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Review of The Vision of MacConglinne and other plays

David Wheatley, Times Literary Supplement, 8th July 2005

Away from the lake: a review of The Vision of MacConglinne and Other Plays and A Look in the Mirror and Other Poems

In his poem "Widgeon", Seamus Heaney describes a man plucking a dead duck and, finding its voice box, using it to sound "his own small widgeon cries". In Padraic Fallon's fine lyric "A Bit of Brass", a chance discovery also leads to unexpected echoes of departed music. As a boy of ten the poet watches the Irish Volunteers drill, then picks up a piece of "battered brass" when they disperse and blows "a couple of fancy tootles" on it. The sense of arriving on the scene after the main event is, in many ways, emblematic of Fallon's whole career. Born in Athenry in 1905, he grew up a short distance from Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee, a proximity that can seem as uncomfortable as it must have been inspiring. In "Yeats at Athenry", he imagines the older poet passing through its railway station on his way to and from nearby Gort, happily oblivious of the young "jerseyed fellow driving out the cows".

Fallon became a Civil Servant who made his literary reputation as a contributor to Seumas O'Sullivan's Dublin Magazine in the 1930s. He was encouraged by AE (George Russell), met Yeats, and was a valued friend of Austin Clarke, F. R. Higgins and Patrick MacDonogh. His radio plays were broadcast by Radio Eireann and the BBC, and his stage plays produced in Cork and Dublin. These achievements would suggest a successful career as a man of letters but for one crucial blank: Fallon did not publish in book form until several months before his death in 1974, when his Collected Poems appeared from Dolmen Press. A further Collected appeared in 1990, some three-quarters of which (excluding juvenilia and some translations) are represented in "A Look in the Mirror" and Other Poems.

The problematic side of Yeats's influence is seen most clearly in early, set piece poems such as "Yeats's Tower at Ballylee" and "Poem for My Mother". In both, Fallon echoes the elegant stanzaic patternings of the poems from The Tower, and meditates on family history and inheritance, mythology and topographical lore. Yet when we read of how a Norman settler "Divined like an architect a house of life / Where violence had an energetic place / Only to find a holy face / Stare back serenely from the end of strife", the suspicion must be that strife has ended only because the poet has accepted the older poet's vocabulary and mannerisms with an almost abject passivity.

At this point, a reader new to him may fear the worst, but Fallon comes to a reckoning with his Yeatsian inheritance with impressive speed. "Another emblem there", Yeats announced in "Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931", but Fallon backs off from such imperious transformations of the given world. If the "ornamental water" of Johnstown Castle "Should be backed with mercury that the sculptured swan / May be ideal swan forever", the poet prefers to shatter the ornamental mirror, "Because a real swan mucks up a lake"; and that, he implies, is as it should be. His adoption of a polished but easygoing classical register becomes an important resource: celebration and civilized scepticism combine in Horatian measures. In "Kiltartan Legend", Fallon portrays Lady Gregory as an Anglo- Irish Penelope pulling her "Rogue-lord, artist, world-wanderer" home "Simply by sitting in a house, / Its sturdy genius"; less flatteringly, in "On the Tower Stairs", she becomes "A dumpy vernacular Victoria".

Fallon's most celebrated statement on the Revival is "For Paddy Mac", in which his friend MacDonogh's identification of the Galway peasantry with "Homer's people" is robustly countered: "Bunkum, Dear P".

His fury of disavowal matches anything in early Patrick Kavanagh:

That was my country, beast, sky, and anger:
For music a mad piper in the mud;
No poets I knew of; or they mouthed each other's words;
Such low-powered gods They died, as they were born, in byres.

Nevertheless, there is much more to Fallon's style than demythologization. In "Dialogue Between Raftery and Death", he affectionately dramatizes that other bard of Athenry, the blind eighteenth-century poet Anthony Raftery, and in "Brigid Her Eve", 'The Christmas Vigil" and "Three Houses" writes rich and celebratory lyrics of small-town life, the last of these in the multi-section format that suits Fallon's range particularly well.

For newcomers to Fallon's work, though, the two short poems "A Flask of Brandy" and "Lakshmi" are perfect illustrations of his distinctive strengths. The first of these describes a visiting circus, its "twitching coloured chintz / Moved by a lemontaloned claw" forming a powerful invitation to exotic sexual possibilities for the awestruck young speaker.

"Lakshmi", too, carries an erotic charge, lingering delightedly on the contours of a bronze Hindu goddess. With a skill equal to anything in Fallon's contemporaries of the 1930s, the poem's lithe and twisting syntax mirrors the freedom it finds in the statue:

coppered above The heartbeat, on its fine meridian floats A face flawed with neither age or youth;
Here Ganges pours But merely rounds the bud She contemplates, that must not dwindle;
On her right hand it rides, and earth Turns quietly on the spindle.

Fallon's prolific work as a radio dramatist is marked by the collection of three of his plays for Radio Eireann in 'The Vision of Mac Conglinne' and Other Plays. All three date from the 1950s, that lucky decade for the genre that also witnessed Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood and Beckett's All That Fall. The title play derives from a medieval satire in which a goliardic poet falls foul of some monks who prepare to crucify him; he saves himself by narrating a vision of another world made entirely of food and drink, which has the effect of exorcizing the demon of hunger tormenting King Cahal of Munster. 'The Poplar' is the tale of a veteran of Michael Davitt's Land League, racked with guilt in old age over the murder many years before of his abusive landlord. Last and best of the plays is 'The Hags of Clough', in which two brothers, a wandering scholar and a jockey, are fatally drawn to the same woman. The editor of the volume (and a son of the poet), Brian Fallon, compares 'The Hags of Clough' to Calderon and Kleist, with the brooding, incestuous Earl of Leitrim strongly suggesting the latter. The horse-racing scenes, however, are also redolent of Jack Yeats's marvellous prints and paintings of that sport; while the figure of the scholar and spoiled priest might be Austin Clarke's "The Scholar" brought to life.

Fallon is a minor poet in the obvious sense that he is not Yeats, but of the many writers to fret in the Yeatsian shadow some have proved more adept at posthumous escape than others. The stock of Kavanagh, Clarke and MacNeice has fluctuated over the years, but their reputations have long since been secured. The disaffected modernist generation of Thomas McGreevy, Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin endured exile and critical ignominy in the 1930s; today, they are the subjects of a concerted academic industry. Fallon's neglect has been the wrong, unfashionable kind for neo-Modernist and Revisionist critics alike on the lookout for a poet of the 1930s to champion, and for long enough now he has paid the price. This review has already failed the test several times over, but one laudable mark of our esteem might be if we learned to enjoy Padraic Fallon as the highly accomplished poet he is in his own right, without his great precursor blocking his light at every turn; and these two volumes help us to do just that.
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