Tuesday 4 September 2012

John O'Leary

John at Anam Cara. 

A short while ago, I heard of the death of poet, farmer and scholar John O'Leary, in very tragic circumstances.  I met John first some years back, at my lovely writing retreat in West Cork, when he popped in for a meeting with Sue, the owner.  We met many times over the years. He looked wild as anything,  littered his speech with Latin quotations,  knew the history, social history, the mythology, the geography, geology, the flora and fauna, and a lot more, of this part of Ireland. A man who wrote poetry - didn't bother too much about publishing it - but was proud of his two books, each collections of 77 fractured sonnets - 'Sea' and 'Salt', from a tiny now-defunct press in Seattle.  Who could recite you so many things  - he had an extraordinary memory. Who taught both locally and abroad, who had a First from Trinity Cambridge and another degree from Trinity Dublin. 

John getting ready to read his poems to my short story writers, at Anam Cara in June this year.

Born in Boston, US, he had lived most of his life in West Cork, on a small farm in the tiny village of Allihies, where he bred Irish Draught Horses, farmed sheep. His farm overlooked the North Atlantic. His study, a treasure-house (some might call it a shambles!) of books and papers, had a spidery window looking down over fields to the strand. 
He used to inspire the kids at local schools. The book in the first photo above is a hand made book he helped the older students to make, at the local school. They made the paper from nettles. The ink. The covers from wood. The binding twine also from nettles. They used gannet feathers found on the strand for quills and each student wrote what they wanted to be in life.  He'd also been Visiting Professor of Creative Writing and Irish Studies at Illinois Wesleyan University and Seattle University and has taught at numerous universities in America and Europe. And he ran workshops at the Anam Cara Writers' and Artists' Retreat - with Paddy O'Connor - another friend, a retired headmaster. I was due to go and enjoy a week of their inspirational teaching and insights next year. 
Sadly, John drowned in the sea not far from Allihies, after his fishing boat capsized.

So - as a goodbye to an irreplaceable genius, here's the account of a wonderful journey John took me on last year - into the old copper mine above Allihies. 'I know a way in', he said. 'We used to go when I was a kid.' Paddy O'Connor wanted to come too. 

John at the entrance of the tunnel

So we drove up there, and we parked, John Paddy and I, by the side of the stony road that leads to the Mountain Mine. Barbed wire fences didn't worry John. Off with the jacket,  laying it on the barbs, he swung a long skinny leg over the wire. Me, I don't have those legs, and Paddy said, 'We'll go this way, and we scrambled up the steep slope, slid down rocks, up again, managed to negotiate some easier fences, and eventually dropped back down the slope to where John was standing at the entrance to a closed-off tunnel. 'Oh, its got a lock,' he said. And, 'Oh look, someone's broken it...' Hmm...

Down the tunnel, lichen-covered and dank, up to our ankles in water
I'd borrowed some beach shoes, which was a good thing - 'Be ready for water up to your knees...' John said, pushing the metal gate aside, grinning, and disappearing into a black-as-night tunnel. I took a photo with my phone - it showed for a second the green growths on the walls, the rock-strewn floor, the water. And John's back, rolled up jeans and ubiquitous tweed jacket, disappearing....
Looking up, the sun shone down the spent vein, blueing the walls

Feeling for rocks with our feet, scrambling over a low wall or two built to keep us out, no doubt, we ended up in a wide cavern. The walls ran with damp in places, catching the light. Light which filtered down from above, a slash in the ground, perhaps where a seam has been exhausted many years before the mine was closed. And as my eyes became accustomed, I could see places where the walls were blue, turquoise, green, cobalt - the sunlight catching the colours and throwing them about. There were the wooden supports for walkways long gone. Places where ladders would have taken the miners from one level to the next. There were metal hooks in the rock, gaping, somehow, waiting.

Looking down, the wooden walkway supports from a century ago

Kneeling in a shaft of light to read a poem by a  Cornish tin miner

The floor of the cavern ended suddenly, and the ground fell away into the mineshaft. Not, as I had imagined, a rough circular hole - but a slash the whole width of the cavern, and about six feet across. Thanks to the light from above,  you could see the shaft, disappearing downwards.  Then nothing. You could see the walls, with their blue and green artwork. Then nothing. In the picture above, John is kneeling right on the edge of the shaft - the flash from my phone-camera has lit up the wall going down.   He took a paper from his pocket, and proceeded to read - perhaps the most extraordinary and memorable reading/listening experience I will ever have. John read out loud, his words echoing slightly against the walls. He read a poem written over a hundred years ago, by a Cornish tin miner, describing riding to work on the man engine at Levant - the lift device  that had inspired so much of the structure of The Coward's Tale - but which I had taken out of the novel as one of the last sacrifices during editing.  

The shaft is black and deep, bright blue stains in the rock
There was a man engine at this mine too, and its building is still to be seen, high on the mountain above Allihies. Hearing the words here, in this place, where they seemed to fit so well... I can't describe it. We stayed for a while, drinking in the atmosphere. Talking in hushed tones when we talked at all.  Most of the time I think all three of us were overwhelmed by the place.  I didn't want to leave - the place was magical - a sense of history, and strife, it is no doubt full of ghosts. But the ghosts let us be. 
back through the tunnel towards daylight
And in contrast to our journey into the mine, the tunnel on the way back seemed very different. Instead of the night that lay ahead on our way in, we journeyed out, towards the brightest light.

Thanks, John.



  1. So tragic, what a beautiful eulogy, V.

  2. Vanessa, it's so tragic and, as you say, such a huge loss - I only met John briefly, but he was extraordinary. I remember that day you went into the mines with him, thinking how mad/brave you all were ... it's desperately sad, but what a lovely & fitting memory of him to have...

  3. Hi Tracy - thanks for dropping by, and yes, he was quite extraordinary, and managed to enrich people's lives without actually doing much. Just by being. Hope all is well with you, and with the writing! x

  4. I just got to see this, thanks to a mail from Anne. Thank you Vanessa; this was a wondrous experience, so thank you for sharing. John O'Leary was/is an extraordinary man, a genius. I was privileged to have met him and heard him talk. I envy you for knowing him as you did; there must be a treasure of John memories in your head.

  5. I knew John for seven years during his formative years at secondary school in Ipswich, England, and am very sad to hear of his death. He was a great scholar.