Marcus, David (1924–2009), author, editor and journalist, was born on 21 August 1924 in his parents' house on the Mardyke in Cork city, son of Solomon Marcus, picture framer, and his wife Frances (née Goldberg), a sister of Gerald Goldberg (qv), and a former member of Cumann na mBan who had left Limerick with her family owing to intimidation during the 1904 pogrom. The Marcus and Goldberg families were descended from Lithuanian Jews who came to Ireland in the 1880s. The film maker Louis Lentin (qv) was a cousin.
David was the third of four sons (his younger brother Louis (b. 1936) became a documentary film maker, and Louis's son Shimmy (b. 1966) was a film director); his one sister, Nella, was a classical musician. The parents inculcated in their children love of English literature and Cork's classical music tradition; David learned to play the piano and late in life wrote that if he had been capable of playing it to concert standard he would have given up everything to seek a professional career. He received an orthodox Jewish religious education, but around the age of 12 decided that scriptural accounts of God's behaviour were appallingly unjust. While he remained outwardly observant (he did not eat non-kosher meat until the age of 28), this scepticism crystallised into committed atheism, more intense as he got older. At the same time he remained acutely aware of his Jewish identity (always observing some Jewish dietary restrictions), and a recurring theme of his fiction is self-awareness, tinged with guilt, at the distance between Irish-born Jewish sons and pious, self-sacrificing immigrant parents. His atheism can also be related to his perennial though well-controlled fear of death and his determination to achieve persisting literary and personal identity through self-creation. Listening to classical music and betting on horses (in moderation) provided emotional relief from dark intellectual introversion.
As he attended secondary school at Presentation Brothers' College, Cork, and moved out of the confines of the Cork Jewish community to explore the city, Marcus developed strong local identification with Cork. He was an enthusiastic follower and participant in school sports, principally cricket and rugby, engaged in long-distance cycling contests, and as an university student became an inter-provincial table tennis player for Munster. Throughout life he retained a detectable Cork accent.
The young Marcus was acutely aware of anti-Semitism both locally and internationally; he later recalled the shock of Cork Jews at the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Nazi Germany, and the fear pervading the community in 1940 when German invasion seemed imminent. Marcus recalled general sympathy in Cork for post-war Zionist guerrilla struggle against the British regime in the Palestine Mandate (seen as analogous to the 1920s IRA struggle against the British), and recalled that his two boyhood dreams had been that the Jews would obtain their own state in Palestine and the partition of Ireland would be ended; he also recalled open anti-Semitism from individuals, as well as occasions when he was unsure whether minor setbacks derived from anti-Semitism. He never visited Israel, saying he was equally afraid that he might like it and that he might not; in later life he expressed disquiet over the plight of Palestinian Arabs, though remaining a Zionist.
Marcus studied law at UCC and the King's Inns, Dublin. One of two other members of his UCC law class was Jack Lynch (qv); they developed a lifelong friendship. (In 1970 Lynch recruited Marcus to write his address to the Fianna Fáil ard fheis, particularly important because of the arms trial crisis and the developing Northern Ireland troubles.) While living with relatives in Dublin for his law studies, Marcus established contact with Dublin-based literati, including Frank O'Connor (qv) and Sean O'Faolain (qv), with whom he developed lifelong friendships. In 1945 Marcus was called to the bar, and his translation of 'The yellow bittern' by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (qv) appeared in the Irish Times. (Marcus was proficient in Irish at school, though he later regretted the language was taught in a purely literary manner, neglecting conversational fluency. His translation (1953) of 'The midnight court' by Brian Merriman (qv) was published by Liam Miller (qv) in his Dolmen Press; in 1968 Marcus and Sean McCann adapted it for the stage.) In the late 1940s Marcus sent poems to various journals, but soon moved from poetry to the short story, for which he developed abiding love after reading the Armenian-American writer William Saroyan as a teenager. Finding the formality of the bar uncongenial, he returned to Cork and his parents' house; concerned that wartime conditions restricted outlets for Irish short story writers to The Bell and the Dublin Magazine of Seumas O'Sullivan (qv), Marcus tried to persuade O'Faolain (who had just left the editorship of The Bell) to edit a short story magazine, and was persuaded to do it himself.
