Athens to Athenry: Padraic Fallon Rediscovered

Dennis O’Driscoll
To mark the publication of Padraic Fallon's COLLECTED POEMS (CarcanetIGallery, £18.95 I £9.90), edited by Brian Fallon, with an introduction by Seamus Heaney, Dennis O'Driscoll considers the work of
this neglected Irish poet.
The American painter, Erich Fischl, has spoken of his disillusionment at art college to find his paintings relentlessly combed for influence. When his teachers 'discovered' fifty painters in a single example of his work, he knew it was time to leave. Padraic Fallon's poetry can be approached in a similarly sleuthing frame of mind. A feather from 'Leda's kingbird', a Baudelairean perfume, a rag of Raftery's: the clues pile up. And yet, for all the effort involved, the evidence points to an awareness of other poets' work more than to any decisive influence. The identity paraded is Fallon's own.
If Patrick Kavanagh 'was never much considered by the English critics', Padraic Fallon was not much considered by the Irish ones either. You will not find a single reference to him in the indexes of otherwise indispensable books like Seamus Deane's Celtic Revivals or the more recent compilation edited by Terence Brown and Nicholas Grene, Tradition and Influence in Anglo -IrishPoetry. Edna Longley greeted his Poems (1974) as 'largely a non-event'. The critical strategy - when there is any - is to attack Fallon as a minor acolyte of Yeats's and leave him for dead. It is as if it were felt that the ranking of his generation has been finalised and that it is now too late for further entrants to be considered. Those who plead on behalf of Devlin and Coffey can at least hold a brief for modernism; Fallon's advocates must rely on the
merits of the work alone.
Any case made in Fallon's defence will of necessity seem
belated. He published reluctantly and developed slowly (only 8 of the items in the Collected Poems were written by the age of forty). Although a collection had been planned by The Orwell Press thirty years before, it took until 1974 - the year of his death - for a first book to appear. By then, literary
expectations had greatly alte ed d'
;:~~O~ti~S belonging to a diffe~nt ~Orl~, :a::::he tf.~~:~s:
    d .     WIld an.d western and the twilight still Celtic TK
n~~:~ant t collectIon of the period would be entitled N~rth e
    es ..     "
his In f~ct, some of Fall.on's distinctive qualities stem from
ball~~:;m~:~ o~l~eS:i~~\en~a~~orr:dern. Steeped in Irish
comprehensive knowledge rf mol!' he also had a
yout~ful Rirnbaud to the youthful MUl::'o!n~~~~r:~;';al;~:
;;~k~~~ ~7:~~~;rl;; C~unty G:lway in 1905. Brian Fallon
who gre . un ryman y background and ancestry
    .     w up m a world where the tram -     R f
stIll a fairly recent memory and Gael' f lk poet a tery. ~as
~adi.'i~n and not an archi v~ culture'. '~ ~he -~:o~c ~;~ra i~~~;
Mac a poem a~dressed to his poet-friend Patrick acDonogh),Padralc Fallon distances himself f assumption that, by virtue of his back round rom ~ny automatic access to some kind of authent' g , he enJoys
IC peasant poetry:
NO hpoel ts I knew of; or they mouthed each other's words' uc ow powered gods '
They died, as they were born, in byres.
Oh, maybe some rags and tatters did sing
    But poetry, for all your talk, is never that'si     1
mpe ...
    Despite these reservations - so deftl s     .
    Boland is surely rI'ght' h     y pun mto verse - Eavan
    m er suspic'     th '
    references, freedom from Ja     .     IOn at the classical
    .     nsemsm regia I I
    power m Padraic Fall'     '     na co our and raw
        on s poetry were a     ..
    aut entic survival of th . h     surprIsmg but
poetry'. e elg teenth-century spirit of Irish
    Fallon spent much of his life as     ..
