John O'Donnell

John O'Donnell, Barrister, Poet and Author

On Water

Niall MacMonagle opened the evening with the following introduction:

‘If poets went on strike, nobody would notice for three hundred years, and then there would be a big black hole at the heart of our culture’ says Paula Meehan, Ireland Professor of Poetry. But that is not going to happen. Poetry is not only one of the oldest of art forms, for me, it’s also the most rewarding and Sylvia Plath was spot on when she said that ‘The blood-jet is poetry; there is no stopping it.’ And there is certainly no stopping John O’Donnell whose third collection, On Water, we are celebrating here this evening. It has been estimated that since the beginning of human history 90 billion of us have spent time on planet earth. And it has been estimated that we, the storytelling animals, have produced over four million novels. If the figure for fiction is four million then the number of poems that have been made over the centuries is even greater.

This strange and mysterious activity continues and the world is all the better for it. Indeed, in his essay ‘Online, off-key: Can poetry survive the electronic age?’ John O’Donnell himself acknowledges that the number of volunteers willing to join the standing army of poets has never been higher.   In a poem called ‘Where A Poem Comes From’ from O’Donnell’s second collection Icarus Sees His Father Fly he speaks of this wonderful and mysterious thing – the making of a poem – and he comes at the process sideways. The poem tells of a ten-year-old O’Donnell falling off a roof at the back of an abandoned house, a house he says ‘I’d long been warned against’. He loses his footing due to what he terms carelessness, day-dreaming or perhaps pure chance and here we are offered a valuable glimpse into the making of poetry. You’ve got to have courage, you’ve got to take risks, and then the carelessness, the day-dreaming, the chance element – all combine to create that fine careless rapture – the well-shaped, the well-made poem on the page. The forty-two poems that make up O’Donnell’s new collection are not only well-shaped and well-made but they contain a fine, impressive range of feelings and ideas.


The handsome volume – just look at that Gary Coyle cover – is called On Water but this book, and it’s all the better for it, is a Phil Hogan free zone. No water metres here. But water features throughout the book: for O’Donnell water is part of his own love of sailing and the sea; it’s in his miraculous sonnet sequence where he endearingly and vividly re-imagines an eight-year-old Jesus and his anxious and astonished mother as she watches him walk on water; and then there’s the sustained, chilling, disturbing slave- trade poem where lives tilt ‘in the airless, stinking dark’ or the book’s closing poem in which a young O’Donnell, an innocent abroad, heads across the Irish Sea on nbsp; a ferry and encounters otherness. We go to poetry for many reasons. We go to poetry, says Adrienne Rich, because we believe it has something to do with us. We also go to poetry to receive the experience of the not me, enter a field of vision we could not otherwise comprehend’. On Water delivers such experiences.


The collection contains a lively dynamic that surprises again and again: from the domestic, memory poem, the parent/child poem, to elegies for family, colleagues and friends, to poems that go the distance in more ways than one. A sonnet, for example, gives voice to Shakespeare in Ireland, or a poem such as the sensuous and atmospheric ‘Noor’s Pigeons’ takes us to South Africa and the new townships and where I discovered that dagga is South African for cannabis. Or a tender love poem to his daughter, a not-so-tender lust poem where school lads – ‘a herd of hormones on stampede’ in grey flannel, thumb dog-eared porn magazines. Listen to that O’Donnell description: ‘A herd of hormones on stampede.’ Can’t you just hear them, those playmates, all testosterone thundering up the stairs to that top room where the porn mags are. There really is something here for everyone. Image and rhythm are essential to poetry. In John O’Donnell’s work vivid pictures abound: a terrified de Valera ‘buttoned up for his first flight’; or his grandfather’s nickname for junior Civil so economically summed up in the phrase ‘nylons and Brylcreems’; or the haiku which, manages in seventeen syllables a narrative that captures a happy wedding past tense and a present-tense fractured family: ‘Cherry blossoms strewn/ outside the women’s shelter. Last year’s confetti’.


