Desk job

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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY IMAGES

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.

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