Crooked in the Car Seat

Crooked in the Car Seat
by Brian Lynch
Gemini Productions
Dublin Theatre Festival 1979.

Nominated for Best Play in the Harvey’s Theatre Awards.

Another work with an unfortunate history. When Hugh Leonard was Script Editor for the Abbey Theatre the one play he recommended for production in his first year was ‘Crooked’.

I was welcomed into the theatre by the then Director Tomas MacAnna and told that approval by the Board of the Theatre was a formality. As I remember it, the Board was to meet some days later. When I heard nothing I began to phone the Abbey, but MacAnna was never available. After about a week I rang again and by chance MacAnna picked up the phone. He told me the play had been turned down by the Board and that they would be writing to me about it.

Their letter was pretty lame: my memory is that they didn’t like the bad language. I responded, very unwisely of course, by writing a letter, copied to each member of the Board, in which I gave them a piece of my mind.

The real reasons, however, related less to the play than animosities directed towards Hugh Leonard. To this day I don’t know the details, but at the time I heard a variety of stories about the involvement of other Abbey playwrights – one of these stories in the Evening Press Dubliner’s Diary column led to an apology being printed in the paper.

In the event Leonard resigned from the Abbey.

He then persuaded Phyllis Ryan of Gemini to put the play on in the Eblana, a nice little space under the city’s main bus station. She had difficulties getting a director: the future Director of the Abbey Patrick Mason, for instance, refused on the grounds that the play’s central character, a self-hating sharp-tongued gay journalist, was unsympathetically portrayed. Donald Taylor Black, who got the directing job, went on to become perhaps Ireland’s leading TV documentary-maker. Getting someone to play the lead role was also difficult: Donal McCann turned it down and the part eventually went to Kevin McHugh, a highly competent and intelligent actor. Deirdre Donnelly played the female lead. The other members of the cast were Oliver Maguire, Paul Murphy, Maria McDermottroe, Bob Carlile, and Ronan Smith. The reviews were good on the whole, but I remember Maeve Kennedy, daughter of the novelist Val Mulkerns and not a first-string reviewer, saying in The Irish Times that wonderful dialogue was not enough in a play. I think she was right: the play didn’t have a proper shape and the ending, in particular, was less a dying fall than a stumble towards the exit. Irving Wardle in the London Times disliked it thoroughly. On the other hand, the doyen of Dublin theatre critics, JJ Finnegan, compared it to Look Back In Anger and said in time to come it would be seen to have the same importance in Irish theatre as the Osborne had in English theatre. Some prophesy.

The main result, apart from the fact that it effectively terminated my career as a playwright in the Abbey, was that RTE (in the persons of the then Controller of Programmes Muiris MacConghail and the director Peter Ormerod) commissioned me to write Caught in a free State.

Incidentally, the title comes from Van Morrison.


Paul Celan 65 Poems
Paul Celan: 65 Poems

Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1985

translations from the German by Brian Lynch with Peter Jankowsky

This book sold out rapidly – there was a great interest then (and there is still) in Celan’s work. The publishers were grudging about permissions, insisted the edition should be confined to Ireland, and as a consequence a second edition was not pursued.

Peter Jankowsky and I subsequently did translations of a further ten poems which were published in Krino and the large volume that anthologised that magazine. For more information on Peter Jankowsky see the links to Easter Snow and the TV drama Caught in a Free State.



Translated by Brian Lynch & Peter Jankovsky
(Raven Arts Press, £3.95 pb)

Paul Celan, regarded as one of the great poets of the German language, thought of his poems as stones.

When he drowned himself in the Seine in 1970, his pockets were full of stones.

His later poetry is akin to stones washed clean by the remorseless flow of water. His style, as the introduction to PAUL CELAN: 65 POEMS points out, “becomes increasingly lapidary, avoiding what he called the “thyme carpet” of language. Yet, to stretch the metaphor, the water’s mineral traces cling to the stone, and build up as time passes.

