Sunday 18 February 2018

Earnest memoir intrigues but lacks an occasional indiscreet aside

Give Dust a Tongue by John F Deane
Give Dust a Tongue by John F Deane
John F Deane

John Boland

The title is from the great devotional poet George Herbert and the subtitle suggests a volume to be found in the "religion and spirituality" shelves of bookshops, but poet, short story writer and publisher John F Deane's account of his personal and professional life is more interesting than that might imply.

Mind you, the agnostic reader has to slog through a fair amount of religiosity, with faith-based assertions about how "when Jesus came up out of the Jordan waters, the Holy Spirit came down upon him in the form of a dove", and with such fervent declarations as "Sometimes the great glory of our faith can overwhelm us with a hope that is wonderful and that is strong and firmly based".

And there's a lot of verse to be slogged through, too, some of it from Herbert and Hopkins and more contemporary poets, but mostly from the memoir writer himself. I counted almost a hundred such poems or parts of poems in the book's 230 pages and many of them are also to be found in the author's 2012 volume, Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill: New and Selected Poems. Perhaps they should have stayed there, as their inclusion here frequently breaks the flow of the narrative.

But the narrative that gradually emerges is intriguing. Deane, who was born in Castlebar and was raised on Achill by a "pious" mother and her "errant, alcoholic but loving husband", discovered at boarding school that he had a vocation for the priesthood, as had his older brother Declan. Opting for the Holy Ghost fraternity (now rebranded as the Spiritans), he became a novitiate in their Kimmage Manor headquarters and cycled each day into Earlsfort Terrace's UCD, where he studied English and French.

Eventually, and before ordination, he left, having fallen in love instead with music and poetry, and then falling in love with Barbara, the daughter of music hall performer Cecil Sheridan. They married and had two daughters, the younger only recently born when Barbara died at the age of 37 from complications caused by lupus.

This is affectingly told, as is the spiritual crisis that ensued, though Deane later found happiness in a second marriage. He also set up Poetry Ireland in 1978, though in dealing with his literary career as magazine founder and book publisher the book is at its least satisfactory. Certainly for the memoir of a poet and publisher who has encountered many other writers, the reader learns little that's revelatory.

Seamus Heaney is described as "wonderfully generous" but then anyone who has ever been encouraged by our late Nobel laureate could, and indeed would, say that. And there's precious little else in the way of personal comment on his fellow writers.

In fact, it's hard not to feel that Deane is being too Christian for his own good - or for that of the reader, anyway, who might have wished for the occasional indiscreet aside or confession of dislike. But the book is too high-minded for such frivolity and it ends earnestly with a sequence of 20 unrhymed spiritual sonnets.


Give Dust a Toungue: A Faith and Poetry Memoir

John F Deane, Columba Press, hdbk, 230p, €19.99

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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