Patrick Deeley Inaugural Winner of Dermot Healy Poetry Award

Patrick DeeleyTell us a little about yourself, Patrick

 I was born in the Callows of rural East Galway but have lived for many years in Dublin.  ‘Groundswell: New and Selected Poems’ is the latest of my six collections with Dedalus Press.  My books for young people include ‘The Lost Orchard’, published by O’Brien Press.  My most recent book is a memoir, ‘The Hurley Maker’s Son’, published in Ireland and the UK by Transworld.

‘The Hurley Maker’s Son’ is receiving excellent reviews.  How important is review and acknowledgement to you as a poet?

 Well, very important, of course.  Writing is hard work.  The biggest thrill for me is writing something that feels as if it’s caught what I wanted to say and brought a certain ‘magic’ to it.  The reward after is for others to read my work, and when a reviewer gets to the heart of what I’ve written it’s a validation.

What journey led you to becoming a poet?

That’s a journey best described in the memoir.  I was a dreamer as a child, awkward around the many machines my father used as a sawmiller, joiner and hurley maker.  Images ‘happened’ to me from the beginning, a heightened, cinematic take on the world.  The wetlands near home – thin-skinned, dangerous, primal – brought me face-to-face with nature and I exulted in that.  But still there was the language of timber and machines used in the carpentry shop which I slowly fell for, and the practicalities of life requiring to be attended to as I grew older, and the graft that I came to see as necessary in order to learn the craft of poem-making.

What was the first poem you published and in what publication did it appear? Did you celebrate?THMS1 (10)

My first three poems were published by David Marcus in New Irish Writing in The Irish Press in January 1978.  He was very supportive and published over thirty of my early poems in the space of a few years.  I pinned the first ones on the wall of my bedsit, and the landlord kicked up as he said the poems were causing the plasterwork to crumble.  Yes, I celebrated with a few pints, and I had a laugh at the good of what he said.

What poet/poets do you return to over and over?

Keats, Theodore Roethke, Padraic Fallon, Edna St. Vincent Millay.  So many of the old ones.  And, among contemporary poets, Derek Mahon, Macdara Woods, Padraig Rooney – numerous others for particular poems that strike me as truly achieved.

How do you approach your practice, are you consistent and disciplined, do you ever get writers block?

I’m not disciplined in terms of devoting time every day to writing.  But once I become hooked on an idea or image, I could spend all night working at the poem.  Previously I had a busy job as administrative principal of a primary school and this took up most of my time.  Writer’s block doesn’t arise – or so I tell myself.  I gather experiences and the poems come out of these.

Do you have a favourite place to write? (It could be a country, a room, chair…) and are you superstitious? (favourite pen/ brand of notebook)

No to both questions.

Has your writing ever surprised you, does it have a life of its own?

Yes, if writing is any good it has to surprise its author as much as the next person.  Hopefully it does have a life of its own – at least when I look back at my best work, I wonder how it came to be written by me.  But, in the long term, I’ll have to wait and see, not that the possibility of literary immortality would ever cost me a thought.

In what way has teaching informed your work as a poet?

When I started as a teacher I encouraged the children to make poems out of their own experience and to use their own colloquial expression – that was in Ballyfermot, a place rich in music and lore – and then I decided to keep the idiomatic language of my neighbours in East Galway towards the forefront of my own poems, though inevitably other influences have coloured and tempered this with the passing years.

How important is the publisher/poet relationship?

Each has to trust and believe in the other.

Talk us through a typical working day for poet Patrick Deeley.

I work mostly in the evenings or late into the night.  Lately, since the publication of the memoir and the fact that people seem enthused about it, I do what seem to be more conventionally ‘writerly’ things – draft articles, attend interviews, travel on promotional work.  I get up early most mornings, go for a long walk beside the River Dodder, visit my wife Judy in her art studio, cook meals, attend hurling matches, read books, listen to music, meet my friends or talk to them on the phone.  Any or all of these experiences can trigger a poem.  I become immersed in writing for several months on a specific book, and when it’s done I take a break.


Extract from ‘The Hurley Maker’s Son’, a memoir by Patrick Deeley

 ‘Will you go to Owenie’s and get me a few messages?’ my mother asked. ‘You can buy sweets yourself if you want.’

This was the most familiar road of my childhood – to and from school, to and from herding the cattle in Mullagh Beg, to and from hurling practice in the big field beyond Mullagh Cross. But now night was falling as I headed out, a reluctant eleven-year-old, to buy the ‘red packet’ tea – Rajabaree – my mother had requested, and the ten Gold Flake cigarettes that would last my father for a week and a half.

Things sounded louder in the dark. The breeze sighed and relented. A sudden little thrash – a bird or a mouse or a rat – stilled me for a moment, then again my footsteps echoed on tarmacadam and I heard the steady whisper of my pulse behind my ears.

Bushes and briars clung to either ditch. Primroses, golden-hearted in their radiance, seemed to shine ever more intensely as the darkness thickened. I had a sense of something strange about to happen, but on my night-walks this feeling invariably accompanied me. I could put names to all the farmhouse lights, steady and scattered in the blacked-out distance. The smells of the teacher’s pansies and tulips wafted up over her wall and her big, rust-coloured sheepdog barked. A recently installed porch-lamp bloomed whitely across the fields as I reached the height beyond the hairpin bend. There stood the Master’s house, its prize apples ripening behind a high thicket.

