Smith, Michael (1942–2014) poet, translator, editor and publisher, was born in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, on 1 September 1942, one of two boys and four girls to Michael Smith, a dock worker, and his wife Catherine (née O’Callaghan). Growing up, Smith lived in the family flat at St Laurence’s Mansions, Sheriff Street, in the heart of Dublin’s inner-city, and the titles of some of his later poems – ‘Slum children at Hallow’een’, ‘Messenger boy in the hardware store’, ‘Two slum brothers’, ‘Tenement street singer’ – all conjure up the sights, smells and people of his childhood. His writing also features more disturbing images from this time. One poem, starkly entitled ‘The nightmare’, captured his recurring nightmare that troll-like figures would emerge from a trapdoor under the dining room table and pull him from his bed; while other poems recalled the filth and stench of the square where his grandfather lived and raised songbirds, a passion Smith carried forward into his own youth.
From an early age, Smith was an exceptional student, winning a scholarship to the O’Connell Christian Brothers School in North Richmond Street, where notable past pupils included James Joyce (qv), Luke Kelly (qv) and Michael O’Hehir (qv). He briefly left school at the age of fourteen to earn money for the family, working first as a bicycle messenger, and then for a period as an office boy in the Irish Press (which gave him his first basic introduction to publishing). Even at that age, Smith was interested in publishing and writing. He and his brother Peadar had plans for a magazine modelled on sections of the Christian Brother’s Our Boys magazine and, perhaps realising that he needed to complete his education to fulfil his ambitions, Smith returned to school to sit his leaving certificate in 1961. The following year he sat the matriculation exam for University College Dublin (UCD) and was accepted into the BA programme, studying English, Latin and philosophy. Money must have been a struggle from the outset and although his brother contributed to his fees, some of them were paid, at least initially, by one of his lecturers, Dr Lorna Reynolds. Reynolds, a friend of writer Kate O’Brien (qv) and editor of the Irish University Review (IUR), encouraged Smith in his writing ambitions – by March 1966 he had published poems in the IUR, Poetry Ireland and Arena, to which Reynolds was a contributor. Smith also considered the editors of the latter two journals as important mentors throughout his career. Although Reynolds was appointed professor of English at University College Galway in 1966, she and Smith remained close – he named his second daughter after her, and her writing often featured in The lace curtain, an occasional literary journal edited by Smith and Trevor Joyce.
The subject of fees, however, remained troublesome. When Smith first met Joyce, with whom he established a deep friendship and fruitful working relationship, Smith had just returned from England where he was earning money to pay for his tuition. According to Smith’s daughter Alice, her father undertook various jobs in England including work in a sawmill, on building sites, in a restaurant on the south coast and erecting circus tents. One job, as a porter in a seaside hotel, allowed him to meet the artist L. S. Lowry, but disappointingly the only wisdom he gleaned concerned tax, and the accumulation of wealth. By his own admission he was not a diligent student, but he was hugely clever and could easily cram for and pass exams at the last minute, producing high quality work at short notice.
Joyce and Smith were introduced to each other in March 1966 by Smith’s girlfriend (and later wife), Irene Dunne. Their first meeting, the subject of a beautiful tribute by Joyce in IUR (2016), set the stage for their lasting friendship. At the time of their initial meeting, Smith was interested in not just the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh (qv), but also in the short-lived magazine Kavanagh’s weekly, which Kavanagh and his brother Peter had published between April and July 1952. Smith viewed it as a model for literary journalism in self-published form and, in the summer of 1967, he and Joyce founded the New Writers’ Press (NWP). Its purpose, according to Smith, was to publish small books, each of which would give a young poet the chance of finding an audience. Initially operating out of Smith’s family home at St Laurence’s Mansions, NWP subsequently published from Irene’s childhood home in Blackpitts, at the edge of Dublin’s Liberties (the couple had married on Halloween 1966). As well as being a home for their growing family, the house in Warrenmount Place became somewhat of a bohemian haven for many of Dublin’s young poets and artists, amongst them James Liddy (qv), Augustus Young and Gerry Smyth. NWP’s first three publications were printed using what was then new photo-offset technology. The immediately following volumes were produced on a small Adana hand-press that Joyce had bought with birthday money; they then bought a Victoria electric press with money raised through a letter published in the Irish Times requesting £100 in subscriptions. Over the course of its lifetime, NWP published more than a hundred titles by writers such as Anthony Cronin, Michael Hartnett (qv), Paul Durcan and Tom McIntyre. In addition, it also reintroduced poets such as Thomas MacGreevy (qv) and Brian Coffey (qv) to a contemporary audience and published translations of poems by Jorge Luis Borges, St John of the Cross, Antonio Machado, Stéphane Mallarmé, César Vallejo and Francisco De Quevedo, among others. Through NWP, Smith and Joyce also brought out the influential literary journal The lace curtain, which had six issues between 1969 and 1978. Again, the intent was to publish young poets and expand Irish poetic horizons, and its contributors included Michael Harnett, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Austin Clarke (qv) and Samuel Beckett (qv). Known for his generosity and encouragement, nonetheless Smith could be blunt in his criticism. Trevor Joyce described Smith’s criticism of his early work as ‘an ice-cold shower’, while in an editorial for one edition of The lace curtain, Smith was scathing in his derision of Dublin as a literary centre, calling it ‘a myth, the work of Bord Fáilte admen, an indigenous multitude of tenth-rate non-poets and bombastic shamrock nationalists’ (Irish Times, 6 Dec. 2014).
