Obituary: Roy McFadden

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The Independent Culture
ROY MCFADDEN presented in his lifetime the aspect of a Belfast solicitor, which is what he was. A sturdy figure in serviceable tweeds, one would notice the Shakespearian brow, to which his massive baldness added distinction, the shrewd but guarded glance, the voice precise in language as in articulation. The effect was to suggest that McFadden was no ordinary lawyer.

As well as serving the law for almost 60 years - he was indentured in 1940 - Roy McFadden was a writer, and one of the most distinguished of a Northern Irish constellation that included John Hewitt, Robert Greacen, W.R. Rodgers, Sam Hanna Bell and Joseph Tomelty. His father worked for the Northern Bank and his mother, a militant pacifist, expended her energies on the Peace Pledge Union. Soon after McFadden's birth, as a result of threats from the IRA, the family moved from Downpatrick to Belfast.

McFadden himself, after education at Knock Grammar School and Regent House, Newtownards, graduated in Law from Queen's University, Belfast, in 1944. He had already published in Dublin a small pamphlet, Russian Summer (1942), and appeared, along with Alex Comfort and Ian Serraillier, as one of Three New Poets, published by Grey Walls Press in 1942.

However, his first major publication was Swords and Ploughshares, brought out by Routledge in 1943 at the instigation of Herbert Read, whose political anarchism he shared. This was a powerful first collection of poems, strongly, though not stridently, Irish. McFadden sees his native mountain, Slieve Donard, as another Ararat, and war intervenes in terms of a ballad where an Irish peasant woman summons home her children. However, equally potent was the influence of Yeats, and the development of McFadden's work could be summarised as an effort to come to terms with the older, greater poet.

Flowers for a Lady (1945) and The Heart's Townland (1947), perhaps because of this struggle, show something of a romantic instability. Indeed, after the latter book, McFadden published no major collection for 24 years. That did not help his reputation when his contemporaries were, for the most part, building on their early successes. The interim was filled with developing his legal practice in Belfast and helping to raise his five children; he had married Margaret Ferguson in 1952. He still found time in 1945 to start a literary magazine, Lagan, and to co- edit another, Rann, which flourished from 1948 to 1953. Later, his acidic tones became well known on radio, presenting from 1949 until 1963 a regular programme, The Arts in Ulster, in collaboration with his lifelong friend the producer John Boyd.

The bitter circumstances of Northern Ireland decreed that McFadden reify as a war poet. He himself said, towards the end of his life, "I was born in violence, and my whole life was dominated by violence." A human face emerged from behind what had been Yeatsian rhetoric. The Garryowen (1971) possesses an unforced authority lacking in the earlier books. A Watching Brief (1978) is unified by its running theme, that of a lawyer going through the forms and ceremonies of a lawless city. McFadden's experience as a working solicitor allowed him to put his finger on pulses that Yeats, for all his sublimity, never touched. The key poem has, almost defiantly, a Yeatsian title: "The Law Courts Revisited". Nevertheless, the voice is substantially and sardonically McFadden, with a metre that can be best described as a calculated slouch.

McFadden was one of that rare band of poets whose work improved with the years. His final collection, After Seymour's Funeral (1990), shows at once compassion and technical control. For McFadden, recollection is not a nostalgic but an energising process. The title poem, in sorting through their legal details, brings his friends palpably before us:

That bitter-sweet decade; those elegies.

The barren peach-tree on the garden wall

Urgent with blossom when the laughing dog -

Now only I remember - stopped, and died.

A Collected Poems was published by Lagan Press, Belfast, in 1996, and is still available. It is full of surprises, including many poems and translations that McFadden had previously chosen not to publish. Of course, he was never in the literary swim. After the 1940s, he was cautious about socialising, preferring to find his relaxation from a remarkably busy life in his family circle - though, like a true professional, he turned this to account in many delightful poems about his children. To adults, his sense of humour could be intimidating. A young Englishman witnessing McFadden's will was required to write down his occupation as "poet" and to promise that he would never accept the Laureateship.

In the end, his monument is the Collected Poems, arranged chronologically backwards, so that the accomplished pieces he wrote in his fruitful seventies appear first. There is no overstatement in that verse, no lushness, no posturing. The precision of the vocabulary marked out the man. In a particularly creative period of Irish writing, Roy McFadden was one of his country's true masters. His biography is being written by Sarah Ferris.

Philip Hobsbaum

Roy McFadden, poet, editor and lawyer: born Belfast 14 November 1921; married 1952 Margaret Ferguson (three sons, two daughters); died Belfast 15 September 1999.

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