Derek Mahon’s work is often linked with that of his Northern Irish peers, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. But he argues that Belfast’s literary tradition has deeper roots
In September 1963 Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley visited the County Down grave of the great Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice, who had died a short time before. Longley, writing recently in the introduction to a selection of MacNeice’s poems, recalled that as they “dawdled between the graves” all three then-unpublished poets were silently “contemplating an elegy”. When they next met, Mahon read them “In Carrowdore Churchyard”: “Your ashes will not stir, even on this high ground / However the wind tugs, the headstones shake”. Seamus Heaney started to read his poem but “then crumpled it up”. Longley says he decided not even to attempt the task. “Mahon had produced the definitive elegy.”
In the years since, Mahon’s poems, – most famously “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford” and “Courtyards in Delft” – have become staples of anthologies and school curricula. Heaney, writing about Mahon’s 1982 collection The Hunt By Night, said “there is a copiousness and excitement about these poems found only in work of the highest order”. Another critic called him “a Belfast Keats with a Popean sting”.