allotted a page in the 'P a Revenue offICIal - he is
History of the Revenue C~~O~al~ties' chapte.r of Reamonn's in Dublin ('I sat there in th m:;SlOners. HIS fIrst posting was The salt harbour, a youn ~a~,~t~:l House window over / poet came from 'AE' a:d I . Y .enco~ragement as a Seumas O'Sullivan' and A ~~er cpublm frIends included he lived in Wexford where bUS ;t arke. From 1939 to 1963
ya accounts the title he laboured
under ('Customs and Excise Om.cer, Registrar of Shipping, Mercantile Superintendent and Receiver of Works') was the most onerous part of his job. There was time to sail, to farm 20 acres and to write. His output included poetry, stories, essays, a journal, stage plays and 17 radio plays. While he tended to write directly on to the typewriter, he often tested out alternative drafts in ink; and the inspired last lines of 'Yesterday's Man' ('oo.a quayside memory, the Frau I Of the Dutch captain's hanging out her wash, I So young, so young, transfiguring me '.) can be found sketched on a driving licence form.
In the early Fifties, in his 'Journal' in The Bell, he had commented: 'There is more to life than despair of life. There is this body-joy in its own energies, the thing that makes trees grow and men marry ... Let despair come later. Having lived his joys, he will cope with that, too,'. All of Fallon's poems are, in a sense, 'later' poems and he was over fifty when his best work was written. To the end, his poems kept their undespairing composure and an inner equilibrium (qualities captured well in Conor Fallon's bust of his father). Eavan Boland recalled him in his final years - at a time when the despairing poetry of Plath and Berryman was at the height of its influence - 'speaking with a truly unusual sort of peace and strength about the poetic process itself'.
Fallon's mastery of speech rhythms in poetry is one of his major achievements. While not wishing Irish poets to be confined to Irish themes, he was conscious of the fact that 'Behind us , a powerful ghost, engaging our rhythms to some hereditary and ancient wheel, is the Irish language'. He forged a synthesis of demotic with poetic, dialect with dialectic; and a play like Steeple Jerkin has all the vividness and viciousness of a small world whose street battles are fought in words. The poems are captivating,musical, leisurely, droll, moving from the mundane to the numinous with barely a change of register. His casual tone can, admittedly, lead to a certain bagginess in the writing and to vagueness - as if he had begun talking to himself for a moment, the voice lapsing into privacies. At their best, however, the conversational poems have depth, charm and
some of the digressive tendencies for which Ciaran Carson is now admired: And I remember
Trooping to the top of the stone just Such a galaxy. Or do I? My God,
I've sat there in patched shorts,
In the very weather of the thing, and must Scratch my head to remember ...
It would be absurd to deny that Padraic Fallon was influenced by Yeats,but equally absurd to contend that he was unable to cope with that influence. As he wrote of Eliot and Yeats 'You have read them,you have absorbed them, they are part ;f your blood stream. Go thou and do not likewise'. It is arguable, in fact, that ,some of the best things in Fallon's poetry, as in Kavanagh s , sprang from that resolve to 'do not likewise'. To be one of the first literary sons of a new state, working in the shadow of s.o huge ~ father figure, was not an easy fate and some. rebelhon was mevitable. Fallon's unpredictability, so attractive .an asp~~t of his work, may have originated in such a re~elhous spmt. Peter Sirr has written: 'I value the work for Its openendedness, its riskiness, its preparedness to be led ?y ~e.taphor and tone'. There are times when the unpre~1CtabI~Ity bec.omes a kind of uncertainty, the poet appeanng to ImprovIse as he loses his place in the script. In ?ene~al,. though, by following the undulations of his I~agmatIon, e~en the.bumpiest ride will end at an impressive dIstance from Its startmg point - 'River Lane' 'Boyne Vall '
    'T     'Th'     ..     '     ey
, .otem. IS serendIpItous quality ('I never know what I
thmk about anything until I come to write about it') carried an enor~ous appeal for Fallon, namely its contrast with what he p~rceIVed to be a weakness in Yeats who 'never discovered himsel! through a poem. He had made his mind up before he wrote It down'.
