Born, November 23, 1941;

Died, October 1, 2020.

WHEN coronavirus became the contemporary equivalent of the Great Plague many people in Ireland turned to poetry for consolation, and in particular Derek Mahon’s short poem Everything Is Going To Be All Right. Written more than 40 years ago when the poet was recovering from an illness in hospital, it acknowledged that while “there will be dying”, it ended: “The sun rises in spite of everything,/ and the far cities are beautiful and bright./ I lie here in a riot of sunlight/ watching the day break and the clouds flying./ Everything will be all right.”

Mahon’s death, at the age of 78, did not dim his poem’s upbeat message. On the contrary, it sounded not only a note of hope but one also of defiance. That he was one of his country’s greatest poets is accepted. His opus is embedded in the national consciousness and has transcended boundaries real and imaginary. The novelist John Banville has insisted that his A Disused Shed in Co Wexford is “the single best poem written in Ireland since the death of Yeats” while his friend and coeval, the late Seamus Heaney, spoke of “work of the highest order”.

Together with Heaney and Michael Longley, Mahon was a member of what one critic called the “Tight-Assed Trio”, a slighting reference to their supposed formal approach to their art. All three were from Northern Ireland and children of the Second World War and, subsequently, the Troubles. The latter was one of the reasons why Mahon lived such a peripatetic existence, coming and going like a reluctant exile unsure of whether to stay put or leave for good.

Like many Irish writers, including James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Mahon did much of his best work in foreign parts, distance affording him the opportunity to see more clearly the place that nurtured him. “Skies change but not/ souls change,” he wrote in Homecoming, “behold/ this is the way/ the world grows old.”

Though he found it difficult to deal head on with the Troubles it was a recurring theme. In A Postcard from Berlin, for example, he tells Paul Durcan, the poem’s dedicatee: “I can imagine your dismay/ As, cornered in some zinc café,/ You read of another hunger-strike,/ A postman blasted off his bike....”

Derek Mahon was the only child of working-class parents. His father was a shipping engineer while his mother, who had worked for a flax spinning company before she married, devoted herself – no hyperbole – to housework. They were Protestants, Mahon told the Paris Review, but not slavishly so. “They weren’t really serious church people. I mean, they were Protestants! There’s no such thing as a devout Protestant, is there? Protestants aren’t devout, they’re staunch.”

His secondary school was the Royal Belfast Academical Institution where he showed an early aptitude for words, winning the first of many prizes when he was 17. Thereafter he went to Trinity College, Dublin, having “rumbled Belfast for the bigoted corrupt dump that it was and I was delighted to get out of it.” At university he had the distinction of being sent down twice, for “unsatisfactory attendance” and causing a disturbance during an exam.

After his first expulsion, desperate to escape family and community, he went to Paris. His intention was to study at the Sorbonne but he spent many more hours in cafes than at lectures. Albert Camus and his novel, The Outsider, was a formative influence and Mahon saluted the French-Algerian writer in Death and the Sun, one of his finest poems.

For a number of years he worked in London as a journalist and screenwriter, specializing in the adaptation of Irish novels for television. He was theatre critic of The Listener, poetry editor of the New Statesman, features editor of Vogue and a contributor and columnist at the Irish Times.

His personal life is perhaps best described as messy. In 1972 he married Doreen Douglas, a newsreader with Ulster Television, with whom he had two children. The relationship foundered because of Mahon’s alcoholism and adultery. Nevertheless, the couple were still married when Doreen died in 2010. He had a third child with Jane Demarcais, Professor of English at Goldsmiths, University of London. Latterly, his partner was the artist Sarah Iremonger who survives him together with his three children.

His first full collection of poems was Night-Crossing (1968), which was a Poetry Book Society Choice. It was praised in the Irish Times for its “skill, wit and offhand arrogance”. Other collections, some twenty in total, followed at regular intervals.

Identifying and aligning himself with Louis MacNeice, another Northern Irish émigré, he was happy to be described, as MacNeice was, as a tourist in his own country. “The phrase,” Mahon argued, “might stand, indeed, as an epitaph for Modern Man, beside Cadmus’s ‘He made love and read the newspapers’.” Mahon, in certain brogues, may be made to sound like Modern Man, a lonesome individual, divorced from family and alienated from his birthplace, a restless citizen of the world who viewed humankind and our ability to progress through a glass, darkly.

In 2003, Mahon returned to Ireland from the United States and settled in Kinsale. Harbor Lights (2005) won the Irish Times Poetry Now prize, which he was given again for Life on Earth (2008). In 2007, he was awarded the David Cohen prize for a lifetime achievement in literature. He was asked if he would like to be considered for the Queen’s Medal for Poetry but he declined.

He was a member of Aosdána, the Irish academy of artists whose members can claim a small annual stipend from the Government. His New Collected Poems, published in 2011 on his 70th birthday, contains all the work he wished to preserve.