Following on from our fascinating dive within the Irish Instances archive, poetry critic Maria Johnston writes concerning the archival discoveries that she made as she went searching for the elusive Irish poet and physician Ethna MacCarthy (a exceptional girl for her time, who died on today in 1959) and displays on the essential significance of archives on the subject of retrieving the work and lives of Irish girls poets who’ve been misplaced from view.
Students of Samuel Beckett’s work will probably be conversant in the identify of Ethna MacCarthy. As his old flame and a cherished lifelong pal – they met as undergraduates learning trendy languages at Trinity School Dublin within the Nineteen Twenties – she was one in every of Beckett’s trusted readers of his work in progress and the mannequin for the character of the Alba and for the woman in Krapp’s Final Tape.
After lecturing in French and Provencal literature at Trinity, the formidable MacCarthy went on to review medication (working as a paediatric physician on the Royal Metropolis of Dublin Hospital all through the Nineteen Forties) however because the publication of her Poems (edited by Gerald Dawe and Eoin O’Brien) in 2019 delivered to renewed consideration, she was additionally an impressively gifted poet and translator in her personal proper and never merely a muse for different writers.
MacCarthy by no means printed a set of poetry however she saved a pocket book which serves as a significant file of her growth as a author who was very a lot engaged with the literary tradition in Eire of the time. I used to be fortunate to have the ability to seek the advice of this wondrous artefact within the archive of Trinity School Dublin (earlier than successive lockdowns put an finish to such transgressive intimacies) wherein she compiled clippings of her work in print and detailed the lifetime of her poems as they made their approach on the earth showing in magazines and in varied anthologies.
One such anthology was the Irish Instances’ Poems from Eire, edited by Donagh MacDonagh, which included amongst its small share of girls poets, Freda Laughton, Irene Haugh, Sheila Steen and Rhoda Coghill. That MacCarthy took herself critically as a author is in little question.
As is the case with different girls poets of the interval, comparable to Laughton, there are few biographical particulars out there for MacCarthy. Certainly, we all know extra about her grandfather, the 18th-century poet and scholar Denis Florence MacCarthy (who addressed his personal “Ethna” in his poetry) than we do concerning the poet Ethna MacCarthy. She was born in 1903 in Derry to Dr Brendan and Eleanor MacCarthy. The household moved to a home on Dublin’s Sandymount Avenue a while through the 1910s, and Ethna, having first studied music, entered Trinity School Dublin in 1922.
It was via the archive of The Irish Instances that I started to piece collectively an actual sense of her as a residing presence at giant within the literary scene of her day.
Once I began researching the lifetime of Ethna MacCarthy it felt as if all that may ever be doable was the odd glimpse right here and there into an nearly complete darkish. It was via the archive of The Irish Instances that I started to piece collectively an actual sense of her as a residing presence at giant within the literary scene of her day. The feel of MacCarthy’s immensely wealthy and multi-dimensional life is splendidly current within the again problems with this newspaper.
“Dr Ethna MacCarthy will probably be away from Desmond, Sandymount Avenue, Ballsbridge, for a number of weeks”, the Social and Private column of this newspaper pronounces in June 1946. The place she went, we have no idea, however it’s as tantalising in its wayward thriller as her personal shimmering and shifting poems are. We do know that she is again in Dublin on Could eleventh, 1947 as the identical newspaper lists her among the many audio system at a PEN Worldwide debate on Fights in Literature, together with Blanaid Salkeld, Rosamond Jacob and AJ (Con) Leventhal.
The dedication of The Irish Instances to publishing new poems is one in every of its Most worthy contributions to the literary tradition of this island
MacCarthy and Leventhal married in 1956. Reporting on the blissful event, which occurred in London’s Chinatown, The Irish Instances pronounced it “a most uncommon wedding ceremony reception”, with visitors from the world of the humanities together with Hilton Edwards and Valentin Iremonger.
It’s within the pages of The Irish Instances that MacCarthy in her roles as each author and medical physician are introduced freshly again to life. The outcomes of her last medical examinations are printed on July twelfth, 1939. All through the Nineteen Forties, lots of her most interesting poems, together with Viaticum, Exile, Insomnia, Frost, Introduction, Evergreen, Harlequin, Struggle and the Rose, and The Charity characteristic within the pages of this newspaper alongside articles and opinions by main literary figures of the time, comparable to Patrick Kavanagh, Padraic Colum and Austin Clarke.
