Delivered by Anne Enright to Aosdána members at the 41st General Assembly in O’Reilly Hall, UCD, 14th November 2022.
There is an archive clip online of Anthony Cronin talking to Augustine Martin – of this parish – in 1976. It is just after the publication of his classic memoir Dead As Doornails, and every single thing he says over the course of three minutes or so might be called ‘pure Tony’. I mean that in each opinion or insight the complete man can be seen. Cronin speaks about his return to Ireland in middle age, about the country’s relationship to its artists and how that goes wrong, about the possibility of being both an Irish and a modern poet. His answers are fully considered, perfectly turned. But they are also ‘pure Tony’ because they would prove so consistent with the life he went on to lead in the decades after this moment in 1976, both on the page and in the world.
For me, these things – his gift for the right conclusion and his courage in taking those conclusions out into society – show him to be the opposite of fake. I am not sure what you call that. Although he was an authentic man, I suspect Cronin would not be a fan of the word ‘authenticity’, with its overtones of the heartfelt, natural, or even nativist. There is a lot of “phoney rootedness” in the Irish tradition, he once said.
We think of him now as a permanently Irish, so it is surprising to remember that from the mid fifties to the mid nineteen seventies Cronin was on what he called his ‘wanderings’. These wound through literary London, Spain and the campuses in America before he landed back home, after twenty years of hither and yon.
So Dublin got two versions of the man: the first was the young poet and flaneur, who met everyone and forgot nothing. He was eventually driven out, fed up with the “dead Ireland” of his youth. This was, he said, “the appalling Ireland, the preposterous Ireland” of the late forties and early fifties. “One went away simply because one couldn’t stand all the rot and the rubbish and the lies and what not.”
The person who came back was fully grown, ready and determined to engage with those same cultural difficulties. In 1974 he was settled in in Ringsend, and by the time he sat across from Gus Martin two years later, in a pair of RTE armchairs of mustard-coloured velour, he knew exactly what he had to say.
“Here I am and here I stay.” He had made a commitment to Ireland and he would “starve publicly in the street rather than go again”. It was as if he on a one-man crusade to reverse the tide of poetical exile, which was also the exile of the Irish nurse abroad and of the labouring man. Cronin saw it as a fundamental human right to live in the country where you were born. But his commitment was not to Ireland alone. It was to “the bit of the contemporary world that is Ireland.” He had come back to remind us, that the world was a very big place.
And remind us he did. From 1974 to 1980 he was a regular contributor to the Irish Times where he wrote about poetry and politics. This was an influential space and he worked it well. He discussed what the artist owes society (quite a lot, he thought), and what society could do for the artist. He was interested engagement, not disconnection, and though he knew the artist suffered, he did not think that suffering was necessary for the production of good work.
He also knew how unsettling we could be. The problem was, he wrote, that the public believe “that old wives tale” about inspiration. They think the poet is someone who gets “carried away”, someone who writes in “intense bursts at odd hours.” The idea of someone “doing it all day and every day” suggests a man living “not only at an impossible but in some way sinful level of emotion.”
Sin and suspicion were certainly in the mix in the dead Ireland of the late forties and Cronin didn’t have much truck with either. He was interested in making things clear, and shame, in the form of sin and suspicion, was a great mechanism of distortion. The Ireland of Dead as Doornails was a country where “the wrong kinds of allowances were made for creative people and the proper allowances weren’t made for them at all.”
There was also the issue of nostalgia for some lost idyll. The culture had a way of forcing writers back into an older mode, “when Kavanagh in particular wanted to be a modern man, and succeeded in spite of Ireland… in being a modern man and a modern poet.”
Cronin might have been talking about his own work, committed as he was to the contemporary, the city and the cosmopolis. He was a modernist poet, in that he moved away from the expression of emotion to more impersonal ground, but he could be lyrical too. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that he was a poet of the current moment.
In a later interview with Theo Dorgan, he says, of Byron and MacNeice that an awful lot of their poetry “approaches mere journalism.” It is not an insult. These poets were concerned with “the topics of the time.” Like Cronin, they wrote about what was going on in the world, and what we might think about all that.
If we look at Cronin’s work, with its range of reference, its expansive arguments and discursive long line, we can see these worldly interests recurring. He is drawn to the moments when history turns, the choices people make and the paradoxical forces that play out in their lives. Cronin is not afraid of social words like ‘justice’, ‘honesty’, ‘envy’ and ‘truth’. He can compass religious feelings as well as sexual ones. He writes like a grown up; someone who is not easily spooked by human nature – not even by his own.
“Left solely to my own devices I would write nothing but poems,” he said, though perhaps for him, his extensive journalism was not the opposite of his poetry but its continuation. And though words like, ‘acerbic’, ‘caustic’ and ‘sceptical’ are used to describe this sensibility, all I see on the page is a fine mind in motion. Perhaps these accusations come from those who want, from poetry, the ease and sometime sentimentality of the lyric form.
Augustine Martin says that Dead As Doornails is “one of the most amusing books in the deep sense”, which he has ever read. to which Cronin replies, “Let me just say that I don’t think that anything is any good that isn’t funny… as well – all the writers I admire are funny writers… as well.”
There is, as he says it, the beginnings of a smile. Cronin was both amusing and amused. He speaks as though entertained by the arrival of his own thoughts, intrigued by the question of how to express them tactfully. Indeed, he sometimes can’t help laughing at what he is about to articulate, and it is hard not to laugh along with him. In the pieces I watched online, he laughs especially at tragedy – references to death seemed to entertain him hugely. He had the same attitude to scandal, as I recall. Doubleness, ironies, hidden realities: the truth cracked him up.
Cronin was excellent company, and though his humour was, necessarily, transgressive, he was more a storyteller than a gossip. He rarely drew attention to his own work or achievements. He had a great tolerance for the poor behaviour of others, though he never pretended that it not happen.
The smile, which was an invitation and never a threat, might be one of the reasons he was so well liked by difficult or powerful people like Charles J Haughey, but it is also possible that they just enjoyed his mind. It was the exchange of ideas that interested him most:, he played the ball and not the man.
I was taken, on a re-reading of his biography of Flann O’Brien, by the way he described O’Brien as a ‘misogynist’ – this, on the grounds that O’Brien never spoke to women socially and was insulted by the idea that such a thing might be expected of him. I mean, fair enough, but it is not every male chronicler who would see it, give the right word to it, and move on.
Such fair-mindedness was rare not just in the Ireland of the nineteen forties but in that of the nineteen nineties when I first met Cronin and sought his company in every crowded room. But when you think about it, he had seen them all, met them all, he had counted them in and counted them back out again. He was a thoughtful man.
The phrase ‘pure Tony’, of course, comes from his wife Anne Haverty, who also liked to say ‘that’s just Tony’ or ‘that’s Tony all over’, or ‘that’s Tony being Tony’ He was fortunate to have a person in his life who named him often, who understood and admired the things he stood for, and who continues his legacy still.
The smile, he wrote, was his father’s smile – a man who was a journalist, as he son became, who wrote for the Enniscorthy Echo. He must have been a good man, or at least a nice one. So I will end by quoting one of Cronin’s best known poems, in gratitude for all he has meant to the people gathered here.
For A Father
With the exact length and pace of his father’s stride
The son walks,
Echoes and intonations of his father’s speech
Are heard when he talks.
Once when the table was tall and the chair a wood
He absorbed his father’s smile
And carefully copied the way that he stood.
He grew into exile slowly
With pride and remorse,
In some way better than his begetters,
In others worse.
And now having chosen, with strangers,
Half glad of his choice
He smiles with his father’s hesitant smile
And speaks with his voice.