Michael O’Loughlin: Europe as an infinite circle whose centre is everywhere

For the Irish poet Michael O’Loughlin, Europe is not just a place on the map. The Europe of his poetry is a labyrinth of ideas, memories and languages. Its borders are permeable and shifting. We sense it is there, yet it remains stubbornly elusive. Michael is in Prague as part of the UNESCO City of Literature programme and has been reflecting on the city’s place in Europe, as well as his own European identity. He spoke with David Vaughan.

Michael O’Loughlin, photo: David VaughanMichael O’Loughlin, photo: David Vaughan Michael O’Loughlin’s fascination with Central and Eastern Europe goes back four decades, to when he was a teenager in Dublin. He has travelled widely across the continent, both physically and in his mind, through the writers who have inspired him. He also spent many years living in the Netherlands. All this has had a strong influence on how he sees his native country and Europe as a whole. When we met, I began by asking Michael about his first visit to Prague.

“I was in Prague as a teenager in 1978 for a couple of weeks, by a chance of history really, because the Irish Students’ Union was affiliated with the Soviet Bloc Students’ Union – for internal Irish political reasons.”

You were all Marxists…

“The leadership was. The leadership of the Union were all Maoists. I came away with very mixed feelings about it, because the Irish Communist Party was a hundred old men, who were all veterans of the Spanish Civil War, meeting in the back rooms of pubs, while at the place I was staying in Prague there were thousands of beautiful young Italian girls in leather trousers and red scarves, singing La Bandiera Rossa. So, I thought, this communism looks pretty good. But then I saw how miserable life in Prague was. It was very gloomy, the buildings were all falling down. But the people were very interesting. The Czech people I met – the younger Czech people – were very resigned and stoic about the situation. They were basically waiting for the Soviets to go away, and there were no heroics, no dramatic gestures. I was here for the tenth anniversary of 1968 and nothing happened.

“But the other aspect was that, growing up in Dublin, really on the edge of Europe, I had always been attracted by the idea of Central Europe. There was always the idea that that’s where real culture and real life were. So, in my early poetry, I used East and Central Europe as a metaphor for the other, industrial civilisation, so to speak, which Ireland wasn’t at the time.”

Let’s hear you read one of your poems.

“In the 1970s, Ireland was dominated by Irish nationalism. The founding fathers of the country were still alive, and as children we had to learn quite a lot about Irish mythology. This poem is called Cuchulainn. Cuchulainn is one of the great Irish mythological heroes and the poem, I suppose, is a poem of post-revolutionary literary disillusionment. If you have a national revival, what happens afterwards?”

Cuchulainn

If I lived in this place for a thousand years
I could never construe you, Cuchulainn.
Your name is a fossil, a petrified tree
Your name means less than nothing.
Less than Librium or Burton’s Biscuits
Or Phoenix Audio-Visual Systems –
I have never heard it whispered
By the wind in the telegraph wires
Or seen it scrawled on the wall
At the back of the children’s playground.
Your name means less than nothing
To the housewife adrift in the Shopping Centre
At eleven-fifteen on a Tuesday morning
With the wind blowing fragments of concrete
Into eyes already battered and bruised
By four tightening walls
In a flat in a tower block
Named after an Irish Patriot
Who died with your name on his lips.

But watching TV the other night
I began to construe you, Cuchulainn;
You came on like some corny revenant
In a black-and-white made for TV
American Sci-Fi serial.
An obvious Martian in human disguise
You stomped about in big boots
With a face perpetually puzzled and strained
And your deep voice booms full of capital letters:
What Is This Thing You Earthlings Speak Of

You talk about the disillusionment after the national revival. It is an experience shared by the Czech nation.

“There seem to be quite a lot of similarities between the Irish and the Czech national revival in the sense that we’re both dominated by larger neighbours. And, interestingly enough, part of the Irish national revival was the revival of the Irish language as in the Czech Republic. However, in Ireland it failed completely and the Irish people continued to speak English. They didn’t switch back to Irish. So the revival failed. It’s fascinating to compare it to the Czech Republic, where the revival succeeded.”

