When Mercier Press this year published Dreams On Paper, the biography of Walter Macken by his son Ultan, the work of an original voice in Irish literature was acknowledged and saluted. Walter Macken’s books about his native Galway were an exceptional example of native stories in the difficult fifties in Ireland. His books had a real and populist feel to them that a literary generation had trouble acknowledging, and from initial poor sales from an English publisher, quietly gathered momentum with a historical trilogy in the sixties of Seek The Fair Land, The Silent People and The Scorching Wind, were seminal woks to fire young minds about Ireland.
I was in secondary school and due to encouragement from Christian Brothers and a wonderful Galway-born teacher, Sean Crowe and a fine O’Connell Street library, I absorbed a great deal of Irish writing, even when some of the recommended authors were banned by zealots under the undue influence of religious scruples.
At first glance, this biography seemed off putting due to the large reliance on Walter Macken’s letters. But as the very ordinary story unfolds, you realise that such a resource as carbon copies of letters is long gone and e-mail and digitised text communications make it harder for historians and biographers.
It is the ordinary dreams of an actor with an Irish language theatre, An Taidhbhearc, in Galway who began to write to support his family and tell a teeming slice of Irish life at a time long before any celtic tiger. What emerges is an extraordinary tale of a remarkable writer/actor. Walter Macken was a strong influence on me and back in the early sixties, when I had dreams of writing, I wrote to him seeking advice. His reply was brilliant – he told me to write and that’s what a writer does. I never sought such advice from another, again, but never forgot the honesty of the answer that inspired me in different ways.
Within the book, the often maligned Abbey Theatre manager, Earnest Blyth comes across as a paternalistic figure. The book is crammed with interesting stories like Jimmy Cagney’s theatre company trying to sign Macken to a Hollywood deal. But it is the nuts and bolts of writing, rewriting, and publisher imposed edits, that carries the reader along as Macken’s fortune waxes and wanes.
My only criticism is the lack of index for so fine a book.