Bernard O'Donoghue was born in the village of Cullen, in rural North Cork, in 1945. He learnt Irish there from the age of five. At 15 he moved to Cork city to study Maths at 'Pres', the Presentation Brothers College.
Tragically, midway through that year his father, aged 52, dropped dead, suddenly, when they were at a Gaelic football match together. Shortly afterwards, Bernard's ‘Manchester mother’, a teacher, moved the family to her city of origin where Bernard attended St. Bede's Grammar School.
He went on to read English from 'Beowulf to Virginia Woolf', followed by two years graduate study in Medieval English at Oxford University. He became a Reader and Lecturer at Magdalen College and later a Fellow at Wadham College teaching Old English, Medieval English, Modern Irish Writing, Yeats and Joyce.
Bernard met his wife Heather, a fellow Medievalist, in 1974. Their three children were educated at the European School in Oxfordshire where they learnt Irish. Every summer they spend eight weeks in Cullen.
Bernard has published seven collections of poetry and a number of scholarly works, translations and anthologies, and is currently translating Piers Plowman for Faber. He is an Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford University, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Honorary President of the Irish Literary Society, London.
Extract from Bernard O’Donoghue in conversation with Shevaun Wilder
Shevaun: What was it like growing up on the family farm in Cullen?
Bernard: My father was a terrible and reluctant farmer, though my mother was very good, she got stuck into it. I liked the nice things, the hay was the great thing, so, I was deeply involved in that. On the face of it, it was very idyllic growing up there, a really nice country upbringing.
Shevaun: What was your schooling like?
Bernard: I went to the small, local national school and the fee-paying local secondary school, Garrett Hickey’s in Millstreet town. I had a great Latin teacher there, Joe Garvey.
Shevaun: Did Latin influence your choice of Medieval Studies later on? And did your Catholic upbringing or Mass play a part in your love of Latin?
Bernard: Yes, absolutely, very much so. I served Mass, I started when I was about nine or ten, just parroting the Latin answers. But it meant that when I was doing an English degree it did, as you say, incline me towards the Medieval.
Shevaun: I love ‘A Sin of Your Past Life’ in The Seasons of Cullen Church about making up your sins in Confession. Joyce wrote of ‘The manifold tortures of hell’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Was it that dramatic for you?
Bernard: Yes, it was dramatic. Joyce was a kind of extremist, in all sorts of ways, but his description of the trauma of Confession isn't wrong. That’s what it was like, really.
Shevaun: As a child, was it difficult to see friends or relatives emigrate?
Bernard: Yes. You're aware of it all the time with the American wakes, it was just the end of that era in the 1950s. It was an extraordinary practice, these young women or young men on their last night, before they got the boat from Cobh/Queenstown to go to America, had a big party and then off they went. Many of them expected never to come home again.
Shevaun: When the family moved to Manchester after your father died, was there still a 'Little Ireland' there and were you part of that?
Bernard: There were a lot of Irish workers there from the West, Mayo and so on. St. Brendan's Club was the Irish centre for music and evening classes so I went there a lot. I saw Mícheál Mac Liammóir in the Library Theatre in The Importance of Being Oscar, and in I Must be Talking to my Friends – he had a huge impact. I used to go to The Halle too.
Shevaun: Who were your favourite writers at that time?
Bernard: Chaucer was certainly one of them. Yeats, I was very keen on. I remember getting the Caedmon record of Siobhán McKenna and Cyril Cusack, the way Cusack does the music of Yeats is what really pulled me into it. Also, I was suddenly 'Irish in Britain' which is a very specific category, so, I suppose the writers I was keenest on in my own time were Yeats and Frank O'Connor. And, I was reading Edna O’Brien, she was new then in the '60s. The way Irish writers were championed in England was a bonus as well.
Shevaun: How well would you say you were integrating into British society whilst at the same time keeping your Irish roots alive?
Bernard: It's a very good question because they're almost two separate things. There was a kind of split identity especially when I came to Oxford which was so posh and Etonian, and at the end of the term I would go straight off to Cullen for the long summer break. I remember the almost fear of those two worlds impinging on each other, those worlds finding out about each other. Then I found, suddenly, it became fashionable to be Irish, something to do with Bob Dylan and The Dubliners – it was remarkable. So, I polished up my Irishness and sang the usual Clancy Brothers' songs, I wasn't a serious singer but I was part of the scene suddenly.
Shevaun: Academically, who influenced you at that time?
Bernard: One of the people was Neville Coghill from Castle Townsend, West Cork, I went to his lecture on Chaucer in my first term at Oxford, he was Anglo-Irish, a very nice man.
Shevaun: Growing up were there Anglo-Irish families in your area and how did people feel about them?
Bernard: My bit of North Cork, Sliabh Luachra on the Kerry border, is very, very Irish, you've got the Gaeltacht there. Bowen’s Court was 20 miles to the east of us and there were Anglo-Irish families at the bottom of the Golden Vale, round Mallow. The two groups didn't mix that much, there was no hostility or anything like that. They were rather admired, I think.
Shevaun: You've lived in Oxford since 1965, what decided you on the academic life?
Bernard: I had a year working as a computer programmer trainee with IBM in Manchester, I was completely hopeless at it. So, I scurried back to the arms of Oxford and did a post-graduate degree in Medieval Studies. I got a small lectureship at Magdalen, which was incredibly lucky, really, and then I was at Magdalen College for twenty-four years.
Shevaun: How do you think it was for students coming to Oxford, probably, expecting plummy-voiced professors and finding a softly-spoken Irishman lecturing them?
