The Writer Who Forgot He Wrote; He Was the Jewish Man of Letters Who Discovered Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe but with the Onset of Dementia David Marcus Made His Greatest Discovery. Himself
Byline: by Dermot Bolger
FOR Ireland, World War II was an incontinence that happened elsewhere, an elephant in the corner officially referred to as 'The Emergency.'
Strict censorship meant that the Irish public (assured by the Irish Press that nothing that was happening to the Jews in Europe was worse than what was happening to the Catholics in Northern Ireland) had little sense of ongoing events.
Those who tried to keep abreast were not always encouraged to do so -- in 1942 The Cork Examiner even castigated 'uninformed citizens'
for 'paying too much attention to the war'. Not everyone could afford this indifference.
Remembering his war-time childhood, David Marcus -- who was born in Cork in 1924 and was cremated yesterday after a humanistic ceremony in Mount Jerome -- noted that 'Cork's 400 Jews knew from letters and messages smuggled out what was happening to their co-religionists in Germany, knew that the 5,000 Jews of Ireland had been marked down for slaughter in due course. (I still remember) when hour after hour I stayed awake listening for the tramp of Nazi boots on Cork's innocent streets and for the panzer divisions raging through the Mardyke.'
Perhaps such fears were ingrained because some relatives had left Limerick for Cork as a result of what was called 'The Limerick Pogrom' against Jews in 1904 -- an overblown name in terms of the real pogroms that were to follow elsewhere, but enough of a warning to know that true safety could never be guaranteed. Thankfully, the foreign invasion that carried Marcus beyond the tiny close-knit Jewish community in Cork came not from Nazi tanks, but from the influx of books the young man eagerly read.
With his death last weekend, Ireland has lost a champion of literature, a great encourager of successive generations of Irish writers, someone who created the space for work by new writers to appear in a time of censorship -- subtle and unsubtle, official and unofficial -- and financial austerity.
Ireland also lost a true gentleman with remarkable stories to tell and a gentleman who, tragically, in recent years encountered increasing difficulty in telling them.
In recent years, I interviewed David Marcus several times. Each time he was a pleasure to meet, but -- like a set of lights slowly going out -- each time he could recall fewer of his amazing memories.
I was involved in making a film about him, directed by Pat Collins, called David Marcus: A Celebration.
As it was commissioned from Harvest Films for Cork County Council's Library Services, it has never been broadcast nationally. However, RTE or TG4 should show it now, because it is not just a celebration of our most extraordinary literary editor but also a remarkable portrait of the dignity, acceptance and intelligence with which an ordinary man confronted the consequences of a stroke.
David Marcus was 21 years old when he started a literary quarterly called Irish Writing. He may have been an outsider -- unknown, Jewish, based in a provincial city and (in a literary world that revolved around pubs) a teetotaller. But from the start, he wanted not just to find new writers but to provide an Irish platform for our greatest living writers.
Reading that Liam O'Flaherty (at the height of his fame after John Ford's adaptation of The Informer) had arrived home from America to stay at the Gresham Hotel, Marcus hesitantly called to reception, not expecting to be shown into the writer's room, let alone be instantly promised a new story, with O'Flaherty telling the young man that: 'Whatever you're paying the others will do me.'
Three weeks later O'Flaherty sent a telegram from his native Aran Islands: 'Story ready. Send money.' With borrowed money, Marcus paid for one of O'Flaherty's great masterpieces, The Touch.
The post bought another manuscript, with James Stephens (the diminutive Dubliner to whom James
Joyce had entrusted the task of finishing Finnigans Wake, should Joyce not lived to do so) sending his most famous short story, A Rhinoceros, Some Ladies And A Horse, with a note suggesting the story 'wasn't halfbad', but the young man was free to send it back. …