Derek Mahon

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Derek Mahon
Mahon in 2010
Mahon in 2010
Born(1941-11-23)23 November 1941
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Died1 October 2020(2020-10-01) (aged 78)
Cork, Ireland
Literary movementModernism

Derek Mahon (23 November 1941 – 1 October 2020) was an Irish poet.[1] He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland but lived in a number of cities around the world. At his death it was noted that his, "influence in the Irish poetry community, literary world and society at large, and his legacy, is immense".[2] President of Ireland Michael D Higgins said of Mahon; "he shared with his northern peers the capacity to link the classical and the contemporary but he brought also an edge that was unsparing of cruelty and wickedness."[3]


Derek Mahon was born on 23 November 1941 as the only child of Ulster Protestant working-class parents. His father and grandfather worked at Harland and Wolff while his mother worked at a local flax mill.[4] During his childhood, he claims he was something of a solitary dreamer, comfortable with his own company yet aware of the world around him. Interested in literature from an early age, he attended Skegoneill Primary school and then the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, or "Inst".

At Inst he encountered fellow students who shared his interest in literature and poetry. The school produced a magazine to which Mahon produced some of his early poems. According to the critic Hugh Haughton his early poems were highly fluent and extraordinary for a person so young. His parents could not see the point of poetry, but he set out to prove them wrong after he won his school's Forrest Reid Memorial Prize for the poem 'The power that gives the water breath'.[5]

Mahon pursued third level studies at Trinity College Dublin in French, English, and Philosophy[6] and where he edited Icarus, and formed many friendships with writers such as Michael Longley, Eavan Boland and Brendan Kennelly. He started to mature as a poet. He left Trinity in 1965 to take up studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

After leaving the Sorbonne in 1966 he worked his way through Canada and the United States. In 1968, while spending a year teaching English at Belfast High School, he published his first collection of poems Night Crossing. He later taught in a school in Dublin and worked in London as a freelance journalist. He lived in Kinsale, County Cork. On 23 March 2007 he was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature. He won the Poetry Now Award in 2006 for his collection, Harbour Lights, and again in 2009 for his Life on Earth collection.[7]

At times expressing anti-establishment values, Mahon has described himself as, an 'aesthete' with a penchant 'for left-wingery [...] to which, perhaps naively, I adhere.'[8]

His papers are held at Emory University.[9]

In March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, RTÉ News ended its evening broadcast with Mahon reading his poem Everything Is Going to Be All Right.[10]

On 1 October 2020, Mahon died in Cork after a short illness, aged 78.[11]

He is survived by his partner Sarah Iremonger and his three children, Rory, Katy, and Maisie.[11]


Thoroughly educated and with a keen understanding of literary tradition, Mahon came out of the tumult of Northern Ireland with a formal, moderate, even restrained poetic voice. In an era of free verse, Mahon often wrote in received forms, using a broadly applied version of iambic pentameter that, metrically, resembles the "sprung foot" verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Some poems rhyme. Even the Irish landscape itself is never all that far from the classical tradition, as in his poem "Achill":

Croagh Patrick towers like Naxos over the water
And I think of my daughter at work on her difficult art
And wish she were with me now between thrush and plover,
Wild thyme and sea-thrift, to lift the weight from my heart.

He has also explored the genre of ekphrasis: the poetic reinterpretation of visual art. In that respect he was interested in 17th century Dutch and Flemish art.



Mahon features on the Irish Leaving Certificate course with ten of his poems (Grandfather, Day Trip to Donegal, Ecclesiastes, After the Titanic, As It Should Be, A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford, Rathlin, The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush, Kinsale and Antarctica)[1].


  • 1965: Twelve Poems. Festival Publications, Belfast
  • 1968: Night-Crossing. Oxford University Press
  • 1970: Ecclesiastes Phoenix Pamphlet Poets
  • 1970: Beyond Howth Head. Dolmen Press
  • 1972: Lives. Oxford University Press
  • 1975: The Snow Party. Oxford University Press
  • 1977: In Their Element. Arts Council of Northern Ireland
  • 1979: Poems 1962–1978. Oxford University Press
  • 1981: Courtyards in Delft. Gallery Press
  • 1982: The Hunt By Night. Oxford University Press
  • 1985: Antarctica. Gallery Press
  • 1990: The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush: Selected Poems. Gallery Press
  • 1991: Selected Poems. Viking
  • 1992: The Yaddo Letter. Gallery Press
  • 1995: The Hudson Letter. Gallery Press; Wake Forest University Press, 1996
  • 1997: The Yellow Book. Gallery Press; Wake Forest University Press, 1998
  • 1999: Collected Poems. Gallery Press
  • 2001: Selected Poems. Penguin
  • 2005: Harbour Lights. Gallery Press (winner of the 2006 Irish Times Poetry Now Award)
  • 2007: Somewhere the Wave. Gallery Press
  • 2008: Life on Earth. Gallery Press (shortlisted for the 2009 International Griffin Poetry Prize; winner of the 2009 Irish Times Poetry Now Award)
  • 2010: An Autumn Wind. Gallery Press
  • 2011: New Collected Poems. Gallery Press
  • 2016: New Selected Poems. Faber & Faber; Gallery Press
  • 2020: Washing Up. Gallery Press
  • 2021: The Poems (1961-2020). Gallery Press

