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Delving deep into Derek Mahon's mind and heart

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Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon

Stephen Enniss maintains that too often critics have read Derek Mahon's poetry as if it were an impersonal commentary on Northern Ireland or a continuing dispute with modernity, and have consequently failed to see how first and foremost his poems are expressions of his own angst. In writing Mahon's life, Enniss seeks to chart and describe that angst from the very beginning, how it developed over a lifetime, and how, most importantly, it has given birth to and shaped a most remarkable body of poetry.

Derek Mahon was born in Belfast in 1941,the only child of working-class, Church of Ireland, parents. He became aware of the war in hindsight, but was deeply marked as a child by the discovery of a revolver in his uncle's house - a symbol of the latent conflict in Northern Ireland - and by that uncle's membership of the infamous Protestant civilian militia, the B Specials. More reassuringly, he was a talented young chorister for whom hymns were the first introduction to metre and rhyme.

After Skegoneill Primary School, he attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where he started writing and publishing poems, was involved in amateur dramatics, and participated in debates. He matriculated in Trinity College Dublin to read English, French and Philosophy. His Trinity years were difficult. He was a less than diligent student, twice expelled for poor attendance at lectures, and, in his second year, tried to kill himself by jumping into the Liffey. However, it was at Trinity that he decided to devote his life to poetry.

In 1965, he won an Eric Gregory Award, and three years later published his first full collection, Night-Crossing. During these years, he travelled a great deal: England, France, Belgium, Germany, Canada, and the USA. He worked at a great many disparate jobs, and even managed to finish his degree at Trinity but did not attend the graduation ceremony. In 1967, Mahon began seeing Doreen Douglas, whom he married five years later. Not an easy marriage, it involved numerous, and increasingly lengthy and acrimonious, separations. Mahon would appear to have been a reluctant husband and father - they had two children - and things were greatly worsened by his problem drinking and, in 1986, adultery.

Mahon continued to write, publishing six books of poems between 1972 and 1985, as well as various pamphlets. He worked for Vogue, the New Statesman, and the BBC, but could never really hold down a regular job, which exacerbated matters further with Doreen. He then entered a prolonged period of writer's block, during which he turned to the translation of French poetry, especially that of Philippe Jaccottet.

As well as problems in the private sphere, Mahon was beset by problems in the public. The Northern Ireland Troubles started just after Night-Crossing was published, and left him deeply disturbed and perplexed. In 1977, he was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the New University of Ulster. When that position terminated in 1979, he left Northern Ireland for good.

Ever the wanderer, he tried living in London, America, and Dublin, was constantly plagued by poor finances and frequently hospitalised for alcoholism, but finally seemed to settle in Kinsale. Turning his back on the North also meant severing links to his ageing parents: he missed the death and funeral of each of them.

In 1986, Mahon became the first Writer Fellow at Trinity, received his BA, then a Master's, and was later awarded an honorary Doctorate in Letters. From the early 1990s, he has been able to write again, and has produced a huge, and hugely impressive, corpus of poetry. This book describes Mahon as "one of our greatest lyric poets", and indeed "Ireland's greatest living poet". It is curious and very sad that such greatness of the work should be accompanied by such devastation in the life, making one wonder whether the former is really worth the latter. "Words alone are certain good," said Yeats. Yes, but at what price?

Enniss's detailing of the life context of Mahon's poems gives them greater depth and meaning, resonance and richness. He has the marvellous knack of establishing everything he says with documentary evidence - accumulated from a plethora of sources, including archives and interviews, over more than a decade - and yet sustaining a strong, easy-to-follow, and gripping narrative flow.

Much more than just relating the external life facts, however, Enniss is able to really delve into Mahon's heart and mind, to portray the soul from which the poems have arisen. This makes him a truly exceptional biographer. Most significantly, he enkindles the desire to go and read Mahon all over again.

Sunday Independent