Controversial and influential Belfast poet
Born Patrick Joseph (‘Joe’) O’Connor in 1924, Padraic Fiacc adopted his pseudonym (it means ‘raven’) at the urging of poet Padraic Colum. Colum encouraged the much younger man to ‘dig in the garden of Ireland’, but Fiacc’s early work, indebted to Colum’s ‘Celtic Twilight’ aesthetic, was to give way to a fierce modernity in the later years of the poet’s life.
The eldest son of a Belfast barman and IRA activist, Fiacc joined his father in exile in New York in 1929. His Hell’s Kitchen upbringing and education marked his poetry with an openness to American and European modernist techniques and, perhaps, with a raw sensitivity to violence and oppression shared by few of his contemporaries.
Fiacc returned to Belfast in 1946 and soon began to publish poetry. His collection Woe to the Boy won the prestigious AE Memorial Award for Poetry in 1957, and By the Black Stream appeared in 1969, on the cusp of the political violence that would be his mature work’s overriding theme.
Northern Ireland’s convulsions in the early 1970s were mirrored in the collapse of Fiacc’s marriage and mental health. He recovered to publish Odour of Blood in 1973, and to edit a brutally elegiac anthology of northern poetry, The Wearing of the Black, in 1974.
This response to the first years of the Troubles disappointed many literary readers (critic Patricia Craig wrote later of the anthology’s ‘ill-advised immediacy’), and what Terence Brown called the ‘unending psychic pain’ of Fiacc’s own work has continued to alienate readers more at home with the ‘well-made poems’ of Heaney, Longley and Mahon. As Fiacc himself says, in his poem ‘Glass Grass’, ‘My fellow poets call my poems “cryptic, crude, distasteful, brutal, savage, bitter..."'
Nevertheless, Fiacc was elected to Aosdana, the Irish state’s affiliation of major artists, in 1981. A re-arrangement and recasting of earlier work into a new collection, Missa Terribilis in 1986, was followed almost a decade later by Ruined Pages, a belated summation and celebration of his career. His unflinching, if febrile, attention to communal and personal suffering, and his fragmented, modernist style, have continued to win readers. A revaluation of Fiacc’s work gathered pace throughout the 1990s, and continues today.
Ruined Pages: Selected Poems (1994) edited by Aodán Mac Póilin; Missa Terribilis (1986) by Padraic Fiacc; The Selected Padraic Fiacc (1979) edited by Terence Brown.