The poet who went mad on Inishboffin

In 1959 the poet Richard Murphy renovated the black-sailed Ave Maria, a traditional Galway hooker, which he used to ferry visitors to Inishboffin, and for a day’s fishing. Over the years the poet, the boat and the magnificent landscape attracted a flotsam and jetsam of humanity, many of a literary kind.

The critically acclaimed American poet Theodore Roethke*, and his model wife Beatrice (whom he adored and addressed as ‘My lizard, my lively writher’ ), arrived for a few days, and stayed two months.

As Murphy collected them from Cleggan pier, he noticed that ‘her nylon stockings and dainty shoes seemed designed for cocktails at their journey’s end, not cups of tea from a metal pot in the ashes of a peat fire. The whiteness of her face glowed like porcelain through a veil of mist. She regarded the roughness of my boat with unconcealed disdain.

‘Beside her Roethke was dressed like a defeated old prizefighter, growing bald, groggy and fat, clumsy on his feet, wrapped in silence, which he kept up for the hour it took us to reach the island.’

They stayed with Margaret Day, who was then the island’s district nurse and midwife, as well a hotelier and mother of five children. It took Rotheke 10 minutes to climb the narrow stairs, and the thin walls between the rooms did not soften his ‘pillow talk’. Yet they seemed happy enough. If Roethke was silent on the boat he ranted in Miko’s bar. Miko, a total abstainer, who only opened the pub when he pleased, delighted in his American customer flushed with dollars and bravado. The two men enjoyed each other’s company late into the night.

Unfortunately Roethke was suffering mental anguish, and would soon collapse alltogether. But before he did so, he dominated the island, and the hotel with his drinking, bursts of energy, and occasionally, when the fiddle and piano accordion struck up for a dance, he would take off alone around the hall, until he was exhausted. If Miko’s was closed he would sit on the sea wall in the garden, writing, sipping wine and stout, and finishing with a noggin of Irish from the pocket of his coat.

He sought out Murphy for praise. When Murphy mentioned a poem by Robert Lowell that he admired, Roethke banged his fists on the counter, and snarled: “Why are you always praising Lowell?” Yet, when he read some of his poems to the children in the local school ‘they were like dormice...they were thrilled listening to him.’

His great ambition was to acquire an Irish reputation rivalling WB Yeats. But his inner torments prevented any such progress. Eventually having brandished a knife at poor Mrs Day, Beatrice summoned the local doctor, who signed a certficate of insanity, committing him as a voluntary patient to the county mental hospital at Ballinasloe.

Roethke was in tears as he stumbled down the the slippery pebbled shore to the wooden punt that was waiting with a man to row him out to the mailboat on its harbour moorings. The local priest, Fr Máirtín Lang, escorted him on his way. Murphy was sad to see him go in such circumstances. But Margaret Day remembered ‘the extreme peace after he’d gone’.

An oddity himself

Richard Murphy, who celebrates his 90th birthday this month, is an oddity himself. He comes from an distinguished Anglo-Irish family at Milford House, near the Galway-Mayo border. He spent his early life in Sri Lanka, and later the Bahamas, where his father served as the mayor of Colombo, and its governor-general respectively. He was educated in top British public schools, and later at Oxford and the Sorbonne. He spoke with the most pronounced cut-glass English accent.

Yet he fell passionately in love with Connemara’s jagged west coast, and lived a Bohemian lifestyle there. As well as a home at Cleggan, he purchased High Island, where he built an austere cottage, and a beehive-hut, in the manner of the ancient monks on Skellig Michael. He wrote poetry in the evenings,** and drove a mini-van from which he sold the fish he caught. His companions were locals who, despite the suspicions of the parish priest, accepted him as one of their own. Murphy would drive them into Galway for hospital appointments, shopping and the cinema.

‘A mean grouch’

Out of the blue, about six weeks later, Roethke returned to Inishboffin. He was alone. Beatrice had gone. Roethke, however, was as quiet and gentle as a lamb. It was winter and the island was practically deserted. Roethke was drinking less and writing more. He praised the treatment at Ballinasloe as better than his previous experiences at the most expensive private clinics in America. His psychiatrist allowed him to wander into town and drink in a pub frequented by male nurses who kept an eye on him.

Without Beatrice, Murphy helped him to type out new poems for inclusion in American magazines. Murphy, occasionally would offer some criticism which Roethke, in a far better mood than previously, whould dismiss as: ‘You’re a mean grouch Murphy, but what do I care? The Ladies’ Home Journal will love it, and pay me ten dollars a line.”

Roethke left finally to stay with the Hustons at St Clarens, near Craughwell, Co Galway, before returning to America.

Three years later he died of a heart attack in a swimming pool on an island in Puget Sound, Washington. Speaking at his funeral Robert Lowell concluded that ‘Roethke fevered to be the best poet, and perhaps strained for the gift.”

Next week: The woman who spoke too much...

NOTES: * Theodore H Roethke was only 55 years when he drowned on August 1 1963. As well as being a poet (he was awarded the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1954 ), he was a highly regarded teacher at the University of Washington.

** Richard Murphy is a much admired and an award winning poet. Notably: Sailing to an Island, which contains The Cleggan Disaster, and The Last Galway Hooker (Faber 1963 ), and The Battle of Aughrim (Faber 1968 ).

I am taking this week’s Diary from The Kick - A memoir of the poet Richard Murphy, originally published by Granta in 2002, and just republished by Cork University Press, containing a review by John Banville, for the New York Review of Books May 15 2003. On sale €19.95

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