Dennis O’Driscoll, Irish poet, essayist, critic and editor, dies suddenly on December 24, 2012, in Naas, County Kildare. Regarded as one of the best European poets of his time, Eileen Battersby considers him “the lyric equivalent of William Trevor” and a better poet “by far” than Raymond Carver. Gerard Smyth regards him as “one of poetry’s true champions and certainly its most prodigious archivist.” His book on Seamus Heaney is regarded as the definitive biography of the Nobel laureate.
Born on January 1, 1954 in Thurles, County Tipperary, O’Driscoll is the child of James O’Driscoll and Catherine Lahart, a salesman/horticulturist and a homemaker. He is educated by the Congregation of Christian Brothers. After completing his secondary education in 1970 at the age of sixteen, he is offered a job at Ireland’s Office of the Revenue Commissioners, the internal revenue and customs service. Specializing in “death duties, stamp duties, and customs,” he is employed for over thirty years full-time. He lives in Naas, County Kildare, until his sudden death.
In the 1970s and 80s, O’Driscoll holds many part-time jobs and positions in association with his writing. He takes a position as part-time editor of Tax Briefing, a technical journal produced in Ireland, as well as reviewing poetry for Hibernia, and The Crane Bag. He also serves on the council of the Irish United Nations Association from 1975–80. After this, he marries Julie O’Callaghan, a poet and writer, in September 1985. He stays in the revenue business for as long as he does due to the advice of a colleague, who teels him, “If you ever leave your job, you will stop writing.” Thus, revenue becomes a sort of fall back option for him; a career that pays regularly and provides a pension. Whereas poetry is his art. Even so, in his memoir entitled, Sing for the Taxman, he states, “I have always regarded myself as a civil servant rather than a ‘poet’ or ‘artist’ – words I would find embarrassing and presumptuous to ascribe to myself.”
After thirty-eight years in Revenue, in early 2008, O’Driscoll is asked to write a poem marking the opening of the Revenue Museum in Dublin Castle, marking the first time his job and his art intermingle. This poem, At The Revenue Museum, which is originally brought to life to be printed in a program for the opening ceremony, now hangs as an exhibit in the museum itself.
Prior to the publication of his own poems, O’Driscoll publishes widely in journals and other print publications as both an essayist and poetry reviewer, for which he is very widely known. He writes nine books of poetry, three chapbooks, and two collections of essays and reviews. The majority of his works are characterised by the use of economic language and the recurring motifs of mortality and the fragility of everyday life. In 1987, he temporarily becomes a writer-in-residence at the National University of Ireland. He also serves for a short time as editor of Poetry Ireland Review.
O’Driscoll dies suddenly at the age of 58 on December 24, 2012. He is rushed to hospital after becoming ill but quickly succumbs to his fate. The arts world is shocked by his sudden demise. His wife and siblings – brothers Proinsias, Seamus, Declan, and sisters, Marie and Eithne – survive him.
President Michael D. Higgins notes that O’Driscoll is “held in the highest regard not only by all those associated with Irish and European poetry.” Joe Duffy, with whom O’Driscoll had appeared on air on the very week of his death, calls him a “generous, caring and witty man.” Fellow writer Belinda McKeon says he was “a scholar, a gentleman, a character, a friend.” English poet and critic David Morley describes him as a “fine poet and great critic.” Irish PEN mourns his death.