Many Irish poets have engaged with a wider European landscape, poetic, linguistic, historical, metaphorical: we think of people like Denis Devlin, Michael Hartnett, Eva Bourke, Gabriel Rosenstock, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and Michael Smith, to name a few. But outstanding in this context is the work of Pearse Hutchinson, now in his 84th year and continuing to engage with the cultures, the politics, the languages and the poetics of countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy--and the many distinct and separate identities and peoples within those countries. At the heart of this are his poems inspired by Spain and the different languages and peoples of that country.
Hutchinson's abiding interest in the languages and cultural identities of Europe began almost sixty years ago. In a sense it began even earlier. The poet himself credits his study of Latin and Irish at school in Synge Street in Dublin as part of the basis for both a love of languages and a grounding in the structure and grammar of Romance languages. He began to study Spanish in UCD in 1947 but says that a great deal of his knowledge of Spanish and French came through reading grammars and texts in the public libraries of Rathmines and Pembroke in Dublin.
There were earlier indications of an interest in Spain, albeit tentative or unformed. In his introduction to Done Into English, Collected Translations (Gallery Books, 2003) Hutchinson recalls writing a postcard to his mother from Scotland at the age of seven, saying: "When I grow up I'll take you to sunny Spain." He says he has no idea where that thought came from. A few years later, at the age of eleven or twelve (1938 or 1939, so towards the end of the Spanish Civil War) his father took him to a public meeting in Dublin where a Basque priest, Father Laborda made "an impassioned speech in defence of the Spanish Republic"--this at a time when the Irish Catholic church (and many of the state's politicians) were firmly on the side of Franco.
Hutchinson first travelled to Spain in 1950, at the age of 23 arriving first in Vigo, then with his Trinidadian friend Bert Achong travelling to Andalusia--Seville, Granada, Cordoba. He has written that in those cities "the light walked for me as it never had before, and I walked through the light I'd always longed for." Smitten by the world of Lorca, of Prados, of Cernuda (though "Machado and Unamuno remained my favourites") the young Hutchinson left Ireland the following year, on April 1st, April Fool's Day 1951, determined to live in Spain forever.
Arriving in Madrid via Vigo and Lisbon he failed to get work and moved on to work at the ILO (International Labour Office) in Geneva, translating from Spanish and French. His train journey from Madrid to Geneva allowed him a twelve-hour stopover in Barcelona: so Pearse Hutchinson's first taste of that city was in late September or early October of 1951 and he recalls sitting on the Gaudi chairs on the Paseo de Gracia (as it was then) with very little money and half a bottle of white wine.
The connections to Spain and Hispanic poetry continued and broadened during Hutchinson's time in Geneva. Through colleagues at the ILO he met many Spanish Republican refugees living in exile in Switzerland after the Spanish Civil War and through them he met Octavio Paz, then an up-and-coming poet who was First Secretary of the Mexican Embassy in Bern. They became acquaintances and remained in contact for many years. One of the refugees was Catalan and according to Hutchinson was a remarkably taciturn man. An English colleague told him that Catalans were "not really Spanish" and the Irishman was puzzled and intrigued. Hutchinson worked at the ILO for two years, going to Spain several times during this period, usually for two or three weeks, once travelling around Spain for six weeks. His first trip there had brought him back to Barcelona for a week or ten days early in 1952.
Hutchinson returned to Ireland in late 1953 and in September 1954 moved to Barcelona with his close companion Sammy (Daphne) Sheridan, who many years later published a fine collection of short stories, Captives, (under the pen name F. …