O'Donoghue, Bernard

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Nationality: Irish. Born: James Bernard O'Donoghue, Cullen, County Cork, 14 December 1945. Education: St. Bede's College, Manchester; Lincoln College, Oxford, 1965–71, M.A. 1968, B.Phil. in medieval literature 1971. Family: Married Heather Mackinnon in 1977; two daughters, one son. Career: Systems analyst, IBM, Manchester, 1968–69; lecturer in English, Magdalen College, Oxford, 1971–95. Since 1975 fellow in English, Wadham College, Oxford. Awards: Whitbread Poetry prize, 1995, for Gunpowder.Member: Royal Society of Literature, 1999. Address: Wadham College, Oxford OX1 3PN, England.



Poaching Rights. Oldcastle, County Meath, Gallery Press, 1987.

The Weakness. London, Chatto and Windus, 1991.

Gunpowder. London, Chatto and Windus, 1995.

Here Nor There. London, Chatto and Windus, 1999.


The Courtly Love Tradition. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1982.

Poems of Thomas Hoccleve. Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.


Critical Study: By John Burnside, in Agenda (London), 33(3–4), fall 1996.

Bernard O'Donoghue comments:

I believe strongly in the importance of the public context of writing, so I think of myself as a writer of place. Most of my poems tend to be set in the area I grew up in, in North Cork, in the 1950s and 1960s, but I do not think that means that this is the only place they apply to. I am always quoting Tom Paulin's phrase "theoretical locations" to refer to the places we write about to say what it is we want to say about the world at large. The writers I feel most consciously influenced by are Larkin (for a wry view of the world) and Richard Murphy (for a freeish but shaped Irish vernacular language). I would claim that my tendency to write elegy as a way of repaying a debt to society is a positive rather than a pessimistic impulse. And the last shaping influence I am aware of is music: both the living tradition of intricate musical forms in my native Sliabh Luachra, and my own chosen interest in classical music, my great and obsessive consolation. In literature I am a medievalist, and I like living professionally at the same tempting, provocative remove from my subjects as I am from the events of childhood.

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"Immaturities" is the title of the opening section of Bernard O'Donoghue's collection The Weakness. But O'Donoghue gives little sense as a poet of not always having known that he wanted to sound quizzically aware of human idiosyncrasy, tragedy, and imperfection and to convey that awareness in verse whose blank verse movement is closer to a deliberate buzzard flap than to a lyric swallow flight. In "Bittern" he finds in the posture of the bird, "standing, kind of" and "soliciting nobody / For nothing," a self-mocking alter ego for his own artistic persona. Poetically, O'Donoghue wears self-deprecating hesitation like a cloak.

What is cloaked is an undeceived yet compassionate vision in which ordinariness and the unexpected jostle. In The Weakness "Coole Park or Ballylee, 1989" sets its semijokey alternatives-"the All-Ireland final" or "another tried pilgrimage"—against the elegiac plangencies of Yeats's "Coole and Ballylee, 1931." Yeats laments that "all is changed, that high horse riderless"; O'Donoghue writes as though it were better to dismount any possible Pegasus and takes a distinctly deglamorizing walk "in Coole woods, trying to distinguish seven." The art of O'Donoghue's best pieces lies in a precarious balance between the understated and the significant. It is a balance not wholly sustained by "Kindertotenlieder," in which O'Donoghue sets himself "imagining the worst that can be feared" and asserts that "the mind too is a country / Like Somalia." In fact, the wryness of poems such as "The Nth Circle," wittily addressing the all-too-human theme of "bad luck," becomes him better than the melodrama into which he is tugged by "Kindertotenlieder."

To his poetry's advantage, however, wryness is not quite all for O'Donoghue. In Gunpowder he treats an emotional topic in "The Great Famine" with an awareness of the fact that our knowledge of history comes to us through a veil of anecdotes. But in "Neighbourhood Watch," which admittedly is wryly titled, O'Donoghue is able to evoke with detached yet impassioned clarity how outsiders come to be outsiders. "The tinkers," opposed to "the shopkeepers" and "the people," earn our sympathy partly because O'Donoghue employs a chillingly accurate form of free indirect discourse. Thus, "the people" "used to take / the tinkers' children in service by the year, / But now they're warier and make their own beds." Elsewhere a residual lyricism survives, all the more welcome because of its fugitive shyness. As if commenting metaphorically on its development, "The Rainmaker" eschews "the bleared weather" in favor of "bird-filled shores / Where ringed plover vies with lapwing / To catch your eye against the latening sun." Gunpowder, like much of O'Donoghue's work, is very much the product of a "latening" and knowingly belated talent, aware, as shown in "Romantic Love," of debunking scientific realities (eyes are brown because of a "superfluity / Of uric acid") yet able in the final lines of the poem to resurrect an updated romanticism.

Here nor There contains some of O'Donoghue's finest writing, including poems such as the deeply affecting "Ter Conatus," in which the Virgilian title signals an unmawkish illumination of tongue-tied love and loss and "a lifetime of / Taking real things for shadows." The poem displays O'Donoghue's gifts to the full, especially his ability to suit colloquial yet weighted lines to stanzas that continually oblige the reader to pause and ponder. True to its title, much of the volume reveals a preference for oppositions that dissolve without resulting in a further synthesis. But a countertruth also manifests itself in poems such as "Reassurance," which excoriates religious consolation with a sudden ferocity that is no less effective for knowing that it composes a rhetoric as it turns on "we who have turned to the sports news, / Leaving the hanged girl from Srebenica / On the front page." The poem avoids the knowingness of "Kindertotenlieder" without forfeiting an appropriate vigilance about its status as a verbal creation. It is for such self-awareness and strength of feeling that one ultimately values O'Donoghue.

—Michael O'Neill

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