Affecting memoir of a life with one of the great Irish editors

by John Boland

Memoir: I’ll Drop You a Line: A Life With David Marcus, Ita Daly, Londubh, pbk, 126 pages, €14.99

Ita Daly, widow of ‘New Irish Writing’ founder David Marcus, has written a beautiful account of their time together

This affecting memoir by the widow of David Marcus reveals aspects of the man hitherto unknown to anyone but his immediate family and most intimate of friends – including the sad last years that preceded his death in 2009 at the age of 84.

For the rest of us who knew, admired, indeed loved him, and certainly for a thankful generation of Irish writers, he was the great encourager and enabler, more crucial to literary careers than even such other notable editors as Ian Hamilton in London or William Maxwell in New York.

When, at the age of 22, he founded the magazine Irish Writing in his native Cork, he published new work by Samuel Beckett, Seán O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin and Liam O’Flaherty, as well as giving room to younger and less-known writers, and by the late 1940s he had also created Poetry Ireland, whose crucial role in the publishing of new Irish verse continues to this day.

By then, he had abandoned thoughts of the legal career for which he had studied in University College Cork, but a devotion to the talents of others wasn’t earning him a living and he eventually found gainful employment in London, where he remained for much of the 1950s and 1960s.

Literature, however, was always uppermost in his mind, and even though Irish Writing had come to its impecunious end in 1954, he returned to Ireland in the late 1960s with a radical publishing idea: a weekly page in a national newspaper that would be devoted to new writing. He intended to pitch this to the Irish Times but on his way there he bumped into the Evening Press’s features editor, Seán McCann, who persuaded him to offer it instead to Tim Pat Coogan, who had recently been appointed editor of the Irish Press and who immediately saw its potential.

Appearing every Saturday for almost two decades, David’s ‘New Irish Writing’ page published early work by such now illustrious authors as John Banville, Dermot Healy, Neil Jordan, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright and Joseph O’Connor, and it also featured new stories by such established masters as William Trevor, Edna O’Brien and John McGahern, as well as new verse by poets who were either already famous or on the way to becoming household names. In brief, it published everyone worth publishing – David had a great nose for literary talent.

It was through the New Irish Writing page that I first met him. As a final-year college student, I had submitted five poems to him and he accepted one of them, explaining in his letter of reply why he hadn’t cared for the others but asking for some more. He accepted one from that batch, too, and suggested we meet for coffee in Bewley’s of Westmoreland Street, where I found him the epitome of old-world courtesy and encouraging interest.

Soon afterwards, I found myself employed by the Irish Press, where I was assigned to work as assistant to David, who by now had also become book review editor of the paper. I don’t know what he made of my lax timekeeping (he hated any kind of confrontation, and anyway was too mannerly to chide me directly), but I cherished my year with him – not just for his avuncular presence or his literary insights and wise judgments, but also for the occasional confidings that were to be had from this normally most discreet, indeed reserved, of men.

The one I most vividly recall is when he returned to the office from a meeting with yet another of the young writers he’d invited for coffee in a nearby hostelry. “I think I’m in love,” he said in a giddy whisper, and it was plain that he’d been instantly smitten.

Ita Daly describes this first meeting with David in her touching and beautifully written memoir – a meeting that eventually led to 37 years of marriage and to a much-loved daughter, Sarah. But the book is as frank as it is fond, both in its examination of herself and of the difficulties inherent in adjusting to life with someone who was almost two decades older.

Family problems were there at the outset, too, her unbendingly Catholic mother aghast at the notion of her getting married to someone who not only was approaching 50, but was also a Jew (“a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed Jew”, the author points out), while on David’s side two religiously orthodox older brothers disowned him. And, indeed, when the young wife found herself, on the first night of marriage, in the spartan Wellington Road flat of this set-in-his-ways “stranger”, she couldn’t help asking herself: “What have I done?”

What she had done was to begin a life-long relationship with “a man of few needs and little ego”, a man who “hated going to parties and book launches” but who also “made no attempt to change me and was as happy as long as I didn’t try to change him”.

Marriage brings change, of course, and Ita immediately found herself abandoning the bohemian pub lifestyle of her past, while over the decades the demands of marriage and motherhood also took their toll on her creative life – she was a fine novelist, though her books never got the critical or popular acclaim they deserved. Towards the end of their life together, David slowly but inexorably succumbed to dementia and there are distressing passages about the helpless rages that would overcome this most kind and mannerly of men, though the author is just as unsparing about her own failures in coping with this heartbreaking illness.

“I was a bad-tempered woman with a short fuse,” she notes of this troubling time, though at the book’s end she reminds herself of the David who had been her companion for almost four decades – recalling that he had always called her “my love” and that “he was mine, too. I had loved him in my fashion and imperfectly, but I had loved him”.

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