Tom MacIntyre: Writer who spoke to world from island off west of Ireland

Late poet and playwright was a storyteller who used his own silence to listen

‘This above all: to thine own self be true’, the advice of Polonius to Hamlet, is one of the most celebrated observations in the Shakespearian canon. What does it mean to be authentic?

What price is one prepared to pay for it, not in terms of the accoutrement of physical possessions, honour or reputation, but in the living of life itself. And for what purpose can the sacrifices be justified? What then constitutes an authentic voice?

These questions encompass and transcend physical, emotional, familial and societal terrains. The authentic self is always constrained. Its nature is determined by an implicit or explicit responsibility for and to the community in which one lives, or escapes from.

The mining of that community for artistic content is always subject to the acceptance or rejection of moral factors, the parameters of which are contested and contestable. The alchemy of creation cannot erase the cost entirely, no matter how well-hidden. Or the compromise necessary to achieve it.


The stories we tell ourselves are critical in helping to identify and make sense of life's meaning and shaping our responsibilities to and for it

For the artist as much as for the philosopher, one must dig deep into one’s own culture to understand it and one’s place within it. It was with this in mind that the noted Irish playwright Tom MacIntyre, who has died aged 87 after a long illness, embarked on a personal quest for authenticity.

In 1974, he boarded a trawler at the fishing port of Cleggan on the west coast of Ireland and sailed into the North Atlantic. He was travelling towards Inishbofin, an island 7km offshore. Close enough to look back towards the majestic Twelve Bens that dominate the Connemara coastline but with sufficient distance, literally and metaphorically, from the mainland, to provide perspective.

Inishbofin – The Island of the White Cow – was to change his life, those of the islanders themselves, and the trajectory of Irish letters at a time in which modernity transformed age-old certainties within and beyond the outcrop.


He arrived on the cusp of change. Old certainties were being swept away with all of the force of the elemental gales that regularly cross the North Atlantic to unleash their power on the most rugged coast in Europe.

Although MacIntyre’s work rarely directly referenced the island itself, the freedom it represented is most evident in a 2012 poem, written long after his four-year sojourn there.

MacIntyre was an accomplished Irish scholar and player of the ancient, fast and furious team game of hurling. In and on The Boat, MacIntyre jettisoned one form of culture in search for another.

Boat leaves the quay,
quay dwindles like never was,
he’s there to starboard,
fine cut of a lad,
hurley in hand,
throws up the sliotar,
belts it landward,
watch him now,
he’s only startin’ –
the hurley’s after it,
hurley too in flight,
there’s a sea-bird
not known yet,
there’s a sight,
curve of the ash,
and, now like a prayer,
she kisses the tide.

Moving to an island with few of the accoutrements of modern life, causing a salacious scandal with real sorrowful impact on his family, and finding freedom in anonymity and close observation of a life alien to the demi-monde of Dublin literary life was a choice not to be taken likely.

As WB Yeats had presciently and repeatedly warned, the choice forces existential reflection. Is “one content to live it all again?”

Purpose and meaning

MacIntyre was to find solace in the constant turmoil of the Atlantic. It would be here that he could answer the siren call of Plato’s ghost evoked by Yeats. With and through the community of Inishbofin, MacIntyre found meaning and purpose in disentangling the ties that bind.

Inishbofin was and remains an anomaly. At various times it served as a monastic settlement, a base for the legendary pirate Grace O’Malley, a fortress used by Cromwell to imprison turbulent priests, and the unlikely epicentre of a herring Klondike in the 1840s.

By the time MacIntyre arrived, subsistence had changed from grazing poor land and rudimentary fishing to an equally numbing reliance on the State. Far removed from the chaos of the world and the clashes on streets of Belfast, Beirut and Saigon, its power struggles were local but no less profound.

Feuds based on ancient enmities, the origins of which were swept away by time, provided a rich cultural inheritance. English speaking, the island was ignored by linguistic anthropologists. The island and its preoccupations provided a unique trifecta: a refuge, a canvas and palette.

The consummate outsider, a county football player from a landlocked county who found freedom with and through the ocean

Its importance for MacIntyre lay in its very integration to the colonisation project: both Catholic and British; how its traditions remained intact; and how this interaction moulded the Irish psyche.

In dipping his pen into the metaphorical ink of the ocean, MacIntyre was taking a journey into the unknown. He was not alone. He was accompanied by a lover. Deborah Tall, 20 years his junior, had been swept from the Ann Harbor campus of the University of Michigan in the mid-western United States by MacIntyre.

Then a visiting lecturer, MacIntyre was already a charismatic force of nature. As Tall put it in her memoir of the affair, nothing prepared her for “the power of his presence in a room . . . Listening to him in class was more like watching a one-man show, the script of which got written on the spot.”

The script involved convincing the student to return with him to Ireland and to a life on an island neither were prepared for, particularly the neophyte poetess. When once asked by Tall why he had left his family and whether it was fair to do so, MacIntyre replied: “there’s no fairness in the world”.

