Unaccommodated Mahon: An Ulster Poet

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If we concede that Derek Mahon does not fit squarely into the Irish poetic tradition, we may establish the idea that this tradition is multilateral. The facts that this young Belfast poet has lived outside of Ireland during most of the last decade and that he addresses the Troubles in Ulster only rarely and indirectly have misled one TLS reviewer to label him "the least locally attached" of the recognized Ulster poets, such as John Hewitt, John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, James Simmons, and Paul Muldoon. Except in Montague's Rough Field and Heaney's North, however, Ulster poets have chosen to treat the Troubles obliquely. We can also recall that writers such as Joyce, O'Casey. Beckett, and MacNeice have made living outside of Ireland seem very Irish.

Derek Mahon was conceived, according to my fallible math, during the first Nazi bombings of Belfast, or perhaps in an "all-clear," and born in November, 1941, to Protestant parents. His father, who followed his grandfather into the Belfast shipyards, became an inspector of engines. Derek enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin, attended the Sorbonne for one year, and returned to Trinity to earn a degree in French, as well as in English and philosophy in 1965. He tried out Toronto and Boston and endured a year of teaching in Belfast and two in Dublin before his hegira to London in 1970. An attempt to return to Ulster, as poet-in-residence at the New University between 1977 and 1979, left Mahon depressed and in bad health and resolved "never to live in Northern Ireland again." Disaffected particularly by his repugnance for the Protestant extremist ("God, you could grow to love it, God-fearing, God-/chosen purist little puritan that"), he may appear, to the undiscerning, to be at home in the English tradition. For example, one critic, Roger Garfitt, has misplaced him with the British minimalist poets such as Empson, Fuller, and Porter, in this manner: "His very English insistence on the limitations of poetry inhibits him from proceeding to any ... imaginative restructuring." Although Mahon looks forward to the day when the question, "Is so-and-so really an Irish writer?" will clear a room in seconds, mislabeling leads to misinterpretation, as Garfitt demonstrates, and therefore a more helpful characterization of Derek Mahon is required.


Mahon extends the tradition of those Irish exiles--Joyce, Beckett, and MacNeice--whose writing elevates character and place, or setting, over history and ideology, particularly the Irish version of history. Goaded by killing Irish rectitude, they reject political formulations about humanity and find man most human among the waste spaces, alone or with his own fool. Throughout the four volumes, Mahon's poems are set in an actual specified place, Belfast, or more frequently, in some barren, primitive, or post-holocaust site. Value resides not in society or the force-march of history but in the respire when one knows love or light from the hills. Through his four volumes Mahon discards social and historical values, stripping his subject to the bare forked creature.

The history Mahon discards includes the Troubles in Ulster but is not restricted to that ineluctable homicidal process. As Terence Brown has characterized it, "History for Mahon is no saga of land and people but a process, ... which casts one man as coloniser, another as colonised, and man in innumerable roles." The stripping of these roles down to unaccommodated humanity, Mahon's emerging theme, was obscured among other concerns in his first volume, Night-Crossing (1968), much of which was written at Trinity. The volume opens with an ironic love poem, worthy of MacNeice, that is addressed to "Girls in their Seasons" ("matches go out in the wind"). It includes four cock-sure love poems that have been dropped from Poems 1962-1978, the poet's personal selection, published in 1979. Mahon often loses his deftness in love poetry and either unzips emotions or tarts them up. …