Kevin Higgins — a poet of integrity, honesty and bravery

The late Kevin Higgins, as photographed by Mike Shaughnessy

The late Kevin Higgins, as photographed by Mike Shaughnessy

In 2016 The Stinging Fly magazine described Kevin Higgins as ‘likely Ireland’s most read Irish poet’. Kevin who passed away this week was a passionate and popular poet, a satirist, a fine wordsmith, a romantic with real powers of evocation and a gentle presence too.

Kevin’s art was made in Galway. In the mid 1970s his family moved back home to a black and white Galway from colour television Coventry when he was seven. Kevin subsequently became a happily pained connoisseur of the bleakness of the eighties in Ireland, and in London, where had slipped over to help on the ground the Trotskyist group, the Militant Tendency which had already joined in Galway at the age of fifteen.

In his words, from a third-person autobiographical piece, ‘After twelve years of activism, which began as a member of Galway West Labour Youth the month the Falklands War kicked off and fizzled like the saddest of fireworks in London in the aftermath of Mrs Thatcher’s Poll Tax, against which he had been a somewhat obsessively focussed campaigner…’.

He returned to Galway: ‘Kevin arrived in Galway with no particular plans, apart from a notion that he might do something artistic. Not artistic in the prettifying sense; he had no interest in describing the rocks around Connemara and the like. Indeed, he had little interest in any kind of beauty. Or so he thought. He wanted to express things he had been unable to say during his years as a (partly-self appointed ) leader of the vanguard of the North London semi-lumpen proletariat…By “doing something artistic”, he meant stuff to do with words – songs, poems, maybe plays, novels…

It wasn’t enough to say it. It had to be said well. And, if possible, said wittily. He didn’t know it at the time but writing political letters with a satirical bent to the local papers in Enfield in the very early 1990s was his beginning as a poet.’

Over six subsequent, increasingly acclaimed poetry collections Kevin became an essential presence in the Galway literary landscape, his voice was at once profound, wry, mordant, sparkling, stubborn, even hopeful as the personal and political crossed and entwined. He was a fine satirist. When reading Kevin it was hard sometimes not to be put in mind of the railleries of Dean Swift.

The writer Polina Cosgrave said of him: ‘As a poet, on a personal and societal level Higgins is fighting the battle that can’t be won, and he knows it.’ With his life partner, gifted fellow poet and equally inspiring teacher Susan Millar DuMars, Kevin went on to put his stamp on Galway. Together they founded Over the Edge, ‘a literary events organisation serving writers and literature fans in the Galway area’ with poetry and fiction readings, workshops, creative writing classes and information for all on literature developments in the Galway area of influence.

Kevin and Susan’s mentorship was legendary. Over twenty years their kindness, innovation, precision, professionalism and fun created a joyful and positive community of writers, a family, a tribe of artists whose success and spirit is a sturdy legacy so that Galway can truly, incontrovertibly, be called a city and county of writers.

Over the Edge monthly gatherings in the City Library feature at the same lectern the major names of Irish and international writing, local heroes and emerging voices, engaging, enthralling, sharing words cheek by jowl. The Over the Edge ethos and care brings fine new writers to prominence and distinction. The word has spread: when Seamus Heaney encountered Over the Edge at the Clifden Arts Festival, he remarked that maybe he should sign up for Kevin’s poetry workshop!

Ailbhe Darcy praised Kevin in launching his recent collection: ‘The integrity of his work is astonishing: the degree to which he holds to almost unimagined values; the stubbornness with which he sends out signals’. Kevin’s workshop, teaching and lecturing reach included Galway Arts Centre, GTI, and what we used refer to as NUI Galway and GMIT. The Arts Centre was a beloved space, where he and Susan tied a most romantic knot, marrying, becoming even more the Rhyming Couplet in Des Kilbane’s evocative film documentary about them.

They organised a glorious giant summer open-mic poetry slam every year for the progressive Westside Festival, in heart of the Galway neighbourhood which meant so much to him. For many of us, though, another accomplishment shines through – Kevin’s work as writer-in-residence in Galway public hospitals. He was one of the best artists in health I have ever seen.

Kevin’s care, patience, integrity and understanding were truly exceptional. As Arts Officer for Galway City, I appreciated Kevin’s work across platforms, contexts and media (he was such a great ‘comms’ operator, he said to me that his barrage of announcements for forthcoming events was ‘borderline harassment’, as if… ).

I loved his work and his company – we both adored the gloomy 1980s, and shared its distant horrors (we had met first in their Galway epicentre, the Atlanta Hotel, at a Miners’ Strike solidarity meeting ).

He might look backwards occasionally, amusingly, insightfully, but he wasn’t obsessed and he was modest, self-deprecating in his recall of ancient shared endeavour. His was a steady (silent, imagined, assumed ) voice of conscience at my shoulder.

His integrity, honesty, bravery never failed to inspire me. Leaving a workshop of his with long term Merlin Park patients, I quite floated back to the office – I had witnessed the participants’ total engagement in writing; it was a masterclass in the joy of creativity that is there to be found in us all, and encouraged, whatever the circumstances. Kevin’s skill, kindness, wit and passion will be sorely missed in Galway. He has left a real legacy and he will not be forgotten. RIP Kevin Higgins


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