the elusive poet Ethna MacCarthy


Following our fascinating dive into the Irish Times archives, poetry critic Maria Johnston writes about the archival discoveries she made as she went in search of the elusive Irish poet and physician Ethna MacCarthy (a remarkable woman for her time, who died on this subject in 1959) and reflects on the crucial importance of archives when it comes to tracing the work and lives of Irish women poets who have been lost to follow-up.

Samuel Beckett’s work specialists know the name Ethna MacCarthy. As a first love and lifelong friend – they met as undergraduates studying modern languages ​​at Trinity College Dublin in the 1920s – she was one of Beckett’s trusted readers of his work. current and model of the character of Alba and the girl. in Krapp’s Last Tape.

After teaching French and Provençal literature at Trinity, the formidable MacCarthy went on to study medicine (working as a pediatrician at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital throughout the 1940s) but as a publication of his poems (edited by Gerald Dawe and Eoin O’Brien) in 2019 attracted renewed attention, she was also an incredibly gifted poet and translator in her own right and not just a muse for other writers.

MacCarthy never published a collection of poetry, but she kept a notebook which serves as a vital record of her development as a writer heavily involved in literary culture in Ireland at the time. I was fortunate enough to be able to view this wonderful artifact in the archives of Trinity College Dublin (before successive lockdowns put an end to such transgressive intimacies) in which she compiled clippings from her printed work and detailed the life of his poems as they are produced. their way around the world appearing in magazines and in various anthologies.

One of these anthologies was the Irish Times’ Poems from Ireland, edited by Donagh MacDonagh, which included among its small percentage of female poets, Freda Laughton, Irene Haugh, Sheila Steen and Rhoda Coghill. There is no doubt that MacCarthy takes himself seriously as a writer.

As is the case with other female poets of the time, such as Laughton, there is little biographical detail available for MacCarthy. Indeed, we know more about his grandfather, the 18th century poet and scholar Denis Florence MacCarthy (who addressed his own “Ethna” in his poetry) than about the poet Ethna MacCarthy. She was born in 1903 in Derry to Dr Brendan and Eleanor MacCarthy. The family moved to a house on Sandymount Avenue in Dublin in the 1910s, and Ethna, after studying music for the first time, entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1922.

It was through the archives of The Irish Times that I began to piece together a real sense of her as a living presence at large in the literary scene of her time.

When I first started researching Ethna MacCarthy’s life, I felt like all that would ever be possible was a strange glimpse here and there in almost total darkness. It was through the archives of The Irish Times that I began to piece together a real sense of her as a living presence at large in the literary scene of her time. The texture of MacCarthy’s immensely rich and multidimensional life is wonderfully present in previous issues of this journal.

“Dr. Ethna MacCarthy will be away from Desmond, Sandymount Avenue, Ballsbridge, for a few weeks,” announces the Social and Personal column of this newspaper in June 1946. Where she went, we do not know, but it is also tantalizing in its whimsical mystery as are its own shimmering and changing poems. We know that she returned to Dublin on May 11, 1947 when the same newspaper listed her among the speakers of a PEN International debate on fighting in literature, along with Blanaid Salkeld, Rosamond Jacob and AJ (Con) Leventhal.

The Irish Times’ pledge to publish new poems is one of its most valuable contributions to the literary culture of this island

MacCarthy and Leventhal were married in 1956. Reporting on the happy occasion, which took place in London’s Chinatown, The Irish Times said it was a “most unusual wedding reception”, with guests from the arts world including Hilton Edwards and Valentin Iremonger.

Dr Ethna MacCarthy in The Irish Times

It is in the pages of The Irish Times that MacCarthy, in his roles as both writer and physician, is brought to life. The results of his final medical examinations were published on July 12, 1939. Throughout the 1940s, many of his finest poems, including Viaticum, Exile, Insomnia, Frost, Advent, Evergreen, Harlequin, War and the Rose, and The Charity appear in the pages of this journal alongside articles and reviews of great literary figures of the time, such as Patrick Kavanagh, Padraic Colum and Austin Clarke.