Denis Donoghue, that High Priest of Aesthetics, says metaphors ‘give us more abundant life . . . they add perceptions that were not there before’ and O’Donnell makes striking and memorable connections. As an anxious father he thinks of his only daughter as a falcon and is ‘afraid of bolt and shot, the poison laid in fields’. He also handles the run-on line with admirable and remarkable skill. Check out his poem ‘The Artist and his Mother’. He also masters different genres: there are sonnets, there’s a twelve-haiku sequence, a poem in couplets; three-line stanzas; four-line stanzas. And there’s humour . The deliberate, dogged humour of ‘Roll Call’ or that moment in his poem ‘The Lusitania’ which is the name of a chipper and O’Donnell remembers his younger sister’s best friend ‘who’d taken on new cargo – last year the Bunty, this year Bardot’.


He is an Irish poet who takes you places, sometimes back in time, to the monks of Skellig, or to Turgesius a Viking chief or the emigrating Irish of the 1840s or James Joyce opening Ireland’s first cinema in 1919. He is an Irish poet but one with a global reach. This, for me, is one of the most striking characteristics of his work. He brings us to faraway and complex situations, places of crises: Hanoi, Armenia; in ‘Kecksies’, really a compressed novel, a young woman tells of how she was bought by a farmer for breeding. And the use of the first-person voice here rings absolutely true.


John O’Donnell won the SeaCat Irish National Poetry Competition, The Bookstop Prize for Poetry, the Irish Times/ Anna Livia FM Poetry Award, the Listowel Writers Week Poetry Prize, the William Allingham Poetry Award. His poems have been published and broadcast in newspapers and magazines here at home, in New Zealand, in Australia, on the BBC and on Morning Ireland – Morning Ireland, for heaven’s sake. Proof indeed that a poem truly is the news that stays news. That was with his poem ‘Beads’ written at a time when the Ryan Commission was sitting/reporting and is powerful and honest in its controlled and contained understated condemnation of gross injustice.


His first short story was short listed for a Hennessy Award. I think this third collection his finest. Close to home it explores the steady and steadying presence of love but it also gives us the bigger picture, pictures of injustice, turmoil, ‘the unfathomable’ and what O’Donnell calls ‘a deep darker than ink’. Poems take time. This book has been ten years in the making and the work has paid off. To mix my metaphors, which is something John O’Donnell would never do, this new book, On Water, is no splash in the pan. And on behalf everyone here this evening I say congratulations.


It’s my pleasure to declare this book launched. May it sail on and reach many, many readers. In this new collection there’s a poem called ‘Poetry’ in which golfing and the golfer become a metaphor for poet and poetry. Only connect. They are similar – both poet and golfer aim high, both strive for perfection. O’Donnell speaks of ‘the little click when things go right: The sweet sound that keeps you coming back’. Fellow mortals – and members of the legal profession – things go right in this book. And there are sounds here that you will keep coming back to. The American poet Jane Hirshfield says that ‘words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins’. And, in handing over to John O’Donnell, who will now read from his new book, this is where it begins.

Launch of ‘On Water’ by John O’Donnell, May 7th, 2014

A packed Little Museum of Dublin last evening for the launch of On Water, the third collection of poems (and first in a decade) by poet John O’Donnell.

A senior counsel who lives and works in Dublin, O’Donnell attracted large followings from both the legal and literary worlds, as well as general readers and a considerable number of admirers from print and other media. Alongside these were many colleagues from The Arts Council, Gary Coyle, the artist who contributed the much-admired cover image for the book, and family and friends, a number of whom had travelled from overseas to attend.

Introducing the book Niall MacMonagle called O’Donnell “an Irish poet who takes you places … a poet with a global reach” and praised On Water as the poet’s finest work to date. O’Donnell then gave a short reading from the book, which included a poem dedicated to the late Caroline Walsh, Literary Editor of The Irish Times.

The reading was followed by a surprise performance by singer Maria Doyle Kennedy with husband Kieran on guitar, adding to the sense of a special and truly celebratory event in a venue that had no few visitors vowing to return on a more leisurely occasion.

(All photos copyright © Pat Boran)

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