Greacen, Robert Henry (1920–2008), poet and critic, was born on 24 October 1920 in Bennett Street, Derry city, only child of Henry Greacen and his wife Elizabeth (née McCrea). Henry Greacen, from a presbyterian farming background in north Co. Monaghan, had at one time held a position as a creamery manager, but was a heavy drinker and failed in several businesses. Most of Robert's childhood was spent with his maternal grandmother and aunts, first in Derry and later above their shop on Belfast's Donegall Road, when his parents temporarily separated, and he was always closer to his aunt Tillie McCrea than to his mother. He briefly attended two local primary schools in Belfast, but when Henry Greacen received insurance compensation after his Belfast business burned down, he took his family to the Castleblayney area in Monaghan and for a short time went back to farming. Robert went to a national school there, but after another fire destroyed the farmhouse, the Greacens returned to Belfast to run the Kenilworth, a tobacconist's shop on the Newtownards Road. Robert attended Templemore primary school, and then entered Methodist College Belfast in 1933; his aunt Tillie paid for his education, and he was happy to live again with his aunts rather than his parents.
He mostly enjoyed school, where he found encouraging teachers, though he was too short-sighted to participate with success in any sport, and sometimes, because of his background, felt out of his depth among middle-class children. He was always ashamed of his father's drunken outbursts, and terrified of the violent temper which accompanied them. In his autobiography he claimed that he once threatened his father with a hatchet, but without thereby achieving any modus vivendi with the older man, who remained aggressive towards him and was always bitterly critical of his son's aspirations. For the boy, literature provided both a temporary escape and the promise of future success; his first poems were published in school magazines, and he decided at a young age to try to make a career as a writer. He failed examinations and interviews for positions in a bank and in an insurance company, and instead started studying history and English in the Queen's University of Belfast.
In Queen's, as earlier in Methodist College, the interests which characterised his later career were apparent. Largely thanks to meeting John Boyd (qv), Greacen developed sympathies with left-wing political ideas, as well as deepened commitment to poetry. He was though never a member of the Communist Party, and his youthful 1930s enthusiasm for Marxism disappeared after the non-aggression pact of 1939 between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, but up to his later years he described himself as a socialist. The formation of enduring friendships and mutually supportive coteries, a phenomenon particularly characteristic of the Ulster literary scene of the period, continued to be of great importance to Greacen throughout his life. He made friends with almost all the significant figures in Belfast, especially Roy McFadden (qv), John Hewitt (qv) and Sam Hanna Bell (qv). At Queen's, he and a friend took over in 1940 the editing of a student magazine, The Northman; they tried with short-lived, limited success to make it a literary journal for the whole region, so as to enable aspiring poets to get work into print. His own early poems appeared in The Bell, and he wrote some pieces for the left-wing Irish Democrat newspaper, starting in 1937 with 'A youth's view of education'. His poem 'The bird' (1941) was well reviewed, and later appeared in anthologies, and in 1942 he published Poems from Ulster, a small anthology including work by his friends.
For several months, Greacen worshipped from afar a fellow student named Irene; when he failed to form a relationship with her, he stopped going to lectures so that he would not have to see her, and did not finish his degree. His McCrea relatives paid for him to go to Trinity College Dublin in 1943 to take a diploma in social work; he was glad to get away from wartime Belfast, and never lived there again. At first he enjoyed Dublin, and again made many friends, among them Brendan (qv) and Beatrice Behan (qv), Blanaid Salkeld (qv), Cecil ffrench Salkeld (qv), Joseph (qv) and Mary O'Neill (qv), Douglas Gageby (qv), Arland Ussher (qv) and Hubert Butler (qv). He and Patrick Kavanagh (qv) lived in the same boarding house on Raglan Road, for several months in 1945, but Kavanagh took offence at a review in Horizon by Greacen of his poem 'The great hunger', and called him a 'protestant bastard'. Greacen was upset, as he had thought the review favourable, and was disappointed but not surprised when Kavanagh refused to allow any of his poems to appear in the prestigious Faber book of Contemporary Irish poetry, edited by Greacen and Valentin Iremonger (qv) in 1949.
The collaborative compilation of anthologies of poetry was Greacen's characteristic way of working. In 1942, he and Alex Comfort edited Lyra: an anthology of new lyric. (Greacen remarked that the use of the word 'new' seemed obligatory at the time.) With Roy McFadden, Greacen edited Ulster voices in 1943; he was sole editor of Northern harvest in 1944; and in the same year, Greacen, Bruce Williamson and Valentin Iremonger published their own work in On the barricades. His own first solo collection, One recent evening, was also a 1944 imprint. In 1946, with support from Maurice Fridberg, a Jewish Dublin and London bookseller, Greacen's publishing company, New Frontiers Press, produced Irish harvest, which, though designed on more ambitious lines, still consisted chiefly of poems by his friends. Greacen felt much more affinity with the modernism and social protest that he found in contemporary English poetry, especially in the 'new apocalypse' movement associated with Herbert Read (and claiming affinities with the work of Dylan Thomas), and later the 'new romantics', than with what he regarded as the outmoded Celtic nationalism of W. B. Yeats (qv) and his followers. Like others of his contemporaries, he came to resent the unquestioned shibboleths of life in Ireland, and particularly objected to the censorship of literature and film.
