Robert O'Driscoll died in Ireland on February 29th. He and I, both outharbourmen from Conception Bay, became close friends in the 1950s at Memorial University in St. John's. We took our B.A. and M.A. in English together. His M.A. thesis, on the eighteenth-century Pedagogic Novel, dealt with such justly forgotten writers as Elizabeth Inchbald and Thomas Day. (Mine was on an equally irrelevant topic.) I well recall his scribbling out the final paragraph in a tiny office we had been given as graduate assistants. In that paragraph he asserted that the Pedagogic Novelists had found the true meaning of existence, and that we in the twentieth century had foolishly neglected to follow their dictates. He read this out to me, chuckling as he did so.
This was in the summer of 1960, shortly before the two of us sailed from St. John's to Liverpool, on the old Furness-Withy passenger ship the Terra Nova, to begin Ph.D. studies at the University of London. Robert had already arrived at his main perception about academic life, namely, that it was in essence theatre. It was understandable that he would think this. Even as a teenager, he was an accomplished actor and public speaker. There were students at Memorial who were better than he in both these fields, but none who learned as fast as he did. He built on what he learned; he was in a hurry. He had a phenomenal memory, a rich sense of humour, an immense charm, and a hankering for publicity-he was a natural on stage or before a microphone.
Soon after arriving in England, we found ourselves one evening in the main hall of University College London, where a debate was taking place on the possibility of European union. The debate was in its final stages; would-be Ciceros were orating from the floor, in the odd accents of the British upper class. I could barely pick out what they were saying. I turned to speak to Robert, but he had left my side. A minute later, he appeared on the dais in front of the hall, and proceeded to address the gathering of about three hundred, in an accent that must have seemed as peculiar to them as theirs did to me, on the virtues of continental federation. He knew nothing about European union, but this did not stop him from expostulating on the issue, without preparation of any kind, and at considerable length.
We both went looking for Ph.D. thesis topics, working out of the British Museum library. Here, fate lent a hand. We found lodgings together in Muswell Hill, North London. On the same street lived Brian Coffey, a brilliant though often impenetrable Irish poet who knew Samuel Beckett. Coffey had a big, talented, loving family; and we got to meet them. Robert immediately chose a dreamy Irish bard called Samuel Ferguson to write his thesis on, and toppled into the Celtic Twilight. He never really got out of it, though in later life he found something much darker to consume him.
Three years passed. I left for a teaching job in Manitoba. He went to the University of Reading, then University College Dublin. By the time he reached St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto-in 1966, his life nearly half over-his ambition was set. He would make Toronto the centre of a new Celtic Revival, he'd tell me on the phone. He would create a new, revolutionary Canadian awareness of Irish civilization. He would save Ireland. To these ends, international conferences were staged; Irish plays were premiered; publishing enterprises were launched; money was raised; schemes were hatched. The Irish taoiseach and the Canadian prime minister were petitioned. Robert was a brilliant impresario and organizer. A colleague of mine once attended one of his conferences, and reported that at the final dinner-always a highlight of an O'Driscoll event-Robert came late to the head table, marching to music from an Irish band, and leading two Irish wolfhounds.
Books started appearing. I'm not qualified to judge his contributions to the study of Irish literature and culture. I know he worked hard at understanding Yeats and other luminaries of the Twilight; he also punched his way through Joyce, even into Finnegans Wake, and could quote Beckett endlessly. His head was full of Irish literary tags. When I'd see him in Toronto, we'd go out for a jar. Say we headed home at midnight, Robert might solemnly intone: "At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit/ Flames that no faggot feeds, not steel has lit"-then go on to the end of that lovely poem that no-one understands. (He claimed he understood it.)
Let me mention two of his academic books: The Celtic Consciousness, which won an American award in 1982; and The Untold Story (co-edited with Lorna Reynolds), published in 1988, about the Irish in Canada. This second book has a number of fine scholarly pieces. Robert's own contributions, including a selection from his speeches, have the customary ingredients: vatic pronouncements, quotations from the eminent, highly symbolic reachings for effect. He also wrote poetry. He wrote a family history of the O'Driscolls, which I think is one of the funniest books ever written about Newfoundland.
Academe, as he came to see, is more than theatre. The Irish didn't want a Canadian saviour. And did Canada really need Celtic Studies? The O'Driscoll sun had to set. He got sick; he thought himself surrounded by enemies. In his illness, he came to think that Jews were numbered amongst them. I don't know where he got this stupid idea. I can attest that there was no anti-Semitism in the old O'Driscoll I knew.
People lost patience with him. I did, too.
"They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall," Dr. Johnson wrote of politicians. This happens to academics also. O'Driscoll fell hard. He had little happiness in late years. But in his last letter to me, at Christmas, he wrote that he was "set up in an elegant apartment; as I write I look out over the whole six-mile sweep of Dublin Bay towards Howth Head (and environs as JJ has it) and then from one of my windows I catch a six-mile sweep of the Wicklow mountains. Hard at work, splicing together two books.."
That has a note of joy in it. He would soon go to Iran, he wrote. Then India.
I grieve for him, and will miss him the rest of my life.
Patrick O'Flaherty lives in St. Phillips, Newfoundland.