In the summer of 1966 Smith graduated from UCD with a BA in English and Latin, and then undertook a one-year Higher Diploma in Education (H.Dip.Ed.) at the technical school run by the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee in Parnell Square. In September 1967 he began his career as secondary school teacher in St Paul’s College, Raheny, a position that provided him with a stable income but also one that allowed him to flourish as a writer, a publisher, and a translator. His students found him inspirational, and former student and academic Declan Kiberd described him as ‘audacious’ in his teaching of Latin. Although Smith characterised himself as a ‘mute grammarian’ whose knowledge was grounded in the mastery of books rather than conversation, he proved adept at picking up languages. His ability with Latin meant that when he engaged in conversation with Spanish Dominican priests, he found that he was able to adopt the language with considerable ease. To further his ability with the language, the Vincentian fathers arranged for him to stay with a confrere in rural Spain and the country became a regular holiday destination for Smith and his family; Trevor Joyce recalls him taking the first of what became his annual summer holidays in the Spanish mountains when he drove his family down through France in a tiny Fiat 500 (Joyce, Sept. 2022).
In the summer of 1968, buoyed by having obtained jobs with paid holidays, Smith and Joyce embarked on a journey to discover their poetic voices. According to Joyce, they rambled through the familiar parts of their city – Sheriff Street, Mary Street, the Liberties – until they found decaying woodsheds behind a fence in Grand Canal harbour. Here, they filled their souls ‘with the tastes and smells and colours of the rotting timbers’. According to Joyce, Smith took the experience and, over a period of weeks, crafted a dozen new poems which, Joyce believed, marked ‘the moment … when Mike became a poet’ (Joyce, 2016). The poems were published by NWP that year under the title Dedications, signalling the beginning of Smith’s lifelong ability to craft the world around him into verse. His poetry has variously been described as ‘sparse’, ‘bleak’ and ‘unsparing’, but always with a belief in the human spirit at its core (Irish Times, 6 Dec. 2014). His poetry collections – Times and locations (1972), Familiar anecdotes (1981), Selected poems (1985), Lost genealogies (1993) and Meditations on metaphors (1998) all show his celebration of the commonplace. Reviewing Selected poems, Peter Sirr of the Irish Times observed ‘These poems count the cost of poverty, failure, oppression, registering the human imprint on the city, and are full of sympathy and a kind of buried anger meted out to slum children, beggars, messenger boys or street singers’ (Irish Times, 22 Aug. 2009). Smith’s poetry, with its themes of the everyday, holds a universal appeal and has been translated into Spanish, Polish, French and German. It has also featured in significant anthologies of Irish poetry, including The Penguin book of contemporary Irish poetry (1990) and Contemporary Irish poetry (1980, 1988).
As well as being a talented poet, Smith’s fluency in Spanish enabled him to become, not only an excellent Spanish teacher, but also one of the greatest English-language translators of Spanish poetry. He was able to combine his feel for the rhythm and language of poetry into an ability to translate into English some of the most difficult and exhilarating poets writing in Spanish, including Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Miguel Hernández and César Vallejo, a notoriously difficult Peruvian poet. He contributed to The whole island: six decades of Cuban poetry, edited by Mark Weiss in 2009, and four of his translations of poems by Rosalía de Castro were published in the Norton anthology of world literature (2013). Reviewing Smith’s translation of The Tamarit Poems by Federico García Lorca in 2002, poet Philip Casey opened his review by saying, ‘To my knowledge, no non-Hispanic poet, Irish or otherwise, has immersed himself so completely in the culture and poetry of Spain and Latin America as has Michael Smith’ (Irish Times, 17 Aug. 2002). In recognition of his talent, in 2001 he was the first Irish recipient of the European Academy medal, awarded by the European Academy of Poetry for distinguished work in translation. Smith’s talent was recognised in other ways too – he was a member of the Irish Arts Council from 1984 to 1989 and was invited to become a member of Aosdána in 2005. When he retired from St Paul’s College in 1999 he was appointed as writer-in-residence in UCD, and he was also made an honorary Fellow of the university.
Despite the accolades and prestige, Smith remained true to his working-class roots with a lifelong dedication to left-wing causes and a commitment to the trade union movement. It is no accident that the first issue of The lace curtain reprinted a piece by Leon Trotsky on the 1916 Easter rising; and one of his great delights in life was to create opportunities for fellow writers – he found work for Gerry Smyth at the Irish Times, and for his friend Trevor Joyce in P. J. Carroll & Co. As a father he was almost childish in his sense of fun, and his daughter Barbara recalls him holding his children in thrall as he told them the story of the trolls in the trapdoor that featured so sinisterly in ‘The nightmare’. After an evening in the pub, and with his characteristic sense of mischief, he might sometimes get the children out of bed so that they could play marbles or push-penny. He was also dedicated to his students and his love of storytelling made him beloved of those he taught. Never an intellectual snob, he revelled in the successes of his better students, but relished more those who triumphed despite struggling (Lorna Smith, Sept. 2022). In addition to their intellectual development, he was a great believer in physical exertion for over-energetic or hyperactive students. He had a lifelong love of boxing and in February 1991 obtained a coaching certificate from the Irish Boxing Association, under the tutelage of Irish Olympic boxer Mick Dowling. As a result, he persuaded St Paul’s to establish a boxing club in the school and fundraised to provide it with a boxing ring.
On 15 November 2014 Michael Smith died at his home on Clarence Mangan Road, Dublin 8, and was cremated following a funeral service in the Victorian chapel of Mount Jerome. He was survived by his wife Irene, who had been with him since they were teenagers, his three daughters Barbara, Lorna and Alice and his eight grandchildren. In 2016 IUR dedicated its special volume on Irish experimental poetry to Smith, highlighting his devotion to poetry, poetic translation and publishing. The records of the New Writers’ Press were acquired by the National Library of Ireland (NLI) in 2004.