THE STRUCTURE of Gerald Dawe’s memoir The Stoic Man, recently published by the Lagan Press, follows much the same general outline of his Selected Poems, published in 2012, and could easily be subtitled A Tale of Three Cities, beginning in the troubled city of Belfast, continuing on to the cultural melting pot that was Galway during the 1970s and 1980s, before moving on the comfortable avenues of Dún Laoghaire and the ivory towers of Trinity College.
The opening paragraph, though somewhat surprising in content to anyone who knows the author, sets an even tempo to the narrative that, despite the turbulence directly to follow, continues throughout the book:
“The two who called to our front door are probably well into their sixties by now. My mother was expecting the call but when the door bell rang we were both still taken a little by surprise. Could she allow me to join a band? I would be well looked after. I need a black polo neck and dark trousers. There’d be rehearsals after Scouts and occasional week-ends. She agreed and thus began my very brief career in a ‘rock’ band. It probably didn’t last more than six months and I played I think about three times on stage ‘live’, so to speak.”
From playing in a ‘rock’ band Dawe graduates to acting with the Lyric Youth theatre and a life of literary activity. The Belfast he describes is at peace with itself and a somewhat enclosed society. He describes a trip to Dublin as an eye-opener: “Maybe in the mid-sixties we were lucky to make the break when we did, so that we could see what were the immediate parameters of home and family, neighbourhood and city. That trip to Dublin was as subtly subversive and potent an experience as any similar journey I have since taken.”
Then comes the shock of seeing British troops on the streets of Belfast and the turmoil of the following years, the sharpening of literary teeth so that by the time he reached Galway in 1972 we see the maturing, though relatively unknown, poet.
“The walk by Moon’s Corner, the post office, down to the Law Court and Library and over the Salmon Weir Bridge stays in my mind in slow motion.” This walk over the Corrib was the crossing of a personal and cultural Rubicon for Dawe and one he welcomed with open arms. He quickly immersed himself in the literary and cultural life of the city and indeed added to it in many ways, not least by founding and publishing the thought provoking critical review Krino.
It is at this point of the book that its real narrative theme begins gently to emerge. As his collections of poetry begin to be published at first by the Blackstaff Press in Belfast and then by Peter Fallon’s Gallery Press in the Republic, Dawe begins to question what the writer’s role should be in Irish society. In the chapter 'Unhealthy Intersections' he writes:
“The actual tradition of Irish writers from Wilde and Shaw and Joyce and O’Casey through the 20th century is one of artistic defiance and imaginative challenge rather than one of cultural compliance and orthodoxy." Despite this, Dawe continues, the country seems not to have gained anything by its cultural inheritance and speaks of the “aesthetic impoverishment of so many of these places [towns and cities] along with large swathes of the countryside”.
Dawe believes “the writer is once again asked being asked to perform his/her patriotic duty as part of the expectation raised in various quarters that culture and ‘the Arts’ in Ireland will, and should ride to the rescue of an incompetent State and the exploitative class of bankers and others who squandered the resources of the boom, having first lavishly secured their own futures while bequeathing to the taxpayer the cost of the bailout.”
This is not the writer’s job. What is needed now is an “outward looking, clear-sighted and buoyant appreciation of where we are in the world”. He then presents us with vignettes of four people who achieved just this. Gerald Dawe’s The Stoic Man is a fascinating book in many ways. It is informative, thought provoking, challenging and entertaining. It certainly is well worth reading.