Derek Mahon, 1941 – 2020

Last Friday Derek Mahon, one of Ireland’s greatest poets died.

Derek Mahon was born in Belfast in 1941, and lived in Kinsale, County Cork. Mahon was part of an extraordinary group of Northern Irish poets who began to publish work in the mid-1960s and went on to achieve global renown. He was a member of the famous Belfast writing organisation ‘The Group’ led by Philip Hobsbaum along with his contemporaries Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon.

His first collection, Twelve Poems, was published by the Belfast Festival at Queen’s in 1965. Oxford University Press then published his first major collection, Night Crossings, in 1966. He published over twenty collections of poetry including Night-Crossing (1968), The Snow Party (1975), The Hunt by Night (1982), Harbour Lights (2005, Winner of the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, 2006), Life on Earth (2008), and New Selected Poems (2016).

His poetry directly acknowledges the influence of Louis MacNeice and W.H. Auden, while critics have identified the influence of ancient Greek and Roman writers as well as European authors that Mahon had translated, including Euripides, Molière, and Racine.

During his career he received numerous awards including the Irish Academy of Letters Award, the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize, and Lannan and Guggenheim Fellowships. In recognition of his ‘lifetime’s achievement’ Derek Mahon received the David Cohen Prize for Literature in 2007.

His work for the theatre includes versions of Moliere’s The School for Wives and High Time, Racine’s Phaedra, The Bacchae (after Euripides), Cyrano de Bergerac (a new version of Rostand’s ‘heroic comedy’) which was produced at London’s National Theatre in 2004 and Oedipus (after Sophocles) which was published in 2005. In 2013 his collected plays, Theatre, was published.

His most celebrated poem, A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, was described by John Banville as “the best single poem written in Ireland since the death of Yeats”. His poem, Everything is Going to be Alright, a short lyric of solace and determined optimism, captured for many the national mood in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and has recently been read by Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal.

His final collection, Washing Up, will be published later this month by Gallery Press.

The hopeful message of Everything is Going to be Alright that so captured the public imagination over lockdown is also contained in this, my favourite poem by Mahon.

How to Live

(Horace, Odes, Book One, 11)

Don’t waste your time, Leuconoé, living in fear and hope

Of the imprevisable future; forget the horoscope.

Accept whatever happens. Whether the gods allow

us fifty winters more or drop us this one now

which flings the high Tyrrhenian waves on the stone piers,

decant your wine: the days are more fun than the years

which pass us by while we discuss them. Act with zest

one day at a time, and never mind the rest.

The number of obituaries show the level of respect Mahon was held in across the world and he has been honoured in The Irish Times, the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times.

Irish Literature Northern Exposure

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6 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’m afraid I don’t know him at all, not being much of a poetry person, but the poem you feature is wonderful. On a side note, I was briefly taught by Philip Hobsbaum who lectured at Glasgow Uni for many years. Possibly my most treasured poetic memory is of hearing him recite Lawrence’s Bavarian Gentians to a lecture room of 300 students and reducing every single one of us to tears…


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