Writers Bill Manhire and Sue Orr remember Kevin Ireland, an acclaimed Aotearoa literary figure who died last week at the age of 89.
Kevin Ireland OBE (1933 – 2023) was born in Auckland as Kevin Jowsey but in the spirit of reinvention changed his name to Ireland (after Ireland Street in Ponsonby) when he sailed to England in 1959. Ireland lived abroad for 25 years working for The Times but always sent his poetry back to New Zealand to be published. His list of published work is formidable and studded with literary acclaim: he wrote six novels, three memoirs, a collection of short stories and many volumes of poetry. An in-depth interview between Iain Sharp and Kevin Ireland is available at the Academy of New Zealand Literature website, here.
Bill Manhire remembers Kevin Ireland
When Kevin Cunningham and I were both in London in the early 1970s, we started a little poetry publishing imprint – courtesy of the city’s cheap fast-copy shops and the state-of-the-art golfball typewriter that sat on the desk of the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs (UKCOSA), where Kevin had found himself gainful employment after dropping out of a postgraduate programme at Liverpool University. Our aim with the Amphedesma Press was to print the work of our contemporaries – Ian Wedde, Bob Orr, Alan Brunton – but it occurred to us that we could gain a bit of solid respectability if we occasionally included a title by established contemporaries.
Kevin Ireland was well settled in London at the time, working as a proof-reader at the Times Literary Supplement, and very happy to give us a manuscript when we approached him. It occurs to me now that he may have been lonely. He was in a failing marriage with Donna, an exotic Bulgarian woman who had filled their house with other Bulgarians. The one or two times I was there, Kevin seemed to be oddly surreptitious, hiding upstairs while the Bulgarians partied away downstairs. But he was still writing poetry, and was publishing it back in New Zealand. There were two books: Face to Face (Pegasus Press, 1963) – with an introduction by Barry Crump (“He’s a good bloke. Generous as you’d find anywhere. Give you his last metaphor.”) – and Educating the Body (Caxton Press, 1967). You could hardly get more established than that.
Anyway, he generously gave us some work, and in 1972 we published the pamphlet, A Letter from Amsterdam, a set of wry, chirpy love poems, and shipped our 400 copies back to UBS in Dunedin, where the manager John Griffin had agreed to act as our distributor. We felt pretty pleased with ourselves, except for a disastrous moment in a short poem called “A Last Look”. It’s one of those poems about incipient middle age, and in it Kevin had included a rather fine phrase, “my prostate’s final ache”. Maybe it was just a typo, courtesy of the UKCOSA golfball typewriter, or maybe Kevin Cunningham and I were still young enough to be totally unaware of the true implications of the word prostate. Anyway, in print it had turned into “my prostrate’s final ache”. Such shame, such guilt for us amateur publishers – especially if you considered how Kevin earned his living at the TLS. It was the first thing I thought of this morning when I heard about his death.
Sue Orr remembers Kevin Ireland
At the end of 2006, our family left Wellington for Auckland. Where to live, in that sprawling city? Devonport, I suggested. Close to the sea, and Kevin Ireland lives there. Weird criteria, said my kids. The beaches were enough to get me over the line.
I’d never met Kevin, but earlier that year, he’d judged the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Competition. At the award announcement, he spoke about the difficulty of choosing between two stories for the win – one by Charlotte Grimshaw, and the other by me, an unknown. Charlotte took the prize, but the mention triggered a series of lucky breaks that lead to Random House publishing my first book, Etiquette for a Dinner Party. In gratitude to Kevin, I popped a copy in his Everest Street letterbox. He telephoned me that day, invited me to come and meet him, and a bottle of his fine red wine later, we were friends.
The friendship was lopsided at first. Kevin’s generosity was limitless. When I needed a quiet place to write, he and his bestie Graeme Lay slipped me the key to Frank Sargeson’s house on Esmonde Road. He encouraged me to apply for the Sargeson Fellowship, which I held with Mark Broatch in 2011. If you needed intel on Auckland literary powerplays, Kevin was your man. But as time went on, I found small ways to say thank you. He was a frequent dinner guest at our place. The deal was all-inclusive – I would pick him up from afternoon drinks at the cricket club, (where he was equally adored), bring him home, feed him, then deliver him back to Everest Street.
Poet Sonja Yelich, who loved Kevin as much as I did, was often at the dinner table too, which was just as well. It took two of us to escort him down that long driveway to his home at the end of the cul-de-sac. Sonja and I called him Avuncular Kevin and for a time, my kids thought he was their uncle. His visits delighted and astonished them.
I never knew Kevin’s wife Caroline, who passed away in 2007. But when Janet later arrived on the scene, joyful Kevin underwent an immediate age-reversal. By the time I left Devonport in March 2018, he was verging on teenage-hood. Kevin and Janet lived, most of the time, on opposite sides of the world to each other, but they made those long haul flights look as easy as jumping on the 813 bus down to the village.
On the eve of our return to Wellington, we gathered on our deck. Kevin had just published A Fine Morning at Passchendaele. He read us his new poems, to the delight of another visiting friend discovering poetry for the first time. Then Sonja and I took an elbow each, and, for the final time, saw Avuncular Kevin home.