An even more origi~al device of Fallon's for surviving Yeats to make hIm a character in his poems, to mythoiogise. the great myth-maker and his circle. Lady Gregory, for ms.tance, becomes a Penelope who 'pulls homel Rogue-lord, artIst, world-wanderer,/Simply by sitting in a
house .. .'. The fact that their setting is in Fallon's own countryside ('The very road I took this morning/In the downpour') gives an added aura of confidence to these poems. 'Yeats's Tower at Ballylee', the earliest of them, finds him inhabiting Yeats's spirit and speech as well as his property. It is a risky, remarkable, triumphant performance. Fallon sees the tower as a manifestation of Yeats's boyish dreams; but, through its loneliness and desolation, 'he became a man'. Fallon's identification with Yeats leads him to the point where he begins to 'know the terror' of the older poet at first hand. Identification gives way to self-identity; and out of the struggle with Yeats come a personal poetry and a personal vision; 'Around me now from this great height/Is a vision I did not seek. I have avoided it...'.
The most engaging of these poems (in which Fallon conducts what Donald Davie has called 'his direct and unabashed dialogue with that overbearing predecessor') is the cleverly-titled 'Yeats at Athenry Perhaps'. Although it concerns a non-event, a non-meeting between Fallon as a boy and the poet changing trains for Gort, its drama tic possibilities are fully exploited.The peasant-idealising poet wouldn't deign to 'muddy a feathered foot' among anything as vulgar as real peasants; but he is imagined,nonetheless, exploring the town ('We had our towers too'), with its unmythical women ('Ours kept the house and answered the chapel bell') and its gossips ('every peeling window was an eye'). Like the railway tracks, the worlds of Athenry and Coole would never actually converge:
No, he'd have sat down by the line and waited Melting his bits of ore or watched the sky
Jolt from the saltmills of the Atlantic over
A town that died so often of the rain ...
The country town with its Norman keep and rained-on chapel always stirs something profound in Fallon's imagination. He guides us over the bridge, through the square, down the back lanes. We see a 'fawnstoned ballalley', 'paintwashed shops', 'the hag's head /Curing slowly on /The smoking half door, like ham' and the 'knobbly young/Hairslick with the fag end on h' t     '
added and the atmosph:e ~~~~:. I No .artificial colouring is suggestion as by descri tion ( p ac~ IS evoked as much by
uts it 'Fallon I ks 1 P . a SymbolIst touch). As Peter Sirr

    ,     00 ess at his world tha th     h"
    of the lost worlds the Vl'Sl'bl     h     n roug It, In search
e one ec oes'
    Those lost worlds have an . d"     .
prompted to seek out the T . epIC lmensIOn and Fallon is hill the God . roy In every town, the Alp in every
a~ut of h In every ~n, the Athens in Athenry . The full

    uman expenence and e t"     .
places, the stifling limitations a~o :~; ~~ P~rslble in small
    existing in defiance of each oth         W lml ess potential
    "     "     er.     e are shown p     I

    lVIng In decent anonymity' wh h     . eop e
    "     0 ave no WIsh to be 'tu d

    ort Into a poem - amon th     C'     "     gge
Un~le ~en. The settin is ~ a7: A~~ A VISIt West') the poet's
of lIfe IS still shared an~ stilf ab d e7b a town whose style which is subtly different toa~h one fdmany people (and Kavanagh) : e wor s of Heaney or
Be.tween yawns life goes on WIth some cunning to Accomplish itself.
Children are born
To up and vanish' like me Mostly ... '
U nde Ben is described b F 11     '
    seeing d bl     Y a on as a feckless double" and
    ou es - even conquering th     b     '
of a leitmotif in his work Y t . ern - ecomes something
alter ego in the poems I 'ha ea SllS, to an ext~nt, a double or
'the twin of Life'. The beau~~~ :~~dy m~nh~ned. Death is (with echoes of 'AE') trades th ~~shcal Brother Twin' shepherd with those of a twO fr e, VISIOns of a Connacht of the East'. And there are ~~e ~m bihe empty begging bowl himself - the young and th ~~ e ~x~osures of the poet 'Yesterday's Man' ('here confr e ~ - In ~o the Boy' and doings, is an old famili~r') A~n ng h~e!Wlt.h a~ air of great poetry, he is drawn to the s;ory o~~ IS I versIOn~ of ~lassical
    Doubles and d     erac es and hIS twIn.
