Durcan grows up in Dublin and in Turlough, County Mayo. His father, John, is a barrister and circuit court judge. He has a difficult and formal relationship with his father. He enjoys a warmer and more natural relationship with his mother, Sheila MacBride Durcan, through whom he is a great-nephew of both Maud Gonne, the Irish social and political activist, and John MacBride, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, which begins the Irish War of Independence leading to the foundation of the Irish Free State.
In the 1970s Durcan studies Archaeology and Medieval History at University College Cork (UCC). Earlier, in the 1960s, he studies at University College Dublin (UCD). While at college there, he is kidnapped by his family and committed against his will to Saint John of God psychiatric Hospital in Dublin, and later to a Harley Street clinic where he is subjected to electric shock treatment and heavy dosages of barbiturates and Mandrax.
In 1966, Durcan moves to London, where he works at the North Thames Gas Board. He meets Nessa O’Neill in 1967 and they marry and have two daughters, Sarah and Siabhra. They live in South Kensington, then move to Cork, where his wife teaches in a prison. The marriage ends in early 1984.
Durcan’s main published collections include A Snail in my Prime, Crazy About Women, Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil and Cries of an Irish Caveman. He appears on the 1990 Van Morrison album Enlightenment, giving an idiosyncratic vocal performance on the song “In The Days Before Rock’n’Roll,” which he also co-writes.
In 2003, Durcan publishes a collection of his weekly addresses to the nation, Paul Durcan’s Diary, on RTÉ Radio 1 programme Today with Pat Kenny. He gets his inspiration from Paidraig Whitty, a local Wexford poet. He is shortlisted in 2005 for the Poetry Now Award for his collection The Art of Life (The Harvill Press, 2004). In 2009, he is conferred with an honorary degree by Trinity College, Dublin. He is the Ireland Fund Artist-in-Residence in the Celtic Studies Department of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in October 2009. In 2011 he is conferred with an honorary doctorate from University College Dublin.
Between 2004 and 2007 Durcan is the third Ireland Professor of Poetry. He is a member of Aosdána. Awards he has received include the Patrick Kavanaugh Poetry Award (1974), the Irish American Culture Institute Poetry Award (1989), the Whitbread Prize for Daddy, Daddy (1990) and the London Poetry Book Society choice for The Berlin Wall Café.
A number of poems from Durcan’s poetry career are studied by Irish students who take the Leaving Certificate.