Some many years ago, a different time, a different world, I bought a little literary magazine with the bold name of Rhinoceros. With never-realised ambitions of filling it with my terrible poetry, I kept hold of this bit of Belfast on my shelf to remind me that I dreamt once. It is from here that I now borrow from a piece by Douglas Carson, Persons from Porlock: The Story of Grave. The reason? This summer I realised one much smaller and worthy ambition - to pay my respects to Louise MacNeice by his graveside in the County Down village of Carrowdore.
Meanwhile, he wrote a radio play about everything that distracts the artist from his work - including, finally, death. It was called Persons from Porlock.
Early in August, 1963, MacNeice was recording sound effects in the caves near Ingleton. It rained and he was soaked. He caught pneumonia, and retired to his cottage in Hertfordshire.
His explanation cracked
and threw the words awry:
You're not going yet?
I must; I have to die.
-This Way Out
His sister took him to London, to St Leonard's Hospital. He did not respond to antibiotics. On Friday morning, 30 August, Dan Devlin saw him: "He was very ill, very cold, his face the colour of an Irish winter sea and sky." ('Introductory Memoir in W R Rodgers' Collected Poems)
That evening, Persons from Porlock was broadcast. The hero was a painter, Hawk - an alter ego of MacNeice. He wandered from his calling, seduced by family, money, drink and women. Then he became a potholer. He found himself again in underground cathedrals. He explored them and painted them, and finally died in them. He vanished in an underworld like Orpheus.
MacNeice died on Tuesday, 3 September.
George McCann made his death mask. He recited Kallimachos:
"They told me, Heraclitus - they told me you were dead".
The funeral service was at St John's Wood Church. McCann said,
"In the pub afterwards, Louis unheard now and unseen still with us, we held a hurried wake."
The body was cremated, and arrangements were made with the rector of Carrowdore.
What happened next is uncertain. The story goes that when the courier reached Belfast, he realised he had left the urn in Britain: a suitable replacement was secured and filled with ashes from the Irish morning papers.
On 10 September, the hearse set out from the McCann's home in Botanic Avenue. The mourners arrived late at the graveyard - a strange group, with no pomp and no dignitaries. The service was conducted by Archdeacon Quinn and Carrowdore's rector, John C Bell, who read MacNeice's poem, Autobiography:
My mother wore a yellow dress;
Gently, gently, gentleness...
The congregation sang Who Would True Valour See. The poet, W.R. Rodgers, remembered:
Only a green hill
And a man with a spade
Opening the old account-books of earth
And writing paid.
-W R Rodgers, Collected Poems
The Irish wake was in Botanic Avenue. Leading Ulster poets, writers and artists were there, and a strong contingent of poets from the South. There was plenty of Irish whiskey.
Louis would have enjoyed his wake.
Meanwhile, according to the legend, his ashes had been found and were dispatched to Belfast. They were carried to Carrowdore in the dark. He was scattered in starlight by friends on his birthday.
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