In several of the poems here, one has almost to stop thinking to let the meaning come through of its own accord – even when it seems most obvious.

TO STAND, in the shadow
of the wound-mark in the air.

To stand-for-no-one-and-no-thing.
for you

With all there is room for in that,
even without

In a sense, this is only difficult in its simplicity. Celan’s poetry, more than any other, requires a suspension of expectations, an ability to meditate on the purity of its language.

above the grey-black wasteland.
A tree-
high thought
takes hold of the light-tone: there are
still songs to be sung beyond

In Jankowsky and Lynch, Celan would seem to have ideal translators: the precision of Jankowsky’s German coupled with Lynch’s sense of poetic power and correctness. It is interesting to compare their translation of ‘Matiere de Bretagne’ – one of the few poems from this volume translated before – with that by Michael Hamburger in the ‘Selected Poems’ (Penguin 1972).

That they have succeeded in doing justice to Celan in these 65 poems I have no doubt. A pure poetic spirit and sense of precision sing out from them. It is a very exciting book.

– Philip Casey, The Sunday Press, 1985.

Beds of Down

Beds of Down
Beds of Down

by Brian Lynch
Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1983

Cover design by Leo Duffy from an illustration in the Poetical Works of William Cowper by Thomas Secombe

The title comes from a famous passage in William Cowper’s great long poem The Task, which begins:

‘And now with nerves new-braced and spirits cheered/ We tread the wilderness’, and goes on to describe ‘the thresher at his task./ Thump after thump resounds the constant flail,/ That seems to swing uncertain, and yet falls/ Full on the destined ear’ – a wonderful phrase – and then goes on: ‘Wide flies the chaff,/ The rustling straw sends up a frequent mist/ Of Atoms sparkling in the noonday beam./ Come hither, ye that press your beds of down/ And sleep not – see him sweating o’er his bread/ Before he eats it – Tis the primal curse,/ But softened into mercy, made the pledge/ Of cheerful days, and nights without a groan.’

I was clearly under Cowper’s influence by 1983, an influence of course that led to the writing of The Winner of Sorrow.

This is the first poem in the book – as can be seen, it has some connection with the Cowper passage, though I don’t think I was aware of the link at the time:

The New Typewriter Ribbon

A new blackness, less penetrable.
What seemed to be an afterthought, tonight
Turns out to be the main thought.
Because of this I don’t go out much
Any more: a blackness that turns –
I have to look now – from left to right
Or from right to left and back again.

A bell rings. The door opens next door
And John Doyle laughs Ha Ha and then
Come in he says I hardly knew ye.

I set to thinking about returned greetings,
About how writing is the purest invitation
And about the time my mother called
And I was found out in the way I said hello,
Being guilty of what I most attacked.

A new blackness, less penetrable, more smudged,
And yet I am ready now and willing,
Both aimed and pierced.

Perpetual Star

Perpetual Star
Perpetual Star

Perpetual Star
by Brian Lynch
Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1981

cover image by Rosaleen Davey. Back cover photo by Roy Esmonde incorporating a drawing by Rosaleen Davey

Some reviews

Laurels should be placed in a champagne mood on Lynch’s brow for one very great and clear reason. Our culture, notoriously cold in sensual knowledge, has produced here a love poet of absolute integrity. – The Sunday Press

This is highly impressive work. If one is to go into ratings, I rank with this Durcan’s recent collection as the best in Irish poetry today. –Cyphers

Here are some of the finest poems written in Ireland since World War II. – Cork Examiner

No Die Cast

No Die Cast
No Die Cast

No Die Cast
by Brian Lynch
New Writers Press 1969

My second book, also from the New Writers’ Press. Out of print.

This book, comprising seven poems, was never issued to the public. Its history is also somewhat peculiar. One day in 1969, while I was living in Barcelona, teaching English as a foreign language, ‘No Die Cast’ arrived in the post, completely unheralded. My memory is vague, but I can only assume that, following the publication of ‘Endsville’ in 1967 by the New Writers Press (see note below) I must have sent these seven pieces (and perhaps others) to Michael Smith.

