A diplomat and a poet

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Memories of an Ionian Diplomat by Philip McDonagh; Ravi Dayal, New Delhi; pages 99, Rs.125.

MEMORIES of an Ionian Diplomat is a collection of poems written over many years by Philip McDonagh, the current Irish Ambassador to India. This volume contains Carraroe in Saxony, a collection previously published in Ireland, as well as a few previously unpublished poems on India.

The "Ionian diplomat" is Megasthenes, the first European envoy to India, who came to the court of Chandragupta Maurya in 303 B.C. Ionia, famous for science and poetry, was a meeting point of the East and the West.

In 2003, when John Deane of Daedulus Press in Ireland requested him to compile his poems for publication, Philip McDonagh wondered how to organise the collection, since his poetry does not necessarily revolve around a particular theme. Finally, he compiled the poems according to the places where he had been posted as a diplomat.

McDonagh says his poetry usually stems from an impulse or an emotion. There are plenty of things to be written about every day, but it is only a few subjects that move one substantially to write, he says. The subjects vary from his experiences and impressions during his travels around the world as a diplomat and a chronicler ("Memories of an Ionian Diplomat", "Ithaca", "Kalapani", "Geneva, 5th November 1980", "Between the Lines", "Mobilisation"); as a tourist ("At Ranthambore National Park", "The Last Maharajah of Cochin Addresses his Jewish Subjects" and "Pictures from Paris"); as an Irishman, student and poet ("A Visit to Laker Hospice Cemetery 1990", "Bewley's of Grafton Street", and "In Fluntern Cemetery"); and as a Christian ("Sankta Sunniva" and "Madurai Mission"); to intensely private and personal emotions such as the sudden grief experienced in a cafe in Dresden when he heard about his mother's passing away, to the joy and happiness at seeing Tara, his one-and-a-half year old daughter, learn to swim ("Carraroe in Saxony" and "Essential Things").

Each poem in this wonderful collection is thought-provoking. After reading the collection, one gets a sense of the broad sweep of the world. Each poem has a different structure and form, which is the most appropriate for the subject tackled. For instance, "Essential Things" has a fluid form, with the chanting tones as the structure imposed on the reader. It is written exactly in the tone of a loving adult talking to a child of one year and nine months.

Most Mamas don't let things occur Just so: they have a rule. She'll want to move you - nudge you on or even pull you after her into the babies' pool. Don't budge. The essential thing is, keep flat your hand, and splash! Like that, sitting like this. The things a Mama knows for definite! You're wearing water wings, You're at the edge, you have a go at it, At last try, swimming. Mind, the next essential thing is, be kind: you finally give in. But as soon as you begin, be like a whale that owns the whole sea, or else the perky little fish cosy as can be inside the whale's tummy. Do as you wish, borrow the other children's floats - whatever. Mama dotes, and other Mamas tell their lot what's what. But if your Mama tries to lift you out, I mean ahead of time, the essential thing is this: a Big Shout is No Crime. Not too much thinking though - you'll miss the splashing. One - two - three. Hand flat. Follow me. The poem encapsulates that intense moment of joy that the poet felt when he saw his daughter splashing in the swimming pool. He wanted "to pin it down," though he found it very hard to translate that moment, he says.

Philip McDonagh's poetry forces the reader to engage with it from the first word. The reader is immersed in what the poet is trying to communicate. For instance, "Geneva, 5th November 1980" is about the night that Reagan was elected President of the United States of America. It was a moment in history that the poet felt compelled to write about.

Between two and eight the lady commentator has changed her dress but the note on which I went to bed - that Reagan's in - is inescapable even in French. At my Geneva window, coffee cup in hand, I hear Carter's farewell. A word to praise the system: his bright bitter self-aware propriety no match for Calvin's Cathedral, pencil-drawn in early morning shadows. Reagan, a professor says, has promised to return America to the Americans. By which is hardly meant, he adds, the Sioux Indians. Snow falls, the season's first. It veils the giant catafalque of the Intercontinental Hotel.

Philip McDonagh was posted as a junior diplomat in Geneva at that time and scribbled 80 per cent of the poem on a paper napkin, putting it together years later when he began to write the book. "A poem starts from an impulse or a situation that is worth writing about. I do try and work it out in my mind, but I have no idea why sometimes I feel compelled to write. For instance, `Carraroe in Saxony' was begun in a cafe in Dresden. My mother had passed away nine weeks earlier and suddenly the fact hit me. Immediately, I scribbled a few lines on the tourist map that I was carrying." This poem too, like the others in the volume, begins with an extremely intense personal moment. Like the other chroniclers-diplomats-travellers mentioned in the poems, Megasthenes and Ulysses, McDonagh too observes and records faithfully contemporary events and the situation in Dresden.

