David Lilburn, who died unexpectedly in May 2021, was one of the first persons to befriend me when I arrived in Limerick in 1986, and through this friendship we collaborated in many ways over the years. The theme of journey and mapping strongly features
in Dave’s work. ‘Line’s Odyssey’ was my first response to one of his prints; this poem was published in his exhibition catalogue ‘Home Ground’ and later in Drawing Texts, edited by Jim Savage. I saw these monoprints of Dave as a kind of autobiographical
atlas relating to his house, home, and environment, his wife Romanie’s pregnancy and the birth of his son Caspar..
“Marks on paper that condescend
to wear the temporary mantle
of what’s at hand
shape-shifting in their elemental
permanence... ” (1)
I collaborated with Dave when he was doing his exhibition ‘The Usurper’s Habit’ by writing a poem for the catalogue, and also when he was commissioned by the Kavanagh Heritage Centre to make a print for Patrick Kavanagh’s Birth Centenary in 2004, and
my resultant poem ‘Stony Grey Owl’ was incorporated into the print. He designed a Limerick Poetry Broadsheet during my editorship. More recently we worked together on a Limerick-themed project for Issue 76 of Cyphers literary magazine, which reproduced,
as well as my poem ‘Limerick Salad’, a copy of Dave’s magnificent ‘Footprint of the Celtic Tiger’.
Judith Hill wrote of this drypoint: “In this landscape, in which Lilburn uses his particular language for more direct social critique, the abandoned cranes and concrete, bunker-like shafts of an unrealized shopping mall on the edge of Limerick are superimposed
over an exploded map of the city. It is teeming with the kind of exuberant life which can tip into delinquency, and recalls George Grosz’s graphic critique of the rampant capitalism of 1920’s Berlin.”(2)
Dave also designed covers for three of my collections of poetry. The cover he designed for one of them, The Old Women of Magione (1997), arose in part from some sketches he made when he visited us during a year I spent in Umbria with my wife and son,
in1994/1995. We talked at that time about the idea of a series of poems/drawings based on the landscape of La Goga, the valley where we lived, in a converted farmhouse near the town of Magione. One of these sketches, which he called ‘Study for Basil,
La Goga Series’, now hangs in the hall of our house in Limerick.
This elongated, highly evocative drawing of the valley of La Goga contains a few fading quotations in Dave’s handwriting from my poem ‘Basil’ (3). In designing the cover for my Italian-based collection, Dave included features from this
green-tinted La Goga drawing – olive groves, vineyards, hills, outhouses, tillage, abandoned homesteads, as well as the fascination and energy of his non-representational markings (with two wineglasses near the centre to convey conviviality).
In the cover design for The Old Women of Magione he combined parts of this drawing with Giotto’s sorrowing angels, a segment of buildings in a hill town from another Renaissance painting, as well as an ornate borderwork of a queue of friars wearing haloes.
Any time I look at this cover I am amazed at its originality, and the sprezzatura with which he combined medieval masterpieces with his own work, to produce a design of beauty and evocation.
Dave researched for his work carefully: he had studied history before he studied art. In the drypoint, ‘Stony Grey Owl’, there are owls with Patrick Kavanagh’s face, then there’s the map-making dimension, which embraces the three most significant places
in Kavanagh’s life: Monaghan with its Stony Grey Soil, Dublin (Raglan Road, Pembroke Road, McDaid’s, the Bailey). And thirdly, London: among other areas, Dave’s print evokes Bayswater, arising from Kavanagh’s supremely simple and beautiful poem, ‘A
Memory of My Father:’
....And I remember the musician
faltering over his fiddle
in Bayswater, London.
He too set me the riddle.
Every old man I see
in October-coloured weather
seems to say to me
‘I was once your father’. (4)
The detail from the print which I have included below, in a photograph, shows Kavanagh, complete with walking stick, on his way to Dublin, to receive books from George Russell. It also shows him returning from Dublin hefting a sack of books on his shoulder.
There is also a heavy arrow pointing to the same returning Kavanagh, who is now getting off a small boat to a welcome from two indistinct figures (mother and father?). Above them are a hen and chickens, a black blotch representing the ‘Stony Grey
Soil of Monaghan’, and the farmhouse. And on the top right-hand edge, the Stony Grey Owl of Monaghan.
George Russell was one of the literary and reformist figures of the early 20th century, who had become a mentor to Kavanagh and the first person to publish some of his poems (5). Among the books which Kavanagh brought back to Inniskeen
from Russell were works by Emerson, Whitman, Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo and Robert Browning. Apparently, the first book Kavanagh took out of the Library in Dundalk was The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (6).
Kavanagh initially wrote a poetry that was far from being totally romantic but markedly realist about the soil and rural life, as is encapsulated in his famous ‘Stony Grey Soil’ and his sonnet ‘Epic’ (7). His journey to Dublin to receive
these international book titles is I think where his poetry began to release itself from the parochial and the geographical locality, to venture into what I have called ‘the moveable parish of poetry’, the parish of experience, wherever it is experienced,
however it is experienced and expressed.
...this poet-farmer who departed
the parish of his birth’s geography,
and in the end abandoned ward and townland
for the movable parish of poetry,
leaving as his inheritance
the light that can transfigure every place,
stony grey owl of Monaghan
now roosting in the bookshop of the dark,
refulgence shut inside its beak. (8)
This, I think, is the spiritual and physical journey of Patrick Kavanagh, which Dave and myself traced in our different ways, in our different disciplines.
My collaborations with David Lilburn were seminal and enriching. Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
(1) Exhibition Catalogue, ‘Home Ground’ by David Lilburn; also in Jim Savage (Ed), Drawing Texts (Out of print)
(2) Judith Hill, “Dave Lilburn”, Irish Arts Review, Autumn 2011
(3) Ciaran O’Driscoll, The Old Women of Magione, Dedalus, Dublin 1977, p 34
(4) Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems, McGibbon & Kee, London 1964/68, p 73
(5) Wikipedia, “Patrick Kavanagh”
(6) Wikipedia, “Patrick Kavanagh”
(7) Patrick Kavanagh, Op. cit., pp 82 and 136
(8) Ciaran O’Driscoll, Angel Hour, SurVision Books, Dublin 2021, p 46
Illustrations: Front Cover of The Old Women of Magione; Drypoint ‘Stony Grey Owl’ (Detail). For an image of ‘Footprint of the Celtic Tiger’ go to https://cyphers.ie>artwork
This blog was originally a talk given at the Tribute to Dave Lilburn, Limerick Literary Festival, June 2022.
Sincere thanks to Larry Lambe for locating the Kavanagh print and arranging for its display at the Festival; also to Richard Meade for managing my illustrations.
My thanks to the Arts Council for inviting me to write this Blog as part of their 70th Anniversary Commemoration.