A poet’s thoughts on life and faith

A poet’s thoughts on life and faith Thomas McCarthy is a Cork-based poet and critic
The Best Loved Poems of Gabriel Fitzmaurice, with an introduction by Declan Kiberd
(Mercier Press, €12.99)


Those of us who remember Listowel Writers’ Week in its earliest days will never forget the singing and cajoling presence of a whipper-snapper young poet called Gabriel Fitzmaurice – there he would be in the foyer of the Listowel Arms, handing a pint to a wavering Michael Hartnett or a sheaf of new poems to Brendan Kennelly or Bryan MacMahon.

He belonged to the tumult of that North Kerry life, and there is still a tumultuous, life-affirming atmosphere about the poems selected for this very portable new book. The poems offered here, every one of them, contain all of the assertions and grandeur of that world. Fitzmaurice’s brilliant poem on a Munster Football Final held during the Civil War probably sums up the ethics of such a life:

‘There’s something more important here than war.

John Joe Sheehy, centre forward, Republican,

Con Brosnan, Free State captain, centrefield;

For what they love, they both put down the gun –

On Con’s safe conduct, Sheehy takes the field.

In an hour the Kerry team will win.

Sheehy will vanish, on Brosnan’s bond, again.’

To those Kerry values, one could add story-telling, religion, family, music. These are the Kerry essentials and Fitzmaurice is the Poet Laureate of every element: if you think such things are unimportant, then you’re a fool. Or you’ve never been to Kerry. His celebration of the singer Con Greaney, not just a poem but a recitation in print, is sustained and astonishing: ‘Born on the mountain/ These eighty years and more,/ Not born so much as quarried;/ The mountain life was poor.’His memory of the drunk who brings two bottles of Guinness Extra Stout to the altar rails at Midnight Mass is both effective and poignant:

‘But the Christ who thirsts on Calvary

Has waited all these years

For the fellow cursed with the cross of thirst

To stand him these few beers.’

The gesture is everything in such a life, the human gesture contains immensities and this is what Fitzmaurice has always captured in his work. From his throne in Moyvane, like a benign wise Pope, he casts a holy, accepting glance upon exhausted humanity. And most of the fine gestures in these poems arise from attachment, all kinds of attachments, from fathers to sons, from singer to audience, from husband to wife. His poem ‘Dad’ is the magnificent celebration of a good father:

‘A man before his time, he cooked and sewed,

Took care of me – and Mammy in her bed…


Now when the New man poses with his kid,

I think of all the things my father did’

‘Every art-work is possible only to one person at one time and in one place; and Fitzmaurice remains always true to the colour of his own locality: Moyvane, Knockanure, Listowel’ writes Declan Kiberd in his very fine Introduction. But, lest we miss the sophistication and deliberateness of Fitzmaurice’s life in poetry, Kiberd reminds us of the artistic richness of those North Kerry/West Limerick townlands, the townlands of Thomas MacCreevy, Harry Clarke and Michael Hartnett. In this book a great deal of what is sophisticated and knowing is distilled into a kind of direct story-telling, a ‘dán díreach’ out of the tumult of so much thought:

‘The bird

Too hurt to feed

Falls in the valley

Of the coat,

And as I help

It claws

And perches on my finger

Bridging the great divide

Of man and bird.’

The cover art of this book, a clever arrangement of eighty-one lighthouses by Brenda Fitzmaurice, serves perfectly as a metaphor of what occurs within. This Best-Loved Poems is a neat arrangement of votive candles, candles of both light and hope. All the imperfections of human nature, all the goodness within, all humility in the face of heaven’s grandeur: it is all here, compressed into this beautiful book, a true traveller’s companion.