The bureaucrat is bound by language, which perhaps helps explain why so many Irish writers – from Flann O’Brien to Donal Ryan – have honed their skills in the Civil Service
Irish writers who honed their skills in the Civil Service
Thinking back to when her late husband, the novelist Richard Power, was a civil servant, his wife, Ann, has remarked that those were the days when the Irish Civil Service must have been the biggest patron of the arts since the Medici, simply on account of the number of writers, artists and so on who worked for it.
This was in the 1960s. But it was nothing new: the connection between the two occupations had by then been well-established. And 50 years later that same connection can be seen to be of such long standing and feature such a cast of noteworthy characters – some of them definitely Renaissance men – as to constitute a capsule history of Irish 20th-century literature.
In fact such a history would not just be a recitation of personages and publications but would illustrate certain questions central to Irish culture as a whole, questions dealing with expression and identity, with service and criticism, with vocation and duty.
But even simply to call the roll of civil-servant writers is to outline a lengthy and complicated lineage that includes such polar-opposite temperaments as Brian O’Nolan and Conor Cruise O’Brien; an ambassador, in Denis Devlin, who was path-breaking in his poetic practice; and two poets, Thomas Kinsella and Dennis O’Driscoll, who developed distinctive poetic standpoints while holding down day jobs in departments that don’t appear particularly conducive to such activity – Finance and Revenue, respectively.
Clearly in the works of these half-dozen alone there is a range of accomplishment that in its individuality and commitment forms a bold antithesis to any notions of humdrum pen-pusher that the designation civil servant might connote. And if the notion of civil service takes in institutions beyond those directly connected to Leinster House, Thomas MacGreevy’s directorship of the National Gallery of Ireland, and the role of the poet Roibeárd Ó Faracháin as Radio Éireann’s controller of programmes and the contributions of the novelist Francis MacManus as head of the station’s talks and features, are also in their own way indicators of cultural trends and aspirations in mid-20th-century Ireland.
To these may be added the Civil Service careers of two more poets: Padraic Fallon, who worked as a customs officer, mainly in Wexford (and whose son Brian was an Irish Times journalist and critic), and Seán Ó Ríordáin, who put in a long stint clerking at Cork City Hall.
Back in the day when jobs of any kind, never mind those of the permanent-and-pensionable variety, were few and far between, the Civil Service was seen as the cushiest of numbers. But that view was not shared by many of the writers working in it. One sign of discomfort was their assumption of pseudonyms. As the case of Frank O’Connor illustrates, it was a discomfort based on vulnerability: O’Connor – real name Michael O’Donovan – took his pen-name to create a protective space between his position as a librarian and his budding writing career. Similarly, as he recounts in
Memoir: My Life and Themes, Conor Cruise Civil Service headquarters in Dublin’s Customs House destroyed by the IRA in 1921. But a Civil Service desk was an ideal berth for a writer post-independence.