Jordan, John Edward (1930–88), writer, actor, academic, and broadcaster, was born 8 April 1930 in Dublin, eldest of two sons and a daughter of John Anthony Jordan, cooper at Guinness's brewery, and Mary Agnes Jordan (née Byrne), born of Irish parents in Jarrow, England; both of Parkview Avenue, Harold's Cross, Dublin. He was educated at Synge Street CBS, where his teachers included the novelist and broadcaster Francis MacManus (qv) and his school contemporaries included the poet Pearse Hutchinson, the artist Patrick Swift (qv), and the broadcaster Ronnie Walsh.
Jordan's literary precocity can be seen in his teenage letters to the London drama critic James Agate, published in the latter's diaries, Ego 8 and Ego 9. More remarkably, he became a play-reader for the Gate Theatre's directors, Hilton Edwards (qv) and Micheál MacLiammóir (qv) at the age of sixteen. In 1945 he began corresponding with Edwards and MacLiammóir, assessing their season's programme of plays. He acted with the Gate company in the late 1940s and early 1950s, most notably in their production of ‘Hamlet’ at Kronborg castle, Elsinore, in which he played Bernardo and Lucianus. The programme for ‘Hamlet’ notes that Jordan came to the Gate from university theatre, where ‘he had most success as Synge's “Playboy”’, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, and at the Playhouse, Oxford, in 1950; and as Creon in the Dublin Arts Theatre's ‘Antigone’ in 1951. He also acted with Longford Productions, becoming a friend of Edward Pakenham (qv), 6th earl of Longford, and his wife Christine (qv).
Jordan won an entrance scholarship to UCD, where he took a double first in English and French in his BA, and was awarded the Laforcade medal and cup by the French ambassador, Count Ostrogog, after a public contest in 1951 (the runner-up was the poet John Montague). In 1952 he won the NUI travelling studentship, and in 1953 became a scholar at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he chaired the arts committee, was president of the Johnson Society, and was a noted player with the OUDS. Under the pen name ‘John Renehan’ he contributed sophisticated verse to the college journal Trio. In 1954 he secured an MA from the NUI, and in 1955 a B.Litt. from Oxford for a thesis entitled ‘A study of the familiar verse-epistle in English, 1590–1640’.
He left Oxford in 1955 and returned to Dublin, as assistant in the department of English at UCD; he was appointed assistant lecturer in 1959 and college lecturer in 1964. The present writer recalls the extraordinary intensity with which Jordan taught Shakespeare's ‘King Richard III’ in the physics theatre in Earlsfort Terrace (Poetry Ireland Review, no. 25 (spring 1989)).
In 1962 Jordan began editing Poetry Ireland, which had a profoundly seminal influence on the Irish literary scene; publishing such as Seamus Heaney, Pearse Hutchinson, and Thomas Kinsella, as well as the established writers Austin Clarke (qv), Padraic Colum (qv), and Patrick Kavanagh (qv). It also introduced Jordan's students Paul Durcan, Michael Hartnett (qv), Michael Smith (qv), and Macdara Woods. By now Jordan had established his own reputation as an erudite and scrupulously fair critic: ‘our own fastidious John Jordan’, Seamus Heaney called him in a Field Day pamphlet, Open letter. Among his most insightful criticism was the championship of the late Sean O'Casey (qv) (see ‘Illusion and actuality’ in Ronald Ayling, Sean O'Casey (1969); and also ‘The passionate autodidact’ in Irish University Review). ‘Chapter and verse’, a review of Tom Paulin's Faber book of political verse in Krino (spring 1987), is also notable; as are many of his articles and columns in Hibernia on such literary friends as Brendan Behan (qv), Kate O'Brien (qv), Francis Stuart (qv), and Patrick Kavanagh (e.g. ‘To kill a mockingbird’, Hibernia, 30 Nov. 1973, in which he discloses how the passing of Kavanagh had greatly troubled him), and his essay on Irish catholicism in the Crane Bag Forum issue (vii, no. 2 (1983)).
He reviewed for the Irish Times and Irish Press, but his main forum was his Hibernia column, which ran for several decades. Here he championed both Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh – most unusually, in a Dublin divided in its loyalties. He also championed women writers – Elizabeth Bowen (qv), Teresa Deevy (qv) the playwright, Molly Keane (qv), and Kate O'Brien – long before a feminist critique had developed.
