ROBERT GREACEN (1920-2008): A PERSONAL TESTIMONY BY FRED JOHNSTON
(Poetry Ireland News, May/ June 2008)
Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this. There are others who could design a more
fitting and more elaborate tribute. I knew Robert less well than some, better than
others; an intermediate friendship.
We travelled a little together, read together, corresponded. He was a good and interesting
companion. With the poet Gerry McDonnell we read in Paris; in the university
at Poitiers, we spoke to an audience on the topic of contemporary Irish literature. We
didn’t agree on everything – how boring, how false, to agree on everything!
I belonged to a generation of Irish writers who had seen the business of poetry
remove itself from earnest meetings in someone’s flat, with unpublicised and infrequent
poetry publications, to become too often merely another form of show business, with
its soi-disant celebrities, glittering prizes, festivals and instant publication. Robert, it
seemed to me, had emerged from a more leisurely, more polite world, where honour
and pride and doing the right thing were still important and had not yet been turned
into similes or, worse, jokes.
In his Sandymount flat, the conversation revolved around writing and writers. He
was at home in these fields, until increasing pain and accompanying loss of his usual
agility robbed even recollection of its sweetness. Sometimes we reminisced about two
very different Belfasts, as if they were the same place. He would make tea. There were
biscuits. Biscuits and books.
Only a handful of years previously on the steep streets of Poitiers, he had begun to
demonstrate signs of struggle; was it just the heat that made our walks tedious for
him? He would stay in his large hotel room until we called for him. I often thought him
lonely. He had friends, but loneliness is not always cured by friendships. He would, on
occasion, draw into himself.
At Poitiers he was, as always, intellectually perceptive and lively. On another occasion,
in Paris, in a dungeon-esque setting surrounded by mirrors, he had to endure a Paris-based
American mispronounce his name, something he greatly abhorred, until it came
out as ‘Greekan’ – whereupon the room was treated to a rumble from Robert:
‘Greeecan!’ What does one do when, having lived one’s life in poetry, the world forgets
how to pronounce one’s name properly?
He came to Galway. We drove about, met people. He was conversational always, still
fascinated by the world. Dublin was good to him. A member of Aosdána, he was publishing,
though not always with the care and attention publishers ought to have known he
deserved. He took prizes. He reviewed and was reviewed. Still, I couldn’t help wonder
whether the Dublin he really lived in was peopled by ghosts. I was well into my fifties
when, on the telephone, he would reassure me in my woes that I was only a youngster.
We exchanged books. He continued to compose poems. I typed my letters, he hand-wrote his.
He once suggested that I required a fictional alter-ego such as his ‘Captain Fox’.
Then old friends of his began to pass away.
He spoke of this with deep sadness. Signs had begun to appear, as they will for all of
us, that we are not immortal. His generation was starting to disappear. Fine and dandy
and pleasurable, no doubt, to talk with younger men of being young oneself; but no
substitute, surely, for having one’s peers, one’s own generation, with whom to discuss
still-familiar things. With the passing of his old friends went the language of his past.
Robert’s warmth, hospitality and manners have often been spoken of and given
eloquent commentary. He was never callous or bad-minded or bitter; though he knew
the world, he was never divorced from it, the ivory tower was too cramped for him.
Yet eventually, travelling ceased to be a real possibility. I possess a photograph of
Robert standing outside a small stone château in France, the property of a friend. Yet it
is Robert who resembles, as he stands there, a former owner returned to a place he
barely recognises. Did he feel like that about Dublin, after four decades in London?
I shall miss Robert Greacen. All who were privileged to know him will. There is a
silence where Robert was in the world.
Poet and novelist Fred Johnston is Manager of the Western Writers’ Centre / Ionad Scríbhneoirí Chaitlín Maude.