It’s not every day that one encounters a living, published poet. Undoubtedly a rare species among today’s futuristic society of computer engineers and dot-com CEOs, the University’s English department has had the privilege of having five poets on its teaching staff since the year 2000. This semester the Charles A. Heimbold Endowed Chair in Irish Studies, a program established to further education in the Irish literary traditions at Villanova, is occupied by its first husband-and-wife team, poets Conor O’Callaghan and Vona Groarke. This semester, the two are teaching two English/Honors courses: an analysis of Irish poetry, “Inside Out and Outside In,” and an advanced creative writing workshop.
Groarke, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin, received her post-graduate diploma from the University College Cork and has published three poetry collections: “Flight” (2003), “Other People’s Houses” (1993) and “Shale” (1994). O’Callaghan also earned his master’s degree in creative writing from Trinity College and has published four books of poetry so far: “A History of Hello” (2003), “Seatown and Earlier Poems” (2000), “Seatown” (1999) and “The History of Rain” (1993). Both of them have received numerous poetry awards for their collections and have held teaching positions at Irish universities as well. After meeting Irish Studies chairperson Dr. James Murphy in Ireland last year, Groarke and O’Callaghan agreed to replace Marina Carr, last year’s Heimbold’s visiting professor. So far, the couple has been pleased with their stay.
“It is a pleasure to be teaching at Villanova,” says Groarke, “The students are so nice – really – and I absolutely love the library. The special collections of Irish literature are terrific.”
Small town residents from Dundalk, County Louth , Groarke, O’Callaghan and son Tommy, 8, and daughter Eve, 7, live about 50 miles north of Dublin city. Still, they are awed by the sheer magnitude of Philadelphia, admitting to having visited the downtown area three times during their first week here in the states.
“Our daughter, Eve, looked up at the tall skyscrapers and was afraid that they might fall down on us,” laughs Groarke. “What struck me was how much is familiar, probably because Europe is becoming more and more Americanized.”
Her husband added, “It is very exciting to live near the city with all its diversity. Even among the names of our students there is such a variety of ethnicities, such a change from Ireland where there is so much homogeneity.”
While America is known for its fusion of cultures and pulsating metropolitan areas, Ireland is often viewed as an island of writers. The country has spawned some of the greatest that literature has ever known, including Joyce, Yeats, Swift and Beckett. Yet, surprisingly, aside from the tax breaks that writers and other artists receive from the government, writing is not considered a prestigious profession in Ireland.
“There’s this myth in America about people in Ireland looking up to and idolizing poets,” explains Groarke. “It’s not true. Because there was no chance of Ireland ever colonizing another nation or even winning a World Cup, we turned to writing; it was something that we could be the best at. It gave the Irish people a sense of pride because they were writing in the English language – not their own language – and yet they still wrote better than English writers.”
O’ Callaghan said, “In a bar in Ireland, it’s common to see pictures of Irish writers hung on the wall. But if you tell people in the bar that you’re in fact a writer, they’ll think you are nuts. There’s a bit of schizophrenia.”
Then why do so many become writers? O’Callaghan swears it’s never intentional: “It’s not something you ever want to do. You don’t say at age 16, ‘God, I want to be a poet.’ But, I think there are similarities about people who become writers. They’re the bookish people, you know – loners. And eventually, that graduates to spending hours writing. Though, I’m not sure that’s necessarily healthy.”
Samuel Lover, an Irish novelist, artist and musician once said, “When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen.” Groarke agrees with Lover and her husband and believes that reading is the best way to learn how to write.
“Writing takes discipline,” advises O’Callaghan. “People always envision writers as slobs, just sitting around just waiting to be ‘inspired.’ That’s not the case. Writing takes a lot of discipline and a lot of revisions. Don’t be afraid of discipline.”
“And it’s always a good idea to marry someone rich,” jokes Groarke.Groarke and O’Callghan will remain in the States until June when they will return home to Dundalk. Until then, they will enjoy the weather and winter sports which they would consider to be bizarre at home. They even ventured up to Blue Mountain for a snow-tubing session.
“We thought we had seen every kind of rain in Ireland, until we came here and experienced freezing rain,” said Groarke.