Monday 23 April 2018

Literary master never craved the public recognition he so deserved

The poet diversified into many areas and shared his wisdom - but always kept his privacy, writes Liam Collins

Philosophical: Images of Anthony Cronin from a studio photo shoot. Photo: Tony Higgins
Philosophical: Images of Anthony Cronin from a studio photo shoot. Photo: Tony Higgins
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Anthony (Tony) Cronin never fully achieved the iconic literary status of the boon companions of his youth, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O'Brien, whose friendship he chronicled in a wonderful memoir Dead As Doornails.

Tony saw himself mainly as a poet, but apart from his memoirs of literary Dublin in the mid-1900s he was also an accomplished novelist, critic, playwright and racing correspondent. He was also cultural adviser to his college friend Charles J Haughey and as such created the self-perpetuating, State-funded cultural organisation Aosdana.

Some literary commentators feel he might have found greater public recognition had he been more focused on one area of literary endeavour.

However, there is no indication that he ever craved such recognition, admitting in an interview: "I have a capacity for not knowing how to advance oneself."

In later life he was happy to pour all his efforts into poetry, criticism and The Sunday Poem, a short but extremely erudite column for the Sunday Independent in which, for the past 14 years, he chose a poem and explained its meaning and context to a large but not specifically literary audience.

Although he was initially close to Behan and joined him on a hilarious road trip to the Continent which he later chronicled, Tony had in the end a stronger affinity with Kavanagh because of their dedication to their art and their intense interest in horse racing.

Tony, along with Kavanagh, Brian O'Nolan, John Ryan and Tom Joyce can also be said to have invented Bloomsday when they hired a horse-drawn Hackney cab to take them from Davy Byrnes pub in South Anne Street, Dublin, out to the then disused Martello Tower in Sandycove on June 16, 1954, stopping on the way at various hostelries and places of note mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses, which is set on that day in Dublin in 1904.

Tony was born in 1925 in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, where his father, who had worked for the Enniscorthy Echo, was a solicitor's clerk. He left home aged nine to board at Blackrock College, in Dublin, where the president of the school was John Charles McQuaid, later Archbishop of Dublin. After attending UCD, he went to the King's Inns and qualified as a barrister, but never practised at the Bar.

Instead he took an unsuitable job as secretary to the grocer's organisation RGDATA.

More interested in literary matters than work, he embarked on a bohemian lifestyle which did not endear him to either his employer or the more respectable citizens of his adopted city.

He then became secretary to the "professional socialist" Peadar O'Donnell (as Tony described him), an IRA commander who ran a literary magazine The Bell, which Tony later edited.

During this period he got to know the literary and artistic figures of Dublin in the 1940s and he later chronicled their goings-on and parodied O'Donnell in his hilarious first novel The Life of Riley (1964).

Although a writer and journalist, he was very reticent about his own life. "I am very withdrawn and very private, I think rather cold," he said, describing himself to one interviewer, which was surprising to many because of his involvement in the bohemian life of the city which revolved around McDaid's in Harry Street, the Pearl Bar in Fleet Street and The Bailey in Duke Street, which was owned by his friend Ryan.

In various interviews Tony grudgingly admitted he had one brother, a successful accountant, and that he had been married to Therese Campbell and they had a daughter, Sarah (another daughter, Iseult, died young).

Their wedding in Haddington Road church in February 1955 was apparently sparsely attended by his friends who were in various pubs from which they weren't barred in and around Baggot Street Bridge during the ceremony.

Kavanagh and some relatives of the couple then adjourned to Ryan's pub and later the Dolphin Hotel in Temple Bar for lunch.

The Cronins moved to London, where he edited the literary periodical Time and Tide between 1956 and 1958. He became a denizen of Soho and its literary and artistic scene. Tony's wife had introduced him to the painter Lucian Freud in Dublin and they became involved in a circle that included Francis Bacon, the poets Dylan Thomas and George Barker and the writer Tony Burgess, among others.