In 1946 Marcus founded the quarterly Irish Writing, assisted by Terence Smith, a Cork Examiner journalist, with financial support first from a local businessman and later from his own father. Combining naïveté and determination, Marcus approached the best-known Irish authors of the period. Most responded positively, including the little-known Samuel Beckett (qv), though Marcus always retained a postcard stating: 'No. G Bernard Shaw'. Irish Writing broke even over its twenty-eight issues but never recouped initial costs because of restrictions on imports to Britain. In 1948 Marcus founded another quarterly, Poetry Ireland, which appeared for nineteen issues before becoming a supplement to Irish Writing. Marcus disposed of both titles in 1954 to Liam Miller, who produced several more issues of Irish Writing before it ceased publication. Poetry Ireland was published continuously (with brief intermissions) well into the twenty-first century and became Ireland's foremost poetry magazine, with Marcus still recognised as founder.
Marcus's first novel, To next year in Jerusalem (1954), depicted the reactions of the Jewish community in an Irish provincial city to the creation struggle of the state of Israel. The central character is torn between communal loyalties and Zionist aspirations on the one hand, and his local attachments on the other, including love for a young catholic woman and friendship with a local priest (both too patient to be convincing); there are loving descriptions of community life and rituals, with Hebrew or Yiddish terms translated for gentile readers. The novel attracted favourable critical attention, partly because of its subject. (Marcus later joked that it was the first novel about an Irish Jew; Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses by James Joyce (qv), is not technically Jewish because he has a gentile mother.) It sold well enough to clear Marcus's debts from Irish Writing, though Marcus later called it 'bloody awful'.
Marcus moved to London with the aim of becoming a professional writer. After two further novels were rejected by publishers, he earned a living as an accounts clerk in a Jewish-owned business. (He was recruited through a Jewish employment agency, initially sceptical because they had never encountered an Irish Jew; this inspired the title story of his 1988 collection, Whoever heard of an Irish Jew?) After nine months Marcus left for the London Assurance Company, where he remained until 1967, working in the claims department of its subsidiary reinsurance company and securing the qualifications of associate and fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute. He combined his work with thrice-weekly visits to concerts in the Royal Festival Hall and theatrical productions elsewhere (he attended the first London production of Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'), and regular attendance at racecourses. He lived a solitary life, with acquaintances but no close friends.
In 1967, after his employers were taken over by another insurance firm, Marcus returned to Dublin to pursue a literary career. At first he worked as a freelance, giving occasional talks on Radio Éireann and working as a publisher's reader for Dolmen Press. In 1968, after reflecting on the loss of outlets for the short story through the disappearance of literary periodicals, Marcus thought of a weekly newspaper page devoted to publishing short stories (with leftover space filled by poetry). He initially meant to propose this to the Irish Times, but contacts in the Irish Press persuaded him to approach the editor, Tim Pat Coogan, who gave it whole-hearted support (securing generous employment terms for Marcus and supporting him against hostile critics). Marcus initially edited the 'New Irish writing' page as a freelance, but soon became literary editor of the Irish Press, with responsibility for the book reviews section as well as 'New Irish writing' (both appeared on Saturdays), greatly improving the reviews section with a wide and eclectic choice of reviewers. He retained the literary editorship until 1984, and edited the 'New Irish writing' page (and its offshoots, including 'Young Irish writing' and a weekly page on Ireland, 'The arts', which allowed contributors to comment more broadly on Irish life) until 1986. Through the page, Marcus mentored a generation of emerging Irish writers, including Sebastian Barry, Claire Keegan, Neil Jordan, Dermot Healy (qv), Kate Cruise O'Brien (qv), Patrick McCabe, Hugo Hamilton, Colm Tóibín, Deirdre Madden and Desmond Hogan. (His contribution to the development of Irish women's writing has attracted particular attention; Marcus remarked that while he got more manuscripts from men, the standard of women's contributions was higher (Ir. Press, 11 September 1986).) In 1971 the annual Hennessy Literary Award was instituted for the best short story by an unpublished writer appearing in the page during the previous twelve months; Marcus took his duties as assessor and host very seriously, but found it stressful to entertain judges and prize winners. At its height, the page received some sixty short stories and over two hundred poems each month (most of the latter described by Marcus as 'utter rubbish'). Marcus regularly invited promising young writers to a local bar or – in particularly promising cases – his home in Rathgar, where he would discuss their work and act as midwife to their talents. Although generally polite and unassuming, Marcus was an incisive critic who always said exactly what he thought of an author's work and, as an outsider to academia and artistic cliques, was uninfluenced by literary fashion.
