Tribute to the ‘poet laureate’ of Donegal

Tribute to the ‘poet laureate’ of Donegal
Francis (Frank) Harvey, who died last weekend, has been described as “the poet laureate” of Donegal by life-long friend and former Donegal Democrat journalist, Gerry Moriarty.

Francis (Frank) Harvey, who died last weekend, has been described as “the poet laureate” of Donegal by life-long friend and former Donegal Democrat journalist, Gerry Moriarty.

His Funeral Mass took place on Monday morning in Donegal Town and he was later buried in Enniskillen.

Born in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh Mr Harvey lived most of his life in County Donegal, a county which featured heavily in his work.

His collections of poetry include In the Light on the Stones The Rainmakers, The Boa Island Janus, Making Space and Collected Poems in 2007.

He had strong views on literature and in particular believed that the academic world can suck the lifeblood of the poet. “I would like if the stranglehold of the academics could be broken,” he said in an interview in 2007. He explained his view: “Well, for example, Patrick Kavanagh. I would imagine if he had gone to university he would have been a completely different poet.

“In poetry it’s the concrete image that appeals to me most of all. I try to avoid abstraction. It’s entirely possible to achieve that effect. I try for clarity with mystery. Clarity on its own is not enough, you also need mystery; the reader must work a little as well.”

Gerry Moriarty, who now works with the Irish Times in Belfast paid his friend of 38 years this tribute: “Frank Harvey was the poet laureate of Donegal. He loved the county and its people, celebrating them in clear and unsentimental manner. He was primarily a lyric poet with a philosophical and spiritual touch. He wrote with style, grace and mystery about nature, the landscape, the light, the wildlife and of course about the people and his family that he loved so much – and they him.

“When I edited The Rat Pit arts page in the Donegal Democrat at the start of the 1980s Frank was kind enough to contribute wonderful poems and strong reviews, helping to establish and strengthen the page.

“Over the years we climbed most of Donegal’s mountains together, and had many a stimulating conversation over a pint or two in some of the county’s best oases. His friendship is something that I will always cherish. Frank as a poet and before that as an accomplished playwright and fiction writer didn’t get the recognition he deserved. That partly was his down to his distance from Dublin and his own modesty and reticence.

“But that didn’t bother him. With Frank the work, not the acclaim, was everything. He was one of Ireland’s foremost poets and his work will live on.”

Writing in 2007 for the Irish Times to preview the launch then of a new poetry collection, Moriarty wrote: “Francis Harvey is launching a new poetry collection, and, although he is an octogenarian, he and his work are as vital and vibrant as ever, writes Gerry Moriarty.

Francis Harvey (82) is pulsing with a late-run inspirational surge.

“Harvey is primarily a lyric poet with a philosophical bent. Donegal, its people, its landscape, its light, its wildlife, its flowers, his metaphysical soul-searching, his family are what you’ll find in his work, and much more besides.

“Old friends are remembered too, in the book. One late night early in the 1960s, Harvey, Brendan Behan, and the writer Patrick Boyle, both dead now, were caught after hours in the Highlands Hotel, in Glenties. That earned them the front-page banner headline in the Evening Press, “Playwrights’ midnight party”.

“This was when Harvey was first making his mark as a writer for his award-winning radio play, Farewell to Every White Cascade. At the time he was a senior official in the Bank of Ireland in Glenties. The publicity didn’t help his career prospects.

“He never made manager.

“Not that it bothered him. Harvey’s sights were on the higher ground. He stuck banking for another 15 years or more, ending up in Donegal Town where he now lives, but he “got the hell out” early when computerisation allied to de-personalisation took over in the mid- to late-1970s.

“All the time he was writing short stories, plays and poems, before finally dedicating himself almost totally to poetry. His first collection, In the Light On the Stones, was published in 1978 by Gallery Press, with three more to follow, and now the Collected,” Moriarty wrote in that 2007 article.

Speaking to harvey, he recalls how the Fermanagh native viewed writing: “Writing is like dying: it’s lonely and nobody else can do if for you,” he says.

“Being a writer is a complex state. One is doing something one likes but at the same time one is constantly looking for reasons for not facing the blank page. Being alone in a room facing a blank wall and a blank page is one of the happiest states imaginable, when a poem is beginning to take shape. Otherwise, it’s hell.”

Allingham influence

The Ballyshannon poet William Allingham was an early influence, his grandfather reciting pat his verse to the young Harvey in Ballyshannon, where he spent much of his youth. Wordsworth too. Other influences include WH Auden, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, RS Thomas, Patrick Kavanagh and WB Yeats.

Moriarty recalled in that 2007 article how he first met Frank harvey: “I first met Harvey, Frank as he’s generally known, in 1976, when I worked in Donegal Town. On a glorious April day, 31 years later, we’re standing a few miles outside Donegal Town facing the Blue Stack Mountains, a range that is part of his inspirational mother lode; to our flank is Lough Eske, which also features regularly in his poetry.

It’s an odd but privileged experience to be around a poem in the making, and I’ve been around more than a few with him. These were most often on these mountains in front of us or on other mountains in Donegal, or on its islands, Tory and Arranmore mainly, or sitting in a pub somewhere discussing or arguing about books, politics, faith, philosophy, sport, women or just life in general - the fact that we disagree about so much adding to the vitality of the conversation.

“One fine morning in 1978, Harvey, Robert Bernen, the late American writer of Tales from the Blue Stacks, and I attempted to climb each of the Blue Stack peaks in one day. But for the fact we lost 90 minutes rescuing a sheep that was wedged in a sheugh, its anxious lamb standing nearby, we would have made it.

“Instead, night falling, we abandoned the mission just short of our goal, walking down to the generous house of John Slevin at Edergole for tea and currant cake and to catch the last of the World Cup match between Scotland and Peru (it ended 3-1 for Peru). Some memories are vividly etched.Ttall tales; Harvey verbally sparring with his mate, enjoying the banter.

“Nancy’s had an old-fashioned outside gents toilet, where, as you stood and reflected on deeper things, you might also have noted the briar roses creeping in through the open window, providing sweet natural ventilation. Harvey, in the poem Nancy’s, which is dedicated to another old friend, the pub’s late owner Margaret McHugh, celebrated this eco-friendly form of air freshener, and how its special fragrance “brings a sort of drunkenness even to sobriety”. The pity is Burch never got to illustrate the poem.”