Roy McFadden, 1921-1999: Poet & Lawyer

©Leon McAuley

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John Hewitt
Thomas Carnduff
Roy McFadden's Last Poems
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©Sarah Ferris

I gave them Irish names; but I'll bequeath, ...

... What I inherited: a maverick
Integrity; a voice.

'The Little Black Rose' (1987)

'Róisín Dubh'

... ( or dark rose) a folk song composed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I,
to celebrate the Irish hero, Hugh Ruadh O'Donnel of
Tyrconnell. Some translate, and others dispute, Roisin Dubh as a beloved
female, meaning Ireland

©Reproduced with kind permission of the McFadden Estate


I met Roy McFadden through my research on John Hewitt. He was a generous and patient mentor over a considerable period of time. Shortly before his death in September 1999, he entrusted me to catalogue and preserve his manuscripts and papers, including his last manuscript of nineteen poems published by Abbey Press in 2002. The Roy McFadden Papers are, at McFadden's request, lodged at Queen's University of Belfast, Special Collections Library. My work on them is recorded in my catalogue, Roy McFadden Archive, which can be consulted at Queen's Special Collections Library.

About Roy McFadden

Roy McFadden was born in Belfast in 1921, the year Ireland was partitioned. Alone of his contemporaries, he remained in Northern Ireland throughout his career. When John Hewitt died in 1987, McFadden became the north's most senior resident poet. He died in Belfast in September 1999 aged 77 . McFadden was educated at Regent House School and The Queen’s University of Belfast. In l941, the same year he was indentured to the legal profession, he published his first significant piece, the pamphlet Russian Summer. In l942 he joined Alex Comfort and Ian Serraillier in Three New Poets (Grey Walls Press). In his early twenties, Routledge published three collections, Swords and Ploughshares (l943), Flowers for a Lady (l945) and The Heart’s Townland (l947). During the l939-45 war McFadden was a pacifist, attracted to socialist realism and deeply influenced by Herbert Read’s politico-cultural anarchism. While his first two books were indebted to Yeatsian romanticism, his third ushered in the voice of the anti-war poet resolving "That I may "stiffen into discipline / And feel that prined and certain self arise / To carry frost into the heart of spring" (from 'Calendar for John Hewitt', IV, The Heart's Townland (1947) in Collected Poems 1943-1995 (Lagan 1996), p. 241). These lines exemplify the characteristic, wilful detachment McFadden cultivated in his later poetry as a mask for rage at having been, "quite literally born in violence [his] whole life dominated by violence from the early Troubles". After l974, McFadden chose not to publish another collection for over twenty years. He married, had five children and, in l954, became sole principal of his law practice. He continued to write, was widely anthologised, and produced a steady stream of poems (including 'Elegy for the dead of the Princess Victoria' in l953) as well as reviews, short stories and essays for journals, newspapers and magazines. With Robert Greacen, he had co-edited Ulster Voices (later Irish Voices); he edited Lagan in l945-46, and he founded and co-edited Rann (l948-53), the most influential contemporary northern journal. Active in support of the Lyric Theatre, he regularly broadcast on BBC local radio, presented Poetry Notebooks, and in l952, produced his verse play for radio, The Angry Hound. Returning to the fray in l971 with his collection, The Garryowen, McFadden drew heavily on these diverse experiences in a voice stripped of youthful excess. Vignettes of family and friendship and the hauntingly elegiac ‘Contemplations of Mary’ vie with hard-edged recollections of a life measured out in bloody decades, debunking conceits wrought from "cheers and flags, the maddened gun" (‘Those Glorious Twelfths’). Reaffirming confident maturity, in l977 Verifications explores family roots. Throughout a successful legal career, McFadden remained acutely conscious that as a writer and a lawyer he inhabited ‘two worlds’. Plying his trades in a lawless city, in l979 his collection A Watching Brief articulates scepticism towards the law’s claim to authority, and condemnation of all uniforms as ‘deceptive’ things: "Humanity’s defaced by uniforms. Cleric, soldier, policeman, judge, / And masquerading poet are / Insignia more than men;" (‘The Law Courts Revisited’). When the spotlight fell on Northern Ireland in the late l960s, McFadden kept to the shadows, stubbornly resisting the seductive trend towards poetry as a circus art. Though he had rich a speaking voice, he believed that, "a writer can survive only behind a mask or in self-imposed exile", and deflected searchers for his views ‘poetry’ with a terse injunction to “read the poems”. This stance largely explains McFadden's exclusion from contemporary anthologies but his voice persisted. The Selected Roy McFadden in l983 was followed by Letters to the Hinterland (l986) and After Seymour’s Funeral (l990). Here, elegantly constructed understatements of a rich ‘maverick’ intelligence confirm McFadden as a determined outsider unrepentant in his resolve to "salvage words from rhetoric" ('The Little Black Rose'), and to challenge violence, all violence. His Collected Poems l943-1995, which appeared in l996, eloquently testifies to the uncompromising integrity of the ‘One Who Stayed’ (see publications), who held fast to his poet’s manifesto declared in ‘Elevoine Santi’ in l947: "I will not serve".