Fallon's radio I ~ppelgangers surface in a number of
darker side of~:!~t~:~' ~~eTchar~ter o~ten representing the
    .     wo     en Wzth a Face (broadcast
as Mister Janus), one protagonist eventually absorbs his fellow. John Coan (The Judgeen') is 'feckless, lazy, lethargic', vices which his employer, Mr. Keane, 'extirpated' from himself. What Keane is unable to shake off is a total obsession with Coan, on whose every move he stands in judgment ('You need the Judgeen as a visible symbol of your own triumph over self and circumstances'). In a startling denouement, judge and judgeen, employer and employee, Keane and Coan become one.
Diarmuid and Grtiinne, another of the radio plays, presents the struggle between darkness and light, good and evil, in these terms: 'It is in our knowledge that every one who is born into the light has a double that is born into the dark. And the deeds of the one are the shadowy deeds of the other, and though they work in different substances they are of equal strength and of equal fame in their separate worlds'. Further pursuit of the double (complete with a Shakesperian confusion of roles) occurs in the powerful and eventful play, The Hags Of Clough (Twins. In all / The tales one kills the other'), and in the nightmarish (and sometimes Nighttownish) The Five Stations where the father accuses the son of having 'two selves': 'One of them I'll welcome home.! The good one. Bury the other in good deeds'. Mary, eloping with Toby in At the Bridge Inn, is ominously aware that she shares a name, a face and a voice with her repulsive mother and seems doomed to harden into her ways.
Laborcham, the priestess, tells Conor, in the radio play Deirdre, 'Little king, man is both male and female, incomplete till they wear faces for one another'; and of all potential twinnings it is that of man with woman which most excites a poetical response from Fallon. He is 'the haunted man on the main of love', writing not so much love poetry as poetry about love. That man/main chime is a typical piece of wordplay and he shares this tendency, if little else, with Austin Clarke, whose poems are far more lumbered with guilt. Fallon is uninhibited in his celebration of 'the bright otherworld habits' of women -- and the use of 'otherworld' is significant in this context. The erotic glosses must have seemed particularly daring in the Ireland of their day lending added irony to the
rumourh~hat, at one time, his customs duties included some
    censors IP work) We are sh     .
triptych of 'Godde~s kit h own woman In a Munch-like
~f Eve, V ~nus, Lakshmi~ ~~::~~e;:~~~ ~~ in ~~;Uises
the mythIC prope~ties are hard to bear', it is o;i thr~~gh :fYhit~ ~at.he ~an dIstance himself sufficiently from~he ObJ'!c~ s iaSCInation to unravel the h ty
and the intrigue Yet h' arc e pes, probe the mystery
chiding himself:' e IS aware of the danger he runs,
Dangerous, dangerous
This mythology. The doctors know it And reason of it now like any poet. Lover, go ~ack no farther than your birth:
A woman IS a woman, not the earth ...
~~ai~ ~~e~v~::e~uite ~otted up ~he human figure?', Fallon of addition('A dove a;~~=~~c~~as~~~:gtak: up s~ve/ral pages equal' ') d' " , VIrgIn IS An odd subtr~~~o~: IVlSIOn (Two never one again' after birth) and Each seeking the thing not to be had
A mirror for the eyes '
And the larger equation of the self that is Not balanced in a bed ...
Irrespective of what formula he uses that of Raft     .
Mary Hyn~s or a meditation on a Hindu GOdd:r:s ~OOIIIng cannot achIeve a balanced b k- .. ' a on
SU~ject to lend itself to balanceo~ EV:~~f ~~: ~s to? ~rra~ional a qUIte located. and an imbalance rema' . ~ua SIgn IS never of woman (crowned and laced InS In t e. representation 'most royal on her back') t II ,on a Graveslan pedestal or matter is vigorous (The' Ri~e~~:~~c~ for the tr~th of .the Off) and wittily self-mocking ('Poet ( EvenIng
    The mystery and awe of life d 1     g
captivate Fallon and for all hi an f ove on a ~uman scale find 'a theme I'n w'hat s ,use 0 myth, he IS content to OCcurs He l"k 'h'
are,/World as it is, the wonder j~st roun~ t~ t Ing~ as t~ey
adressed his father as Jahwah and H l' e cOhrne~. H~vmg e lOS, e mtefJects,
'not/That I'd like you in big translations/ Who were rich enough/ As your own man'. Mythology in some of his poems is simply an ironic device. In others, the allusions trip in and out of his stanzas as nonchalantly as Greek and Latin off the tongue of a hedge schoolmaster; and a more direct use is made of myth than in the shadow plots of Ulysses orThe Waste Land . On the whole, it must be said that there is a certain ambiguity about Fallon's position. He accepts that miracles are something that 'belong/Over the ultimate horizon'; yet the secularisation of the world does not leave him without reservation: ... world will go on more or less The same notwithstanding God
Or Goddess; only man the danger. Still It must be heartening in ill times to have Ties with the whole network,
God on the wire inside a hill ...