As a surprise gift – at the time very welcome I must say – Michael had set them by hand (in 12 point Bodoni) and hand-printed the result on Alabaster Wove paper. The punning title is also his – there was no die cast. His note at the end of the book says ‘Seventy five copies only have been printed’, but he told me subsequently that the setting was so laborious nowhere near that number were bound and that the sheets were stored in his attic – for all I know they may still be there. In fact it’s possible that my copy is the only one in existence.

Two of the pieces, Clap-Hands and Another Morning Poem, have appeared in other collections, most recently, and greatly revised, in New and Renewed – Poems 1967–2004.


Brian Lynch & Paul Durcan
New Writers Press, 1967

My first book, shared with Paul Durcan, and the first book issued under the New Writers’ Press imprint.
Note: The title Endsville does not appear on the cover of the book. Instead, the name of the putative series, New Irish Poets, appears to be the title, and is described as such in some catalogues. To confuse the thing further, New Writers Press were only nominally the publishers. Paul Durcan and I, acting under our own steam, were engaged in having the book printed by the Museum Bookshop (on the corner of Kildare Street and Molesworth Street in Dublin). The proprietor was a man called Chichester-Clark, a relation of a subsequent Northern Ireland Prime Minister, James Chichester-Clark. When Michael Smith told me he was starting the NWP – the first publication on his list was Trevor Joyce’s ‘Sole Glum Trek’ – we agreed that it would be a good idea to use the imprint on ‘Endsville’. But that was the extent of the connection.
The sculptor John Behan did the cover, an ink drawing on a large sheet of paper, which is now lost.
As I remember it, Endsville cost £67 to print, a considerable sum in those days, which came out of my pocket. I can’t remember if it was ever placed on sale in bookshops. The Eblana bookshop in Grafton Street may have taken some copies. If it was sold I don’t think either of us got any money for it.

Paul Durcan and Brian Lynch, Barcelona, 1968

click images to enlarge

Brian Lynch and Paul Durcan Barcelona 1968Paul Durcan and Brian Lynch Barcelona 1968

A VIVID PICTURE, by Katie Moten

The Winner of Sorrow
The Winner of Sorrow

Brian Lynch
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
ISBN: 9781905494255
PRICE: €11.99 Entertainment – online review
8 December 2005
The Winner of Sorrow by Brian Lynch
New Island.

In his first novel, poet, screenwriter and art critic Brian Lynch takes on the story of William Cowper, an eighteenth century poet and descendant of John Donne, whose genius was plagued by madness.

Having begun life as a screenplay, ‘The Winner of Sorrow’ made the transition to novel form when the BBC passed on the chance to film it. This history may explain the book’s scene–like chapters and its fluid narrative.

Lynch guides the reader through Cowper’s childhood and early adulthood as a lawyer in the Inner Temple smoothly, and quite quickly, depicting an unfulfilled romance with his cousin Theadora and the first signs of his mental instability.

More attention is paid to the time Cowper spent with the Unwin family, particularly Mary Unwin. She was the widow of a priest, to whom he was briefly engaged and he remained devoted to her for the rest of her life, despite opposition from his family and hers. His battle with insanity is explored in a very vivid way, using paintings to visualise how his demons oppressed him. Part of the mastery of Lynch’s story lies in the imagery he uses to show us the darkness of Cowper’s troubled mind.

Anyone who knows their Jane Austen will have read the name Cowper, but what Lynch does here is to give us a vivid picture of the man. His fictionalisation of the life of William Cowper, an almost forgotten poet, is so momentous that it would certainly have made a very watchable period drama.

Katie Moten

Back to The Winner of Sorrow main page


The Winner of Sorrow
The Winner of Sorrow

Brian Lynch
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
ISBN: 9781905494255
PRICE: €11.99

The Irish Independent
Saturday 22 October 2005
by Thomas Kilroy

Brian Lynch is an exceptional Irish writer. Not only because of the quality of his writing but because he stands outside the circuit of crude marketing and public posturing by writers now required, apparently, to sell books.

