Derek Mahon, 1941–2020

Derek Mahon reading at the Library of the Foreign Languages, Moscow, in 2010. Photo: Marina Masinova

We are sorry to report that Derek Mahon, among the most celebrated of modern Northern Irish poets, died in Cork on 1 October 2020, following a short illness. He was 78. Mahon’s poem, ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, is often chosen as a ‘desert island poem’, and his poem ‘Everything is Going to be All Right’, in a memorable reading by Andrew Scott, has been one to which many have turned during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here, we publish warm tributes to his memory by Maurice Riordan and Cahal Dallat.

Maurice Riordan writes:

Is Derek Mahon’s poetry poetry’s best kept secret? Could this be so despite ‘Everything Is Going to Be All Right’ becoming, in the months before his death, a pandemic sensation?  I’ve seen that poem (written decades ago in a phase of recovery from alcoholism) described as “reassuring” and “a comfort to many”.  Comforting! That’s not what Derek Mahon is about.  He knew alienation and unease; was drawn to the bleak, the desperate, the desolate; his mind explored the impersonal vistas of time and space. And yes, in that context, there’s human sweetness to be found through the hard-won victories of imagination.

Mahon occupies a specific place in Irish poetry.  He came from the Protestant suburbs of Belfast, a world inaccessible to the nationalist Irish imagination. In ‘Courtyards in Delft’, he recreates that world through scrupulous attention to the Pieter de Hooch painting. This great poem, Mahon once suggested, was a study of Protestantism. It evokes at once the Dutch ‘interior’ and the Belfast of his childhood: “I lived there as a boy… a strange child with a taste for verse”. 

In the 1970s, when I first came under his spell, Mahon was a celebrated member of a rising generation of Northern Irish poets. He was as widely known as Seamus Heaney and, as a rule, regarded as more of an influence by younger poets. He was also something of an enfant terrible – quite spirited, formidable company.  Let’s say he didn’t always suffer the fools.  But he was always courteous.

Mahon battled alcoholism to have a productive and long career, with several collections this century from Gallery Press, including Harbour Lights, Life on Earth, and now the posthumous Washing Up. But his reputation probably rests more on work done in the 1970s and ’80s published in (very slim) volumes by OUP.  Here are stylish faceted poems full of devilish energy, such as ‘Matthew V’, ‘Lives’, ‘An Image from Beckett’; the immense ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’; the crystalline villanelle ‘Antarctica’. The list goes on but it is less notable for length than excellence.

In later years, Mahon lived in Kinsale, Co. Cork, overlooking the sea.  He kept away from – and above – the poetry melee, rarely giving readings or interviews. He was for me, and I expect for many, an exemplary presence: a poet who had created a haunting, austere music, a singular blend of the mordant and the moving, the classic and contemporary, an artist who – not unlike those Dutch Masters he loved – could reveal the sublime in the ordinary.

Maurice Riordan was Editor of The Poetry Review, 2013–17. His new collection, The Shoulder Tap, is forthcoming from Faber in 2021.

Cahal Dallat writes:

Belfast-born poet Derek Mahon had a rare gift for conveying the essential isolation of the human condition. Even his suddenly popular ‘Everything is Going to be All Right’, which has given solace and encouragement to so many in the pandemic crisis, is, like many of his poems, written from the perspective of a lone, contemplative artist surviving what is happening in the wider world. Influenced by Beckett, and by Existentialism during a brief period at the Sorbonne, Mahon was to become the most cosmopolitan in outlook of a generation of poets from the North of Ireland, moving to, among other locations, London and New York, before finally settling in Kinsale on the Cork coast. And while he took for his themes ‘community and solitude’, it was often the invisible community of artists whose lives he explored in poems of searing perception and engagement, frequently artists alienated from society in different ways, including Malcolm Lowry, Vincent Van Gogh and Bertolt Brecht in his Danish exile.

A master formalist, Mahon’s obsession with artistic perfection was evidenced not simply by an outstanding body of work but by a distinctly restless – and unique – insistence on further revising already-published poems. But like fellow Northern-Irish-Renaissance poet, Seamus Heaney, he was painfully conscious of the poet’s perceived duty to the wider community, a critical concern as the North descended into late 1960s chaos, something his generation hadn’t expected, as he acknowledges in his Camus poem ‘Death and the Sun’: “We […] never imagined the plague to come, / So long had it crouched there in the dark”. That struggle over presumed obligation may be cruelly satirised in ‘Rage for Order’, but finds authentic expression in poems such as ‘Afterlives’.

For all his urbanity, Mahon remains a true inheritor of MacNeice’s Belfast, though where Louis hears factory siren and clanging tram, Mahon sees “empty streets, / the shipyard silence, the tied-up swings” (‘Ecclesiastes’) and the bleakness of new suburban housing estates, finding himself more at home in wandering “cliff and cove / Without comfort” (‘North Wind: Portrush’) on Rathlin Island or Antrim’s north coast where, as he writes in ‘Nostalgias’, “In a tiny stone church / On the desolate headland / A lost tribe is singing Abide With Me.”

Cahal Dallat is a poet, critic and musician. His collection Beautiful Lofty Things is due from Salmon Poetry in 2021.

Derek Mahon was a presence in The Poetry Review over decades. In summer 1991, in an issue of the Review devoted to contemporary Irish poetry, he was interviewed by William Scammell. Mahon is introduced in this piece as a “pivotal figure… the inheritor of Auden and MacNeice’s tough lyricism, and one of the great generation of Northern Irish poets, alongside Heaney and Longley”.

2 October 2020; updated 10 December 2020