Saturday, October 3, 2009

“He Came Drunk from his Mother’s Womb”

Writing about Frank McCourt put me in mind of another famous Irish writer and talker, Oliver St. John Gogarty. In spite of William Butler Yeats description of him above, Oliver St. John Gogarty had notable periods of sobriety, but even when sober he was an unstoppable talker. He managed to talk himself into having his house burned down and an exile of many years from Ireland, among other achievements. His sin was supporting the Irish Free State rather than the Irish Republic, a difference that I would be more than happy to spend an evening expounding upon—if you buy the beer. Unless you are Irish to the core, however, the importance of that difference will evaporate as soon as the beer is gone.

Still, Gogarty was a surgeon, a Senator in the Irish Free State and an imposing figure in the Irish literary renaissance. For many years he and his wife Neenie were “at home” to Irish society on Friday nights where Oliver and W.B. Yeats sat on opposite sides of the room talking and competing for attention. No records exist of whether Yeats or Gogarty drew the most attention, but their current reputations hold decidedly in favor of Yeats.

Gogarty was also a friend of James Joyce and allegedly the model for Buck Mulligan, the central, unlikable figure of the first three books of Ulysses. Joyce may have immortalized Gogarty, but not in any way that most of us would like to be remembered.

Gogarty’s literary work is mostly forgotten these days, but he remains the author of one of the most poignant, saddest poems ever written in the English language:

The one before breakfast
Alone in the Bar,
Will slide down your neck fast
And ease the catarrh
Your glass with its end up
Will scarce leave your jaws
When your body will send up
A round of applause.

Not the equal of Joyce or Yeats, but better that Gogarty be remembered for his work than only the hostel, bar or restaurant in Dublin that bear his name and are all most people know of him, if they have heard of him at all.

Although, from what I’ve read about him, Oliver St. John Gogarty might be happier with the crowds at the establishments that bear his name than with the academic lionization that Yeats and Joyce have achieved.

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