Sharing the toil

Her memoir, Island of the White Cow, depicted an island at war with itself. It was a metaphor for the progressive breakdown of her own relationship. Caught up in petty enmity, secrets based on truths and misdirection, her book is informed by jealousy and rage: revenge on her mentor and the island that gave him what she knew he desired: "The capacity to live like a vagabond, at the edge of society, like the early Irish bard who earned his way by his songs, camping on the doorsteps of those that denied him. God help those that did. He made it sound obvious, inevitable."

So too was her fury, as elemental as the Atlantic storms that raged periodically around them as the relationship soured. Cut off from modernity, reliant, sometimes resentfully so, on each other, and under constant watch, no island is a place for the fainthearted.

MacIntyre’s interest in the island and its social mores lay less in observation of its landscape but what, in actively sharing the toil of the islanders, he could learn about himself from communion with and between the ghosts of the past and present. As he put it in a 2013 interview, writing is at its core “a way of being, it’s a way of praying. It’s a journey, an interior journey of no trivial proportions. It’s probably true to say . . . for me it’s a soul journey.”

In seeking the transcendental, MacIntyre was under no illusion.

“That’s scary at the start, but when it becomes your way of breathing, then it is your health, and it’s your connection with the other side.”

It was to define his craft. “Storytellers always need courage and with a story that is worth telling you are entering the shadow land and you may or may not come out alive. Tugann sibh misneach dom [You give me courage],” he told the audience on receipt of the 2001 Irish Funds Literary Award from his long-term friend Séamus Heaney.

Political doppelganger

In a 2010 profile, Michael Harding of The Irish Times reminisced on his friendship with the man, known locally as the poet: "Like an ancient philosopher, he interrogates his company, usually with variations of the one question – what are you doing with your life? And he can sit for ages without speaking; just sifting the silence for words, like a fisherman waiting for a trout to hop out of a lake."

For MacIntyre the past is never far away; one is always susceptible to its embrace. MacIntyre believed that he was nothing less than a shaman, a descriptor he wore as much as a curse as a badge of honour.

“There is a battle going on in contemporary writing. There is the 80 per cent majority who haven’t the slightest interest in what is grandly titled the transcendental, the other world rubbing against this world. I belong vehemently to the 20 per cent who simply believe in ghosts, who are totally committed to the idea of the sacral constantly rubbing against the secular.”

The engagement must be real. It must be built on empathy, empirically grounded, and not merely imagined

It was a conflict that he openly embraced across all literary genres, most notably the stage and as a diarist, returning again and again to Charles J Haughey, his political doppelganger.

The same question provided the impetus for the Irish Literary Renaissance, of which the Abbey Theatre in central Dublin founded by WB Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904, was to occupy the centre-stage, showcasing writing from JM Synge to Brendan Behan. It was here in the 1980s that MacIntyre's experimental subversion of the literary ideal took place. As playwright in residence, he created and curated through long-term collaborative projects a unique "theatre of the image".

The approach held a fragmented mirror to a shattered and battered society. It used the past to illuminate the uncertainties of the present; a bankrupt society in the Republic, slowly becoming cognisant of institutional abuse of power across secular and faith-based sectors, and a civil war of increasing intensity in the North, where hunger was being weaponised as symbol of political resistance. What was required was an interpreter. None was more ideally placed to perform that role than MacIntyre.

‘Searching, questioning mind’

The consummate outsider, a Northerner (but from within the three counties of historic Ulster, transplanted into the Republic); a county football player from a landlocked county who found freedom with and through the ocean; and a storyteller who used his own silence to listen.

For MacIntyre, Irish mythology allowed for a search for elemental meaning, while modern Ireland provided a backdrop for the playing out of age-old patterns, derived from a psyche that required expression in verbal and non-verbal forms.

Sometimes, as in his depiction of the banality of violence, it is in the very sparseness of the writing that MacIntyre deploys what the critic Niall MacMonagle terms “the active, searching, questioning mind in language that dispenses with explanation while exacting attention”. In the process one reconnects with an essential past, the world informed by the interaction between “spirits, demons and moral forces which our ancestors lived in”.

The Roman philosopher Seneca, for example, argued that “no one can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life . . . Philosophy is not an occupation of popular nature, nor is it pursued for the sake of self-advertisement . . . It moulds and builds the personality, orders one’s life, regulates one’s conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, sits at the helm and keeps one on the correct course as one is tossed about in perilous seas”.

Crafting stories

An authentic life requires, therefore, an active balancing between three potential sources of turmoil. To gain transformative power, the art should derive from lived not imagined experience.

The engagement must be real. It must be built on empathy, empirically grounded, and not merely imagined. Seen in this context, authenticity requires enormous strength of character to align thoughts, words and actions.

The stories we tell ourselves are critical in helping to identify and make sense of life’s meaning and shaping our responsibilities to and for it. First, we have to craft them.

The task sums up MacIntyre’s entire approach and its enduring legacy: a communion that unites the past, present and future; transcendent but grounded in social realities; playful but scornful of piety.

Reading MacIntyre provides a key to an examined life. It is a task that while physically situated on an island on the western edge of Europe, speaks directly to the needs of a global audience. MacIntyre provides the navigational compass to a safe harbour.

Professor Justin O’Brien is writing a biography of Tom MacIntyre. He is the author of The Arms Trial (2000) and The Modern Prince: Charles J Haughey and the Quest for Power