As an offshoot of the page, Marcus edited over thirty anthologies of Irish short stories – some thematically arranged, others general selections – for imprints such as Pan and Phoenix Press. In 1976 he co-founded Poolbeg Press (with Philip McDermott; supported jointly by the arts councils of Northern Ireland and the Republic), to reprint classic Irish short-story collections and provide an outlet for collections by new writers. He left Poolbeg in the early 1980s when financial constraints dictated a more commercial approach.
On retiring from the 'New Irish writing' page in 1986, Marcus concentrated on his own original writing. He produced two best-selling historical novels inspired by the writings of Maeve Binchy (qv), A land not theirs (1986) and A land in flames (1987), and a collection of anecdotal short stories, Whoever heard of an Irish Jew? (1988). A land not theirs, set in the 1920–21 period and centred on a group of Cork Jews preparing to emigrate to Palestine, is noteworthy for evocation of 1920s Cork (based on youthful memories and newspaper research) and placement of Jews in Cork history and in the Cork literary tradition (a Jewish retired musician awaiting the Carl Rosa Opera Company is reminiscent of similar gentile characters in stories by Daniel Corkery (qv)). A land in flames, loosely based on the 1920 Listowel RIC mutiny and on The real Charlotte by Edith Somerville (qv) and Martin Ross (qv), is less accomplished. Marcus saw these works as 'tales' rather than literature.
He continued to edit anthologies into the late 1990s, including annual collections of Irish short stories for Faber and Faber. For some years from 1995, he served as Irish literary adviser for the London literary agents Curtis, Brown. He published a memoir, Oughtobiography: leaves from the journal of a hyphenated Jew (2001). A follow-up, Buried memories (2004), is a memorial to the disappearing Cork Jewish community, built around a fictional account of the last Jew in Cork taking a newspaper reporter around sites associated with the community, interleaved with a metafictional framework in which Marcus wonders how to develop his story. In 2007 Marcus published Lost and found: collected poems. He was awarded the Rooney Prize for services to Irish literature (2001), received an honorary degree from UCC (2005), and became a freeman of Cork.
Marcus's ability to read and assess large amounts of material was assisted by an abstemious and self-contained lifestyle, removed from the stereotype of the boozy, sociable Irish writer. He was a near-teetotaller, and in the early years of 'New Irish writing' maintained the semi-eremitical existence he had lived in London. In 1972 he married the writer Ita Daly (b. 1945), whom he met after she submitted work to the 'New Irish writing' page. (Although she shared his atheism, they married in a catholic church to please her parents; Marcus was formally disowned by his two elder brothers, though not by Louis or Nella.) They had one daughter. Marriage and fatherhood mellowed Marcus somewhat, and some protégés became personal friends, but he retained a worried, fatalistic worldview.
In old age Marcus suffered from Alzheimer's disease, particularly severe in his last five years. He died on 9 May 2009 in St James's Hospital, Dublin; as he lay dying, his wife and daughter played a recording of Mozart piano concertos in accordance with his wish that he might die to music. After a secular funeral in the Dublin unitarian church, his ashes were scattered in areas of Cork associated with his boyhood. Tributes emphasised his role as the most influential Irish literary editor of the second half of the twentieth century and the ways in which his negotiation of dual Irish-Jewish identity suggested how Irish culture might be enriched by accommodating newer waves of immigration.