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Valentin Iremonger, Irish poet and diplomat

19 February 2018

To celebrate the centenary of Valentin Iremonger's birth we are posting his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography by Bridget Hourican

Iremonger, Valentin (1918–91), poet and diplomat, was born 14 February 1918 at 96 Sandymount Road, Dublin, eldest among four children of John Iremonger (1887–1947), sculptor of monuments, and his wife Annie Murphy (1887–1950), shopkeeper. Christened Valentine, he dropped the last ‘e’ early on and was known throughout his career as Valentin. He was educated by the Christian Brothers in Synge St. and at Coláiste Mhuire, where he went on a scholarship. On leaving school he spent a year (1938/9) in the Abbey School of Acting. A published poet before he was 20, Iremonger was precociously talented and avant-garde, with dark, matinée-idol looks, and was a founder-member of the New Theatre Group in 1937. This left-wing group, based initially in Charlemont Road, then Rutland Place and Baggot St., put on plays by writers such as Stephen Spender and Robert Sherwood, and by Soviet playwrights, and was possibly the first group to perform the dance plays of W. B. Yeats outside the drawing room. The Iremonger family had earlier moved from Sandymount Road to 135 Tritonville Road, also in Sandymount, and from this address Valentin, together with Belfast poets Robert Greacen and Bruce Williamson, published a book of verse, On the barricades (1944), under their own imprint, New Frontiers Press. Iremonger was singled out by The Bell as the most impressive and original of the three. Another book by the trio, One recent evening, appeared that year under a London imprint, the Favil Press. The following year his collection Reservations won Iremonger the AE Memorial Prize 1945, and his verse play ‘Wrap up my green jacket’ was performed on BBC radio in 1946 and at the Peacock in 1947. Energetic and enthusiastic, he helped Robert Graves with source material for The white goddess (1944), an eccentric study of poetic myth. He was fluent in Irish from his schooldays and presumably provided Graves with ancient Irish sources.

His early poems brought Iremonger significant critical attention. His language was vivid and direct, influenced by Auden, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas, as well as by Gaelic poetry. One of the first of his contemporaries to break with the influence of Yeats, he credited himself with helping introduce the modern idiom to Irish poetry. Others did not join him in this claim, but the critic Dennis O'Driscoll allowed that his colloquial, breezy idiom anticipated some of the characteristics of the Movement poets, while John Hewitt wrote of being deeply moved by the simplicity of the early poems, ‘the simplicity and clarity of crayons and glass marbles’ (Irish Writing, Mar. 1951, p. 66).

Iremonger's stance as a young iconoclast was cemented when he rose before the third act of an Abbey production of ‘The plough and the stars’ on 10 November 1947 to complain that ‘under the utter incompetence of the present directorate's artistic policy, there is nothing left of [Yeats's] fine glory’ (cited Hunt, 173). He and the UCD academic Roger McHugh then walked out in a protest aimed at the policy of Abbey director Ernest Blythe of putting on staid productions of old favourites and prioritising plays in Irish. The Irish Times and other papers joined the fray enthusiastically. Two years later Iremonger was made poetry editor (1949–51) of the short-lived but influential magazine Envoy. The magazine's equally short-lived publishing company brought out Iremonger's prizewinning but hitherto unpublished collection, Reservations (1950). With his friend Robert Greacen, he co-edited the Faber edition of Contemporary Irish poetry in 1949. It was critically acclaimed for including the work of younger writers but was conspicuous for the absence of the greatest living Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who refused to allow his verse to be included. Three years later Iremonger was the author of an anonymous waspish profile of Kavanagh in the Leader (11 Oct. 1952), in which he accused him of bombast, abstraction, and rhetoric.

Iremonger had started working as a civil servant in the Department of Education in 1946. On 1 April 1948 he married Sheila Manning (d. 2001), an Abbey actress who specialised in Gaelic drama, and was soon providing for a family of five children. The late 1940s marked the highpoint of his literary career, but after moving to the Department of External Affairs, he embarked on a second successful career as a diplomat, helped by his marked linguistic gifts. In 1956 he was sent as first secretary to the embassy in London, where he remained five years, becoming counsellor in 1959. These years were among his happiest, as the embassy became a literary hangout. Although reserved and sometimes moody, Iremonger was gregarious and liked to attract writers and artists to the embassies he worked in. On his next posting as ambassador to Sweden and minister to Finland (1964–8), he befriended film-maker Ingmar Bergman. After one year he could speak and read Swedish, and could also read Norwegian, Danish, and Finnish. He was subsequently ambassador to India (1968–73), Luxembourg (1973–8), and finally Portugal, where he did not finish his term due to ill health.

Throughout his years in the foreign service he kept up his literary work, though it inevitably lacked his previous intensity and focus. In 1960 he edited for Faber a book of Irish short stories. He translated into English many poems in Irish and two books by emigrants: Diallan Deoraí, by Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, appeared as An Irish navvy (1964), and he rendered Micí Mac Gabhann's Rotha Mór an Tsaoil as The hard road to Klondyke (1973). He also published a translation of Rilke into Irish in a dual-language edition, as Beatha Mhuire: sraith dhánta Ghearmáinise le Rainer Maria Rilke (1990). His collected poems, Horan's field and other reservations (1972) were followed sixteen years later by Sandymount, Dublin (1988). A poet of nostalgia and regret, he saw in Sandymount the lost idyll of his childhood. Dennis O'Driscoll called his poems ‘love-torn, time-worn, decay-haunted . . . hovering between cynicism and romanticism and redolent of certain adolescent moods of youthful despondencies’ (O'Driscoll, 109). Of an estimated 800 poems written, eighty were published.

His last years were marked by ill health, aggravated by heavy drinking; he retired to his home in Blackrock and was unable to do sustained work. He died 22 May 1991 of pneumonia in Dublin and was buried in Shanganagh cemetery and not in Sandymount as he had wished. He was survived by his wife, son, and three daughters; a fourth daughter predeceased him by a few months.

Iremonger's failure to concentrate exclusively on literature meant that he never fulfilled his early promise, and he remains an ‘anthology poet’ known for a handful of notable poems, such as ‘Icarus’, ‘Hector’, ‘The dog’, all written when young. ‘This houre her vigill’, regarded by many as his finest poem and dealing with his first experience of death, was written when he was 25, and was originally published as ‘Elizabeth’.

The Bell, ix, no. 1 (Oct. 1944), 81; Irish Writing, no. 8 (July 1949), 89; no. 14 (Mar 1951), 66; Ir. Times, 22 Oct. 1975; 23, 30 May 1991; Hugh Hunt, The Abbey (1979); Anthony Bradley (ed.), Contemporary Irish poetry (1980); Hogan; Dennis O'Driscoll, Troubled thoughts, majestic dreams (2001); private information from Barry Iremonger (nephew), Aug. 2006

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