This beautifully written novel is about the English eighteenth century poet and lunatic William Cowper. But don’t stop reading at this point. This is one of those rare books that creates an unfamiliar world and then draws the reader into it.

Cowper is best know as a precursor of the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Burns. Some of his lines (‘Variety is the spice of life,’ ‘God made the country, and man made the town’) have passed into the common vernacular. He was a strange mixture of suicidal suffering and writing of pure, elegant simplicity. Brian Lynch captures this mix wonderfully well.

Although he clearly couldn’t function in the world Cowper managed to survive, with a body servant, Sam, and little obvious source of income, through various abodes in provincial England. His real journey, though, was internal through his reading and writing and all of this is brought fully to life by Lynch. The external life is here, too, in the rich detail of the book with its mastery of eighteenth centry English customs and landscape, food, medicine, prosody and evangelicanism.

Cowper also attracted the support of several women, in particular, two widows, Mrs. Unwin and Lady Anna Austen. Clearly impotent, he nevertheless generated this nest of turbulent sexuality around himelf. This sad sexual comedy is the centrepiece of the novel and the characterization of the two women, one solid, the other mercurial, is particularly sharp.

And what about Cowper himself? It’s extremely difficult to bring an artist to life in fiction, to make the connection between the ordinary and the art. Not only does Lynch do this, he brings the whole complex of contradictions in Cowper into view. The peculiar stubborness of a shy man, the kind of control over women which a passive man can exert, the clear bell-like voice of poetry from a man with monstrous voices in his own head. Cowper gave these voices grim names, like the Mocker, the Judge, the Accuser.

This terrifying inner life is balanced by the comic sense with which Cowper faced most things around him, including his ladies. This, too, is caught by Brian Lynch. The vision isn’t too far away from Beckett. ‘Sometimes he thanked God he was mad – you could laugh out loud and not have to explain yourself’.

Perhaps the sexual shenanigans, or lack of them, are given even more force by the way in which Lynch creates the sensuality of life around Cowper, to which the poet was, indeed, responsive. In the middle of the heated battle for possession of him by the ladies, ‘as far as the act of connection was concerned, Cowper had only ever reached the point of being a calf butting its mother for milk.’

As you can see, the narrator of this book is witty, urbane with a sense of the ridiculous and how it touches human sadness. Lynch is also an accomplished poet and there is passage after passage here of startling, verbal beauty, never ostentatious, always integrated into the story.

And what about that story? There will be readers, I think, who will miss the typical plotting of a novel. But Lynch is after something more natural, the casual rhythm of how time passes, full of accidental shifts, some of them contrived by busybodies. The opening chapters, too, present challenges to the reader. They start with Cowper in old age but with a series of rapid, unsignalled references to the past. Indeed, some of the opening is only fully explained later on. Just stay with it.

Thomas Kilroy’s most recent play Henry opened September 2005 in the US to critical acclaim.


Back to The Winner of Sorrow main page

from The Cowper and Newton Museum Bulletin Spring 2006, by Tony Seward

The Winner of Sorrow
The Winner of Sorrow
Brian Lynch
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
ISBN: 9781905494255
PRICE: €11.99

from The Cowper and Newton Museum Bulletin, Spring 2006

Brian Lynch, The Winner of Sorrow: a Novel (Dublin: New Island, 2005)
ISBN 1 904301 80 0, paperback, 338 pages

Brian Lynch is an Irish poet and scriptwriter: this is his first novel. It is a richly textured, tragi-comic exploration of the life of William Cowper, a fellow-poet with whom he clearly feels a deep affinity. He insists that it is not a biography, but it would be fair to classify it as ‘fictionalised biography’, a genre which has become firmly established in recent times through the practice of writers such as Peter Ackroyd and Julian Barnes. Indeed, Brian Lynch has remained significantly more faithful to the known facts surrounding his subject than have some other authors in the field. There is evidence on every page of his intimate knowledge of Cowper’s letters and poems, and of the work of earlier biographers such as Lord David Cecil and James King. He has closely researched the poet’s milieu, and presents a convincing picture, not only of the lives of William Cowper, John and Mary Newton, Mary Unwin and the other dramatis personae of the story, but of life in Olney and the surrounding countryside.

