The death of Anthony Cronin at 88 sees the passing of a wonderful poet, writer and memoirist. As the author of Dead as Doornails, his classic account of mingling among the celebrated names of Dublin’s post-Emergency literary scene, he gave a vivid account of Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien and Paddy Kavanagh as people, stripped of much of the cliche and tired repetition that has often surrounded memoirs of the three. It remains my favourite Dublin book.
While he became synonymous with Dublin life, Cronin was born in Enniscorthy in 1928, something Brendan Behan took delight in reminding him of. Upon completing his studies in Law in Dublin as a young man, he took on a job in the offices of an association of retail traders, remembering that “the facts were that I earned seven pounds three shillings a week, paid three pounds for digs and drank the rest.” He remembered that because of “whatever amalgam of anarchism and utopian communism I luxuriated in at the time”, a career in Law didn’t feel quite right. As a young would-be poet, Cronin never quite fit in with his college contemporaries, finding little of appeal in the “middle-class dress and supper dances in the Gresham and the Metropole”, instead noting that “what I needed, I obscurely felt, was a Bohemia of some kind,but I did not know where to find one.”
It existed, and Cronin certainly found it. The temple he sought was McDaid’s public house on Harry Street, located just off Grafton Street:
Its strength was always in variety, of talent, class, caste and estate. The divisions between writer and non-writer, bohemian and artist, informer and revolutionary, male and female, were never rigorously enforced; and nearly everybody, gurriers included,was ready for elevation, to Parnassus, the scaffold or wherever.
One of the strengths of McDaid’s was the popularity of its head barman, Paddy O’Brien. Tommy Smith, current proprietor of the ever-popular Grogan’s of South William Street, remembered that “the frequenters of McDaid’s he regarded as his friends rather than as mere customers. McDaid’s was Paddy’s creation, and McDaid’s without him would have been just like any run-of-the-mill pub.”
Cronin became a key part of the McDaid’s set, that included (at different times) American ex-servicemen who had taken shelter in Ireland, IRA men like Eddie Connell and Peter Walsh, writers of all sorts and “the bohemian rentiers, many of them English or very Anglo-Irish, who rejoiced in the general atmosphere.” Sessions in McDaid’s could often spill into sessions in the Catacombs, a series of basements in Fitzwilliam Place, which were established by the rather eccentric but much-loved Dickie Wyman. Paddy O’Brien remembered that Dickie wasn’t a writer, “but he always knocked around with the arty set…He was a misfit in most things but Dickie had a great flair for organising the parties and he started the Catacombs.” In Dublin ‘lore, the Catacombs have been remembered as an unusually free-spirit environment, popular with gay Dubliners who felt at ease there away from the judgemental eyes of 1950s Dublin society, though Cronin remembered that “most of what went on in the Catacombs was in fact ordinary social boozing. Where there is booze, it will usually prevail over other matters.”
In this circle of heavy drinking and thinking, Cronin encountered a myriad of fine writers, but it was his relationship with three in particular that formed the nucleus of his book Dead as Doornails. In their own ways, Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh all made an enormous impact on the young Cronin. He felt a particular affection for Brendan, and the decline of Behan in Dead as Doornails makes for heartbreaking reading. Of one of the last occasions he encountered him, he remembered the sight of the writer in The Bailey:
…he was leaning against the wall, with his mouth open, speechless and apparently unable to move. He had dried vomit on his lapels and on the uppers of his little shoes. He had two leg-men with him and the odd thing was that they went on drinking cheerfully at the bar, paying no attention to him whatever. From what I gathered he had four or five of these followers all told, layabouts who got taxis for him,ordered drinks, kept him company when no-one else would, dumped him home after he had passed out, or, alternatively, if it suited them better, took him to their own homes instead.
While frequently placed alongside one another in pub murals, there were very real tensions between the various writers we associate with this period, in particular Behan and Kavanagh. Cronin recalled that Behan”aroused in Kavanagh feelings and loathing and apprehension”, perhaps owing to the “hysteria latent in Brendan which came to the surface when his claims for attention or affection were denied.” Like Brendan, Kavanagh also battled with alcoholism and financial difficulties. Cronin remembered visiting Kavanagh in his small flat on Pembroke Road, and seeing for the first time “the battered sofa, the old newspapers, books and yellowing typescripts scattered over the floor, the tea-leaves in the bath, the mountain of ash that spilled out of the grate”:
Dublin, he said, was the cruelest city on the face of the earth because Dublin led you on. A city should ignore you, like London did, which gave you the English cold shoulder. A city should be impersonal, but Dublin was full of warm promises, like the worst kind of woman.
What Cronin produced in Dead as Doornails was as far removed from a hagiography as one could get. As Breffni Cummiskey correctly noted in an interview with Cronin earlier this year, these were “a group of Irish writers [who] carved a modern identity and garnered an international reputation that Fáilte Ireland markets to this day.” Yet, Cronin’s book was a reminder that they were mere mortals, grappling with the same demons as anyone else, and indeed several more. There is, undoubtedly, far too much nostalgia surrounding a time in which these wonderful talents drank themselves to death.
In public life, Cronin was a vocal opponent of censorship, much like Seán Ó Faolain and Peadar O’Donnell, with whom he worked on The Bell. In one of his final interviews, he outlined his belief that:
Ireland fell out with its artists almost immediately on its foundation. Censorship was one of the things, but it wasn’t the primary thing. The primary thing was the notion that all artists were anti-religious. There was a clash with the values and established beliefs of the country at large, which had just triumphed, remember.
He will perhaps best be remembered for his work as cultural advisor to Taoiseach Charles Haughey, and his pivotal role in the establishment of Aosdána, which sought to support artists and writers. Today, Aosdána noted that “he raised the public standing of the arts and, most especially, of the artist, to a level that no one in his generation would have thought possible.”
If you don’t have one, pick up a copy of Dead as Doornails and thank us later.