Derry author Sean McMahon has spent a lifetime indulging his passion for writing. The former St Columb’s College teacher has published many books in the areas of history, literary criticism and biography, including biographies of Robert Lynd and Sam Hanna Bell, as well as best selling poetry anthologies. Three new books have just hit the bookshelves. The Journal had a look...
Prolific is the best word to use when it comes to Derry writer Sean McMahon.
The former St. Columb’s College teacher has more than fifty titles to his credit as both author and editor and currently has no less than three new books out.
As well as editing a new collection of Irish poetry and song, he has also penned acclaimed biographies of playwright, novelist and actor Joseph Tomelty, and Belfast-born politician “Wee Joe” Devlin, one of the most significant figures in Irish public life at the start of the 20th century.
Sean McMahon’s biography of Devlin traces his life and times from the backstreets of Belfast, through his promotion up the ranks of the Irish Parliamentary Party, to the height of his career at Westminster, until the emergence of a more radical brand of Irish politics brought upon his decline.
By the time of his death in 1934, ‘Wee Joe’, as he was affectionately known, had left an indelible mark on politics in Ireland.
From humble beginnings to, Devlin’s star had risen against the tumultuous background of the fall from grace of Charles Stewart Parnell, the protracted negotiations surrounding Home Rule, the Ulster Crisis, World War One, the Easter Rising, the Irish Civil War, and the slicing of the country in two which accompanied Partition.
Throughout all of this, Devlin was, perhaps, one of the most significant figures in Irish public life - as Sean McMahon writes, “a thorn in the sides of both the religious and political establishment in Ireland.”
He was, says the Derry author, an “admired and influential character at home and abroad and a man who never lost sight of the needs of the working class people who elected him to power.”
In his portrait of Joseph Tomelty, Sean McMahon writes that he was one of the most important figures to have emerged from the north of Ireland in the 20th century.
Tomelty’s work - especially in his still fondly remembered radio soap ‘The McCooeys’ - represents, says Sean McMahon, “the first major imaginative portrayal of a particularly northern sensibility, humour and tang of speech.”
Tomelty’s influence, says the Derry author, is still felt in Northern Irish drama - despite his writing career having been effectively ended in 1954 in a car accident.
The ‘in-house’ dramatist of Belfast’s Ulster Group Theatre, Tomelty’s stage work spanned the broad farces of ‘Barnum Was Right’ and ‘Mugs and Money’, through the whimsical ‘April in Assagh’ to the darker, tragic tones of ‘The End House’ and ‘All Souls’ Night’.
His novels - the grim psychological study ‘Red is the Port Light’ and socio-realistic ‘The Apprentice’ - are still essential reading.
Yet, more than a writer, Tomelty was a public figure of significance in his native place.
His character roles in such films as ‘Odd Man Out’ meant that, even in later years, he was capable of drawing admiration and affection from the people to whom he first gave voice.
Following his death in 1995, the ‘Derry Journal’ published a tribute to Tomelty written by civil rights founder Fionnbarra O’Dochartaigh.
O’Dochartaigh said of ‘The McCooeys’: “It is no exaggeration to state that ‘The McCooeys’ cleared the streets better than a shower of rain, as even the children gathered round the radio set to laugh, cheer or cry.”
O’Dochartaigh also revealed that Tomelty was a regular visit to Derry.
“One remembers his pleasant and jovial nature, which made him many friends thoughout the globe. He was never one to boast about his own talent, in fact quite the contrary, often making a joke at his own expense.”
In Sean McMahon’s ‘The Smile and the Tear: Poems and Songs of Ireland’, readers will find much that they know, some that will be new to them and all guaranteed Irish, ranging from old, unhappy things to poems of love, rage and wild humour, blister-raising satire and devotion to country.
A multitude of different Ireland is here, represented in both languages, from the mountains of Mourne to the Rose of Tralee, from the Lake of Innisfree to Dublin’s fair city, to the pleasant waters of the River Lee.
‘Wee Joe: The Life of Joseph Devlin’ is published by The Brehon Press, ‘Joseph Tomelty: A Portrait’ by Lagan Press and ‘’The Smile and the Tear: Poems and Songs of Ireland’ by Londubh Books.