Poet Padraic Fiacc was born Patrick Joseph (Joe) O Connor in Belfast on Elizabeth Street in 1923.
The First World War had ended and Padraic remembers that “everybody went half mad when the war was over, and my mother was what you’d call a flapper, she went half mad too, loved style”.
When he was a child, his father, a barman from a family of shopkeepers, left for America. Padraic remained in Belfast with his mother. They had been forced to leave Lisburn because of anti-Catholic demonstrations and he lived with his maternal grandparents in the Markets area of Belfast.
“My mother’s people were burnt out of Lisburn. My grandmother lost her mind and I was left with her. She watched over me, it was dicey sometimes. She wanted us to go to America and she was telling the girls at work that she wasn’t going to go on a boat if she had to go steerage, which the Irish had to do because they didn’t have the money, so one of the girls said, ‘Have you ever bet on a horse?” and she said ‘no’, and she did and won £91 …so that got us second class.”
The family moved to New York in 1929, when Padraic was 5 years old. It was the time of the Great Depression and his father lost the two grocery stores he owned. Padraic remembers changing schools in order to learn Latin and from the age of 13 years, attended St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary to train to become a priest. He studied at the Seminary during the Second World War from 1941-1946. It was at the Seminary that Padraic produced several original plays and his first collection of poetry titled Innisfail Lost.
However, he was developing a dislike of America and longed to come back to Ireland. “In Hell’s Kitchen, the misery I saw there, side by side with the Catholic church which was a rich church, and I began to doubt that this was a church that Christ really wanted, a rich church and you know I always had a private view of the church and in the Seminary it started to work on me.”
In 1946 he abandoned his studies for the priesthood. He returned to Belfast to live, during which time his poetry was published in several magazines, and the 1948 volume of New Irish Poets. It was around this time that Padraic decided to renounce his American citizenship.
In 1952 Padraic had to return to New York when his mother died, to look after his alcoholic father and younger siblings. It was in America that he met his future wife Nancy, who had read some of his early writing. Nancy abandoned plans to become a Benedictine nun to be with Padriac. Together they returned to Northern Ireland in 1956, married and moved to Glengormley. “She brought me to the house to see it for the first time and I was horrified, everything that a New Yorker couldn’t cope with. I looked at the garden and thought ‘Oh my God, this is going to be my life now, just gardening’. Well, we moved into it, we became happy, it was a Protestant street and the Protestants were so thrilled that these two Americans were coming to live in Glengormley, they were very kind and friendly.”
Fiacc continued to write and won the 1957 Æ Memorial Award. By the 1960s, Padraic was being recognised as a major Irish poet, one of the few who confronted the conflict without cliché. 1969 was a momentous year for Padraic. The publishing of his first volume of poetry came alongside the beginnings of violence on the streets of Belfast. Padraic remembers: “The thing about the early Troubles was… we were all terrorised, because we didn’t know what was going to happen, we were living in a state of dread.”
Padraic continued to explore the changes taking place in Belfast through his poetry. “I went deep into it. I come from a Republican background. I didn’t want that to be the basis, but it helped me”.
He opened his house in Glengormley to poets and writers. Seamus Heaney was one of many poets who visited. However, the publication of the controversial anthology The Wearing Of The Black symbolised Padraic as a maverick. His poems were critical of the authorities and he began to be ostracised from the local arts scene. “There was a nucleus of young poets that came to my house and they tried to stop me, but I went on and published the thing.”
“As an American coming over here, my education wasn’t a British education. A British education and an American education are miles apart. I saw, as an American, the prejudices in America. I understood why people were prejudiced. What I couldn’t take was that (in Northern Ireland), three thousand people were murdered and buried and I wasn’t allowed to say this, I wasn’t allowed to say that.”
It was the murder of a young poet, Gerry McLaughlin in April 1975, whom Padraic had taken under his wing, which disturbed him deeply. He never fully came to terms with it.
“When he was a boy, I met his mother in some shop and she came up to me and said to me ‘Gerard writes poems’, and I said ‘bring some of his poems up to the house and I’ll read them. He used to come to the house every weekend, and then he told me he was being followed. I couldn’t believe anyone would want to shoot Gerry; it gave me a real breakdown… I had one breakdown after another”.
Through his poetry, Padriac Fiacc continued to confront the ugliness of the situation in Northern Ireland, without fear of the consequences. He produced twelve anthologies, influencing many over the years, but it is only in recent times that his work has begun to receive recognition.
He lives in Belfast and is a member of the Aosdána, the Irish Arts Academy. “I’m happy now because I’m at the end of the road, it pleases me now that I’m older, that I’ve done something.” Asked if poetry has a purpose, Padraic replies “that’s why it has purpose, because it has no purpose, people aren’t living and dying because of a poem”.