But he does far more than this. Above all, he brings a poet’s eye to the narrative and structure of the book. Naturally, for a poet writing about a poet, questions of technique arise and are discussed at appropriate points in the story. There is a beautiful chapter in which Newton and Cowper visit a lacemaking school, on the way discussing the finer points of hymn-writing. At the school, Cowper is deeply moved by the pathos of the little girls working in freezing conditions, but also inspired by the power of simple verses, the lacemakers’ ‘tells’, to imprint themselves on the memory – which in turn feeds back into the continuing discussion of hymn writing. But the poetic method informs the book in more subtle and important ways – through imagery especially, but also through wordplay and a vivid particularity in the realisation of people and objects. For example, the poem ‘The Snail’, which is seen as clearly autobiographical, provides a recurring motif illuminating aspects of Cowper’s character and, in particular, his sexuality. The prevalence of wordplay is such that the reader must be ever on her toes if she is not to miss some of the subtleties of what is on offer. There is a mystery at the heart of the book – the meaning of ‘Sadwin’ – which is partially unravelled by discussions of the names of the characters, but which demands an alertness to the nuances of language which is as bracing as a Norfolk sea breeze.

The novel deals with large themes – madness, love, loneliness, creativity, old age – as played out amongst a group of people living in a small market town at a time of major social and political change. As in Jane Austen’s work, irruptions from the wider world of revolution and the French wars unsettle the apparently uneventful lives of the protagonists. Cowper and Mary Unwin, however, with the Newtons, constitute an inner circle which dangerous or interfering outsiders like Anna Austen and Harriot Hesketh attempt to penetrate in vain. Exclusion is a powerful force prompting action and forming character – exclusion of interlopers from the inner circle, Cowper’s feelings of exclusion at school because ‘he is not like other boys’, exclusion by death from his mother’s love, culminating, tragically, in the unshakeable belief in his exclusion from God’s love. Morally, all the characters can be selfish and manipulative, not least the saintly Mary Unwin when her stake in Cowper is challenged, but a measure of ordinary human kindness is enough to create lasting bonds between true friends and enable them to survive (‘All four of them had loved each other’, p.320).

As is appropriate for a hero who lived most of his life in an intimate female circle (there is a recurring image of Cowper as Hercules ‘unmanned’ when he became the servant of the queen Omphale), the women are given their full due. The character of Mary Unwin is explored with great delicacy as a person with her own foibles, weaknesses and jealousies as well as a heroic capacity for devotion. It is good to see the balance thus partially restored between William, who through his letters and poems was able to fashion his own image for posterity, and Mary, who has left scarcely any record of her real character and emotions. John and Mary Newton are painted with a broader brush and seem not quite fully realised, but the most challenging creation is Lady Austen, who imparts a heavy sexuality and vitality to the central chapters and then is cast off as brutally as was Falstaff by Prince Hal. Others have their exits and their entrances – Theadora, his first love, the Revd Bull, who weeps at every mention of Christ’s suffering, Johnny Johnson, birdlike saviour and carer for the old couple, and the appalling Samuel Teedon, whose frowstiness is evoked with a relish worthy of Dickens.

The Winner of Sorrows is a vividly imagined exploration of the life and inner struggles of a complex personality – it gives us a Cowper for our times. It is a demanding read, but worth the effort for the fresh insights it brings to our understanding of the man and the forces which shaped his poetry.

Tony Seward is editor of the Cowper and Newton Museum Bulletin – the museum is in Orchardside, the house in Olney, Buckinghamshire, where Cowper lived with Mrs Mary Unwin for seventeen years

Back to The Winner of Sorrow Main Page