Conor O’Callaghan was born in Newry, County Down, and grew up in Dundalk. The History of Rain, published by The Gallery Press in 1993, was shortlisted for the Forward ‘Best First Collection’ Prize and won the Patrick Kavanagh Award. Seatown was published in 1999, and Fiction, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, appeared in April 2005. The Sun King, his fourth collection – and also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation – was published in 2013.
O’Callaghan also has written widely on sport. His radio documentary on cricket in Ireland, The Season, was produced by Dick Warner in 1996 and has been repeated several times. ‘One-One’, his comic prose memoir of the public furore surrounding Ireland’s involvement in the 2002 World Cup, eventually became the book Red Mist: Roy Keane and the Football Civil War (Bloomsbury, 2004).
He has been writer-in-residence at University College Dublin and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and co-holder of the Heimbold Chair in Irish Studies at Villanova University. From 2005-2010, he was poet-in-residence at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. O’Callaghan currently lives in Manchester and works both as a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and as a tutor for a distance-learning MA program at Lancaster University.
When the Irish journal Metre: Magazine of Poetry was launched in the autumn of 1996, its three editors (Hugh Maxton, Justin Quinn and David Wheatley) selected Conor O’Callaghan’s ‘Landscape with Canal’ as the opening poem. O’Callaghan’s debut collection, The History of Rain (Gallery, 1993), had won the Kavanagh Award and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and he was a significant new voice for the Metre editors, who were scrutinising the state of Irish poetry.
O’Callaghan was a young poet who rejected free-verse meanderings and questioned the sacred thematic-cows of Irish poetics. This re-examination had begun in his debut collection (see, for example, his earlier ‘Landscape’ poem as well as ‘The Last Cage House in Drogheda’), but solidified in his second, Seatown (Gallery, 1999), which is one of the most significant Irish collections of the last 15 years. ‘Landscape with Canal’, which is included in Seatown, can be read as a formally deft manifesto that interrogates the assembly-line production of the bog-standard Irish lyric, complete with its accumulated baggage of stale imagery and conceits.
For O’Callaghan, there are no Coole Parks, bog bodies, Ledas or Cúchulainns. He is not a poet who climbs to find the view, nor one who pays homage to the grave. In his poem ‘Swanns Cross’ (Seatown), he begs that there be “No landmarks, no legends and certainly no swans.” So far, he’s been faithful to that credo, and he clearly has had his fill of romanticised landscapes. In ‘East’ (Seatown), Mahon’s pupil rejects, in no uncertain terms, the mythologized west coast of Ireland and goes on to dismiss sentimentalised family histories, diaspora weepies and the like. Absent from his work is the too-readily deployed shorthand of mawkish Irish imagery. As he writes in ‘The Peacock’, from his third collection, Fiction (Gallery 2005), a new wave of Irish poets has “perfected that disappearing trick. / I’m thinking especially of that old lie / called sentiment and sentiment’s rhetoric / that we, together or alone, no longer buy.”
O’Callaghan rarely settles. He is continually on the move and favours liminal harbour towns and shores – places in a state of flux, as is Ireland as it enters the new century. These in-between spaces, in which O’Callaghan employs numerous indefinite pronouns and adjectives (the ambiguity of the second-person, ‘someone’, ‘somewhere’, ‘sometime’, etc.), are littered with the detritus of our lives, and this waste-imagery recurs time and again across O’Callaghan’s four collections.
His latest is The Sun King (Gallery, 2013), nominated for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award. It is a collection that reinforces O’Callaghan’s obsession with detritus, flux and technology – and the inventiveness and irreverence are there too. For example, in ‘Tiger Redux,’ Blake’s tyger is remade as the Celtic equivalent, and the poem bucks the all-too-worthy trend of dissing boom-and-bust economics, reminding Irish apologists that we loved it while it lasted. And if there is a slight heightening of lyrical grace in the latest work (see the heartbreaking ‘Kingdom Come’), O’Callaghan’s insistence on inventiveness is maintained and is typified, exquisitely, by ‘The Pearl Works’: a series of 45 Tweet-length couplets that ends the collection on an orgiastic, assonantal high.
O’Callaghan’s interest in the sounds and connotations of words is clear in his riff on the meanings of ‘Fall’ (Fiction), as well as in his constant use and reinvigoration of fixed expressions and idioms – one of the hallmarks of his writing. It is also evident in his ear for what Yeats termed the ‘singing line’: the music of poetry, which O’Callaghan has identified as the real and lasting heart of the Irish tradition. As but one example of this musicality (and sheer fun!), see the ‘O’ sound-play in Fiction's telephone poems, which foreshadows the assonantal delights of ‘The Pearl Works’:
failed to draw
or more-than-usual hullabaloo
say, the annual grudge match
of Eton and Harrow. (‘And the Winner is’)
Then your own voice,
as though recorded in a portaloo,
desperate to sound human
And wallowing in its echo (‘Retro’)
O closing words O lovely hopeless song (one more!) invoking love gone south
O storeroom door that’s on a slope & opens outwards O open mouth (‘The Pearl Works’)
There is methodology in everything O’Callaghan undertakes: in the musicality and inventiveness of form, and in the re-examination of lyric subject matter and imagery. That first edition of Metre set down a challenge to drag Irish poetry onto an international stage and to do so by questioning the staid imagery and too-loose formal practices of the day. O’Callaghan should be more readily regarded as a champion of this critical mission: an example for the Trinity/Dublin-based writers promoted through Metre. Wheatley and Quinn, in particular, acknowledge O'Callaghan's role, and it is fair to say that without his intelligent questioning of Irish poetic practice, the road would not have been so well-prepared for the likes of Alan Gillis, Leontia Flynn, Miriam Gamble, Eoghan Walls, Matt Kirkham and the rest, who are finding their own ways to reinvigorate the art.
The History of Rain, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1993
Seatown, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1999
Fiction, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2005
The Sun King, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2013
An interview with Nicole Fitzpatrick of Wake Forest University Press on The Sun King
Three poems at the Poetry Foundation
Video of O'Callaghan reading 'January Drought'