Kavanagh died while Jordan was lecturing at the Memorial University, St John's, Newfoundland, as an associate professor. Profoundly saddened, Jordan returned to Dublin and resigned his staff post at UCD (1969) in order to concentrate on creative writing and broadcasting. Ill health had necessitated a stay in St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin in 1969, after a visit to North Africa. Out of this convalescence came the poems that made up his first published collection, Patrician stations (1971). The central theme is a meditation on Austin Clarke and the founder of St Patrick's, Dean Swift (qv), and it contains the magnificent verse ‘A guest of the dean's’, inspired by Clarke's Mnemosyne lay in dust. The critics praised the volume, although recently some regret has been expressed that Jordan's earlier verse had not been collected and published in book form first. These early poems, added to later verses, formed the collection entitled A raft from flotsam (1975). Here are twenty-six verses dated 1948–54, including the brilliant ‘Second letter to P. S.’ (Patrick Swift). This second collection contains work from the 1960s and early 1970s, but out of chronological sequence; so it somewhat distorted the story of the author's life – including his sexuality and his reliance on alcohol – as it followed rather than preceded Patrician stations. In 1980 the limited edition With whom did I share the crystal? was published by John F. Deane. Its short verses are acute aperçus and include elegantly restrained elegies for Kate O'Brien and Micheál MacLiammóir.
To further confuse his publishing history, Jordan's Blood and stations appeared in 1976, containing two prose pieces and an expanded Patrician stations. It included a fierce, vituperative piece of savage indignation, entitled ‘A paella for drivellers’, a splendid polemic against the poet Robert Graves. The prose pieces are hermetic and among his best work; one, ‘The haemorrhage’, is a tribute to his friend Gainor Crist (qv).
Jordan's poetry can be Alexandrian in style, and yet again original, minimalist, and modernistic. It ranges from the sometimes self-mocking elegance of the Flotsam poems, through the febrile and chlorotic anguish of Patrician stations/Blood and stations, to the antic wit or gentle pathos of Crystal. His poetic pilgrimage can be properly appreciated only by reading his Collected poems (ed. Hugh McFadden, 1991).
In 1977 Poolbeg Press published a collection of short stories, modestly titled Yarns. It was edited by David Marcus, and contained thirteen stories, many of which had appeared earlier in literary journals. Most are set in the Bohemian Dublin of the late 1940s and early 1950s; they capture the era of that now legendary pub, McDaids of Harry St., in its heyday. There are echoes of the ‘Catacombs’, Earlsfort Terrace, and Baggot St. Although the mise-en-scène is Dublin, it is very much Jordan's Dublin: an alternative city of dreamers, misfits, and the spiritually hurt, outsiders in exile from the often harsh realities of the actual city. Jordan's Collected stories (ed. Hugh McFadden, 1991) adds fifteen further stories to Yarns. In his introduction to Collected stories, Jordan's long-time friend and fellow broadcaster Benedict Kiely (1919–2007) pays tribute to ‘John's multiple but vividly lucid vision’ and to his ‘magic handing of dialogue’.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Jordan broadcast regularly on RTÉ radio, often on the programme ‘Sunday miscellany’. In 1977 he edited for RTÉ and Mercier Press The pleasures of Gaelic literature, the texts of a series of Thomas Davis lectures which included his own talk on Pádraic Ó Conaire (qv). In June 1980 the Poetry Ireland Society was set up, and Jordan became editor of its new magazine, the Poetry Ireland Review. He edited the first eight issues and introduced a new generation of poets; some were his own discoveries. Not alone did he provide continuity with the 1960s Poetry Ireland, but he imbued the new journal with his patrician taste and style.
In 1986 he suffered a stroke and was hospitalised briefly. When he died suddenly 6 June 1988, while attending a meeting of the Cumann Merriman summer school in Cardiff, Wales, the literary scene was a good deal healthier than it had been when he first began to influence it in the 1950s. Poetry Ireland had a society and its Austin Clarke Library. Literary magazines and small presses proliferated. The short-story form was robust; the standard of criticism had risen. Much of the improvement was due to his lifetime's work as a man of letters.
He was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Harold's Cross, on 14 June, after requiem mass in his parish church concelebrated by F. X. Martin (qv), OSA. His friends and fellow writers Ben Kiely, Francis Stuart, Paul Durcan, Pearse Hutchinson, Macdara Woods, and the present writer paid tribute to him with readings at the church and graveside.
Known paintings and drawings include a portrait in oils by Edward McGuire (qv) (private collection); a pencil drawing by Patrick Swift (1949) (Jordan family); a pen sketch of John Jordan and Pearse Hutchinson, unsigned, possibly by Nano Reid (qv) (Jordan family); a portrait by Pauline Bewick (private collection); a watercolour study by Geraldine O'Reilly (Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan); and a pen sketch, profile (private collection, Dublin). Jordan's letters and papers, with correspondence and files of Poetry Ireland, are in the NLI (MS 4594).