In the summer of 1977 I found myself with my then girlfriend on the island of Paros, in the Cyclades. She had been there the year before with other friends and was happy to go back with me. We stayed ten weeks, resident for so long partly because we enjoyed the ambience, mainly because we were too broke to be able to travel to other islands apart from a short hope over to Antiparos on a day trip. This was studenty dossing around before the term ‘gap year’ made the concept respectable. During that time I read a lot of paperback fiction thanks to the visitors’ informal book exchange system (Agatha Christie featured prominently). The weather was nice, food was fairly cheap and the swimming was lovely, so I was happy (apart from the day we got food poisoning).
Shortly after we arrived we met a local character called Desmond O’Grady. We were sitting in a restaurant in Naoussa, Paros’s main town, with other members of the island’s transient population when he strolled up, introduced himself, sat down and started chatting to us. Irishman Mr O’Grady we soon learned was a poet, but although I had recently taken a course on modern poetry at university his name was unfamiliar to me. We spent a pleasant hour in his company, chatting inconsequentially but doubtless more about us than him, after which he went his way and my companion and I walked back to our tent on the beach just outside town, where we could fall asleep to the sound of the waves on the nearby rocks.
O’Grady was very sociable, and his MO was clearly to drop in to a restaurant, engage whoever happened to be there in conversation, and have a drink with them. Not long before we left Paros he did precisely the same thing he had done with us. As he made his way towards another group in a restaurant I saw him look our way and frown in puzzlement, presumably surprised to see the same people still there weeks later, when he would have been used to a complete turnover every week or so, Paros being the sort of place people tended to pass through rather than stay for an extended period.
That was the last time I saw him, and the memory of our brief encounter would have faded and eventually I would have forgotten his name, except that shortly after I returned to university in Canterbury I came across a book, Irish Poets 1924-1974, published by Pan in 1975. O’Grady is represented by three poems, including probably his best-known, ‘Professor Kelleher and the Charles River’, which can also be found in Contemporary Irish Poetry (1980/1988). He is among good company in the Pan anthology, including Thomas Kinsella (whose translation of The Táin I enjoyed at about the same time), Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon and of course Seamus Heaney.
Picking up and flipping through the book recently reminded me of the episode and I wondered what had become of O’Grady. I learned he had been born in Limerick in 1935 and during a peripatetic career lived on Paros from 1966, and though he seems to have left at the end of the 1970s, he had continued to visit in later years. I found some pictures of him taken on Paros in 1979, one of him sitting in his study, a very attractive workspace, and a couple with the Edinburgh Arts group having a meal and poetry reading at his home, of course looking very much as I remember him.
Eventually he moved back to Ireland and he died in 2014. His obituary in the Guardian called him ‘a great citizen of world poetry’ and the Irish Independent as ‘arguably, with the exception of Yeats, the most international of twentieth century Irish poets’. I had no idea he had been held in such high regard – the Irish Times noted the Irish president Michael D. Higgins leading tributes – and I was certainly unaware he had a PhD from Harvard and had acted in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Higgins was clearly a huge fan, unveiling a plaque to O’Grady in Limerick in 2015.
I was also surprised to learn from Irish Poets and Modern Greece: Heaney, Mahon, Cavafy, Seferis (2017), by Joanna Kruczkowska, that Paros was a magnet for Irish writers. I remember a strong artistic community in Naoussa geared to tourism, and O’Grady must have been a reason for literary people to visit during his time there, but Kruczkowska writes that other poets came in the 2000s independently of O’Grady, including Heaney. Why Paros rather than other islands isn’t clear, but O’Grady liked it, found it creatively stimulating, and it was a charming island (I read later it went downmarket and syringes could be found on the beaches, which is a terrible shame). I even wrote a few poems myself as a result of my stay there.
I wish I had realised at the time what a significant poet O’Grady was and how well connected to other writers he had been, notably Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound. I would have at least asked for his autograph, and perhaps tried a few probing questions. As it was we sat and chatted casually with him, just as we did with people most nights while we enjoyed leisurely meals (was there any other kind on Paros?), an amiable bloke we met in a restaurant who was easy to talk to, our paths crossing briefly by chance before we set sail in different directions.
Bradley, Anthony (ed.). Contemporary Irish Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, revised 1988).
Kruczkowska, Joanna. Irish Poets and Modern Greece: Heaney, Mahon, Cavafy, Seferis (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
Marcus, David (ed.). Irish Poets 1924-1974 (London: Pan, 1975).