I came to the church and caught the faint gleam of its stained-glass windows and the pale outline of the Celtic cross that dominated the smaller monuments in the priests’ graveyard. A bat zinged past my ear, unnerving me slightly. An old woman whom I didn’t recognise emerged through the heavy oak door, gathered her bicycle where it leaned against the church wall, stepped daintily onto a pedal and eased away downhill without saying a word.

My mother had given me a five-naggin bottle for refilling with holy water but I didn’t want to be caught dead carrying it into Owenie’s. I plonked it behind the font in the church porch and headed out again. Everything held a memory. There was the ridge of tar against which I bumped my big toe in barefoot weather, and twisting above it the elderberry bush whose bitter juice purpled my lips in autumn. Beyond a rusty gate the meadow where I’d dived to catch a grasshopper and come up with a pocket watch stretched away towards the furze bushes under whose thorns I burned my mouth while smoking a crooked pipe. Across the road from the church the beech trees seemed to whisper about the windfall burrs and cupules I’d sifted through for nuts that might still be edible. Nearby, on a concrete pedestal with steps leading up to it, the pump that slaked my thirst on warm evenings after school pretended it was a dinosaur, its spout the small head and its handle the long tail not quite touching the ground.

Just as I passed the hollow where a girl lifted her dress and said she would show me hers if I would show her mine, the cables above me started their thin piping. Owenie’s grocery shop with the petrol pump and the blue and yellow Maxol sign held high on a dinged pole and the wide clean gable window came into view. I nodded at the bags of flour and the trays of chocolates and the Fizz Bombs and the Black Maria liquorices and the shelves of boxes and the bacon slicer and the array of foodstuffs in tins and the smell of fresh bread, and Owenie massaged his broad brow and said God but you’re out late, what can I get you?

He handed me the tea and the packet of Gold Flake and then took a big, square-faced bull’s-eye jar and twisted off its lid. He fluffed a brown paper bag open with his fingers and placed it on the Avery weighing scale with the numerous demarcations and the super-sensitive needle. His elbow jerked as he dug the scoop into the jar and chucked the bull’s-eyes into the bag. He studied the needle, nudged a few extra bull’s-eyes in and spun the bag closed using both hands. ‘That’s it now,’ he said.

I picked the bag up by one dog-ear, paid him and left.

The night felt colder suddenly and I remembered how Ena and Simon saw a white mist rising with a whoosh above the bushes and came home pale and frightened. I broke into a gallop and told myself it was just for the heck of it. Past the Maxol sign I ran, past the level field where the showbands played in the six-pole marquee, past the water pump, past the church before I realised my mistake and turned reluctantly back.

The oak-panelled door was hard to push open. I fumbled for my mother’s bottle and delved it into the holy water font where it filled with a bubbling noise. I looked through the porch glass, towards the long central aisle, the small red sanctuary lamp flickering as though about to drown, the greyish marble altar encircled by the communicants’ rail. A strange feeling gripped me and I peered in more closely, all but pressing my nose to the glass. A black shape appeared to be standing on the altar. I gaped, my whole body tingling now. Could it be Georgie the beggar up to his mischief for he was well known to sleep some nights in the organ-loft? But Georgie was stooped and shrunk where this figure stood tall and imposing. Suddenly the figure raised its arms – seeming to open as it did so a crinkled and convoluted fan of webbing – and lifted off the altar and glided headlong towards me down the empty, dim-lit nave. I scampered from the porch, leaving the bottle dunked in the font, and fled homeward scarcely noticing that the night had begun to spit rain.

‘Don’t you know well it’s your imagination,’ my mother said, handing me a sympathetic drink of hot chocolate after I tumbled out the story to her. ‘The church is a sacred place and nothing bad would ever happen to a person there.’

‘I saw it.’

‘You imagined it.’

There was no talking to her. But now when I look back along the most familiar road, I wonder if I imagined not just the incident in the church but everything down to the gallery of our faces, the little world that was matter-of-fact in each farmhouse out on its own with the door unlocked and no need to knock when you happened to call. I look back and see how my whole life amounts to a dream, but, for all that, I still mourn the loss of the beautiful, fiercely ‘real’ hallucinations that entranced me in early childhood.

‘You just imagined it all,’ my mother said, reasonable as could be, but in that kitchen on that particular night and for several nights afterwards I feared the dark figure and prayed with desperate fervour to be spared his reappearance.

Mrs Heagney visited on my twelfth birthday and handed me a slim, velvety box. Inside there was a fountain pen, navy-blue with a golden nib and a golden lever.

‘It’s too good to use,’ I told her.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ she said with a brusque tinkle in her voice and I caught the soft, earnest look behind the shimmer of her glasses as she showed me how to unscrew the pen at the middle to reveal the ink gut. This set me thinking of the long black insect that lived under a stone in the Callows and I told her as much.

‘Oh, indeed,’ she replied. ‘I didn’t forget to bring the jar of ink.’

We twiddled the pieces back together and worked the lever so the pen filled with a croaking sound. I found a scrap of paper and put down the insect’s name – devil’s coach-horse – and it felt as if I had tapped into something that called a halt, offered a stay, something that was meant for me.





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