Consequently, when his second small volume of poems, The undying day (1948), sold badly, and other avenues seemed unpromising, Greacen and his wife gave up on Dublin and moved to London. He found a job with the United Nations Association, which suited his outlook and ideals; however, when he was made redundant he had to take various jobs in adult education, in creative-writing courses, and in teaching English as a foreign language, in the City of London College, the City Literary Institute, and West London College. He retired in 1986. His involvement with the London literary world continued throughout his career, as he got to know many of the leading figures, including Stephen Spender and T. S. Eliot, and he organised poetry readings and other projects, though he himself wrote no poetry for more than twenty years. He had at one time thought of taking up journalism, and continued to produce book reviews and articles in journals, as well as many letters to newspapers. He wrote several, well-received short works of criticism, in particular, The art of Noël Coward (1953) and The world of C. P. Snow (1962). After returning to Dublin in 1986, he wrote an interesting memoir about his many friends and acquaintances, Brief encounters: literary Dublin and Belfast in the 1940s (1991), and Rooted in Ulster: nine northern writers (2000).
Robert Greacen married Patricia Hutchins in Fisherwick presbyterian church in Belfast on 10 April 1946. She was from a protestant family who had a small estate at Ardnagashel, near Bantry, Co. Cork, and was related to the botanist Ellen Hutchins (qv). Greacen's New Frontiers Press had published her story for children, Ivan and his wonderful coat (1945), and she later wrote pioneering studies of James Joyce (qv) in James Joyce's Dublin (1950) and James Joyce's world (1957). The Greacens had one daughter, Arethusa, but, after four years of separation, the marriage ended in divorce in 1966. Greacen resented his wife's conversion to vegetarianism, and more importantly seems also to have disapproved of her desire to achieve her own career goals, and to have been jealous of her work. Probably also the depression he experienced throughout the 1950s contributed to the breakdown of the marriage (as well as to his lack of poetic inspiration), but he felt that twelve experiences in the early 1960s with the hallucinogenic drug LSD, under the guidance of a psychiatrist, though each caused acute mental suffering, had cured him. It may be that after undergoing both the depression and its cure, he came to understand his father's alcoholism a little better. At any rate, after the LSD treatments he felt that he was ready to begin working on an autobiography, Even without Irene, published several years later in 1969. This came out again in an enlarged version in 1995, and, still further augmented, as The sash my father wore (1997).
Perhaps stirred by the autobiographical return to the 'fresh mornings' and 'dew-drenched Eden' of his idealistic youth, and after what he called 'the null years', when 'the garden grew rank' ('The call', Collected poems (1995)), Greacen began to publish poetry again in his fifties, in A garland for Captain Fox (1975). Poems about the career and friends of an imaginary, sophisticated adventurer did not always strike the exactly right note, but were popular, and marked a new beginning for Greacen, who increasingly wrote elegiacally about personalities, real and fictional, in more restrained diction and with careful irony. In interviews, Greacen denied that Captain Fox was his own alter ego, but the interplay between the character of Fox and elements of his creator's own life suggests a metaphor for the poet's creative process, as well as reminding the reader of the poet friends whose support meant much to Greacen's writing in real life. At the very least, Captain Fox became what could be called a character of virtual reality for his creator; Greacen remarked, as an Ulsterman would of one of his friends: 'Fox's mother came from Banbridge' (Brown, 12).
Several other collections featured Fox, but when 'his enemies poisoned him, I had to go on without him' (The sash my father wore). Greacen's later poetry collections included Young Mr Gibbon (1979), A bright mask (1985), Carnival at the river (1990), Collected poems 1944–1994 (1995; awarded the Irish Times literature prize for poetry in that year), Protestant without a horse (1997), Captain Fox: a life (2000), Lunch at the Ivy (2002), Shelley plain (2002), and Selected and new poems (2006).
On his return to Dublin in 1986, Greacen for a time shared a flat on Anglesea Road with Beatrice Behan, until he found her dead in her bed (1993); in later years he lived in a flat in Sandymount. He was elected to membership of Aosdána in 1986, and during his latter years in Dublin enjoyed the status of a senior figure in the world of literature; he gave readings in America, appeared often on RTÉ radio programmes, and had poems republished in anthologies. There was even one poem displayed on the Dublin Dart suburban rail network: 'St Andrew's Day: an elegy for Patricia Hutchins', perhaps his best work. He had decided not to attend his former wife's funeral in Co. Cork in November 1985, because they had been reconciled before her death and he wanted to remember: 'our time of roses, promises, / The silvered sea at Ardnagashel, / Earrings of fuchsia in all the hedgerows, / Hope arching like a rainbow over all'. Perhaps only a few of Greacen's poems have been lodged in the public memory, but it is appropriate, given the themes of his career, that his work will be read with most attention by poets and by scholars, and that his reputation in the future may largely be based on his friendships with other poets.
Greacen died in St Vincent's University Hospital, Dublin, on 13 April 2008. His body was cremated. His papers are in the library of the University of Ulster at Coleraine.