Ethna MacCarthy

An introduction

Gerald Dawe

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Dr Ethna MacCarthy, born in Coleraine, County Londonderry, in 1903, was brought up in an upper-middle-class Catholic family in south County Dublin, although her mother was Protestant; a background steeped in literary and cultural connections spanning the generations and the social milieu of Dublin and London life. Her father, Brendan MacCarthy, was an eminent doctor whose specialty was public health; her grandfather was the distinguished writer Denis Florence MacCarthy, and her aunt, Sister Mary Stanislaus MacCarthy, was also a poet.

MacCarthy, a fascinating woman, scholar and physician, who crossed many boundaries, emerges as a writer of impressive achievement. Her life was tragically cut short by illness: she died of throat cancer in May 1959 at the age of fifty-six. Perhaps best known to posterity through her association with Samuel Beckett – as one of his earliest loves, commemorated in significant writing of his, including early poems such as ‘Alba’, fiction including ‘A Wet Night’ and Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and the play Krapp’s Last Tape – Ethna MacCarthy deserves to be better understood in her own right. As an important and creative part of a cosmopolitan and free-thinking generation in post-Independence Dublin, which included poets such as Leslie Daiken, Patrick MacDonogh, Eileen Shanahan and Rhoda Coghill, MacCarthy was a Scholar and a First-Class Moderator (1926) at Trinity College Dublin. Like other friends of hers, such as Beckett himself and his dear friend and confidant A.J. Leventhal, whom she would eventually marry in 1956, MacCarthy taught languages at the university in the 1930s and 40s before studying medicine, which she practiced in Dublin and in the East End of London. This dual life of literature and languages and medicine has a long and productive tradition in Irish cultural life going back to the eighteenth century and includes, most famously, the Wilde family. Denis Johnston, the Irish playwright and broadcaster, who knew MacCarthy well in 1920s Dublin, remarked: ‘She has never been shy, can be frank, and outspoken to a degree, is absolutely fearless, intolerant of mediocrity and finds it difficult to suffer fools gladly.’ Precious wonder that writers were drawn to her energy and independence.

In her varied translations, it is interesting to note the early response (1935) to the Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler, who fled Nazi Germany in 1934, since another Trinity College graduate – the contemporary poet Eavan Boland – also translated Lasker- Schüler’s poetry seventy years later, in After Every War: Twentieth- Century Women Poets. Also significant are MacCarthy’s translations, which include ‘Nächtliches Bild’, one of Hans Bethge’s poems, based upon Chinese verse, versions of which Gustav Mahler set to music in ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (‘The Song of the Earth’). This web of allusion, intertext and connection between various European artists across different languages underlines the cultural awareness MacCarthy shared with her Irish contemporaries. It all points to the fascinating strands of literary modernism with which she identified, alongside the more traditional forms of lullaby and song she took from the Spanish tradition, such as her reading of The Oxford Book of Spanish Verse; an exceptionally rich and intriguing body of work, which now comes into critical view. 

Several decades after she first published her translations and poems in significant outlets of the thirties and forties, including Hermathena (the long-established literary journal from Trinity College Dublin), the Dublin Magazine and The Irish Times, her poems were broadcast by the Irish national broadcaster, Radio Eireann (originally known as RN2), and also included in the London-based Sunday Referee newspaper (home to some of Dylan Thomas’s early poems). Three poems – ‘Viaticum’, ‘Insomnia’ and ‘Ghosts’ – were chosen for inclusion in an important, indeed groundbreaking anthology, New Irish Poets, edited by Devin A. Garrity and published in 1948 by Devin-Adair in the United States.. It all suggests just how much more there might have been for her to contribute had illness not cruelly struck her down at such a relatively early age.

          The Skeleton Speaks

          The trunks are old and filled with dust

          that once was lust.

          While prosy letters to be sure

          are gravely scanned as literature

          yet halfpenny stamps are treasure trove

          that justify the cost of love

          and wild words crystallised in print

          now stilled in death are worth a mint,

          old dreams and samples safe to handle

          and these quiet bones reclothed in scandal.

          [Archive poem, 23 December 1941.]


          Beauty like hers must never make

          the same unnatural mistake

          of showing itself to mortal eyes.

          In her the last dread gorgon dies

          wise lavish mother of a motley brood

          she scents the litter for that fatal blood

          and when she hears a silver kit

          softly and gently murders it.

          [Archive poem, 23 December 1941.]


          Being ill I ate

          only hake and white grapes

          in the land of wine,

          and the mariners talked

          of ships and iodine.

          Cockroaches crawled

          on shaded walls;

          outside light filled the street.

          The cloth and the fish

          and the grapes were white

          but the mariners were eating meat

          and laughed and talked in a tongue I knew

          but could not understand

          for the blankness in my head.

          Where now is your ship mariner

          and what was it you said?

          [Archive poem, 18 August 1943.]

This introductory extract and poems come from Ethna MacCarthy Poems, edited by Eoin O’Brien and Gerald Dawe, is published by The Lilliput Press 2019.