Furthermore, Clarke himself praises MacCarthy’s Ballad of St Simon’s as a “nice translation” from Spanish in an Irish Instances overview of 1947. The dedication of The Irish Instances to publishing new poems is one in every of its Most worthy contributions to the literary tradition of this island and it’s thrilling to behold the colourful strains of a poem by MacCarthy in its up to date context surrounded by the information, opinions and adverts of the day.
However it’s not solely poems that she contributes to those pages; the vary of her experience is staggering. In Could 1943, Dr Ethna MacCarthy’s prolonged and knowledgeable overview of the research Tuberculosis in Childhood makes a robust case for the pressing therapy of TB in Eire: “It should take the complete drive of sturdy enlightened public opinion to interrupt this evil chain of illness and demise”, MacCarthy warns. On this she could also be seen as constructing on the legacy of her father, Dr Brendan MacCarthy, a “recognised authority on Public Well being” who died in April 1934 and who, because the Irish Instances obituary acknowledges, “did splendid work throughout his profession in combatting outbreaks of typhoid and different illnesses”.
In 1949 we discover Ethna MacCarthy again in literary mode, reviewing a brand new research of the work of the French dramatist Jean Racine for the Irish Instances. “The appreciation of Racine has at all times been tough for English-speaking folks,” she observes, occurring to show her personal authority as a scholar of French language and literature.
A decade later, MacCarthy’s full of life 1957 overview of Honor Tracy’s Silk Hats and No Breakfast: Notes on A Spanish Journey makes room for her trademark sensitivity to issues of poverty and degradation: “Those that visited Spain earlier than the Civil Struggle will bear in mind solely too nicely the procession of diseased and crippled beggars in entrance of the good cafes of Madrid and Barcelona”.
A very high-profile second in MacCarthy’s profession additionally made headlines in quite a few newspapers in Fifties Eire. “Dr Ethna MacCarthy of Sandymount Avenue has been appointed as Medical Chief of the World Well being Organisation’s Maternal and Little one Well being Mission in Baghdad Iraq”, The Irish Instances reported on September twelfth, 1953. Sadly, the put up didn’t materialise as MacCarthy, regardless of having signed the contract, failed the required routine bodily examination.
As Beckett’s letters of the time relate, she spent some months in Paris attempting to reverse the choice, however it was to not be. As we all know from James Knowlson’s magisterial biography of Beckett, Damned to Fame, the information of Ethna’s imminent demise (from throat most cancers) in 1959 left Beckett “in speechless sorrow”. She died in a London hospital on Could twenty fourth, 1959; Beckett’s final letter to her arriving too late for her to obtain it.
Though her personal non-public ache isn’t the overt topic of her poetry, MacCarthy’s work is profoundly intimate with the inescapable actuality of human struggling. Printed in The Irish Instances in July 1947, her poem The Charity opens with an unshakeable picture of an impoverished Dublin metropolis within the Nineteen Forties, because it merges with the shadowy underworld of Greek mythology:
Shivering and hungry moms bore
their sickly infants, doomed earlier than
they noticed the sunshine, each quickly frail flotsam
on far Lethe’s shore.
“I bear in mind Ethna MacCarthy when her magnificence and wit threw a vivid gentle over the entrance sq. of Trinity School and over the lectures,” a contributor to this newspaper’s Irishman’s Diary recalled after her demise in 1959. She is a luminous presence in Irish poetry and within the lifetime of literature in Eire through the twentieth century. Her work, with its roving, cosmopolitan mind, forensic attentiveness to the darkish realities of contemporary life, and fierce ardour for languages and the lifetime of phrases, deserves to be granted a brand new readership.
“Individuals who speak about girls’s lives as being unrecoverable are very often absolving themselves from trying within the archives”, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin as soon as remarked. As we work to reclaim the misplaced voices of Irish girls poets, archives comparable to The Irish Instances are indispensable for these important acts of restoration. With out them, the story of poetry in Eire and past is incomplete.
Maria Johnston’s essay on Ethna MacCarthy will probably be printed in Irish Ladies Poets Rediscovered, edited by Maria Johnston and Conor Linnie, forthcoming from Cork College Press.