Moreover, Clarke himself praises MacCarthy’s Ballad of St Simon’s as a “beautiful translation” from Spanish in a 1947 Irish Times review. The Irish Times’ commitment to publish new poems is one of his most valuable contributions to the literary culture of this island. and it is exciting to see the vibrant lines of a MacCarthy poem in its contemporary context surrounded by the news, reviews and commercials of the day.

But it is not only poems that she contributes to these pages; the extent of his expertise is astounding. In May 1943, Dr Ethna MacCarthy’s lengthy and informed review of the Tuberculosis in Childhood study made a strong case for urgent treatment of tuberculosis in Ireland: “It will take all the force of strong enlightened public opinion to break this down. evil chain of disease and death, ”MacCarthy warns. In this she can be seen as building on the legacy of her father, Dr Brendan MacCarthy, a “recognized public health authority” who died in April 1934 and who, as the Irish obituary acknowledges Times, “has done a splendid job in his career fighting outbreaks of typhoid and other illnesses.”

In 1949, we find Ethna MacCarthy in the literary mode, reviewing a new study of the work of the French playwright Jean Racine for the Irish Times. “The appreciation of Racine has always been difficult for English speakers,” she observes, continuing to prove her own authority as a specialist in French language and literature.

A decade later, MacCarthy’s lively 1957 review of the silk hats of Honor Tracy and No Breakfast: Notes on A Spanish Journey gave way to his trademark sensibility to issues of poverty and degradation: “Those who visited Spain before the Civil War will remember only too well the procession of sick and infirm beggars in front of the great cafes of Madrid and Barcelona ”.

A particularly defining moment in MacCarthy’s career also made headlines in several newspapers in 1950s Ireland. “Dr Ethna MacCarthy, of Sandymount Avenue, has been appointed medical officer for the World Organization’s Maternal and Child Health Project. of health in Baghdad, Iraq ”, The Irish Times reported on September 12, 1953. Unfortunately, the position did not materialize as MacCarthy, although he signed the contract, failed to routine physical examination required.

As Beckett’s letters at the time report, she spent a few months in Paris trying to overturn the decision, but it wasn’t. As we know from James Knowlson’s masterful biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame, the news of Ethna’s impending death (from throat cancer) in 1959 left Beckett “in speechless sadness” . She died in a London hospital on May 24, 1959; The last letter Beckett sent her came too late for her to receive it.

Although his own private pain is never the overt subject of his poetry, MacCarthy’s work is deeply intimate with the inescapable reality of human suffering. Published in The Irish Times in July 1947, her poem The Charity opens with an unwavering image of a poor city of Dublin in the 1940s, as it merges with the dark underworld of Greek mythology:

Shivering and hungry mothers are boring
their sick babies, condemned before
they saw the light, both soon frail flotsam
on the distant shore of Lethe.

“I remember Ethna MacCarthy when her beauty and her wit cast a bright light on the main plaza of Trinity College and the lectures,” recalls a contributor to Irishman’s Diary after her death in 1959. She is a presence. luminous in Irish poetry and in the life of literature in Ireland in the twentieth century. His work, with his itinerant and cosmopolitan intellect, his forensic attention to the grim realities of modern life, and his fierce passion for languages ​​and the life of words, deserves to be given a new readership.

“People who say that women’s lives are irrecoverable quite often do not look in the archives,” Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin once remarked. As we strive to recover the lost voices of Irish poets, archives such as The Irish Times are indispensable to these essential acts of recovery. Without them, the history of poetry in Ireland and beyond is incomplete.

Maria Johnston’s essay on Ethna MacCarthy will be published in Irish Women Poets Rediscovered, edited by Maria Johnston and Conor Linnie, forthcoming from Cork University Press.


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