Monday 21 January 2019

finnegan's wake

WELL-VERSED: Whether a bus conductor or a Big Issue seller, at heart Paddy Finnegan was something much more - a poet who enriched the lives of others

I wouldn't even hazard a guess about how many times the poet Paddy Finnegan - who died on July 16, aged 71 - walked past Dublin's Mansion House on his way to spend long hours selling the Big Issue magazine in all weathers outside Trinity College and then, in more recent years, on Grafton Street. But surely he would never have dreamt that one day his family, friends and admirers would gather in the Oak Room there for a genuine 'Finnegan's Wake' in his honour, hosted by Dublin's Lord Mayor, Christy Burke.

But this is what happened this Wednesday when the passing of one of the most familiar faces on the streets of Dublin was mourned and Finnegan's life and work celebrated.

Everyone who regularly traverses Grafton Street knew Patrick Finnegan to see - even if most people didn't know his name or anything about him, beyond the fact that he silently stood for hours, holding aloft The Big Issue without calling out that magazine's name.

To watch him was to observe an oasis of dignified quietude: Finnegan felt there was enough "lunatics, winos and gobbaloons roaring and shouting" on the street and didn't wish to be associated with them. Over time passers-by saw him so often and for so long that many ceased to see him at all: he became so much an integral part of the backdrop of Grafton Street that pedestrians barely registered his presence.


What they missed was not just the seller of a magazine which supports the homeless but a deeply literate, intelligent man who - like every man or woman who find themselves on the street - had undergone a long life journey which brought him to be standing in that spot.

Paddy Finnegan was a poet, but poetry is rarely a full time occupation. T S Elliot was a banker. Francis Ledwidge was a road labourer. Michael Hartnett started work as a tea-boy in a London factory before working night shifts in Dublin's telephone exchange.

This resulted in the famous quip, when a fellow Munster man introduced himself to Hartnett as "Desmond Fitzgerald, the Knight of Glin" and Hartnett replied, "Michael Hartnett, the Night Telephonist."

For many years Paddy Finnegan's side-line profession was as a bus conductor operating out of Donnybrook Garage. Before that he served a short sentence in the 1960s in the intellectual gulag archipelago that was the Irish Civil Service back then. Before that, he laboured on the building sites in Wolverhampton, in that world of Irish labourers captured by Dónall Mac Amhlaigh in his masterpiece memoir, Dialann Deoraí.

Unlike many readers, Finnegan didn't have to wait for this book to be translated into English as An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile, because Finnegan was as fluent in Irish as in English and possessed a working knowledge of Latin and Greek.

Before any of this he enjoyed a childhood in Dereen in east Galway, where he was born in the dying minutes of 1942 or the opening minutes of 1943, as the German army retreated from the Caucasus.

Before he held a shovel in Wolverhampton he was an admired Scholarship student in St Jarleth's College and an engaged and deeply engaging student in UCD - far more engaged with life and debate than with his studies, as he never attained any degree. But this man didn't need letters after his name for anyone who encountered him - as a bus conductor, civil servant, navvy or finally a street magazine seller - to recognise that he possessed a sharp and intelligent mind.

None of those occupations were his real occupation. When you are at heart a poet, the work you do from nine to five (or during whatever hours you earn your livelihood) is never actually your real work: it is the task you do to buy yourself the time to do what you were set down on earth to do - write poems.


The Greek poet Cavafy said that a poet should stand at a peculiar angle to the universe. Few poets had such a peculiar angle to view humanity in all its joys and tragedies as Paddy Finnegan standing on Grafton Street, often overlooked but acutely observing everything.

He published only one collection of verse, Dactyl Distillations, along with a CD of him reading his work. You can find him on YouTube reciting a poem in a crowded Palace Bar in a gravely declamatory tone that does justice to the words but does not capture his essential gentleness and humanity that was apparent to all who stopped on Grafton Street to get to know him.

He has now joined other poets whose lives are linked to that street, like the late Pat Tierney who recited poems on Grafton Street or the late Christopher Daybell who moved from pub to pub, selling pamphlets of verse.

This week a woman recalled her last encounter with Paddy Finnegan and how the 71-year-old man held her hand softly for a moment as he spoke.

She didn't know he was a poet but colleagues like Brendan Kennelly and the late Michael Hartnett did.

A line which Hartnett wrote, when working in that telephone exchange near Grafton Street, might serve as an epithet for the poet and Big Issue seller remembered in the Mansion House this week: "This head is a poet's head; this head holds a galaxy."


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