Fred Johnston, ‘In:Verse’, review of Further On Up the Road by Hugh McFadden, in Books Ireland (2020)

Details Available at Books Ireland [n.d.] - online; accessed 04.11.2023.

A decent preface might have mentioned Derry-born, life-long Dublin resident Hugh McFadden’s considerable achievements. He took his BA degree in University College Dublin in History and Politics and earned an MA in Modern History, moving on to become a tutor in the History Department there, then a tutor in Politics and a lecturer in Journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He carried on what amounts to a tradition of literary folk in the old Irish Press when novelist John Banville was there; indeed, I spent a brief while there myself as a sub-editor. He was the executor of the literary estate of the late poet John Jordan, whose poems and prose he has edited, and he has reviewed widely in publications such as the old Hibernia, the Sunday Tribune and our own Books Ireland. He has produced five collections of his own poetry, including Empire of Shadows (Salmon Poetry, 2012) and a selection of his own prose, Organic Words, from Limerick’s Revival Press in 2019. Truly, he may be described as an eminent ‘figure’ in the Irish literary landscape; the cover of his new collection is a photo of McFadden striding with his grandson through an Arcadian tunnel of touching trees.

One might justly ask why, in the raucous and self-replicating contemporary Irish poetry scene, more isn’t heard of him. His apprentice world, at least some of which is hinted at here, threw up important and scholarly literary entities such as Pearse Hutchinson, Macdara Woods, Desmond O’Grady, John Jordan and, more latterly, Paul Durcan, to name, as they say, but a few. One might mention Heaney—McFadden does—who somehow managed to be of that generation without properly being in it. Kavanagh’s ghost haunted it. It was as different a poetry scene as can be imagined to what exists now: no glittering prizes, few accolades, almost no public literary events worth a shilling or two; a world, in large measure, centred on Dublin (pace Cork city) and mapped by a handful of ‘literary’ pubs; for all its fogs and faults therein, poetry meant more and was held in somewhat higher esteem. We have a glut now; but all that ‘glutters’ is not gold. That said, McFadden is not driven to nostalgic wonderings about the past:

Way back then the road seemed very dark
And the turning world seemed very cold;
But I followed the sun and found the light …

(Further on up the Road Redux)

Redemption from the maelstrom of Dublin’s literary outfall had to be found, if one had sense. ‘Homage to Patrick Kavanagh’recalls a pilgrimage in ‘following the Patrick Kavanagh way’, where the arrival of two butterflies signifies that ‘marvels are seen in the ordinary’. A butterfly is significant again where it ‘hovered over the coffin, / flew away again and disappeared’ at the funeral of TV personality and, arguably, social icon, Gay Byrne in ‘A Butterfly’s Farewell’. In ‘The Great Thirst’, the title riffing on Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’, McFadden’s overview of a doomed small generation is put down to the ageless ‘Great Irish Thirst’, of which many an Irish poet sang and which, he suggests, ‘runs in the blood/in the very pulse’ of Irishness and which felled Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, John Jordan and the timeless Michael Hartnett. Their ‘image’ would not be considered ‘respectable’ enough today, I’d wager, for the canapés-and-plonk-and-networking civil servants of our new cultural Ireland. From Behan comes an unrepeatable pub utterance allegedly concerning Oscar Wilde, transposed tastefully for what may, or may not, be an admittedly very different observation about Seamus Heaney, the title playing with Heaney’s own ‘Requiem for the Croppies’:

My life on you, Seamus
it’s you had it both ways:
atheist at Oxford
atheist at Harvard
a Catholic at home
with a full Requiem
Mass at the very end …

(Requiem for a Croppy)

Not a butterfly in sight this time. In ‘Centenary Fever’ McFadden digs his pen into the profitable-for-some commemorations of the centenary of 1916, which in his view (and not only in his view) became the shameless cradle of ‘a terrible greed’, a commercial tourist attraction decked with more trinkets than any sense of urraim. Like Larkin, McFadden caresses modern cultural markers and remarks upon them or utilises them to his liking. He takes a swing at the gormless but deadly George W. (Dubya) Bush with a line from Dylan and even ‘a chancer called Trump’, this latter via a Limerick. He can pirouette from Fred Astair to Mark Knopfler to Dolores O’Riordain and rub verses with Big Bill Broonzy, taking in JFK, Auden and the Arts Council in a generous choreography of things and events that have impressed themselves upon him, for good or ill. In this, he is indeed full of years. There are daubs of shorter efforts that are flimsy by comparison, some of only two lines, such as ‘Wormwood Blues’:

Lady Alcool is a gender-bender
And absinthe makes the heart grow weaker.

Oddly—was it an error?—the second line here is the last line, save for one word, of a four-liner set above it. ‘Lady Alcool’, using the French word for alcohol, also features again in a following poem. But there is no indication that the three poems are a sequence. Hugh McFadden’s poems deserve a new audience and critical appraisal, and this is a fine reintroduction to his wit and his powers of satirical and unsentimental observation.

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