The visual and imagistic elements in the poems are strong qualities which Brian Fallon in his useful 'Afterword' to the Collected Poems links to the influence of Rilke who, in his turn, was influenced by Rodin. 'The Christmas Vigil' visualises 'the trees/With aboriginal arms still making/ Yesterday's rain/From the day's soft grey substance' and the equally vivid 'Bullocks in a horned frieze staring/Egyptian from the roughmasoned gateways'. A pointillist image is formed from 'A peopled sea, the hulls in a haze of morse'. 'A Flask of Brandy', about a childhood errand run for a 'Lionwoman', is full of colour and wonder, its lines as bright as a circus tent's it might have been called 'Dufy's Circus'. The effect of 'The Dwelling' is delightfully cubist, while his 'starbacked earth' shows him no less capable of extra-terrestrial imagery than any Martian poet. And only quotation can do justice to the lovely ease with which the images flow in the watercolour, 'Weir Bridge': Whole gravels are in rut.
The ocean has come home to melt away The salt, to lie under
A maybush and almost tenderly
Suck from the lazy heavens a blue-green fly There is a painterly quality about some of Padraic Fallon's translations also. Though I find his 'versions' of poems the most resistable part of his oeuvre, those such as the anarchic and energetic 'To Pan' and the stately 'Solvitur Acris Hiems' represent classical scenes transformed by a modern master. The original authorship of the 'Homeric Hymns' may be a mystery but the brushstrokes in which Fallon reproduces them are characteristic of his own original work: They lay
On the coarse mountain twitch that turned Into sweet cowlick under
Another shape ...
The radi.o pla~s include ~any 'versions' of early Irish sagas froI? Dlarmuld and Gramne, first broadcast in 1950, to Deirdre,. dated Febuary 1956, with The Vision of MacConglmne and The Wooing of Etain in between. While the subject-matter was scarcely novel, his treatment of it certainly was. For instance, the MacConglinne play makes far more elaborate use of the source material than did Austin Clarke in his sprightly but short play, The Son of Learning. The lack of a contemporary audience for radio drama has closed off the avenue to an additional mansion for poetry and one which Fallon, according to Peter Sirr, regarded as 'a kind of roomy alternative to the long poem, a form he disliked'. It may be that the audience for The Vision of MacConglinne --if such existed -- would now expect its satire to be directed against hunger for power rather than against the church; but, as it is, the play transmits a timeless exuberance.
At one stage, the impertinent MacConglinne is so starved that talk of women fills him with an unnatural desire: 'At this moment I would eat a woman if she were boiled, broiled, boned or on the fillet; if she were baked, brawned, browned, underdone, overdone, or a mere juice in the black bottom of a country skillet; and I would eat her family after and then begin upon her family tree'. Any son or daughter of learning who plans to write a doctorate on women in Padraic
Fallon should not ignore the more serious - even feminist utterances of this play. When Ligach, the Queen, has been outraged by her husband's behaviour, she claims 'these my rights': 'freedom from the demands of a husband unless I will it otherwise; freedom in travel, indulgence of fancies, equal rights of sovereignty; separate establishments in the same establishment'.
The feminist theme is developed in Deirdre, a play very different in emphasis from the less dramatic Yeats work of the same title. Padraic Fallon's output generally shows an intuitive sense of the importance of female influence to the wellbeing of the world, of Eve to Adam, of Mary to Christ ('The least erotic of the gods') . It is implied in Deirdre that there was a native Irish tradition of respecting 'the delicate balance between the sexes' to which the macho King Conor (reared in Scandinavia) does violence. In King Conor's view, a women is only 'another necessary tool' and he clings to his destructive belief that by exalting 'the male above the female ... I but follow the order of natural things'. Poet and priestess warn him against his hubristic ways: 'Degrade her, who is the lover and the mother, and there will be the rut of animals, season without sequence, empty bodies and the mortal no longer on speaking terms with the major emotions on which it travels into deity'.