The idea of the Czech language is central to the Czech idea of the nation. In Ireland you have a very strong national identity with most of the great Irish literature that we know written in English.

Dublin, photo: Nettadi, CC BY-SA 3.0Dublin, photo: Nettadi, CC BY-SA 3.0 “This is a big question that Irish people are always trying to answer. Why did we continue to speak English even after independence? There are several reasons, I think. One is that the very existence of the Irish state is dependent on emigration. Since 1922 one in every two Irish people born in Ireland has emigrated for ever. So, it’s as if that’s in our genes. We know there’s a fifty percent chance we’re going to leave and live our lives in English. The second reason is that in the Czech Republic – or Czechoslovakia – you had a large prosperous middle class, who championed the Czech language. In Ireland the middle class were opposed to the Irish language because they felt it was a peasant language coming out of poverty and oppression – a bit like Yiddish for Jews. And it didn’t work. I think the third thing is that all the leaders of the Irish national revival, like Pádraig Pearse, said that language is the one true sign of the identity of a nation. And they might have been wrong. That’s a very romantic, 19th century idea. Irish identity is not dependent on the language. I think, since I’ve spent a few months in Prague, I’m beginning to think that one reason for that is that Ireland is an island. We’re surrounded by water. So, in a way, identity is not constantly jostling up against other identities, whereas in Central and Eastern Europe you have lots of different countries jostling together. So, identity becomes important in terms of the language you speak.”

You are an Irish poet, who has spent a great part of his life out of Ireland. You are married to a Dutchwoman, you have lived in the Netherlands. In literary terms you are part of a rich tradition. We only have to look back to James Joyce or Samuel Beckett. How has this experience influenced your identity as a poet?

“I have to give a disappointing answer, which is that when I was growing up as a teenager and starting to write I never felt that Ireland was my homeland. I never felt that that’s where I belonged. I grew up on the edge of Dublin, which is a city on the edge of Ireland, which is an Ireland on the edge of Europe, and I always felt that my true ‘heimat’ was elsewhere. So, when I left Ireland I didn’t feel I was leaving Ireland. I always felt I was going home. And I still have that feeling. When I go back to Ireland now, I never feel really that I’m going home. So to some extent the whole exile-emigrant thing is a notion imposed from the outside. It’s not objective. I don’t feel it that way. I don’t think that either James Joyce or Samuel Beckett felt that they were in exile or that they were emigrants. I think that both of them were where they were supposed to be.

“Nowadays we’ve a lot of emigration again from Ireland and it’s different, because of the internet, because of Skype, because of the social media, because of the way people move around. I think it’s become a lot more fluid. National identity is fading away a little bit, which is very, very difficult, I think, for some people. So I think that’s one of the causes of the political problems which we have in Europe. There is an elite growing up, who move around Europe and are quite happy with that, and then there are the people who stay behind who feel slightly threatened by this fading away of borders.”

You’re going to read us a poem which is connected with this experience…

“My daughter was born in Amsterdam. Her first language was English because I spoke English with her, but she very quickly began to speak Dutch when she went to school. The poem is based on a conversation I had with her, where she said to me one day in the playground, ‘Daddy, are we English?’ And I said, ‘No – as Samuel Beckett said, ‘Au contraire’ – but why do you ask such a question?’ And she said, ‘Well, we speak English, so we’re English, aren’t we?’ And this is a question that every Irish father has to answer at some stage in his life. So the poem is an attempt to answer that question. It’s called Iceland.”

My pale daughter runs in the wind
which reminds us that this is North.
No patriot could love his fatherland
as she loves this playground
where I hear her shout in a language
I forget in my dreams.

Now, more than ever, she looks
like a child from an Icelandic saga
the foster-child, concubine’s daughter
boot of war undeclared
and merely economic.

