Michael O'Loughlin, In This Life

The poet on democratic impotence, filial piety and being critical of everything

In the inlay of Michael O'Loughlin’s latest collection of poems, In This Life, there is a quote from the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, which says: ‘In order to write poetry, you must first invent a poet who will write it.’

O'Loughlin has done just that. Over half the poems in the collection are written under the pseudonym Mikelis Morgelis. O’Loughlin says that he was trying to capture 'the real' Ireland in his poetry – the Ireland he returned to after 23 years living abroad – but found that his style couldn’t adapt to the changes he saw around him.

'I wrote a bunch of poems called Dublin Snapshots, which were about everyday life in Dublin, and it just didn’t work,' O'Loughlin explains. 'Then I went to Latvia in 2006 on a writer’s residency. In my earlier work, Stalingrad: The Street Dictionary [1980], I used Eastern Europe as a metaphor for Ireland, so going back to Latvia in 2006 was almost like going back to my earlier work.

'The name Mikelis Morgelis literally translates as Michael O'Loughlin, from Latvian into English. So it gave me a freedom to write about Ireland in a way that I couldn’t write in my own persona.

'When I first published eight or nine poems in Poetry Ireland Review, a lot of people thought that Mikelis was real, and I got letters inviting me to read to Latvian immigrants down in Cavan.

'So I ran with it for a while and then admitted it was me, but it does give you great freedom. It’s like going on holiday from yourself. It’s a bit like the Oscar Wilde thing and the mask.'

O'Loughlin certainly has a fascination with Eastern Europe. Take the line from the second last verse of the poem 'The Widows Prayers' for instance: 'I’m beginning to understand why I keep sniffing around ghettos in Riga and Wilno, looking for my childhood streets, now gone like Ruthenia.'

He says his fondness for Eastern Europe came about when he discovered that his native Finglas shared some idiosyncratic traits with the Eastern bloc countries. 'I grew up in Finglas, and I was always very aware that I was living in a place that was at the edge of a city that was on the edge of a country that was on the edge of Europe,' he says.

'I always felt that we were very far away from the centre. And when I started reading poetry for the first time, when I was 16 or 17, I was immediately drawn to the Eastern European poets like Brecht, Polish poets like Herbert, and the Russian poets.

'I suppose they spoke to me in a way that Irish, American, and English poets didn’t. They seemed to be talking about something real, and so as soon as I could get out of Ireland, I went and traveled around Eastern Europe for a bit.'

He found that Ireland and the Eastern European countries shared a history of oppression that made for solid subject matter. 'If you were left wing, you saw Eastern Europe and the communist countries as an ideal,' O'Loughlin adds. 'Of course we knew that it wasn’t perfect, but for the poetry it sort of served as an image, in a sense.

'I saw the communist repression in Eastern Europe as mirroring the catholic nationalist oppression in Ireland. It’s a bit simplistic to think that de Valera was an Irish Stalin, but certainly I felt it as a young man, such was the cultural repression going on in Ireland.'

Also in 'The Widows Prayers', O'Loughlin criticizes his grandmother, whom he describes in the verse as a 'Proletarian bitch goddess'. To understand ourselves, he argues, we need to get passed the notion that our forefathers were perfect creatures.

'When my father died a few years back, I began to think about the notion of family more and more, as you inevitability do when you get into middle age. And I began to realise that there is this terrible thing in Irish poetry, something I’ve always found to be very objectionable, which is this filial piety: the idea that you don’t speak ill of the dead.

'I looked back on my grandmother and realised that I had romanticised about her. There is an acceptance in Irish culture of the family, but of course, what the family is often doing is repressing you, and inculcating you with the values that have lead to the horrible societies that we now have.

'In Ireland it’s still considered a good thing to have respect for the previous generations, and I just try and go against that by looking at it objectively and from a post analytical view. It’s very hard to look at your own family like this, it’s almost a taboo.'

It perhaps seems a coincidence that some of O'Loughlin’s later poems seem closer in style to those he was writing as a young man, as far back as 1980. Or it could be that the sense of anger he feels in a failed political system has come full circle, keeping in line with the sympathy for the Marxist tradition that he has written about in the past.

In the poem 'A Latvian Poet Writes an Ode to Capitalism', he notes: ‘All I know is we are low-caste priests in the greatest church history has ever seen.’ Similarly in the poem 'The Moscow Suburb', he describes the helplessness of marching against the Iraq War back in 2003: ‘But we weren’t marching, we were just hamsters running on a wheel in a cage.’

Does he feel that political protests are a waste of time, and that the democratic voice is good in theory, but ineffective in principle?

'I do feel a kind of political impotence,' he admits. 'You don’t seem to able to affect the greater world anymore, so when I say we are like hamsters in a cage, it’s about going through the motions, because we know that the government are going to ignore it. They will say, "Well done, you have exercised your democratic right. Now go home and watch TV," and I find that a very depressing idea.'

As a man who has lived most of his adult life outside of his birth country, O'Loughlin seems to have spent the years away attempting to figure out just where Ireland went wrong as a nation. And yet, you sense that if he came up with one single answer, he might not have produced such a fine book of poetry as In This Life.

'I’m attempting to psychoanalyse the Irish psyche,' he admits, 'but where does it start? Do you go back to 1916? Do you go back to the Famine, the Act of Union, to Cromwell? Where is the primal scene? How did the Irish get to be so f***ed up?

'I think, as a writer, you’re trying to get people to look at their own culture, to look at their own lives. You do have a big responsibility, because your work is in the public sphere, so you should be trying to encourage a critical analytical view of everything.'

In This Life is out now, published by New Island Books.