Diarmuid and Grciinne, the first of his radio plays and (according to Brian Fallon) 'a landmark in his literary career', is written with a spare elegance, hammered out like a gold collar. Much of the dialogue is swift and lean, almost incantatory, a style appropriate to a play about a couple on the run - a quick, nervous dialogue is also the hallmark of the eloping lovers of At the Bridge Inn. The characters in Fallon's plays stand as both individuals and archetypes. The language tends towards a heightened prose, the words drawing attention to themselves as verse only when a lyrical note is struck or when the 'commentator'(who acts as a kind of chorus) counterpoints or ironises a dramatic situation in verse. Fallon's charge against Austin Clarke is not one which could be reversed against his own work: 'He mistakes a play for a lyric. We can ponder a lyric but we listen to a play. And
the mysteries of assonance and dissonance by-pass us. Rhythmic writing is enough'.
I~ Diar~ui~ and Grciinne, the lyrical passages show Fallon s convmcmg grasp of the bare line of early Gaelic poetry:
I hear Fionn,
He is the sweet bell sound of evening, He is dusk dropping, he is the dew.
He is the warm hush of flocks moving. A sweet comrade is Fionn.
He is sleepy stalls. The byres are full.
Corn is hived; and over the empty pastures
C.omes. the cooking smoke from houses, a rich warm smell, FlOnn IS here.
F~llon at hi~ most simple can be at his most supple, avoiding hIS m~re hreso~e excursions into overwrought writing. There IS beauty m the weather eye beholding Cornwall at the en~ of the poem, 'Painting of My Father', and in 'The Head' as It relaxes into 'Fat uddered/Cow-Iawns by river houses woods that spoke in oak'. And there are the simple island pleasures. Of everyday affairs, a neighbour's voice, A woman at the churn
A child in wonder at the half door The split pollock drying in the su~ ...
As I suggested at the start, it is Fallon's defects rather than his str~ngths that are emphasised by those critics anxious to be reheved of the burden of re-arranging the pantheon to a latecomer. In fact, his individuality and ongmahty pr~bablr derive from the same sources as his shortcommgs: Isolatl?~ .from literary centres; non-publication and therefore non-cnhClsm; a sensibility torn between Celtic excess ~nd classical restraint. If we are determined to emphaslse. warts at the expense of face, then Kavanagh and Clarke WIll emerge even more blemished than Fallon. Anyway, there are not so many good Irish poets (for all our self-praise) that we can write off a poet of Padraic Fallon's stature like some kind of bad debt, no longer worth pursuing.
On the other hand, one must resist the temptation to react against Padraic Fallon's neglect by exaggerating the case in his favour. Yet I cannot help feeling that when the plays and prose as well as the poems have been made available, his discovery will bring readers something of the excitement of beaming a torch into a newly unearthed hoard. He is a poet of rare talent who conveys, in a peculiarly Irish context, the universal struggle to live, love and find our bearings ('that journey/From nothing to identity'). Our gratitude in his presence invariably runs well ahead of our doubts. And it is with a similar ratio of gratitude to doubt that he himself views poetry:
... things work into the word
Only to be imprisoned, or kennelJed like a dog ... The monologue intrudes, my words let me
Into a poem, not into the poetry.
And yet a man must walk
Out of his mystery, if he's to meet it Face to face, in talk,
And guess from words omitted the major and delicate Evasions of his ghost
Who is the host
To every massive feeling and must live it. Create me, says the poet, I am a body
For every word, the large word that was lost And the word you'd throw a dog; Transform me who travel towards infinity In a makeshift monologue.
NOTE: The quotations from Eavan Boland in this article are taken from her review of Poems and Versions (Irish Times,23rd April 1983) and from her earlier essay in the same newspaper, 'Master of Lyrics'. The source of the Peter Sirr quotations is his essay, 'The Ironic Visionary' (Irish Times, 5th August 1989).
Page 34, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 29