Cahal Dallat

Second collection of poetry for critic, broadcaster...and computer scientist. Click Play Audio for a podcast interview

Cahal Dallat is that rarest of things, a genuine renaissance man. Since moving to London some 35 years ago the Ballycastle native has been a computer scientist and a critic, a musician and a broadcaster. Between frequent sorties back to his homeland he’s even found time to write poetry, and this month sees the release of his second collection of poetry, The Year of Not Dancing.

Published over a decade after his well-received debut collection Morning Star, The Year of Not Dancing is a poignant but unsentimental exploration of family relationships and loss, inspired, in part, by the early death of his own mother.

‘A number of the poems I’d written which were ostensibly written about my grandfather or my father or my stepmother suddenly came together as being about my mother and her death, the years after that and how one survives loss,’ Dallat confides.

Considered and precise, Dallat speaks with the same clarity and erudition that illuminates both his writing and his frequent appearances on Radio 4’s Saturday Review. Despite studying the cumbersomely titled computer science, statistics and operational research at Queen’s University, books and literature have always been close to his heart.

‘I suppose every poet says this, but I was inspired by an English teacher, in Ballycastle convent,’ he says. The poems of C Day-Lewis had a major impact on the young Dallat but, almost inevitably, it was the work of a writer closer to home that held the greatest attraction.

‘Seamus Heaney was so exciting for us. Here was a guy who had been to a school like us, who grew up not far away. So he was writing about things that people in our class would have understood. But at the same time he was writing in a way that people who studied English understood and appreciated.’

At Queen’s Dallat quickly fell in with the English society, where Heaney was ‘an august presence’ and Michael Longely also featured. Not that the young lad from the Glens of Antrim was winning any plaudits for his own work. 

‘Anne-Marie [Fyfe, his wife, and a distinguished poet in her own right] and I lived in a cottage on the Stranmilis Road. There are documents that she won’t let me see, long epic poems that I wrote back when I was still at Queen’s They would count as juvenilIa but I was 19 or 20 at the time,’ he recalls with commendable honesty.

It was to be another decade before Dallat began writing again, and then it was the only occasional, unpublished poem. Throughout this time, however, he avidly followed literary developments in Northern Ireland: ‘I bought every book by Paul Muldoon, every book by Tom Paulin, Seamus Heaney but that was the limits of my poetry world.’

Dallat’s literary horizons broadened when he joined a nascent poetry workshop run by Robert Greacon, an esteemed Dublin writer who had relocated to London. Here he honed his craft alongside poets like Maurice Sweeney, Lavinia Greenlaw and Ruth Padel, and around the same time began writing book reviews for high-brow publications like The Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian.

Clearly Dallat believes that the relationship between his artistic criticism and production has been a symbiotic one. ‘You can’t read all that stuff without having to write your own poems,’ he says.

‘They go along really well together. After you’ve published a few poems people say ‘do you want to write about this?’. So you find that you are refining your critical process by writing poetry and your actually refining your writing process by looking at other people’s poetry.’

One poet in particular whose work he has always enjoyed scrutinising is fellow Antrim man and music lover, John Hewitt. For over twenty years Dallat has been a fixture at annual Hewitt Spring and Summer schools.

Having began by ‘sitting in the audience and maybe asking a few questions’, the poet has since graduated to the Hewitt Society’s committee. For Dallat it provides an invaluable connection with the cultural life of his home land, ‘it’s also about being part of the wider literature, talking to politicians, listening to music and all of that. The Hewitt movement has provided a focus for that'.

With his regular involvement in the summer school, Radio 4 and various publications, not to mention a newly arrived grandchild, Dallat has no shortage of outlets for his voluminous creative energies. It may have taken a decade for collection number two but the poet sees no reason to change his measured approach to writing anytime soon.

‘You just keep writing the poems and see when there is another book and what it is about. The poems have to tell you what they’re about rather than the other way around.’ 

Peter Geoghegan

The Year of Not Dancing is out now published by Blackstaff Press.