In summer 1988 the restaurant, commended by a friend as fit for honeymoons and westerners, is Dresden's best. The Wall impends, accounting for the too-Germanic menu, why the roads are quiet, the charisma a foreigner has entering this place. Day dims, as if a slow wheel modulates the light, until the vase-like spires turn monochrome. I read a book on barricades, the worker's cause. When I look up the lanterns of the Elbterrasse are multiplied on glass. They glow, like meanings in a sacred text returned to after silence. There, dishes that sizzle on their pans have been prepared, the menu says, `in a Lucullan way.' Defend the moments of no consequence, you used to say; and such is this.

You would have wished me not a few But myriad illuminations - you Ma, for whom the grave was dug nine weeks ago tomorrow.

... .

This week in Dresden, to permit my grief, I sought the shade of churches. ... Suddenly a well is driven in my heart but out springs nothing - save, in mind's ear, noise. Deep-throated aircraft loping in, Dresden a place-name on their charts, as captains, flat-eyed pantomimes, commune on crackling radios. Hysteria in heaven's womb. Efflux of metal. Draught of fire. Then every mother's child consumed, Gashed, bloodied, by the claws of heat. Old Dresden smashed like porcelain.

The opening lines immediately draw the reader into sharing the atmosphere that the poet-narrator is experiencing. In this case, it is the grief on his mother's death and yet, there are enough reminders around him of the continuation of life. Dresden is the perfect objective correlation as this nearly 800-year-old city was almost flattened during the Second World War and yet life has continued. This may well be the best poem in the collection, its length and variation of tone a sign of poetic stamina. McDonagh moves between the public and personal, the destruction of the Second World War, his mother's sorrow about her brothers and his own grief at his mother's death. "Carraroe in Saxony" is just one of McDonagh's poems in which he sympathises with the "other" point of view. An intensely moving moment or situation is the trigger for most of the poems, but then it develops into reflection. In the tradition of Irish poetry, McDonagh relies on allusions, mythical or otherwise, to develop his arguments. Some of the Irish poets whom Philip McDonagh admires are W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Patrick Cavannagh, all of whom are Irish Catholics. The subject of his poems is usually personal and allusive, with a stress on Irish mythology, and political, religious and historical flashpoints. All these aspects are woven into a tightly structured poem. He admits that though all his poems may have a seemingly deceptive easy-flowing structure and no ordered form, he has worked extremely hard on the form. For McDonagh, who studied Greek and Latin at Balliol College, Oxford, the "poem is as an end to itself and not just a means." He says that in some of the poems he has tried to follow an exact structure and by doing so, he has acquired the right to depart from that form as well. In "Kalapani" he chronicles an Ambassador's visit to the cellular jail, using the opportunity to dwell upon the many similarities between the ongoing Irish struggle and the Indian freedom struggle, especially the horrific manner in which the British attempted to suppress any form of actual or perceived resistance. He recalls some of the prisoners who were incarcerated in this jail:

Bhim Rao, Maratha peasant aged 50 years, Transported for life. Sheik Ali, Sentenced for refusing to give information, Transported for life. Fazal Haq, drew up constitution for liberated Delhi, transported for life. Abaji Damodar, entered into anti-British correspondence, transported for life. Ghulam Ghouse, placed a wall placard in Madras `of a highly reasonable character,' transported for life.


These men I see before me, a slow procession... They have no name, or else a name survives but the prisoner has undergone confiscation of biography, as of property.

No vindication, for only they are to blame - to blame for quick anger and its exemplary punishment,


as the authorities write home seeking wider discretion in the use of flogging,


I study chipmunks agog around an empty barrel at the jetty and am about to say that all are for dumping in the end, victor - vanquished, man - chipmunk, when other ghosts mingle. From Kilmainham A delegation of shot men,

McDonagh, Plunkett, Pearse.... .

And then from Reading Gaol, comes lumbering Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written in Paris after he had served his sentence in the Lord Alfred Douglas case in Reading, echoes through this poem. Both poems involve questions of political, religious and historical importance. It is as if these significant moments of the past are flashpoints that help in elucidating the point more clearly than would be otherwise possible. Yet, as McDonagh, who was a member of the Irish team that helped draft the Good Friday Agreement, speculates, "I don't think politics is the centre, but in transcribing the moment, maybe it is there."

Allusive and melodious, the poems are a wonderful balance of emotion and intellectual control. Octavio Paz is the best-known Ambassador-poet India has seen. Judging by Memories of an Ionian Diplomat, Philip McDonagh may soon follow.

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