party contains not only A Disused Shed… but also Gipsies, the unsentimental elegy A Refusal to Mourn, and The Apotheosis of Tins.

In his search for steadier freelance work, Mahon came to London, where he worked as a critic for The Listener and The New Statesman.

For a poet who could often be seen at odds with his environment, his own apotheosis must have been when he became features editor of Vogue, where he cut a surprising figure in jeans and a sweater.

Such work helped him to support his wife and two children for a time, but his marriage did not last, and in 1990 he left for America again where he taught creative writing at New York University, Columbia University and Barnard College. From the eve of this time comes his most intimately, painfully confessional piece, The Yaddo Letter, addressed directly to his teenage children.

In 1995 he returned to Dublin, where he wrote versions of classical plays for the theatre, such as Phèdre and The Bacchae. He stopped doing this when a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, whose script Mahon wrote for Stephen Rea, flopped at the National Theatre in London.

Mahon himself considered poems such as A Disused Shed… too "manufactured", and felt that each poem was for him "a new beginning". Here he contrasted himself with Heaney, for whom, according to Mahon, each poem was "a step along a known road".

Although Heaney appeared to outshine his contemporaries, Mahon beat him to the prestigious David Cohen Prize - a lifetime achievement award - in 2007.

After his time in Dublin, Mahon settled in Kinsale, Co Cork.

He had a son and a daughter from his marriage, and a daughter from a later relationship.

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