Colm Tóibín, Anthony Cronin - Obituary, in The Guardian (24 Jan. 2017)

[ Source: The Guardian - online; accessed 30.01.2017. Photo port shows Cronin at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, in 2005, standing in front of a portrait of himself by Brian Maguire. Second image shows John Ryan, Cronin, Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh and Thomas Joyce at the Bloomsday commemoration on Sandymount beach, Dublin, in 1954. Note: Cronin’s bio-dates are here given as 28 Dec. 1923 - 27 Dec. 2016]

When Charles Haughey became taoiseach in 1979, one of his priorities was to repair the fraught relationship between the Irish state and its artists. He appointed the poet and critic Anthony Cronin, who has died aged 92, to be his artistic adviser. Cronin had, over the previous five years, written a trenchant column in the Irish Times on the theme of the relationship between the artist and the world. He also had produced a brilliant memoir, Dead as Doornails (1976), about the lives of six artists, including Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Flann O’Brien, all of them friends of his, who had died of drink.

Cronin was, for more than half a century, Ireland’s most prominent man of letters. Although he was called to the bar, he never practised. A true bohemian, he moved easily and effortlessly between Dublin and London and Spain. In the 1950s, he was editor of the influential journal the Bell in Dublin and was later the literary editor of Time and Tide in London. He wrote regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and was one of the first to recognise the importance of Samuel Beckett as a writer of prose.

As an Irish poet, Cronin was unusual in not writing about landscape or childhood or large questions of Irish identity. His poems were often formal in their structure and wry in their tone. He liked clear statement and paradox. He was concerned with fragility and human frailty, but also with public events. He wrote a long poem, RMS Titanic (1961); his interest in modernity and history culminated in an extended sonnet sequence The End of the Modern World (1989).

When the chance came to become involved in government, Cronin, as a socialist working for a conservative prime minister, understood the dangers, but saw that they were outshone by what could be gained. He served as cultural and artistic adviser from 1980 to 1983, and again in Haughey’s third term in office, from 1987 to 1992.

From Government Buildings in Dublin, Cronin was responsible for setting up the Heritage Council, which supported Irish archaeology, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin, a 17th-century military hospital that had been derelict for many years.

He also set to work to establish Aosdána, an academy of Irish artists. Since membership included a regular stipend for the artists whose income fell below a certain level, Aosdána rescued many writers and painters and composers from living a life of penury.

In 1954, Cronin was part of the group - including Kavanagh and O’Brien - who first recognised and celebrated Bloomsday in Dublin. Thirty years later, Cronin oversaw the marking of the Joyce centenary, with figures such as Jorge Luis Borges, Anthony Burgess, William Empson and Angela Carter invited by the Irish government to Dublin to honour the author of Ulysses.

Cronin was born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, the son of John, a reporter on the Enniscorthy Echo, and his wife, Hannah (née Barron). But he became a Dubliner; he boarded at Blackrock college and went to University College Dublin, and then King’s Inns law school. His city was Joyce’s Dublin. He loved ballads and good company and laughter and city streets. Even as he walked the corridors of power and in his graceful old age, he had elements of the young Stephen Dedalus.

He was an important mentor to many younger writers, including Paul Durcan, Dermot Bolger and myself, and also the novelist Anne Haverty, whom he married in 2003. He had previously been married to Thérèse Campbell, who died in 1998, and with whom he had two daughters, Iseult, who died in 1976, and Sarah.

As well as 16 volumes of poetry, Cronin wrote two novels, including the comic masterpiece The Life of Riley (1964), a play, many collections of essays, and two biographies - No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (1989) and Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (1996).

His work and his engaging, brilliant, combative personality arose from a mixture of lyric feeling, a sort of awe at the complexity of the world, and a hard-edged rationalism. He could write with wonder about the onset of autumn, for example, in a poem such as Revenant:

What is the meaning of this,
That the heart is stabbed with grief,
At the onset of autumn evenings,
At memory’s twitch on the leaf?
The meaning is summer going,
Ridiculous ecstasy, pain,
And the heart agreeing with something
Which was, and which ought to be, plain

But I remember also a day early in 1985 at the Tate Gallery in London with him and Anne when we went to see a show of mainly abstract paintings from St Ives. “All of this colour,” he said, “will get us nowhere.” He marched us slowly through the Tate building, towards some paintings of heads by Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon, who had been a friend of his, and drawings by Georg Grosz. “Look at how much more is in these, the anguish, the city, the face, the crowd. This is how we live,” he insisted. He was, that day, against nature; he was cheering for culture in all its twisted diversity, its excitement.

He is survived by Anne and Sarah.


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