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A man and a poem for all seasons


Poetry in motion: Niall MacMonagle was inspired to create the anthology (Windharp Poems of Ireland) while living in the US.  Photo: Tony Gavin

Poetry in motion: Niall MacMonagle was inspired to create the anthology (Windharp Poems of Ireland) while living in the US. Photo: Tony Gavin

Poetry in motion: Niall MacMonagle was inspired to create the anthology (Windharp Poems of Ireland) while living in the US. Photo: Tony Gavin

For his bounty/There was no winter in't. Niall MacMonagle uses a quote from his favourite writer to dedicate his latest anthology of poetry to one of Ireland's most loved poets. Reverently removing a typewritten letter from Windharp, he reads the missive containing Seamus Heaney's characteristically gracious message replying to Niall's request for a poem. Since that exchange the much loved bard has died but it is typical of Niall that he would dedicate this volume to him.

Equally the encomium, from Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, could apply to the smiling man who sits, bathed in late summer sunshine, animatedly discussing literature. For MacMonagle, teacher, editor and broadcaster, is full of bounty - a bounteous appreciation for the beauty of art and literature and munificent in his desire to share it.

He's probably best known for his stewardship of Lifelines, the remarkable collection of letters from famous people about their favourite poem. Begun in 1985 at Wesley College by fifth year students, in response to the suffering in the Third World, and fostered and encouraged by their English teacher, Niall, the series was an inspired and inspiring endeavour which not only raised thousands for charities but also offered a fascinating glimpse into well-known people's heads and hearts.

His latest work was also first conceived in the late 80s. "We were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I had pinned above the sink the one sentence - the beautifully lyric poem by John Montague, Windharp: 'The sounds of Ireland,/that restless whispering/you never get away from' - because for me it captures everything I love about this island of ours - its natural beauty, its emptiness, its changing weather ... so I could say that's where it began without even knowing it. When I was thinking of 1916 and of our rich literary tradition, I thought why not try and make a book and capture in it the story of Ireland through her poems and poets."

The result, 25 years later, is a handsomely produced edition of a century of our finest verse, sedulously selected by Niall, each poem opening with his headnote. 'These notes aren't telling someone what to think about the poem, it's suggesting how they might think about the poem. I see in this something for the occasional or the reluctant poetry reader and I really do believe if you give a poem a chance, there's a poem out there for every person. It's my favourite art form; it's the most intimate art form, it's a very selfish pleasure reading a poem: you're in communication - it's a one to one."

His love of words had early roots. Born in Killarney in 1954, ("I share my birthday with Barack Obama, the late Queen Mother and Percy Bysshe Shelley which gives me no end of pleasure; I think we Leos are arrogant, we know it all sometimes,") he was taught by the Presentation Nuns and rhapsodises about learning poetry by heart at primary school.

His father and uncle ran Killarney Printing Works which was founded by his grandfather, and produced everything from books of invoices to postcards, menus, invitations. "Every summer of secondary school I would work there, those were the days of hot metal, I always loved the smell of ink and paper." He used much of his wages to buy the complete works of DH Lawrence and Hardy.

He boarded with the Salesians in Limerick - "they really promoted film, theatre, art … they were very far seeing", and after a wonderful time in UCC (following an arts degree with a Dip Ed and a Master's on Virginia Woolf), he spent four years teaching in Bandon which saw the start of an enduring friendship.

Graham Walker was 17 when Niall first met him "and he was wonderful from the off, I directed him in two plays - he was terrific as Jack in the Importance of Being Earnest. He was also great at short stories and debating."

Niall and Graham (now Norton) have remained in touch ever since. "We were both down at Listowel Writers' Week and repaired with Nick Laird [poet and husband of writer Zadie Smith] in his vast suite, and Graham ordered up two bottles of wine and we stayed up talking about life, love, truth and beauty, till 3.30 in the morning."

Niall settled in Dublin in the early 80s, landing a job in Wesley College, where he would stay for 35 years. In the meantime he had married Mary Clayton, whom he'd known since 1972 - they wed a decade later. Now retired Professor Emeritus, Mary was professor of Old and Middle English at UCD - "one of the youngest ever appointed" beams her proud spouse, "she was vice-president for 6 years for students and she did wonderful work, revamped and reorganised many things in there, she was also very involved in the mental health service." The couple's only child Catherine, has recently returned from travelling the world and the 23-year-old is about to embark on a Masters in Education, with a view to teaching.

When Mary's workload at UCD increased, Niall job shared so he could look after their young daughter. "Lovely things came my way and you could say yes." This partly informed his decision a couple of years ago to leave school. "I did it in a whoosh. I thought of it in March and left in May. I was coming up to 60 and wanted energy for other things, I love teaching but the homeworks, the bureaucracy were becoming more of a reality."

Indefatigable to the last, he describes himself now, as not so much retired, as rewired. "I'm less frazzled, less frenetic, but there's still busyness, I'm not weeping here into my boiled egg." Far from it. He gives readings, edits, writes, involves himself in various literary festivals. In 2013 he contributed to a radio series on Dickens, next year he'll discuss a different Shakespeare play every month on RTE's Today programme. He also loves the meditation on visual art - What Lies Beneath - which he contributes to these pages every week.

"I loved art in school …Brother Maguire would allow me potter away in different mediums. I'm an artaholic and love my slot and I get letters from people which is lovely. It's so different - and you never run out of artists, You have such a choice - from Rembrandt to an NCAD graduate. I know I'm no expert."

He's a firm advocate of having a passion, whether it's for poetry or for pigeons: "I think the thing is to have a passion, to have a real and deep interest and to follow that through. Because much of life is humdrum and everyday but if you've got things that just fire your mind and your imagination and give the heart a real fillip, well that's it, isn't it.

"We're here for a very short time. I also love, love, love swimming - I swim every day in Rathmines pool." He and Mary are ardent Francophiles too. "We go to the same place, to Villefranche, we have lovely friends there, we're not fussy about what clothes we bring, but we do bring a bag of 15 books."

Finally if he had to chose just one poem that really resonates with him? "Well this is very dark and sombre but I've always loved a line from Elizabeth Bishop where she says,' life's like that, also death'.

"It's a very powerful and wonderful observation about people on a bus travelling down from Nova Scotia to Boston, and that life is rich and complex and death is inevitable."

It's that knowledge that keeps this delightful pedagogue so engaged with life and such rich, rewarding company. And gives us Windharp.


Windharp Poems of Ireland since 1916 Edited by Niall MacMonagle (Penguin RRP €29.50)

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