Translations / versions / editions[edit]

  • 1982: The Chimeras (a version of Les Chimères, by Nerval), Gallery Press
  • 1985: High Time (a version of Molière's A School for Husbands), Gallery Press
  • 1988: The Selected Poems of Philippe Jaccottet, Viking, 1988.
  • 1996: The Bacchae of Euripides, and Racine's Phaedra, Gallery Press
  • 2001. Jonathan Swift. Poems selected by Derek Mahon. Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-20715-2.
  • 2002: Birds (a version of Oiseaux, by Saint-John Perse), Gallery Press
  • 2004: Cyrano de Bergerac. (A version of the play by Edmond Rostand), Gallery Press
  • 2005: Oedipus (A conflation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus), Gallery Press
  • 2006: Adaptations (A collection of versions, rather than translations proper, from poets such as Pasolini, Juvenal, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Valéry, Baudelaire, Rilke and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill), Gallery Press
  • Mahon, Derek (2013). Echo's grove : collected translations. The Gallery Press.

Non fiction[edit]

  • 1996: Journalism: selected prose, 1970–1995. Ed. Terence Brown. Gallery Press

Critical studies and reviews of Mahon's work[edit]

  • Enniss, Stephen (2014) After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon, Gill & Macmillan
  • Haughton, Hugh (2007) The Poetry of Derek Mahon, Oxford University Press
  • Jarniewicz, Jerzy (2013) Ekphrasis in the Poetry of Derek Mahon, NWP Piotrkow, ISBN 978-83-7726-056-2
  • Cooke, Belinda (June–July 2014). "Nasty, brutish and short". The London Magazine: 99–104. Review of Echo's grove.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Foundation, Poetry (6 November 2022). "Derek Mahon". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 7 November 2022.
  2. ^ "Belfast-born poet Derek Mahon dies aged 78". BBC News. 2 October 2020.
  3. ^ Neville, Steve; Cleary, Mairéad (2 October 2020). "'Yet another artist gone from us in recent times': Poet Derek Mahon dies aged 78". Irish Examiner.
  4. ^ Genzlinger, Neil (2 October 2020). "Derek Mahon, Popular Irish Poet, is Dead at 78". The New York Times.
  5. ^ Life of poet is work in progress Cork Examiner 11 October 2014. Retrieved 3 October 2020.
  6. ^ Foundation, Poetry (7 November 2022). "Derek Mahon". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 7 November 2022.
  7. ^ Mahon wins 'Irish Times' poetry prize for new collection Irish Times, 28 March 2009.
  8. ^ Ciarán O'Rourke (14 December 2019). "Derek Mahon, A Poet of The Left". Independent Left. Retrieved 18 December 2019.
  9. ^ "Derek Mahon papers, 1948–2018". Emory Archives. 2 November 2007. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  10. ^ Cain, Sian (2 October 2020). "Derek Mahon, Belfast-born giant of Irish poetry, dies aged 78". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  11. ^ a b Smyth, Gerard. "Derek Mahon, one of Ireland's leading poets, has died, aged 78". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  12. ^ a b "Derek Mahon". Belfast Group Poetry. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  13. ^ "Derek Mahon". The Gallery Press. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  14. ^ "Derek Mahon wins this year's Irish Times Poetry Now Award". The Irish Times. Retrieved 11 September 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Allen Randolph, Jody. Derek Mahon: A Comprehensive Bibliography. Irish University Review: Special Issue: Derek Mahon 24.1 (Spring/Summer 1994): 131–156.
  • Reggiani, Enrico. In Attesa della Vita, Introduzione alla Poetica di Derek Mahon, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 1996, pp. 432 [seconda ristampa: 2005]
  • Haughton, Hugh. The Poetry of Derek Mahon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Jarniewicz, Jerzy. Ekphrasis in the Poetry of Derek Mahon, Piotrkow: NWP Press, 2013, pp. 275, ISBN 978-83-7726-056-2
  • Christopher Steare: Derek Mahon : a study of his poetry, London : Greenwich Exchange, 2017, ISBN 978-1-910996-08-9

External links[edit]