In 2002, Abbey Press published Last Poems Roy McFadden’s last collection of nineteen poems. Overwhelmingly elegiac in tone, these are a moving requiem for a craftsman of elegance and integrity, who was burdened by a duty to "capture and immobilise / The transient moments" (‘Granny Bell’), and the small sufferings of McFadden's country and its "congregation of stopped mouths’ (’Replaying Old Gramophone Records").

©Sarah Ferris: 2003 - Edited from Obituary published in The Times (26.10.1999), p.27.

enlarge  imageSarah Ferris with Roy McFadden at the John Hewitt Summer School 1996 ©Leon McAuley


'Elevoine Santi'

I join the funeral

Of individual

And stateless citizens

When men turn wolves, then I

Must learn how to deny

The pack's consensus and

The leader's barked command.

I will not serve. Today,

I tell you to obey

Is to give up your hands

As cats'-paws to demand

From that authority

Whose clockwork soldiery

Of Lowing citizens

March against dissidence.

Roy McFadden (1947)
Collected Poems 1943-1995

(Lagan: Belfast) 1996, p. 228

© Reproduced with kind permission of the McFadden Estate


Roy McFadden's Last Poems

Ed. Sarah Ferris
(Abbey: Belfast) 2002

Select Bibliography
Anon. Review of The Garryowen, Times Literary Supplement, 28.01.1972. 2.
Brown, John. “Roy McFadden Interviewed.” Irish Review 24, (Autumn 1999). 104-17.
Brown, T., ed. Robert Greacen and Roy McFadden. “Apocalypse and Survival.” In Northern Voices, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, (1975). 128-40.
Carty, C. Interview. “Advice to would-be poets: take up law!” Sunday Independent, 05.06.1983. 15.
Clyde, T. Interview. “Reiterations : Roy McFadden in conversation.” Rhinoceros 1 (1989). 86-91.
Clyde, T., Review. “A senior citizen's insolence.” After Seymour's Funeral. Honest Ulsterman 90 (l990), 78-79.
Clyde, T., “Roy McFadden, Collected Poems l943-l995.” Honest Ulsterman 104 (Autumn l997). 65-70.
Cooke, H. “Poster poems from N.I. Arts Council.” Irish Times, 07.02.1974.
Ferris, S. Interview. “‘One Who Stayed': an interview with Roy McFadden.” Irish Studies Review 17 (Winter 1996/7).21-24.
Hewitt, J. “Review of Roy McFadden's Letters From The Hinterland.” Belfast Review (Winter 1986). 35.
Hobsbaum, P. “Harvest in wintry weather, the poetry of Roy McFadden.” Honest Ulsterman 95 (25th Anniversary Souvenir 1993). 91-96.
Ormsby, F. “A journey back, a review of After Seymour's Funeral.” Belfast Telegraph, 12.10.1990.

1941 A Poem: Russian Summer. Dublin: Gayfield. 1977 Verifications. Belfast: Blackstaff.
1942 Three New Poets (with Alex Comfort and Ian Serraillier). Essex: Grey Walls Press. 1979 A Watching Brief. Belfast: Blackstaff.
1943 Swords and Ploughshares. London: Routledge. 1983 The Selected Roy McFadden. Belfast: Blackstaff.
1945 Flowers for a Lady. London: Routledge. 1990 Letters to the Hinterland. Dublin:  Dedalus Press.
1947 The Heart's Townland. London: Routledge. 1990 After Seymour's Funeral. Dublin: Dedalus Press.
1953 Elegy for the Dead of The Princess Victoria. Lisburn: Lisnagarvey Press. 1996 Collected Poems l943-l995. Belfast: Lagan.
1971 The Garryowen. London: Chatto and Windus. 2002 Ed Sarah Ferris, Roy McFadden: Last Poems Newry: Abbey.