Bernard: Tom Paulin had his marked Northern Irish accent and started teaching at Trinity College while I was teaching at Magdalen and he once said, 'You have to feel sorry for these people who beggar themselves sending their kids to posh schools, and they turn up at Oxford thinking they’ve made it, and find the likes of you and me teaching them.'
Shevaun: When did Seamus Heaney come to Oxford and had you met him before?
Bernard: He was persuaded to be Professor of Poetry in '89, he was based in Magdalen, as well. I had met him slightly and revered him and salaamed.
Shevaun: Did his being Professor of Poetry change the landscape for Irish people at Oxford?
Bernard: Well, it changed the landscape quite a bit. The other thing that changed it was Roy Foster's Chair of Irish History, because Roy organised seminars where Irish people of all kinds of ideological positions came to the History Faculty in Hertford College – his was a very important presence. The other significant Professor was John Kelly at St. John's, as the king of the Yeats’ industry, so, they became a focus for graduates as well. At a later stage I started teaching Irish Studies to graduates because of having the Irish language in school. It was a surprising kind of payback. I suppose, the principle is 'In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king', so, suddenly, my Matric Irish was a real qualification.
Shevaun: How freeing was it being in Oxford rather than the home place?
Bernard: Very freeing, really. That's one thing that I have always liked about being in England in a way, you feel you can do what you like, partly, because you're in a place you don't originally belong to, I think. It's nice to have a sense of affiliation with places but it's also nice to be able to manage without it.
Shevaun: Yes. Much of your poetry is rooted in your early years in Cullen and the long summers you spend there every year. When did you actually start writing?
Bernard: Well, writing is always surprising. The reason I started writing was because I was teaching at Magdalen with John Fuller, an English poet and novelist, and he ran the college poetry society, the Florio Society – to go to it you had to write a poem, so that's what I started doing.
Shevaun: How marvellous! So had you not wanted to do that you might not have discovered that you were really a writer?
Bernard: Well, if I am. I think if I had never met John Fuller I might never have published anything. In fact, since I stopped going to that group, I've missed it.
Shevaun: Your Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry in 1995 was a seminal book. As close friends, as well as colleagues, did you bounce off each other in any way as poets?
Bernard: No, no, I thought of it as like being with Yeats or Shakespeare. But he was so nice, and so companionable, that there was no sense of division, but, he was a major, major player.
Shevaun: In the poem ‘Ter Conatus’ in Here Nor There, when his elderly sister dies, the brother wishes he had embraced her and in 'The Definition of Love', the lack of touch or the inability to touch seems to be a recurring theme too.
Bernard: Also, learning tactility, English people think that they're withdrawn and stand-offish, they're not by the standards of the people I grew up amongst. One of the things you do learn coming to live here, is that you can slap shoulders and make physical contact with people in a way that Irish country people just don't do. There's that poem by Heaney ‘A Call’, when he rings up Brian Friel and Ann Friel answers the phone and says, 'He's just doing a bit of weeding, I'll go out and get him.' And he listens to the clocks ticking and at the end of the poem, he says, '... and next thing he spoke, and I nearly said I loved him.' So, it's a great poem to do with English students. They say, 'Why doesn't he say he loves him?' And the answer is, because he's an Irish male! That's why! (Laughs.)
Shevaun: The Seasons of Cullen Church, your latest beautiful collection has much about 'death and consolation'. What draws you to write so many in memoriam, last letters, as it were, to people?
Bernard: I've always liked writing sympathy letters, seems to me a very worthwhile form of writing. I feel at ease with that and I also think the Irish funeral tradition is very good, going to funerals just to mark the occasion.
Shevaun: Have you thought about where you will finally rest yourself? And will it be in Cullen?
Bernard: Yes, I've thought of that quite a lot. I suppose, my choice is to be cremated here and, then, vaguely commemorated somewhere there, I'd like to have something cultural. That old charm in Irish, Bás in Éireann ['To die in Ireland'] and all that.
Shevaun: Your poem 'Emigration' says that really.
'Emigration' by Bernard O'Donoghue
For Yousif Qasmiah
Unhappy the man that keeps to the home place
and never finds time to escape to the city
where he can listen to the rain on the ceiling,
secure in the knowledge that it’s causing no damage
to roof-thatch or haystack or anything of his.
Unhappy the man that never got up
on a tragic May morning, to go to the station
dressed out for America, where he might have stood
by the Statue of Liberty, or drunk in the light
that floods all the streets that converge on Times Square.
'The Seasons of Cullen Church' by Bernard O'Donoghue
I wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth. – Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Angels on permanent watch: the first holding
the white font inside the door, eyes down
so as not to embarrass you as you dipped
a reverent finger, catching no one’s eye.
Two marking the high altar’s borders.
August mornings and the cycle past the field-dew –
Drop down dew, ye Heavens, from above –
on the way to serve Mass
for the visiting priests: natives returned
from California, Manchester or the Far East.
The dark week before Easter when you practised
for the devotions – Was ever grief like mine? –
when the bell had lost its tongue and they struck
together flat wooden clappers, not to betray
the least trace of jubilation.
Benediction, and the small hot tablet
onto which the priest spooned out
the tea-like incense, then to swing
the thurible and throw onto the air
the rich smell of death and consolation.
Snow at New Year: walking down to Mass
for the Feast of the Circumcision:
Now dismiss me, Lord! Had we, like Simeon,
lived long enough? But that night
the sky over the graveyard frosted with stars.