Michael O’Loughlin writes: Back in the mid-1980s, after several years living in Amsterdam, I rashly decided that what that great city needed was a night of Irish poetry, to introduce Ireland’s leading poets to the Mokummers, as natives of Amsterdam like to call themselves. I thought that the city’s main poetry festival, the idiosyncratic “One World Poetry” would be the perfect home for such an enterprise. I had recently taken part in the festival, where I found myself sitting in the green room beside William Burroughs. It felt strange to be swapping cigarettes with the author of the cult classic The Naked Lunch, who I had first encountered as the character of Old Bull Lee in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, two books I had read breathlessly just a few years before in my Dublin teenage bedroom. But all I could think of was that his suit was made of exactly the same yellow velour as my inner city Dublin granny’s curtains. In contrast to his image as a drug-addicted psychopath who had accidentally shot his wife dead while playing William Tell, he was approachable and down to earth, a courteous Southern gentleman.
The festival’s line up reflected the man behind it. Benn Posset was a heavily-built Dutchman, who looked more like a night club bouncer in the red light district than the director of a poetry festival. A man of great energy and organisational ability, you could imagine him, in other circumstances, as the CEO of some large IT corporation. But Benn was not the kind of man who would ever end up working for The Man. This was a time when counter-culture still meant counter-culture. Benn had cut his teeth as a leader of the very effective anarchist and squatter movements in Amsterdam, before settling into a career as what he called a “poetry impresario”.
He was obsessed with the Beat culture of the ’50s and ’60s, and this was at the heart of One World Poetry. The programme of American and African jazz musicians, performance poets and avant garde artists was built around a hard core of the surviving Beats and hippie legends, like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. I pitched the idea of an Irish night to Benn and he liked it, as his policy was to mix up the hip stuff with the more conventional forms of writing, which were dominant in Ireland at the time. Funding was obtained from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, and it was full steam ahead.
On the weekend of the festival, the poets arrived at the hotel to which we had been assigned. It would be an eventful evening. Soon after arriving, Dermot Bolger went for a walk in the nearby Vondelpark and was immediately mugged. The socially responsible mugger escorted a sheepish Dermot back to the hotel, admonishing him for wandering around alone in such a dangerous place. John Montague arrived and set up court in the hotel bar. Then came Michael Hartnett. He had arranged to meet one of his many admirers at the hotel. She turned to be a statuesque Dutch girl, on whose knees Michael would perch, leprechaun-like, for the rest of the evening, while pretending to play the tin whistle he produced from his inside pocket. Hartnett may have been one of the great Irish poets of the twentieth century, but he was no Paddy Moloney.
Matthew Sweeney arrived and we went for a stroll. When a drop of water landed on his shoulder, he immediately stopped in horror. I feel a twinge, he said, and this theme would be expanded into a symphony over the weekend. But what most excited me was the arrival of Derek Mahon. In my student days I had often met him at poetry events and in Dublin bars, but hadn’t seen him since. For young Dublin poets like myself who were looking for a combination of cosmopolitanism with the Irish urban experience, he was the obvious poet, and we had devoured his early collections. Derek arrived, dressed quite formally in white shirt and tie and a black suit of a strangely boxy cut, which immediately made us nickname him the Bulgarian Trade Delegation. He may well have just been channelling the “Wicked Uncle” of his early poem, with his “salesman dash”, who when asked by the chairman of the board what he wanted with his whiskey, replied: “Another whiskey, please.” However, at this stage in his life, Derek had abjured alcohol.
The next day, I took Montague and Hartnett on a tour of the red light district. I eventually left them in the Reguliersdwarstraat, the heart of Amsterdam’s thriving gay scene. In search of a drink the two poets entered a nearby establishment. Behind the bar the leather- and- chain-clad moustachioed barman eyed the odd couple up and down, the tall, elegant Montague and the dishevelled, diminutive Hartnett, and politely enquired: “Honeymooners?”
The event that night was not without incident. Michael Hartnett, after a mesmerising reading, tried to leave the stage but walked into the backdrop, from which he couldn’t find a way out. Later, we continued the party at the famous Melkweg, or Milky Way, at that time an alternative cultural centre. Housed in an old dairy near the Leidseplein, just a couple of years before it had been the scene of U2’s first, sparsely attended, European gig. In the cafe, Mahon was intrigued by the baked goods on offer, in particular the house speciality, known as Space Cake, which was in fact a brownie made with cannabis. To our shame we didn’t stop him purchasing and consuming one. The rest of the evening is still a blur, as it was already the next day. On moving back to Dublin many years later, I would often meet Derek on his regular beat around Fitzwilliam Square, particularly at the Indian restaurant Tulsi. But the abiding image I have is of Derek in the Milky Way, in his undertaker’s suit, relaxed, content, hands clasped behind him, beaming benignly around him on the punks, hippies, Irish poets and ageing Beats. For once, everything was going to be alright.