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Cork poet Theo Dorgan on Dylan, Lessing, and hurling

Born in 1953, Theo Dorgan is a poet and writer from Cork. He grew up on Redemption Road, near Blackpool, and is married to the poet Paula Meehan.

In 2004, Dorgan’s Jason and the Argonauts premiered at London’s Royal Albert Hall. In 2015, he won the Poetry Now Award for Nine Bright Shiners, one of several accolades received during his career. He is poet-in-residence at this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival.

Eriu and Amergin, his collaboration with composer Colm Mac Con Iomaire, will be premiered at the festival, August 11-12. See:

The Wind in the Willows

I began to understand what writing was about in primary school. The Wind in the Willows really made an impact. Even though we lived 10 minutes from Shandon steeple, there were fields all around our house. I remember vividly still that scene where the mole is going home across winter fields, I could identify with that easily. I remember having this flash reading it, when I realized it was the way the words were being used that were making me feel I was there. Take me there is part of the writer’s job.

Coral Island

The other book I loved at that time was Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne. It was about castaways. They had to organize food, shelter. They had to work out how to get on with each other. It was a very badly written book, but what struck me was that in order to survive, they all had to work together. They were able to survive on very little. Even as a child, I was aware we had very little. I’m from a family of 15 children. We grew up with an absolute sense of all for one and one for all. You made sure everybody got some food at the table, perhaps that’s why I identified with the book.

The Four-Gated City

Doris Lessing’s novel The Four-Gated City is written with sympathy from inside the mind of a person experiencing a breakdown. The book combats the idea that what she’s going through is necessarily a bad thing. If, for instance, she’s seeing one of her acquaintances of her as a fox, Lessing allows the reader to think, well, perhaps that person is in some sense actually a fox. It has a cool social vision and it manages this hallucinatory quality with great calmness. Underneath, it’s a powerful feminist story of a woman rebelling against the roles being given to her by her; in some sense, being told by society that she’s having a nervous breakdown because she’s not conforming to the received idea of ​​what it is to be a woman.

The Listeners

When I was a kid, a poem that never left me was Walter de La Mare’s The Listeners. There’s a great air of menace: “’Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller/Knocking on the moonlit door…” It’s full of the night and mystery and what’s not said. What doesn’t happen is the bit that haunts.

An Spailpin Fanach

There’s sorrow and pride in An Spailpin Fanach. There’s contempt for the gombeens and contempt for those who have contempt for the poor: “…bodairí na tíre ag túcht ar a gcapaill/á fhiafraí an bhfuilim hiréalta/’téanam chun siúl, tá an cúrsa fada’-/siúd siúl ar an spailpín fanach.” We had a very strong sense of history growing up. These were the dispossessed who may have had their own lands, and now they’re condemned to wander from farm to farm, being treated abysmally and brutally exploited — very likely by their own.

Robert Graves

As a young adult, a poem that made a big impact was The White Goddess by Robert Graves: “All saints revile her, and all sober men/Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean –/In scorn of which we sailed to find her/In distant regions likeliest to hold her/Whom we desired above all things to know ,/Sister to the mirage and to the echo.” Graves had an absolute belief that poetry is given, or inspired, that what’s required of the poet is humility and a willingness to accept that the gift can be given or withdrawn.

The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks

Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan. Picture: Denis Minihane

I’m in the slightly embarrassing situation of saying that one of the poets I admire most happens to be Paula Meehan, my wife. The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks is one of the great poems of our time. Because so much of it has a resonance in the social and political domains, people miss how deep into myth it goes, and the extraordinary permanence of the goddess figure. The enduring presence and mystery of female power.

bob dylan

When it comes to music, for me, it’s Bob. Always Bob. I was vastly amused at the prissiness of some people who objected to him getting the Nobel. If Orpheus walked the Earth in our time, he was wearing the mask of Bob Dylan.

Z, an impactful film

Z is a fictionalized account of the life and death of a great champion of liberty and democracy in Greece, Grigoris Lambrakis. The haunting music for the film is by Mikis Theodorakis. Lambrakis was a socialist, but he was much influenced by the campaign for nuclear disarmament. In the bitter and still vicious aftermath of the Greek Civil War of 1947-48, he attempted to set up a peace movement in Greece. At that time, CND was seen as a political enemy by the Americans. The Greek right wing was in power in the 1960s and was aligned with American interests. At a rally in Athens, Lambrakis was clubbed over the head by a right-winger — who’d been let through the cordons by the police — and killed. I saw it in my twenties, I still remember the power and impact of the film.

'When it comes to music, for me, it's Bob Dylan.'  (Picture: HO/AFP/Getty Images)
‘When it comes to music, for me, it’s Bob Dylan.’ (Picture: HO/AFP/Getty Images)


Koyaanisqatsi is a documentary about the beauty of the world. It’s purely visual — all images, with no commentary, full length, full colour, set to powerful music. It’s a celebration of the power of life. Every moment stays with me. It should be shown in every school in the world to show people why we need to keep this planet. It’s remarkable.

hurling joys

My father was one of five men who founded the Na Piarsaigh club in Cork. I was a hopeless huller. It was extraordinarily broad-minded and relaxed of him that he was never disappointed by this. I had a crease on my backside from him going to matches on the crossbar of his bike. I’ve a poem The Match Down the Park where at one point I just “lean back into his arms” — that’s on the crossbar. What I love about hurling is the passion, the grace, the speed of it. Hurling is all about commitment. One of the first things they taught us as kids is, “The harder you go in, the safer you are.” Don’t pull back. There’s a life lesson in that.


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