"Soho" he wrote, "was largely inhabited by failures, the ruined men of the 1940s, whom the war had somehow confirmed in a natural dislike for the mere struggle for circumstantial success".

When Brighid McLaughlin drew a portrait of him during an interview for the Sunday Independent some years ago, she remarked on his strangely shaped head. "Funny" he replied, "Francis Bacon said exactly the same thing."

Following a stormy marriage, the Cronins split and Tony moved to Spain, where he lived for some time with the painter William Crozier and his family.

His Collected Poems was published in 1972. In his most successful book Dead As Doornails (1976) he gave a first-hand and personalised account of literary life in Dublin and the characters who populated its pubs and the subterranean underworld where artists, writers, dossers and others lived and partied in a network of Georgian basements.

Tony had a fondness for the foibles of his subjects and, while many of them couldn't stand each other and spent their energy engaged in literary feuds, he appeared to have remained aloof from it all, although his relationship with Behan deteriorated as the latter sunk into chronic alcoholism. Tony said the main reason for writing the memoir was because he was appalled by the way the period was being romanticised.

He told one interviewer: "It just wasn't like that... Ireland was really a very terrible place in the years after the war."

Tony was also concerned about the Irish ability to link alcohol with genius. "I have known no person in Ireland whose potential hasn't been distorted or wasted through drink," he told Caroline Walsh.

He gave up alcohol himself when it began to interfere with his work.

"I began to find hangovers just generally too unpleasant, they're not worth it and the thing that keeps you on the straight and narrow now is the memory of the hangovers," he told Willie Kealy in an interview for the Sunday Independent. However, Tony continued smoking until about 18 months ago.

He wrote the Viewpoint column for the Irish Times from 1973 until 1980 on political and social aspects of Irish life. He brought an originality and clarity of thought to his journalism and often defended "an Irish solution to an Irish problem", which was often derided elsewhere in that newspaper.

Tony was an early champion of James Joyce when Dublin paid little more than lip service to the writer, and his book A Question of Modernity in 1966 contributed much to the scholarship surrounding Joyce.

He also wrote a second, though less successful, novel Identity Papers (1979). His biography of Brian O'Nolan/ Myles na gCopaleen was published in 1989, mostly, he said, to correct the academic record about the author of At Swim-Two-Birds. He also wrote an acclaimed biography of Samuel Beckett The Last Modernist (1996) and during his long career published 14 volumes of poetry.

Tony was also racing correspondent with the Sunday Tribune. Flat racing was a passion he shared with Kavanagh and later Eamon Dunphy and the pair would repair to Deauville, where Dunphy had a house, for the main week of the French racing calendar.

From early in the 1990s he published his journalism in the Sunday Independent, adding to his status as "a debunker of myths".

Tony's column The Sunday Poem was a widely read and popular feature of the paper up to today.

He was appointed to the post of cultural adviser by Haughey in 1981 and in that capacity he was instrumental in the foundation of the State-sponsored artistic organisation Aosdana, of which he was exceedingly proud and which he defended from attack over the years.

He was conferred with the honour of Saoi (wise man) in 1993. He wrote and read the funeral oration of Haughey in June 2006 and remained unrepentantly supportive of his political mentor's legacy, which other commentators felt had been damaged beyond repair by the revelations of the Moriarty Tribunal.

The latter part of his long life was spent happily with his second wife, the writer Anne Haverty, in Ranelagh, Dublin. But once again Tony was exceedingly reticent about their relationship, not for any puritanical reasons, but because he believed in privacy. "I don't approve of this (modern) sense of disclosure," he said, "it's the great disease of our time."

According to the Concise Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, much of Tony's work "combined nationalist and left-wing viewpoints on modern Irish politics and culture".

Birthday Thoughts, the final poem of his 2010 volume The Fall, is typical of his deadpan philosophy:

But I have no insight into

The 'problem of existence'.

I am as ignorant about it now

As I ever was - and that was completely.

Tony Cronin died on December 27, one day before his 91st birthday

Sunday Independent

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