This January is too cold for tourists.
Like the ghosts of themselves the canal captains
grip the wheels of motionless boats
and Vermeer’s ‘radiant pigments’
drown behind their diked eyes.

Daughter, I wish you islands
rising like equations
from the ocean of your life
where people rush down to the shore
to gather you into themselves
shrieking in the tongue
you did not believe existed.

I know that one writer whom you greatly admire is Franz Kafka. He was a Prague writer who wrote in German, so the same question arises. Is he a German writer?

Franz Kafka, photo: Public DomainFranz Kafka, photo: Public Domain “I’ve been finding out a lot more about Kafka since I’ve been in Prague. He was somebody I read as a teenager, like many people. But I think I understand him a lot more now that I’m getting more background about him. As is often the case, when you find out about a writer, that person becomes less disembodied. When you walk around the streets of Prague you do get a sense that he wasn’t making things up as much as you thought he was. ‘The Castle’ is an actual castle, and that’s a little bit disillusioning sometimes. But I find Kafka more and more relevant as a writer to the kind of societies we’re living in now. ‘In a Penal Colony’, for example, could be a metaphor for what’s happening now with social media and the feeling that people have that their lives are no longer under their own control.”

This is a story where people actually have their punishment engraved onto their bodies…

“Exactly. ‘Written on the body,’ as they say. It’s an idea that we find almost normal now – that you are linked into these networks that control you or you control, but you’re no longer actually an individual – a free individual. It’s quite frightening that Kafka saw these things in society that were yet to come.”

We’ve been talking about Kafka. You’re now going to read us a poem with a Jewish theme.

“It’s called Talith. A talith is a Jewish prayer shawl. We have one at home which belonged to my wife’s grandfather. It’s actually quite a strange thing to have, because religious Jews wear them when they go to shul on Friday night, but, when you die, you are supposed to be buried in it. It is supposed to be your shroud. So it’s an unusual artefact to have. In my wife’s family, her father was the only survivor, so all her aunts, uncles and grandparents, were transported from Amsterdam and murdered in Auschwitz. So the poem is about how we came to own her grandfather’s talith.”

We sleep beneath your grandfather’s talith
Fine lamb’s wool striped black and white
A giant barcode to be scanned by God
The pelt of a fabulous beast.

Little tent, portable temple
It survived Dutch looters and Dublin landlords
To shelter in this Irish night even me
Uncircumcized, and all too often, unwashed.

Your father pinned it to his study wall
A flag without a shield. Eternity’s quilt,
Your grandfather didn’t think he’d need it
When he took the train in Amsterdam.

‘And what,’ he mocked your father,
‘Are they going to murder us all?’

It’s a sober warning for our own time: we cannot imagine that the unimaginable can happen, but history tells us that it can.

“From what I’ve learnt about the Holocaust and the family history, the fascinating thing is that the truth is always out there. There’s always somebody who knows what’s going on. The trouble is persuading people to believe it, because people tend to go about their daily lives. They don’t want any interference, they have to bring the kids to school, they have to go to work. They don’t want to think about the possible larger questions that are looming in front of them. We’re in a slightly similar situation now, I think.”

After this couple of months in Prague, what is going to stay with you when you go back to Dublin?

If you are in Prague, you can hear Michael O'Loughlin read his poetry on October 24 at the Malá vila, Pelléova 20, Praha 6 (it's about six minutes' walk from Hradčanská metro). Admission is free and the event starts at 7 pm.

“I think already I have an idea of something that has changed in the way I see things. There was an Irish language conference the first week I was here, and the title in English was The Edge of the World at the Centre of the World – i.e. Irish speakers in Prague. And I’m beginning to realise that my notion of being on the edge of Europe and going to the centre of Europe is completely wrong, because I think there is no centre to Europe. Prague is not at the centre of Europe. Czechia is not in the middle of Europe. Europe is everywhere. Europe is a mountain in Norway. It’s a village in Ireland. It’s like Saint Augustine’s concept of God. It's a circle whose centre can be anywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.”